The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and will save those whose spirits are crushed.” It’s been my experience as a priest, that I devote much of my pastoral ministry to exploring and explicating the veracity and nature of the psalmist’s assertion that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and those whose spirits are crushed. And so I would like to explore that with you for a few minutes together this morning.
I’ve noticed that most people who make an appointment to come to see me find themselves living that eighteenth verse of the thirty-fourth psalm. For those of you where things are going swimmingly well, you tend not come to see me to tell me about it. And that’s fine; I rejoice and give thanks that things are going swimmingly well. But all of us—without exception—at some point in time find ourselves feeling very alone and brokenhearted and with spirits that are seemingly crushed. So how do we go about experiencing God in those lonely and tough times?
We don’t often preach about the psalms and I think that’s regrettable because the psalms are the one collection of prayers—a book of prayers—in all of the Bible. And within those prayers are the honest cries of humanity—of thanksgiving and joy, but also fear and doubt and despair, and even anger. The psalms cover every human experience and emotion and they give us voice when sometimes we have no voice. And in Psalm 34, in its entirety—we only got a portion of it—it’s one of the 73 psalms out of the 150 that are attributed to King David. And the psalm begins with great thanksgiving for God’s mercy and deliverance out of trouble. And that is probably not a surprise given that King David was often in trouble—often of his own making—he should be thankful. But then the psalm goes and lifts up part of what we know as the wisdom tradition, which is a paradox for us, because the wisdom tradition seems to posit the view that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. And we know that’s not true. I mean I can look around—you all are dressed up pretty well, look pretty righteous—you’ve at least dressed the part—and yet each one of us, without exception, finds ourselves in those times when we suffer.
The psalm lifts up one of the greatest “Why” questions for all of eternity which is, if God is good and God is just and God is all-powerful, omnipotent, then why is there evil and suffering in the world? Why do we have situations like the tragic shooting in Aurora or the Sikh Temple or more recently near the Empire State building? Why does a tropical storm and hurricane like Isaac sweep through the battered nation of Haiti, yet again? Where is God in the midst of all of that? The fancy theological term for the big “Why” question is theodicy. It’s taken from two Greek words: God and justice. What I can tell you is that very learned scholars and theologians over the centuries—even before Plato—have wrestled with that question; and, by my judgment, none of them has satisfactorily answered it. So I’m smart enough in these few minutes together this morning not to try to answer that for you but rather to focus on how do we experience God in those tough times, in those times of suffering.
In his book Credo, William Sloane Coffin posits the view that God provides minimum protection but maximum support, minimum protection but maximum support. When we find ourselves crying out to God to be with us, to be near us, to heal lives, to save us, to restore us, I think in this hyper-connected, immediate world in which we live, we anticipate we’re going to get an immediate response to our prayers—sort of like an e-mail or Twitter tweet. It doesn’t always happen that way; it could; but I think for most of us it is more subtle and a process. We don’t just see the Red Sea parted upon our first crying out to God. For many of us, I think that we experience the nearness of God in one another.
St. Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century said that Christ’s body is no longer on earth, only our own—our eyes, our hands, our heart, our feet—to live out, to carry forth the compassion and presence of God. When you are in a tough place, look for God in the person who comes to you, sits next to you, and listens with their heart when you need to pour out your own. Look at the situation in Aurora or the Sikh Temple or New York or in Haiti; look for God in the stories of the people who were willing to sacrifice their own lives—and some did, to save another. Look for God in the people who don’t even know the people personally who are involved, yet nevertheless have their hearts moved to respond—to pray, to send resources, to be the nearness of God in the most tender times of people’s lives. We experience God in prayer, in praise, in this service—in words and song—and sacrament. When you’re invited to the Lord’s Table for the bread of life that never perishes, God is near. Our interim dean preached a wonderful sermon last year quoting what hung over Carl Jung’s doorpost: “Bidden or unbidden, God is here”—present and among and within us in this place.
Prayer has a profound role in all of this. In the current issue of the Cathedral’s magazine Cathedral Age, there’s a rather remarkable interview with President Obama and Governor Romney on faith—the role of faith in their lives and its centrality to how they live out their lives. I commend it to you, if you’ve not read it, because they both speak very personally and poignantly about the centrality of faith and prayer in their daily lives. President Obama in articulating that quotes Abraham Lincoln who said, “There were many times when I was driven to my knees because I was overwhelmed by the conviction that I had no place else to go.” Bidden or unbidden, God is here.
In the course of this service, if you find yourself relating to that eighteenth verse of Psalm 34, open yourselves to the possibility that God is right here, as near as your next breath; you’re never alone, even though it may seem like it sometimes. Look for God in the people around you; look for God in the people who were there to hear your needs and hear your prayers. Remember that Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.” There’s another special ministry and opportunity for you in this place and in the course of the service. We have devoted and trained healing ministers who, during the time of communion, anticipate and look forward to praying with and for you in healing—in mind, body, spirit, relationship—for you or for someone you love. They’ll be waiting to pray with you in Memorial Chapel during the time of communion or after the service. So if you came here today wanting to experience God, remember God’s right here dwelling among us, bidden or unbidden. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and will save those whose spirits are crushed.” Amen.