Sermon for Good Friday: Meditation on Psalm 40
Today’s readings invite us to join Jesus in his suffering by reflecting on the pain we experience in our own lives and the meaning of that pain in relationship to our faith. As Mark said in our first meditation, reflecting on the psalms is a different kind of experience than the one we traditionally have when we attempt to walk with
Jesus through his betrayal, torture, humiliation, and death in the reading of the Passion Gospel.
Mark suggested that there is a progression in these psalms – one that reflects the state of mind of their authors. Psalm 40 is believed to have been composed by King David, who is said to have written 73 of the 150 psalms in our prayer book. Historians have theorized about the circumstances surrounding some of the psalms, but not the one we just read. Noted preacher Matthew Henry suggested that, “It should seem David penned this psalm upon occasion of his deliverance, by the power and goodness of God, from some great and pressing trouble, by which he was in danger of being overwhelmed; probably it was some trouble of mind arising from a sense of sin and of God’s displeasure against him for it.” In other words, David wrote this song not in thanksgiving for being delivered from an external enemy, but to thank God for delivering him from his own internal demons. And while we may not identify with the circumstances of David’s life – or with his behavior – we can empathize with his feelings.
As a forensic psychologist, I am often asked to attempt to figure out what someone was thinking when he or she committed a crime. Trying to do this for a king who lived roughly three thousand years ago is particularly challenging, but in the case of King David, we have the advantage of knowing a lot about him. We know, for example, that he was handsome and charming. We know that he was a musician. We also know that he lied, he stole, he coveted – and he murdered. And when we read these psalms –songs that came straight from his heart – we recognize something else. David was depressed – he was tormented by a deep and profound despair brought about by crushing guilt and shame.
Barbara Crafton, writing in her book Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet, tells the story of being hit by a car while walking on the sidewalk. She says that when it happened she felt “no fear. Not much pain even…But I did feel something, and I remember it still, all these years later. What I felt was shame.” Although she was the one who had been hit, she inexplicably felt that it was somehow her fault. And she continued to feel that shame during her extended recovery. She felt shame for having to take off from work, shame for having to go to physical therapy – shame for feeling shame. Unlike David, who had to be confronted with his sins in order to repair his relationship with God, Crafton identified the feelings associated with guilt, but could not identify their source. David prayed for forgiveness. Crafton prayed for understanding. She wanted to say the right prayer to make those feelings go away.
I understand the pressure to pray the “right way.” In 1994, after six years of marriage, my husband and I decided to start a family. The fact that our first attempts did not work did not initially bother us. After all, we had married young. We had time. But two years later our attitude had changed. We had begun to be afraid that we could not conceive a child. Over the course of five years, we attempted all of the homeopathic, medical and even superstitious treatments that we could – without result. And during that time I tried to do things to bolster my chances that God would answer my prayers; I read the Bible stories of Sarah,
Elizabeth, and Miriam. I proclaimed my belief in God’s faithfulness. And I prayed. I prayed loud and I prayed long. Crafton writes, “’Just pray’, the people who love you tell you. Ask God to help you. And you try.” But the pressure to do it right – to pray for the right thing – poisons our prayers with fear and doubt. As Crafton says, “We pray as if it were all up to us, when in fact, almost none of it is.” It is hard to wait patiently.
But we must learn. We must learn that it is only when we wait patiently that God hears our cry – not because God is not ready to give us what we need, but because we are not ready to receive it. The first Sunday after our first in vitro fertilization attempt had failed and we been told that we had less than a 25 percent chance of success if we tried again, I went to church in tears. The psalm that day was Psalm 40. “I waited for the Lord,” I recited with my church community, “He stooped to me and heard my cry.” “Ha,” I thought, “Not me.” But I said it anyway. I said it because it was the psalm of the day and as a Christian living in community it was what I did every week. Which is why on that day I actually heard the words of verse four. “Happy are they that trust in the Lord.” “That,” I thought, “I do believe.” And so that became my prayer – my simple, sincere offering – and, ultimately, my thanksgiving. On our last Sunday at church before we moved to Virginia with our daughter – and son – I sang David’s Hymn of Praise as an offering of thanksgiving – an offering to my community, who had patiently waited with us, an offering to God, who patiently waited for me to accept the grace that was already mine, and as an offering to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who on this day offered himself that we might be delivered from darkness and despair – both outside and within ourselves. Amen.
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