Proper 15C: Relationship Trouble (Rev. Lindsay Hills)

When I was in junior high, the bishop came to our school. It was an important day for us…..and in my small world, he might as well have been the Pope. We had formal dress uniform that day, and were reminded to be on our best behavior. We were assured it would be mutually beneficial for us if we behaved, because ONLY the Bishop was allowed to issue days off from school. It had been rumored that if we behaved we would get Friday off!

We gathered for Eucharist, and when he preached my attention piqued when he told us he was going to teach us how to pray.

Eager to learn the secret of how to communicate to God, I hung on his every word

For better or worse some 25 years later its one of the few sermons that remains etched in my brain.

The sternness and confidence with which he delivered his directive sermon became my instruction manual for prayer… terrified that God wouldn’t hear me if I “did it wrong” I became obsessed with following the directions he outlined for us to the T….

His guidance was helpful, in that it helped me to think more critically about prayer and how I did it. But largely his words became a kin to a shackle tethering me down and not allowing me to explore the breath of prayer, the types of prayer, or develop my own way of talking to and with God…

Every time I encounter the psalms….I think NOW these people know how to pray or talk to God.

They aren’t afraid to tell God how they feel…aren’t afraid to get angry, to be vulnerable, to admit their own mistakes, to ask for forgiveness, or to offer thanksgiving. The psalms cover the breadth of human yearning, prayers for all times and all occasions, reflecting the true diversity of our hearts.

This Sunday, we recited portions of Psalm 80.

A psalm of lament, “a passionate expression of grief and sorrow”[1]….the heart of the psalmist is poured out in prose….beginning with a plea to God, almost in desperation…

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,” listen to us God, please listen to us….

This is followed by a portion of the psalm we did not hear this morning, a portion where we hear of a people desperate to be restored, longing to be saved….

For it continues:

3  

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

 
4 O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
 
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
 
6 You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

(psalm 80:3-7, Book of Common Prayer — Psalter)

We hear first hand a people that feel betrayed, forgotten, dismissed by their God…

a people trying to understand why God has left them….despite their prayers.

a people who have become the laughing stock of their neighbors and enemies…

a people who at times we can relate to, probably all to well….

The psalmist continues, by outlining all the amazing things God has done for them, with thanksgiving…..they continue to pray….

Thankful that God has taken them out of Egypt, as a tender vine, in need of replanting….and God’s amazing self …

replants them,

cares for them,

protects them….

taking the time to build them up and allowing them to flourish.

For it is only through the nurturing power of God that a once small vine can stretch its tendrils out to the Sea and its branches t the River.

This is the God of blessing,
the God of abundance,
the God of Love….

Their prayer of lament continues, as they wrestle with how this God they know and love could turn their back on them. how a God that once loved them and cared for them so deeply, could then make them vulnerable to attack and allow them to be devoured.

In an interesting turn of events near the end of the psalm, the people boldly demand that God REPENT….for what God has done to them…. ”Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine…..preserve what your right hand has planted.”

A final plea for God to change God’s ways and remain in relationship with them

Its almost as if they had prayed……

O God, you are amazing, listen to all the amazing things you have done.

We said we are sorry, please be in relationship with us again. We miss you.

Why did you let all these bad things happen to us.

You should say your sorry for the bad things you did.

Please make it right. We are waiting.

How refreshing.

 

-How often have you yearned to say those things to God, but perhaps felt unable to,

-or wanted to be angry at God for abandoning you in a moment of great need, but felt like to be angry at God was bad or sinful….

-or in the face of daily tragedy around the world, gotten wrapped up in the everyday lament of why God allows bad things to happen to good people….

 

In so many ways the psalmist offers language that many of our hearts have struggled to express….

And yet, while it is indeed a psalm of lament it is simultaneously a psalm of hope.

The people ask how long, how long will God turn away from them….knowing that even though they may feel estranged, God nevertheless continues to listen to God’s people, or else there would be no need to offer a public lament in the first place, no need to ask God to turn back, if they really felt that God had truly left them.

It has never crossed my mind to demand an apology from God, and yet the brazen psalmist does. Through the psalmists’ plea for God to “turn again,” or repent, and look with favor on the people once more, we see a God whose fundamental being is intimately tied to relationship. And to be in relationship calls for continual adjustment, recalibration, and evaluation…. [2] Relationships come with joy and sadness. They demand give and take, and reciprocity. A reciprocity that requires a commitment to continued conversation even when we feel betrayed or abandoned, angry or mad….a conversation that we are reminded today is rooted in prayer….

After struggling with prayer for sometime, my spiritual director reminded me that prayer….is something we practice….like anything else in our lives its not something that we do flawlessly, or comes without its challenges, or that we are even naturally good at…its something that requires our attention and faithfulness, and like all things we practice— we only get better over time….

It doesn’t have to be the right prayer…or the perfect prayer…just faithful prayer.

Prayer is not how often we sit down with our hands crossed and eyes closed —-but more about intentionally engaging with our God.

It’s not about the words we say aloud ——but how they dance in our hearts…

Its about entering into the relationship with the holy on a regular basis…so that when times get tough we can echo the lament of the psalmist….and say to God….”what?” “why?” but more importantly — “How long?”

As Christians we know relationship….

relationship is made known to us through the incarnation, through the mystery of the holy trinity, and through the communion of saints.

And like all relationships we know first hand that they have their challenges….

The psalmist offers us more then desperation and lament….

the psalmist reminds us of the hope…a hope that only comes with being in relationship with one another and with God.

And it is that hope that reverberates through the end of the psalm, that even though times are tough, even though they may be angry and sad, they choose to stay in relationship …promising to never turn away from God, vowing to continue to “call on God’s name.” And as they let out their final request, their final prayer they do just that, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts,” show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”

The is the challenge offered to us this morning….that regardless of our struggles or disillusionment with God….that we too might remain in relationship with the holy….because God wants nothing more than to be in relationship with each and every one of us.

 

 


[1] Google search “Lament” Available at: https://www.google.com/search?q=lament&oq=lament&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j0l5.751j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[2] Nancy Koester, Working Preacher, Commentary on Psalm 80:70-15. Available online at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2174