I was drawn early in the week to our Psalms, 42 and 43. Mindful of our celebration of Morning Prayer and my need to make this a homily, it seemed a good choice. Except, I could not for the life of me think of an illustration that might make these psalms make sense to us in 21st century Nashville. I read 8 or 9 commentaries looking for an illustration that would bring the separation felt by the psalmist in these psalms into something with which you and I could relate.
Separation is not something upon which we modern Americans like to dwell. It’s ironic, given our complacency in the destruction of neighborhoods and communities. How many people do we have in our own families who value on-line or “social media” relationships more than the person sitting or standing in front of them? When we go to restaurants, do we see people engage in intimate or vibrant conversations with one another, or are we more likely to see people showing their devices to one another when something catches their attention? When’s the last time you sat on a porch catching up with a neighbor? When is the last time privacy fences were not put up to keep the neighbors out? We laugh, but it should be a painful laugh. How many of us grew up in neighborhoods where, if we did something particularly nasty or dangerous, mom and dad were going to find out? How many of our children or grandchildren, though, have that same connection to those where they live? My guess is very few.
The psalmist in our psalms today understands separation all too well. He or she knows himself or herself to be cut off from God. The initial image is one of a deer craving water when there is none in the brook. But the psalmist moves quickly to his or her perceived separation from God. I pour out my soul when I think on these things: how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God, with the voice of praise and thanksgiving, among those who keep holy-day. What causes this separation? I think it likely that it is the Exile, but it could be more personal situations which causes the psalmist to feel cut off. He or she looks back wistfully on Temple worship with the faithful, how the Temple was packed and full of praise and thanksgiving. Maybe you relate to that memory? Maybe you remember a time when you had to be at church at 10am to get a seat for the 10:30am service? Maybe you remember when the choir was far larger, the number of attenders was far greater, the songs more heavenly, and the praise more joyful? Still, we probably do not get the sense of isolation conveyed by the psalmist.
I say I believe these psalms are written during the Exile because the psalmist speaks of the heavy soul, speaks of the time when he or she went to Temple with the faithful throng, speaks of a confrontation with the enemy, but speaks of God having forgotten him or her. I have shared with you many times these first couple years that Israel viewed possession of the Land every bit as important as you or I view the sacrament. Possession of the Land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the outward sign that God was with them, just as the eating of the Body and drinking of the Blood is ours. There is a sense of “cut-offedness” that can only be explained something catastrophic. Could it be Absalom’s rising up against his father, David? Yes. But David knew he was the cause of that rebellion. Could it be David in his battles with Saul? Possibly, but then the Temple was not built, so there was no “great old times” upon which he could look back. The psalmist compares this feeling to that of a deer which finds a brook dry. How do we understand such cut offedness? Do we?
I had prayed all week for a good illustration. God was silent until last night. Now, when it popped into my head, I realized the truth of it, but I wrestled a bit with God because it was too personal and I had not cleared it with my family. The first homiletic rule of using your family as an illustration is Don’t! The second rule is see rule #1. Somewhere down around rule 10 is the “if you absolutely must violate rule #1, make sure you ask permission of the family first.” I did not do that, so you all will have to pretend not to know this about my family if you ever meet them.
A few years ago, my paternal grandfather decided to remarry. There is nothing special in that declaration except for the fact that my grandmother had not yet been dead a year when he made this decision. My father had called to share the news and was upset. Even lawyers know you are not supposed to make important decisions so early in the grieving process. Naturally, I was surprised. Grandpa had made no mention of dating other women in our conversations since my grandmother’s death. So, like Dad, I was a bit worried about his state of mind.
I called my aunt and uncle just to get a sense of this woman. It turned out I had met her a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It was so long ago that I could not remember her, but I remembered her husband and Grandma and Grandpa stopping by in Dallas for a quick visit during one of their road trips. To make a long story very short, both my aunt and uncle were happy for Grandpa. No one thought anything untoward had happened. His new wife was someone who had known him for years, was financially secure, in good health, and had a good relationship with her family. She was more active than my grandfather, and both hoped some of her activity would rub off a bit on Grandpa.
So, I called Grandpa. When we finished pleasantries and I asked about the new wife, he knew my dad had encouraged me to call. I reminded him that lawyers see such mistakes all the time and that Dad would not want to see him fall into the same trap. Besides, my grandfather is a deacon in the Baptist church and had given this advice to others in the past. He chuckled a bit and then began to relate his side of this announcement. I won’t go into all the details, but Grandpa shared how Grandma’s Alzheimer’s had taken her from him years before she finally passed. It started slowly, to be sure, but it progressed to the point where she did not know him. He was a strange man living in the house with her. If he got lucky, she thought he was one of her brothers or father back in Nova Scotia. More often than not, she thought he was his mother in rural West Virginia. Now, my grandfather loved his mother dearly. He just would rather not be mistaken for her by his wife. Between fifty and sixty years of a life together was wiped out by that horrible disease. She was his bride. She was the mother of his children. And she knew him not. Sometimes, it really crushed him to see her recognize others. He wasn’t being small or petty in that hurt. He just wanted his wife to know him, to remember him, to love him.
Looking around the pews I can see that illustration was the perfect one to explain the psalmist’s feelings today. Even as I wrestled a bit with God last night about that illustration, I knew you all would understand it. Heck, some of you understand it in ways I will not. We have far too many doctors and nurses who have seen the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s on individuals and on their families. Right? Modern medicine can do some amazing things for those who are sick, but not much of that amazing work does not extend to those who love them and suffer because of their suffering. Some of you have experienced that same cut-offedness with loved ones in your life. Some of you have had the misfortune of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. A couple have already expressed to me a story not unlike my grandfather’s. Like the psalmist, the loved ones have felt hurt, anger, shame, pettiness, isolation, unloved and any number of other emotions that arise when we are unrecognized by our own mothers, our own fathers, our own sisters, our own brothers, our own husbands, or our own wives. How much more so should we experience those feelings when we listen to the whispers of the Enemy that we have been forgotten by God?
And make no mistake, those whispers constantly bombard us. Wolves in sheep’s clothing proclaim on television and radio that “God wants to bless all His sons and daughters. If you are not blessed, it’s because you lack faith.” That’s certainly a theme getting more coverage thanks to our new President-elect. When something bad happens, the whispers still occur. “Oh, did you hear So-and-so has cancer? I wonder what she did to get that?” And what of those people who have that storm cloud constantly over their lives, who just seem never able to catch a break? What do we say and think about them and their relationship to God because of their circumstances?
We are now two weeks in to this season we call Advent. Stores have been playing Christmas music since Halloween. Commercials are really ramping up. “Buy a gift you cannot afford to prove to a loved one you really love him/her.” I know, there’s no ad that blunt, but listen to the subtle message of the ads. Our gifts show our love of those to whom we give them. Parents must give up sleep and large amounts of cash to wait in line and get the “in” gift for their kids. Heaven help you if you are married or, worse, engaged! The sign of your affection? Debt! This season is meant to remind us of the love that God had for each one of us, for every single person we encounter in our daily life and work. The world, in its rebellion, has turned it into crass opportunism and marketing. Given the message of the world, it is no wonder so many people are depressed this time of year. It’s no small wonder that suicide rates tick up. It’s no wonder that there is a need for so-called blue Christmases in our churches.
Our psalmist today reminds you and me that our circumstances do not reflect our relationship with our Father in heaven. Never. Never. Never are you and I cut off from Him! How do we know? If we are existing, if we have our being, He is willing it. He is remembering each one of us each second we are. But far more importantly, He has already demonstrated His love of and His commitment to each and every one of His sons and daughters. As we celebrate Advent and look expectantly at His Incarnation and His Second Coming, you and I are reminded that it was His love for us which led Him to that humble manger in Bethlehem, which caused Him to walk that path that led to Calvary, that gave Him the will to remain on that Cross even when we tempted Him to come down, that died in our place so that we might, like Him, be resurrected and reconciled to Him for ever! That Gospel story is His reminder of His love for you and me and His testimony that we are never truly separated from Him! Unlike my grandmother, who forgot my grandfather after so many years of life together, He never forgets us, He never stops loving us, He never even gives up on us!
In the coming weeks, infrequent attenders or CEo’s (Christmas Easter only) will show up among us. There will be a temptation on our part to whisper about them, to, in the words of the Pharisee, thank God that we are not like them. The truth is, brothers and sisters, many approach these services with enough guilt, with enough heaviness, and with enough isolation that they do not need us to add to their burdens. What they need, what you and I need, like the psalmist says, is to be reminded by the congregation that God loves them just as he loves each one of us! Sometimes, it falls upon us as a congregation to remind those mourning the recent death of a loved one, those diagnosed with a horrible disease, those in broken relationships, those suffering from a lack of provision because of job loss, and all those wo for whatever reason feel cut off from God, that He loves them and us and that His memory, His works of power and salvation, is alive in each one of us!
The Enemy wants nothing more than for us to buy into the lie that we are the masters of our own domains and captains of our own ships. The Enemy wants this because He understands, better than many of us, that with that isolation comes the possibility of forgetfulness, the possibility of a spiritual Alzheimer’s, if you will. If we buy into the seductive lie of self-determination, we can be convinced of our own cut-offedness. It is our job, corporately, to speak against that lie, to speak that Word of forgiveness and grace, to speak God’s word of healing and power each time we gather, so that those who do not know Him or those who have forgotten Him, might once again be drawn into the arms of His saving embrace. Why is gathering each week so important, some of you often ask me? Is it the Sacrament? Is it the preaching and teaching? Do you need to feel you have earned your pay? There may be elements of those thoughts in the answer, but the real answer is that corporate worship is the only antidote to the spiritual Alzheimer’s propagated by the voice of the world and the Enemy. It is in corporate worship that we, and those who join us, are reminded that we are never alone, that we are never forgotten, and that we are loved beyond measure! It is in corporate worship, brothers and sisters, that you and I and all who join us, whether our spiritual cisterns are full or running on empty, are given hope in the face of hopelessness, light in the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us and those around us, and strength to bear those crosses thrust upon us, certain that our Father in heaven will use us to His glory!
In Christ’s Peace,