Something bizarre happened at the Westbury Little League ballpark last week. My son's baseball team was playing in a scrimmage game and some of the parents were there watching when one of the mother's was hit in her leg by a foul ball. Several people asked her how her leg was and said they were sorry she got hit. She said it hurt but the baseball hit a muscle so although it was sore it was not a serious accident. Later during the game, when this same mother was walking over the dugout to take some pictures another player hit a foul ball that went high up in the air and landed about two feet from this mother's head. Some parents in the stands who saw it laughed out loud and pointed because it seemed it just wasn't this mother's day. When she returned to the stands she asked if we had seen that second foul ball almost hit her and we said yes! She said when she was stepping into the dugout to take some photos of the children her husband had turned around and accidentally stabbed her in her eye! She said half jokingly, "I must have done something wrong today. What did I do wrong?"
Psalm 77 is for folks who feel they must have done something wrong. Has God completely rejected me? Is God trying to punish me? Am I, like Job, the object of some hidden, celestial game whose rules an objective I may never know? "Has God's right hand lost its grasp? Does it hang powerless, the arm of the Most high?" (NEB, vs 10)
At the beginning of today's Psalm, we find a person who has called out to the Lord, who has worshipped the Lord and yet doesn't hear any answer. The first half of this psalm was composed for use in worship by a person severely depressed, who says: "I cry aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted." (77:1-2) Have you ever been in this situation? Are you in this situation now? You have called out to the Lord, you have cried out, and you remember that, yes, in the past God has answered you, but now there seems to be no response. The skies seem to be solid, like brass, and God is silent, as far as you can hear. If so, this Psalm is for you. Indeed, this Psalm is for every Christian, because I believe all of us do go through such times, although perhaps not as dramatically as this.
The night was dark and foggy. A man walked in the darkness from his house to the cobble-stone street, his step determined and relentless, but his face — had anyone been able to see it in the dark — was tear-stained and weary. As he reached the street, he peered both ways, looking for the tell-take lantern of a horse-drawn, London cab. The man muttered: "Nothing! Am I too late? But no! I must end all tonight! And the river it must be!" Then, in the distance, he espied a hazy light, slowly enlarging. Almost whispering, the man said bitterly: "God, you provided me no solace, but here you provide the cab to take me to my death!" "Where to?" asked the cabby, when he stopped. "London Bridge," the man replied, curtly. "A cold night it is, sir — what sort of business have you at the Bridge at this hour?" But the man said nothing.
The cabby ended his attempt at conversation, and set off toward that well-known destination. But the fog became thicker and thicker, so that the cabby could not see even his horse's nose. What should have been a 20 minute ride lasted an hour, and still there was no sign of the river or the 600 year-old bridge. The cabby peered into the fog, desperately looking for some familiar sign. Suddenly, the fog lifted. The passenger, startled from his morose stare, looked to his right and saw, to his amazement, his own home. The cab, lost in the fog, had circled back to the very place he began the journey.
"My God! You have answered me!" the passenger cried out. Later that night, by his own hearth, this man, William Cowper, one of the greatest of England's 18th century poets, meditated on Psalm 77. That same night, William Cowper penned this great poem:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
According to a mainstream Biblical scholar, John Hays, the psalms were probably written by members of the temple staff for the use of worshipers. In the latter half of Psalm 77 the priests allowed the worshiper to confront their depression. So the second part of the Psalm, (vv. 11-20) shifts completely away from the particulars of any individual situation. The worshiper and psalmist shift to transpersonal, almost cosmic and mythological concerns, to conditions and situations at the founding of the world and the origins of Israel.
It's interesting to note that in Mesopotamian culture the dentist, when extracting a person's tooth, went through a liturgy that involved reciting a short account of the creation of the world. Such a move may have been a way of distracting the person from the immediate problem or a means of focusing one's faith on God's past and glorious acts so as to assure the person that God was still and always had been in control. Even so, this did not override the necessity of the person to give expression to depression and hostile feelings toward God.
Verses 11-20 combine images and perspectives drawn from the creation of Israel, when God led the people out of Egypt (vv. 14-15), and from the creation of the world, when God triumphed over the chaotic waters and chaos monsters and, amid thunder and lightenings and the trembling and shaking of the earth, God established order and led his people like lambs (vv 16-2). The liturgy seems to ask the worshiper, "In light of such a vision of God's activity, now what was your problem?" No appeals are made; no personal requests are formulated. The worshiper was apparently dismissed to live in the light of the hymn. Hopefully, the worshiper will not go out and wander in the wilderness. Yet, I wonder if that image of wandering in the wilderness does not describe much of life as we experience it.
Neither in the desert wilderness nor in the London fog, this story took place in a snow-covered field in America. Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-famous architect, was born just after Lincoln's assassination, and died in the space age. He did not see an electric light until the 1880s, when he went to Chicago as a young man looking for a job. By the turn of the century, he had revolutionized American architecture and become world famous thanks to his Prairie houses, low-slung family homes inspired by the flat midwestern landscape. Wright told how a lecture he received at the age of nine helped set his philosophy of life. An uncle, a stolid, no-nonsense type, had taken him for a long walk across a snow-covered field. At the far side, his uncle told him to look back at their two sets of tracks. "See, my boy," he said, "how your footprints go aimlessly back and forth from those trees, to the cattle, back to the fence then over there where you were throwing sticks? But notice how my path comes straight across, directly to my goal. You should never forget this lesson!" "And I never did," Wright said. "I determined right then not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had." (ChristianGlobe Illustrations, David E. Leininger, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc.)
The spiritual life is not a so much a straight path straight up to heaven to God as it a wandering in circles on ever higher planes. It's as if we are walking an upwardly spiraling path up a mountainside where the road winds back around the mountain on the same side as we were before, but this time from a higher elevation. We find ourselves working through the same issues over and over but at a higher level of attainment and challenge. At some point, and especially when we get bogged down in the fog of depression, we need to turn our attention from the path in front of our feet up to the top of the mountain we are ascending. Perhaps that is why in many ancient cultures including the Hebrew culture God was seen as residing at the top of the mountain.
As hurricane season gets underway we have reason to be more concerned than usual. In the first place, the signs say this will be an unusually active hurricane season. In the second place, we have a massive oil spill in the Gulf. Jeff Masters, the NPR "EarthSky" guy, says a hurricane will help disperse the oil spill from the Gulf waters but will put some oil ashore and inland. Psalm 77 reminds me us of that image with these lyrical verses:
The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (vv. 17-20)
Who are the Moses and Aaron's who will lead us through the mighty waters? It is the Christ within, the hope of glory. The Christ within us will lead us through whatever this hurricane season or our turbulent personal lives may hold for us. The hymnic part of Psalm 77 presents the Lord as the God who defeats the waters (v. 16) and leads his people like a flock through the sea. (v. 20) That is what the congregation needs and yearns for. (Interpretation: Psalms by James L. Mays, p. 254)
We live in a world where out of the blue you can wake up passing blood one morning at 5:30 am and the next morning at 5:30 am you find yourself in the hospital awaiting surgery to get a kidney removed from your body. That's what can happen in 24 hours. No wonder some people are uptight. The uncertainties of life put a lot of pressure on us all. Rather than looking above for everything we need I think we need to look within for that is where we will find God. We need to locate and nourish what Paul calls "the Christ within, the hope of glory." That is where we will find the courage and the guidance to navigate a path through the mighty waters of life.
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In writing this sermon, I found John Hayes interpretation of Psalm 77 helpful, as it appears in Preaching Through the Christian Year C, pages 314-315.