Psalms of Uncertainty

Sermon for Sunday, May 16, 2021 || Easter 7B || Psalm 1

Human beings do not particularly like ambiguity. We want good data. We need to know where we stand. We crave certainty. The trouble is, there’s no such thing as certainty and the ground tends to shift beneath our feet and even data is often skewed by the biases of the collectors. And still, we have this elemental desire (unreasonable as it may be) for everything to fall into perfect categories so that we can understand our place in all of this.

Back before streaming services, I had a lot of DVDs, and I could never figure out how to organize them. Alphabetical order seems reasonable, but then my James Bond movies were all over the place, with GoldenEye in the G’s and Tomorrow Never Dies in the T’s. So I tried a different system. I organized alphabetically not by title, but by production company so the series would all be together. This worked until Leah told me it was a dumb way to organize DVDs because she could never find anything, since she did not have intimate knowledge of who produced James Bond. (It’s MGM, by the way.) I spent a long time trying to come up with a system to organize my movies. In the end, nothing worked: not title, not genre, not production company. I ended up giving most of my DVDs to the St. Mark’s Christmas Bazaar a few years ago when we were on our Marie Kondo kick, so now they are other people’s problems.

But the DVDs are just a microcosm of that much larger issue of ambiguity. We don’t like when things are ambiguous, and at the same time, pretty much everything is. And so, instead of wishing for a certainty that cannot exist, the best thing we can do in our lives of faith is make peace with uncertainty. And not just make peace with the uncertainty of life, but to see in uncertainty the seeds of creativity, imagination, and hope.

The book of Psalms is a wonderful training ground to practice living with ambiguity, living with the changes and chances of this life. The psalms are a collection of 150 poems and songs embedded in the midst of the Hebrew Scriptures. Tradition tells us that they were written or at least inspired by King David, who was himself a talented musician. Many of the psalms come with instructions as to how to perform them. Some of the psalms are intensely personal; others are meant to be used in religious services or other public events. Some of the psalms are joyful; others are incredibly sad as they grapple with despair. Indeed, the psalms run the gamut of human emotion and experience. They formed what we might call the prayerbook and hymnal for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. And even now they speak to us, well over 2,000 years since they were set down in writing, because the experiences they share are both personal and universal. The psalms are an astounding collection of writing inspired by many and varied witnesses of God moving in the lives of God’s people. I commend the entire book to you.

Today we read the very beginning of the book of Psalms – Psalm 1. And right out of the gate, we are treated to a perfect example of the human need for certainty, clarity, and categorization. 

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Psalm 1:1 (BCP)

The psalm continues in this vein for the first three verses, concluding that everything the righteous does will prosper. Then the psalm changes tone. The next two verses are about the wicked: they are like chaff which the wind blows away and their ways are doomed.

With Psalm 1, we see the desire of humanity on full display. We see the need for certainty and unambiguous cataloguing. We see the need to separate the righteous from the wicked and to set a clear line of demarcation between the two. The righteous are not wicked, they are not sinners, they are not scornful. And the wicked certainly aren’t righteous. We can all sense the attraction in such a division, right? Wouldn’t it be great if we all carried around a card that categorized us as righteous or wicked?

Sounds good on paper. But such a system has been employed many times throughout history to tragic, dehumanizing, and sometimes genocidal results. We continue to live with the consequences of creating such a system in this country based on outward physical appearance. And even so, that pernicious desire for certainty, for knowing where we stand, still guides us much of the time.

This desire for certainty takes the wheel because real life is messy and complicated and not at all easy to categorize. We are the righteous, and we are the wicked. If we read just a few pages further into the book of Psalms, we will encounter this human messiness in all its glory and confusion. And the best part is that every psalm is a prayer to God, even the laments that aren’t sure God is even there (especially the laments that aren’t sure God is even there.). And if the psalms are prayers to God that means our messiness and our ambiguous affiliation with righteousness are actually gateways into prayer. We do not have to hide our mess before God. We do not have to deny our wickedness. We do not have to dress up for the family portrait and smile an artificial smile. When we pray with the Psalms we pray our entire lives: the mess and the majesty, the sin and the saving.

When we pray our way into the book of Psalms we discover God in the midst of uncertainty, and that is called faith. Sometimes the psalmist’s faith explodes off the page:

Wake up, my spirit;
awake, lute and harp;
I myself will waken the dawn.
I will confess you among the peoples, O LORD;
I will sing praise to you among the nations.

Psalm 57:8-9 (BCP)

Other times, the psalmist’s faith is a cold piece of charcoal in a spent fire:

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet. […]
I have grown weary with my crying;
my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God.

Psalm 69:2, 4 (BCP)

Between these two extremes we find tenderness, perplexity, beauty, grief, rage, joy. In short, we find humanity in all its uncategorizable experience. And at the center of that experience, we find God. That is our faith – creative, imaginative, uncertain, and hopeful.

I invite you to delve into the book of Psalms, no matter what you’re feeling right now. Whether you are flourishing or languishing, unmoored or grounded, desolate or joyful, something in the psalms will speak to you right now. In speaking the psalms, you will be joining the eternal chorus of voices who have prayed these ancient words. And you will remember again and again that at the center of your messy, uncertain life the unwavering grace of God remains.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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