Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 8, June 27, 2021
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
Among last week’s very important news, of course, was the release of an unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on UFOs, which the government seems to want to call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. And according to the most recent Gallup poll about all of this kind of thing, which was taken two summers ago, one-third of Americans believe that some of those UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets and galaxies. Now putting that fascinating information side by side with the fact that only about one percent of the American population identifies as Episcopalian begs the question: What do the aliens know about getting their message out that the Episcopal Church doesn’t?
Reading news articles about that DNI report made me feel like a child again, as if I was watching reruns of the 1970s TV series Project U.F.O. based on the Air Force’s real-life Project Blue Book, which investigated these strange sightings in the 1950s and 1960s. The bottom line, according a recent article by the Associated Press, is this intriguing but unsatisfying conclusion:
The truth is still out there.
On the flip side, there’s still lots of wonder left in the universe, even wonder about angels and archangels and other Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.
There’s still lots of wonder left on the good Earth too — lots of things that make us want to say to the people around us the words of the psalmist today, while inviting enthusiastically with our hands both them and even complete strangers to join us: “Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.” Or as the down to earth version in the Message puts it: “All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank [God] to his face!” In other words, let’s praise God together.
The rejoicing into which the psalmist waves us isn’t that time when she felt like she was having a mountaintop experience. I mean, [*whispers*] just between you and me, this psalmist was rather insufferable back then. As the seventh verse of Psalm 30 says, “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You, Lord, with your favor, make me as strong as the mountains.” Most of us were somewhere else, down in the valley, when she was shouting at us from on high. And what we heard were these words from the Message version: “When things were going great I crowed, ‘I’ve got it made. I’m God’s favorite. [God] made me [queen] of the mountain.” Or maybe those were the awkward words we were saying to others below us.
Not surprisingly, all that self-righteousness came to an end in a gloriously spectacular crash. Everything fell apart, and the crowing from the mountaintop suddenly ceased. The terrifying image for that both here and elsewhere in the Bible is of God’s face being hidden from us. It’s the opposite of the priestly blessing of Aaron, brother of Moses, from the Book of Numbers, when we say over a living congregation or at the grave, literally over one of our own who has died and been lowered into the ground:
The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you . . .
This is how the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes what’s happening at this deeply upsetting moment in Psalm 30. “It is the way of a small child,” he writes, “who is frantic but is suddenly okay when she see’s her mother’s face. But if mother turns away or is absent or is unavailable or is unresponsive, the world is immediately a place of threat. When God’s face of blessing was hidden, ‘I was in dismay.’”
But from that gut-wrenching moment, the one speaking, whether you or me or someone else, did not cease crying out to God, making her case about her connection, her abiding relationship, with the Holy One of Israel:
“Can you sell me for a profit when I’m dead?
auction me off at at cemetery yard sale?
When I’m ‘dust to dust’ my songs
and stories of you won’t sell.
So listen! and be kind!
Help me out of this!”
[And] you did it: you changed wild lament
into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band
and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song;
I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God,
I can’t thank you enough.
At least that’s how the version of Psalm 30 in the Message tells the rest of the story. Usually we hear part of it this way: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” But you have your own words and your own stories to tell about the presence of God in your life or in the lives of those around you, including many of us here today.
In some cases, your own stories will follow the pattern of this psalm, this prayer. That moment of rescue occasions its opening words of praise and thanks. When the voice of the psalmist proclaims to God, “You have lifted me up,” she’s not talking about being lifted up to her mountaintop experience. No, she’s referring to having been lifted up out of the grave, raised up out of the pit, pulled up into an open place where she can breathe.
So when she invites those around her to join her, to sing to the Lord, to come together as the Lord’s people, she’s talking to them face to face, not shouting down at them, not separated from them out of pride or a sense of superiority. She’s on their level, grateful to be alive rather than six feet under. There’s a genuine humility in her invitation to us.
At other times, however, when we want God to be near to us, when we want God to rescue us, our honest prayer ends with the same words as a very different psalm, which says “darkness is my only companion.” Those are the surprising final words of Psalm 88. Sometimes that’s all we can say.
So don’t be afraid to describe things as they really are in your own prayers. And don’t cease crying out to God. Be persistent, like the psalmist today, watching for God, even when — especially when — the divine countenance seems hidden by the most intense and frightening storms of life.
Many of you will recall hearing echoes of some of this in a parable Jesus told hundreds of years later. It’s the story of the importunate or persistent widow. This widow doesn’t cease to ask for justice until the judge finally does something about it. The judge’s countenance might be turned away, but hers most certainly is not. Her gaze is fixed on that judge’s seat.
“The point of the parable,” according to Brueggemann, “is to carry the nightmare to God and insist that God should deal with it and then to trust your life to the God of all nightmares.” Otherwise you will just sit there in silence, removed from the congregation and seemingly removed from God, growing cynical about everything under the sun and everyone around you. But according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told his disciples that parable about a widow so that they would “pray always and . . . not lost heart.”
So what if you choose not to embrace those words?
Well, if you get settled into that metaphorical recliner of cynicism and stay seated there, using your remote to click through the channels of this life and judging them all, I declare this to you as a minister of the gospel: The truth is still out there. And even if you take that cynicism with you to the grave, someone like me will stand over you and speak the truth, remembering that joy comes in the morning, at the general resurrection, and say,
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.
1 BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 182.
2 BACK TO POST Brueggemann 185.