Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2020 || Easter 5A || Psalm 31
It really got to me this week – the isolation, the distance. One day, I got home a little before dinnertime. Leah gave me a hug, and I realized it was the first time that day someone had touched me. I had been feeling agitated all day, and in that moment I knew why. My primal need for physical contact had not been met. What a relief it was to go home to someone who would embrace me. Then I thought about all the people, those I know and love and those I don’t know and am still called to love, who haven’t touched another human being in two months. I couldn’t even make it a day! So when I read our lessons for today, one verse of the psalm leapt off the page:
Into your hands I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.
Into your hands. I talk about God’s hands all the time. Every single time I pray for someone who is sick, I end the prayer with, “May God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.” I love to sing the Irish blessing, which ends in a similar fashion: “May God hold you in the hollow of God’s hand.” For a long time, I’ve been inviting other people to see themselves as being held in this loving grip. For some reason, I hadn’t seen myself as being held there.
But in our age of social isolation, these words of the psalmist stir within me. I so desire to feel myself being held in the hands of our faithful God.* Before we reach this part of the prayer, the psalmist uses other images to name God. All of them are about strength and defense: strong rock, castle, crag, stronghold, tower of strength. I imagine the psalmist felt besieged by enemies on all sides and prayed to God using this language of barriers in order to feel safe. We can all relate, even as our own barriers that we’ve put up in response to the pandemic feel like they’re closing in on us like the trash compactor in Star Wars.
But in Verse Five, the psalmist switches images. Gone are the rocks and walls. The psalmist cries out directly to God: “Take my spirit into your hands! You have saved me, O God of faithfulness!” These words may be familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve called to God using them in your own prayer. At least one other person we know did. As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus did not trust in the castle or stronghold or tower. He trusted in the tender hands of his father.
I racked my brain trying to remember the last time I prayed for myself to find a home in God’s hands the way Jesus and the psalmist did. And I realized I had to think all the way back to my sophomore year in college. Every night at 10 p.m. a group of us gathered in the choir stalls of All Saints Chapel in Sewanee, and together we sang the service of compline (or night prayers). In the middle of the service came the words of Verse Five set to a hauntingly beautiful melody:
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;
For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
When I began college I was not a strong singer. Not even close. But I really liked singing. It was the only thing I liked to do that I wasn’t good at. So it makes sense that singing was the way God invited me to embrace the life of faith. God used my inadequacy as fuel for trust. Night after night, I mumbled my way through the sung prayers, making sure I didn’t sing loud enough to throw off the people who could actually sing. I did this for a year. Then one day in my junior year, the compline group tapped me to lead the service one night. And that meant I had to sing, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” by myself.
To make a long story less long, it actually didn’t go too badly. I stumbled a lot, but I got through it. I’m sure I changed the key of the service half a dozen times, but we still prayed, and that’s what was important. Because in the moment of singing the words, the notes didn’t matter. What mattered was that God was calling me to place myself – my faith, my hope, my plans, my future, my spirit – into the hands of God. And that meant radically redefining where I placed my trust, which had always been in myself and myself alone. For me this happened while singing because I didn’t trust myself to get the notes right. Singing made me vulnerable. And in this vulnerable state, God gathered me into God’s hands.
Today, I’m trying to imagine my way back there, to a place I know in my mind I already inhabit. And the picture comes to me: holding my daughter the day the twins were born. She was very tiny, so tiny that we had to do some medical tests to make sure she didn’t have to spend time in the NICU. I held her head in one hand, her body in the other. Her little legs were scrunched to her belly, as they had been in the womb. There she lay in my hands. Not my arms. My hands. The most precious five pounds in all the world. Utterly helpless. Utterly dependent. Utterly needy. And yet in her infant’s brain she knew she had help. She knew her mother and I were dependable. She knew her needs would be met. So she slept soundly, laying there in my hands, at peace.
This is what I long for – not just to feel the peace of being held in the hands of God, but for the humility to recognize my own helplessness, dependence, and need. And then to rely on God’s grace to open me up to receive the gifts God continually offers.
As we begin to see our state “reopen” in the coming weeks, we will no longer be expected to remain behind the safety of our walls as we have in the past two months. Still, there is no way for life to return to whatever we used to think normal was. With the psalmist, we have been crying out to God to be the barrier between us and an enemy disease. As the physical barriers begin to lessen, we move to Verse Five and cry out with equal fervor to entrust ourselves into God’s hands.
This doesn’t mean living recklessly or fatalistically. Being in God’s hands means recognizing our vulnerability and not covering it up with bravado or egotism. Being in God’s hands means recognizing our dependence and relying on God’s gifts of each other in whatever ways we can safely do so. Being in God’s hands means living the truth that nothing in all creation – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
I invite you today, especially if you are feeling an extra sense of isolation, to cup your hands together. Place a stone or a seed or a feather or a leaf in them. Then prayerfully imagine your way into the object held in your hands. Gaze at the object with the same loving gaze you would use to look upon a newborn baby. And believe that God gazes upon you with the same love, as you rest in the hollow of God’s hand.