“Broken” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! [Tree grid slide] I shared this slide at the beginning of the service, and I hope you have found an image which at least approximates which tree you are today. I want to explain a little more why I have shared this today, and how I hope it might help us to experience the psalm which Lynne read for us.
I got the idea for this grid from a workshop which I attended on multi-sensory worship. It was led by Bethany Fox McKinney, who pastors the Beloved Everybody Church in Los Angeles. Many of the members of that congregation are people with intellectual or physical disabilities — people for whom language or theological reasoning my not be easily accessible. She has created ways of engaging her congregation in worship which acknowledge something which is true for all of us: worship is not exclusively — or even primarily — an intellectual, rational, word-based exercise. We bring our whole selves to worship: not just our minds, but our bodies — tired, sore, relaxed, whatever. We bring in the conversations we had in the Gathering Area 10 minutes ago, or the argument we had with our spouse last night, or our parent’s voices from 40 years ago telling us we ought to go to church. We bring our opinions, our convictions, our doubt, and our pain. We can acknowledge this reality or not, but it is unavoidable. Those of you who watching this service on livestream have also brought yourself to worship. Having these images as way to think about “what am I bringing to worship today?” doesn’t mean there are right or wrong answers. We all come as we are, even when that is not who we want or try to be.
I chose tree images because I like trees. I assume that trees don’t experience full range of emotions which humans experience — I don’t know what an anxious tree or an angry tree looks like — but I’m willing to leave that to your imagination. The texts we are going to be considering for the next three weeks are uniquely situated to open a space for considering what experiences and emotions we bring to worship. For this week and the next two, I will be using psalms as my sermon text. Psalms are regularly used in public worship — I often quote them in our calls to worship and opening prayers, and many songs are based on psalm texts, including some we used today. This is no coincidence; psalms were written to be used for worship and prayer. But what about the emotions or experiences which make us uncomfortable, or don’t seem to have a place in public worship? It turns out there are psalms for these things, too, but the lectionary texts skirt around them, and we tend not to talk about them very much. [Slide down]
There are how many psalms in the entire Old Testament collection? 150. Of those, there are a few imprecation psalms: cursing psalms, spelling out what we’d hope God would do to our enemies. Read Psalm 137 if violence is your thing. There are many more psalms of lament — 42 out of 150, or about 35%. Of those, 12 are communal and 30 are individual. Psalm 22 is the best known lament because in the gospel of Matthew it is quoted by Jesus as he is dying on the cross. Talking about lament in public worship is difficult because it is so personal. Of course the reasons for and the history of your lament are different than mine, but the results may be similar. Grief and suffering and loss are things which we must acknowledge in some way, because an inability to experience grief means an inability to experience joy. We can’t deny or blunt negative emotions without stifling positive emotions as well.
[Tree slide] If this is the tree which best fit you this morning, then lament is what you are carrying into worship. I don’t pretend to know your experience, but you could feel lament if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, if you are widowed, if you are worried about who is going to take care of you or how you are going to take care of yourself, or if you feel abandoned or alone or betrayed. There is no hierarchy of suffering: our pain is our pain — mine doesn’t get “better” because you think yours is worse. If you have never experienced feeling broken, you are either in denial, or your time is coming. Brokenness is a universal human feeling — at least by those who allow themselves to feel. The power of Psalm 22 is that it names that pain: graphically. Physical, emotional, and spiritual agony. It makes complete sense that this psalm were the words which were in Jesus’ heart and on his lips when he was in physical agony and felt forsaken by God. [Slide down]
The beauty of the psalms is that they do not deny our brokenness, but they don’t leave us there, either. I found an article by Dragoslava Santrac, an associate professor of biblical languages and Old Testament, which laid out this progression. I’ll be spending more time with this in the next two weeks. She is talking about praying the psalms — not merely listening to someone else read them, or engaging only on an intellectual level, but allowing their words to speak to our hearts. Theologian Walter Brueggeman characterizes this kind of prayer as “an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage.” The first thing that the psalms, and particularly a psalm like Psalm 22 does is to allow us to Articulate Our Experience. That experience may be one which we are too overwhelmed or too fearful to use or own words to express. If you are getting older (that is all of us, by the way), you may be anxious about your declining health and physical ability. What is going to happen when I can’t take care of myself? The idea of being abandoned — deserted by our spouse, or our children, or our community — may feel too frightening articulate. What if by saying aloud, “I’m afraid you’ll leave me” we somehow make our own worst fears come true? What if God leaves us? What then? The psalms give us words which we might not dare to speak otherwise. They articulate our experience.
If, with the help of these words from the psalms, we are courageous enough to articulate our experience, including our fears, this is what can happen: the psalms can Supervise Our Experience. They can give us framework for understanding what we’re going through in a larger context. The psalms supervise the experience according to God’s standards that make it bearable, manageable, and, hopefully, meaningful in the community. The psalms make the experience “formful just when it appeared to be formless and therefore deathly and destructive.” Supervising our experience does not deny our suffering, but it helps to define it so that we can understand it. This is why grief support groups work: not so that we can prove that I am suffering more than you, but so that we can be in community with others who share our experience of grief and who have walked and are walking their own journey. If we can’t articulate our brokenness, that keeps us from allowing others to share it and bear it with us.
Praying the psalms may mean praying things that we do not — or do not yet — believe. Let me explain that. Most psalms, including psalms of lament, end with some kind of statement of God’s power and care. All of these terrible things have happened, “Yet, O Lord, you are my Deliverer,” “Yet O Lord, I will praise you.” When we are broken, we might not feel much like praising God. But saying “with God’s help tomorrow will be better” even when we’re not sure we believe it is one of the ways we get through. It is self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are looking for reasons to praise the Lord, for signs that today will be better — even if we aren’t sure they exist — we will be orientated differently than if we are looking for confirmation that no one has ever suffered the way we are suffering. Let me say again, everyone’s suffering is their own: we all get through that in our own way and in our own time. But there are very few kinds of brokenness which no one has ever experienced before, and there is nothing which God has never seen before. Unlike that broken tree which we saw snapped at the base, people can recover from brokenness. It takes courage to name our brokenness to ourselves and to God. It takes commitment to keep going through our struggles; to go on because we want to be there for other people, or because we want to be whole again. It takes faith to praise God in the darkness when we’re not sure when or if the light is coming. If you need to lament, you need to lament. But take heart. God is with us even when we cannot feel God’s presence. If you are feeling broken today, God bless you for joining us; let us help you walk your journey until you are stronger. Let us sing God’s praise together until you know it is true. We can face tomorrow because Jesus Christ has promised to be with us today. May you be comforted by this community and the presence of God. Amen.