This sermon was preached for Tuesday, May 2 by Dr. Julian Gonzalez. The readings for this sermon were: Acts 7:51-8:1a, Psalm 31, and John 6:30-35.
I run to you, God; I run for dear life.
Don’t let me down!
Take me seriously this time!
Get down on my level and listen, this time
and please—no procrastination!
I’ve put my life in your hands. This time
don’t drop me,
never let me down.
These are not trivial or casual requests of the supplicant.
These are urgings on which everything-life and death- depends.
The voice of the supplicant in the psalm arises from dire social needs. What is at stake is more than the usual trivialities about which we pray for.
It arises from the most elemental sense of jeopardy. Death is an imminent reality.
At the same time the voice arises from a sense of entitlement before God. A deity who has pledged attentive protection and sustenance.
This is not simple or merely some sort of self-talk psychological activity, as we in our modern rationality often think prayer to be. This is a real transaction, raw, innocent, and trusting.
The candor of the supplicant is evident.
The speaker is not only requesting respite for himself, which seems legitimate enough in the covenantal language of her demand.
But in addition to that request there is an ultimatum for God’s forceful action that the deity should take against the speaker’s adversaries and detractors.
In other words, the speaker is able to get down and dirty in regressive, even childish speech about real feelings.
I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
The speaker sees himself as a monster to his enemies. He is ridiculed by his neighbors, and even to his friends, he is an object of dread, horror.
His body is so disruptive that even people who see him in the street flee from him.
He is in nobody’s memory, he has been ignored and forgotten by the community.
In his childish, ignoble, raw emotional expression, the speaker feels free to voice the deepest urge for retaliation and vengeance against those who have diminished his life. His god is a deity who “abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily” against our speaker.
Why should this deity care about the speaker’s situation?
Our clever supplicant motivates God to act on his behalf by underlining God’s character and self-regard.
This is a righteous deity. This is a faithful deity. This is a deity who in the eyes of the speaker is full of goodness. This is a deity whose acts are driven by steadfast love.
In other words, the reasons that God should respond to these petitions is because who God is in the eyes of the speaker.
It is as though God needs to be reminded that God is characterized in this way.
God should act to verify that god is indeed the god who the supplicant thinks the deity to be.
That is to say even if theologically the deity is free to act as the deity pleases to do.
Rhetorically, the speaker is making sure god gets the message. You should act if you actually claim to be who you are.
In the patriarchal context of our speaker, he is using the notion of honor, in this case of a deity who is imagined and addressed as male in order to make sure, He, the divine listener of this supplication, gets the message. The male speaker’s goal is greater intimacy and connection with a male deity.
The motivation is not only about the character of God. There is also the need for a predisposition of the supplicant who desires to be close to Yahweh.
This is an example of homosocial bonding, but one that supports patriarchy and glorifies stereotypical masculinity.
I’ve put my life in your hands. You won’t drop me. You will never let me down.
Our speaker then combines two important aspects of a life of supplication: one is the desperate need in the midst of death, and second the covenantal devotion to a god who might do something.
A more surprising motivation for God’s intervention plays on God’s self-regard that runs toward divine vanity. In the consideration of the speaker, God wants to be well thought of by all people.
In this psalm, the offer of praise to God is something of a bargaining chip.
It is in God’s own self-interest to do so. The motivation for divine rescue is that God will receive the praise to which God is entitled and that God so much wants. Praise enhances God in the eyes of the people who are oppressing the speaker. The speaker knows that and trades on it.
This sort of prayer may strike you as angry, regressive, somehow childish, also as unworthy of good worshipers and probably as unworthy of your god.
But anger is not outside of the options of worthy worshippers and it is very important in theological understandings of hope. Anger is a resource for the long and hard work of organizing and it impels people to focus and be disciplined in actions against injustice.
If this prayer strikes you as childish, full of anger, or unworthy of the way you may address your god that is exactly the point.
Honest prayer expresses the basest reality of our lives. It runs the risk of implying problems for God if praise is withheld. It assumes that one has leverage with God in prayer and that God can thereby be compelled to act in ways that God might otherwise not act.
It is raw prayer. It is a prayer that seeks to make sure that the deity gets the message.
This kind of venturesome speech is not something we readily do when all is well. When all is well, we might even disapprove of people praying this way. Such disapproving only exacerbates our own blindness to the privilege social conditions from which we disqualify a prayer as childish and the resulting dullness of our prayers because we seldom experience the nearness of death in our daily lives.
But when life is not well and we are pushed to extremes, the lament psalm offers a model of engagement in full candor with the god of possibilities and threats. A god who might engage us in our deepest fears and trembling, with emphasis in might. There is no assurance that such needed, desirable divine intervention will take place. Our speaker ends his prayer not with the assurance that the deity intervenes but with the cliff hanger of the waiting room. The sometimes peaceful and most of the time silent room where we hope for the best but many times the silence is broken with even worse outcomes.
The psalm is an example of prayer that moves deeply beneath our usual innocuous prayer in which nothing is at stake, because in this kind of prayer everything is at stake: the body of the supplicant is craving for life in the midst of death.
This psalm exemplifies our deepest expressions of anger and hope.
Anger helps us to identify and express dangerous and desperate situations. According to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of hope, he argues that we live by hope. Living in hope says to us: there is a way out even from the most dangerous and desperate situations.
More important, is the relation b/w hope and anger. Freire suggests that:
Hope without anger is hopeless. Anger is the existential concrete imperative for action. Hope is part of our discourse and the orientation towards the future. We hope the best. We hope deeply and banality. Hope and anger empower us to continue our work for justice even as the forces of injustices may gain greater power for a time.
Usually when we think about hope we assume, coming from our sociocultural entitling position that God is under the obligation to bless us because we are god’s chosen people, because we live in god’s chosen land, because you repeat since childhood that this is god’s chosen nation.
But the psalm humbles us to be able to express anger and hope in a different way. By anger we lay it all out raw and unfiltered before our gods. By hope we continue living in the waiting room; with the expectation that who knows perhaps this god will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind.
Image: “The Broken Terracotta Pot” by Michelle Calkins