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6 Pentecost, Year A

6 Pentecost, Year A

Psalm 13

Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“How long, O LORD?”

 

The life journey of human beings will, inevitably, face the reality of suffering. There is no avoiding or denying it—suffering happens! Whether we’re young, old, rich, poor, a genius or challenged physically, mentally, or in any other way—before our life runs its full coarse, from birth up to death, somewhere along the journey we will face some kind of suffering. Contrary to the often-wrongheaded belief that God’s faithful will always prosper and the unfaithful will always suffer and not prosper; today’s psalm presents us with the truth that God’s faithful do suffer and do not always prosper.

   In today’s psalm, which is written in the form of a personal lamentation, the psalmist is utterly honest with God. Obviously the psalmist is in a deep pit of suffering, things are not going well at all. In this time of suffering, the psalmist lets fly four related questions, which are addressed to God. In each of these questions, the psalmist opens the flood-gates of a soul afflicted and tried to the limits—sharing with God doubts, fears, depression, anger, deep hurt, pain and sufferings. Each of the four questions begins with the two words, “How long.”

   I know I certainly can empathise with the psalmist who asks God: “How long.” I don’t know if you’ve had the experience in your sufferings or not, but in my experiences of sufferings, sometimes it seems as if time stops, as if a minute is like an eternity, while enduring unbearable pains, heartbreak and sorrow.  At such times, one feels the suffering is so intense and overwhelming, that one may very well not endure or survive it. One is so focussed on the suffering that one cannot, at the moment, see or hope beyond it. When time seems to stand still, we cry out from our soul to God: “How long!?” The words, “How long,” may be worn right out in our fast paced world. Are these words not a constant litany uttered by most people in this age of spaceships, jet planes, and fibber-optic chips? We are an extremely impatient society, are we not? We want everything and everyone to work, live and travel faster. So, what happens when severe suffering hits us like a ton of bricks? Does it not merely make us even more impatient?

   In the psalmist’s first question: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” the words ring true for us all, do they not? We tend to associate God with being totally good and loving. When we are on the receiving end of illness, ill-will, hatred and hostility, do we not tend to believe in a rather distorted way that the source of these sufferings are happening to us because God has forgotten us, and is no longer listening to our cries for help and deliverance? Or perhaps, if we’re prone to be easily afflicted with guilt; we begin doubting ourselves and start blaming ourselves for things that we may have done to offend God and thus come to believe that we’re being punished for our sinfulness. Or maybe we, in a rather twisted way believe that God forgets—perhaps God suffers from amnesia, or worse yet, dementia or Alzheimer’s, therefore we sense the need to keep reminding God not to forget us. Maybe our God is too small. Maybe we believe God only selectively comes around to us in a capricious way at some whimsical moment or other.

   Whatever we may believe about God and God’s forgetfulness; is it not vital for us at times like that to remember and trust that God is with us always? God has not forgotten us, in spite of how things may seem to be to us at the moment. Our pain may blind our vision and suffering right now; we all need to be reminded that our LORD bears our pain and suffering with us.

   In the second question: “How long will you hide your face from me?” the psalmist expresses the sense that God is absent, God has abandoned the psalmist. The feeling of abandonment is a very real one for a lot of people. The young child who is sexually abused by an adult, perhaps even someone from their own family; the faithful person who lived an exemplary life, was a leader in the church and the community, was kind and generous, loving and understanding, but now is suffering and dying of a chronic disease; the man or woman who has worked for the company for several years and now is unemployed and cannot find another job; the growing number of orphans, who never knew their parents; the poverty-stricken millions in third world nations who have never known what it is like to have 3 meals a day, a comfortable home with clean, running water, the opportunity to attend school, and adequate access to healthcare; people like this and many more cry out to God every day: “How long will you hide your face from me?”

   When one is afflicted with severe pain and suffering, it is very difficult to see the face of God in and through it all. It all seems at the time as if it is a colossal waste, useless, senseless, and yes, bad and evil. So we cry to God as our thoughts and feelings of God’s absence and abandonment afflict and overwhelm us. We cry to God because there is no one else to whom we feel we can turn. We cry to God with still a tiny particle of hope and trust that God will eventually show God’s face and reveal God’s presence to us.

   In the third question: “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” the psalmist appears to be in a deep state of depression. Maybe you too have been afflicted with depression before. Depression so all-pervasive that it becomes a major ordeal to carry on with even the basic routines of daily life. Depression that makes one inclined to crawl into a shell; to escape from the world, life and living. Depression so blind and malevolent that all one is able to see is an enemy in everyone and everything. Depression that destroys one’s self-esteem and confidence. Depression so all-invasive that it destroys one’s overall health and well-being and will to live. Depression that is unable to see a tomorrow.

   The psalmist’s question focuses on the self’s ability to bear one’s own soul pain and one’s own sorrow-filled heart. Yet, is it not God whom we need to go to and ask to bear these things? We cannot bear these things on our own—that’s why we suffer from soul pain and a sorrow-filled heart. The LORD will lighten our heavy loads if we but turn to him and ask him for help. As people of faith who live in community with one another; we are called on to bear each other burdens; and in so doing fulfil the law of Christ. How many of us have had the experience of confiding in a trustworthy person of faith our deep dark secrets of soul pain and sorrow-filled heart; only to feel a sense of relief and freedom afterwards.

   In the fourth question, “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” the psalmist struggles with the enemy being blessed by God while the psalmist suffers and does not flourish. Although it is difficult to say for certain—perhaps the psalmist’s enemy is a chronic illness. The psalmist may believe that (s)he is dying and very close to death. If so, then the psalmist may, in turn, have believed that (s)he was being punished by God for some sin or another. When we face great sufferings and struggle with dying and death as our enemy, do we feel punished by God too for some sin or another? How are we to cope with and deal with such suffering?

   Well, one way is to view the enemy upside down completely by regarding them as if they were your friend. Is there anything to fear—including death if we regard it as a friend rather than an enemy. Don’t get me wrong—I’m definitely not advocating that everyone become a suicide bomber like the Palestinian and Muslim world is teaching at the present time. God is a God of life and love not of death and hatred; hence God definitely does not bless suicide bombers or bombings. Rather, what I’m advocating here by regarding death as a friend is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross; the way of turning the world upside-down by finding life in cross-bearing suffering; suffering that sacrifices for the sake of love; suffering that creates new life—new resurrection life, where once there was only death. In regarding the enemy as if they were our friend, we are able, with God’s help, to be more at peace—and, again God willing, be blessed and reconciled with the enemy. This is the way of Jesus, who journeyed to the cross for our sake and the sake of all humankind; that we may live in peace and be reconciled with each other and with God. This is the true peace and reconciliation that will take root in hearts and souls and lives and last forever—rendering obsolete all fear, violence, hatred and war.

 

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