Title: “Can I Say That to God?”
July 16, 2023
Elder Pamela Osborne
PSALM 5:1-12, JOHN 10:1-10
During my second year of seminary, in the thick of COVID, I was a student intern at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. One of my responsibilities there was to co-teach a confirmation class. The class consisted of fifteen eighth graders. It met 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings. On Zoom. It was a challenge.
As if that general setup wasn’t hard enough, each week, at least at the end, and sometimes also at the beginning of class we asked for a volunteer to pray. And then there was silence. And so, we waited. And often we waited some more. And then, eventually, an eighth-grader would offer to pray. And the prayer? -- It was… always beautiful.
Sometimes it was about a dozen words, simple and to-the-point, spun out at top speed. On other days it included poignant mentions of something learned in class, or of concerns about loved ones or the world.
Yet however perfunctory or elaborate it was, each prayer was beautiful because each prayer was crafted in the heart of the one praying it and expressed in that person’s own words.
The Psalms, as we know, are full of prayers… prayers of thanksgiving, lament, wonder, distress and more. A quick look through the book of Psalms gives us the full range of human emotion, and an enormous toolbox full of ways in which we might also address God.
Something that strikes me when I read the Psalms is the kind of language in which these prayers are brought before God.
The expressions are direct… to the point. They do not hold back. The psalmist does not mince words.
The psalms are a crucial reminder that in prayer we are to come before God with all that we are, trusting that God already knows what is on our hearts and that God desires to be in conversation with us … about all of it.
Today’s Psalm – Psalm 5 - is one of several psalms of “imprecation.”
The Merriam Webster dictionary (which I’ll admit I had to consult when that word began popping up in my preparation) defines an imprecation as a spoken curse.
This psalm, then, is a prayer …which is a spoken curse… a plea for God to curse the enemy.
This is a prayer invoking God’s wrath, written by a holy person and recorded for posterity as Holy Scripture. That’s not the kind of discourse that usually comes to mind when I think of prayer, and it may surprise you too.
Though the truth is that language asking God to curse evildoers is found elsewhere the Bible. The Prophets of the Old Testament used quite a bit of this language. They had quite a few enemies, after all, and needed God’s help overcoming them.
These enemies were people who were not living and acting in ways in which God intended for them.
Words of imprecation, in the context of scripture, were written – essentially - as complaints to God that others were not keeping their part of the covenant with God… a covenant in which God had agreed to care for God’s people, and the people had agreed to follow God’s ways. God was then called upon to curse those who weren’t following God’s ways… ways of lovingkindness. Psalms of this type are, then, pleas for God to restore God’s own created moral order.
Psalm 5, which is attributed to David, begins its imprecation with its author pouring out cries of distress before God.
It has its writer rising in the morning immediately aware of a situation for which divine help is desperately needed.
It’s a ‘the world is always with us’ kind of prayer: “in the morning, you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you and watch.”
And “in the morning here?” – the literal translation means every morning. Not just this one morning. Who amongst us has not gotten up so many mornings- whether while living through the worldwide and national events of these past few years – or weeks – or days –
or our own personal challenges-- and bowed our heads or looked up towards the heavens and said, “Give ear to my words, O God?”
This Psalm exemplifies for us that God can hear and handle all of our cries, including our anger. And…Helpfully for us as people who pray…there is more.
Trust and faith in God’s sovereignty and power are woven throughout the psalm. While our prayers some days may be laced with hopelessness and a sense that we might just be pleading off into the great beyond, this one is rooted in trust and confidence in God’s presence and ability to act.
One of the elements of this kind of prayer, then, is the affirmation of our own faith embedded in our pleas. The Psalm’s language affirms God’s sovereignty in the midst of evil. And the psalmist not only affirms that sovereignty but also an abiding trust that, despite what we may sometimes begin to wonder, God is not on the side of evil.
God does not delight in wickedness.
Our enemies cannot stand before God’s eyes.
“You are not a God who delights in wickedness,” the Psalmist affirms. “… The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful,” the psalmist writes.
Enemies threaten and God will surely act.
This psalmist’s enemies, scholars say, were likely both religious and political, during one of the many times of dangerous unrest in ancient Israel.
Though we live in a time of relative peace here in modern-day Essex county, we have no shortage of enemies and evildoers, or those who are bloodthirsty and deceitful with whom we must contend.
We may have personal enemies. Family members with whom we are in conflict. Broken relationships. Difficult coworkers, neighbors, classmates, or fellow volunteers. Friends who have hurt us.
There are the inanimate enemies too… like addiction, financial stress, illness, grief, and loneliness- to name just a few.
And we have seen -and experienced - in these especially challenging times, occurrences of injustice at the hands of the political, cultural, religious, and physical enemies of our day. We’ve watched socioeconomic disparities grow, rights questioned and taken away, disease attack the innocent, racial tensions surface violently. We’ve seen the destruction of natural disasters, political unrest and divisiveness, wars and violence here at home and around the world.
So many enemies, and I could name more. I am sure you could too.
When evil seems to surround us, many of us struggle to pray.
Maybe we’ve been raised not to complain. Maybe we think our “small” problems are not worthy of God’s attention. Or maybe we can’t imagine where to begin when everything is quite so awful.
That’s why I think these imprecatory psalms are a gift to us. Through words like these, we are invited to express our despair to God…boldly… bluntly! And by doing so, to gain strength to endure hardship, putting our trust anew in God. This Psalm and ones like it provide a frame for us to express our deepest distress while also affirming God’s power to act to redeem situations which are seemingly not redeemable.
There are echoes of this idea elsewhere in scripture.
The Lord’s Prayer juxtaposes the evil of the world with the act of putting our trust in God’s power to redeem it.
“Deliver us from evil”, we pray… and then, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.”
In our New Testament lesson this morning, Jesus is depicted as the shepherd and gatekeeper, whose voice the sheep follow, unlike the voices of strangers. We are reminded more than once in this parable that the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. The Shepherd knows each sheep of the flock. We know God’s voice and God knows each one of ours. We are told that through this open, conversational relationship with our shepherd we can have life… and have it abundantly.
This parable is a reminder to me that prayer is part of a close relationship with God, our shepherd. When we begin to pray, we are resuming an ongoing conversation with God our creator, Jesus our savior and friend, through the Spirit who is ever-present with us. What a helpful reminder at those moments when we are feeling stuck when it comes to prayer.
I know someone who takes this idea of an ongoing conversation quite literally, and each time he begins to pray during the day, after his morning devotion, he starts not with ‘O God,’ or ‘Dear Lord,’ but with the word ‘and,’ intentionally acknowledging that his is a life of prayer and that the conversation never ends. That his shepherd is always listening- and that he is always listening for God’s voice.
God, who created us and loves us, wants to be in conversation with us. About everything. Trusting that God will indeed act to restore God’s intended order.
God wants us to pray about our joys, sorrows, sin, wonder, anger, worries… and even our enemies. God knows our voices and wants to hear from us… in our own beautiful words… For all of our words are beautiful to God. Amen