Closer to Fine (A Lenten Sermon on Psalm 22)

A sermon given at Colonial Church during Lent. April 7, 2019.

Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility

To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

    and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,

    enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted;

    they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human;

    scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;

    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

“Commit your cause to the Lord; let God deliver—

    let God rescue the one in whom God delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;

    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

10 On you I was cast from my birth,

    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,

    for trouble is near

    and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls encircle me,

    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

13 they open wide their mouths at me,

    like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,

    and all my bones are out of joint;

my heart is like wax;

    it is melted within my breast;

15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;

    a company of evildoers encircles me.

My hands and feet have shriveled;

17 I can count all my bones.

They stare and gloat over me;

18 they divide my clothes among themselves,

    and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!

    O my help, come quickly to my aid!

20 Deliver my soul from the sword,

    my life from the power of the dog!

21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

22 I will tell of your name to my siblings;

    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

23  You who fear the Lord, praise God!

    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify God;

    stand in awe of God, all you offspring of Israel!

24 For God did not despise or abhor

    the affliction of the afflicted;

God did not hide his face from me,

    but heard when I cried out.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;

    my vows I will pay before those who fear God.

26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;

    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

    May your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember

    and turn to the Lord;

and all the families of the nations

    shall worship before God.

28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,

    and God rules over the nations.

29 To God, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;

    before God shall bow all who go down to the dust,

    and I shall live for God.

30 Posterity will serve God;

    future generations will be told about the Lord,

31 and proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn,

    saying that God has done it.

-Psalm 22 (NRSV)

God, on this good and glorious morning, we give you thanks for life. We give you thanks that you are a God who is never far off, but a God who is, indeed, with us. A God who attends dance parties and celebrates the beauty of your creation and your image in each of us. So God, for those of us today in this room, for whom your love feels far off, we pray that you would come close. And for the places in our own hearts where your love has yet to reach, God by your Spirit in the way that you do, will you move in? Make home here in our midst and in our hearts that we might be a part of the people who throughout all generations proclaim your goodness, your love, your mercy, and your truth. For it’s in your name that we gather, and we live and breathe… AMEN. 

Well, last week if you were here, you heard Joe McDonald (formerly of Upper Room and now the Executive Director of VEAP) wonder aloud about what I might possibly have to preach about in relationship to Psalm 22? After hearing sermons from Marie and Daniel, and Jeff, and Joe… I make five. That’s right. Five sermons all on Psalm 22. Yeah….this sermon is going to go well (ha!). I laugh to myself because one of my favorite things about the fact that five of us are preaching on the same Psalm, but I wasn’t ever particularly worried that I would be unable to find something left to say, because each of us come from our unique perspective, our own locations, and that’s the place from where I get to speak today. 

I think hearing the Bible from a multitude of perspectives is important. When I was growing up, I only had one main preacher who week-in and week-out taught us about the Bible. Not that my pastor’s perspective wasn’t true or helpful, it’s just that no one perspective is never complete; each of our lenses on the world are both beautiful, but also not the full breadth of human perspectives. If you hear from a woman who has experienced childbirth, her reflection on the creation groaning as if in childbirth will be different than that of someone who hasn’t been pregnant….necessarily so. And this matters. So today, I want to invite you to journey with me into my perspective on Psalm 22. The sermon title “Closer to Fine,” came to me after I was listening to a song mix that I had made for our recent trip to Cambodia in partnership with Fair Anita as a way to encourage the young women, and this song was on it.1

“Closer to Fine”

I remember the first time I heard this song. I was over at a friend’s house and day during high school. For a little bit of context, this friend of mine was a hippie. Like a bonafide hippie. Her family went out to this camp in the middle of nowhere—it didn’t have electricity or a telephone and was nestled in the Washington mountains, a small ELCA camp called Holden Village. And so my Lutheran, hippie friend played this song by the Indigo Girls called “Closer to Fine” one day when myself along with one of my Baptist friends were over to a hang out. And I remember listening to the lyrics, both liking the song, but feeling some level of anxiety as well because the song included lyrics such as “all these answers pointing me in a crooked line. And, the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”

And Baptist Sara was feeling a little anxious because for me following Jesus as I understood it precisely meant that there wasn’t any crooked lines, there was only one line and it looked like clear and very straight. For in all honesty, I really believed that following Jesus gave me all the answers.

Well, as it turns out, I have now lived a few years past being 17 and having all of the answers.  And, as it turned out, over time I’ve come to realize that the journey of life in faith is a little bit more complicated than the narratives that sometimes we tell ourselves where we think if we insert A, we for sure get out B, right? “I go to church. I love Jesus. I love my neighbor. I’m a good Christian. Everything is going to work out the way that I hope it will.” Right? 

And indeed, sometimes it all goes beautifully, right? Sometimes life is more glorious and wonderful than we could ever imagine. But, sometimes life gets interrupted. We experience cancer or a loved one dies. Our bodies don’t work the way we want. Our kids don’t end up following the path that we had hoped for them. The person whom we have loved for years no longer loves us back. And the question and the residual that remains, for me anyway, is: Is God still present on the journey when the journey doesn’t look the way we had hoped? Is God still with us in the midst of the silences? Is the Psalmist right here when the Psalmist feels like God has completely forgotten him? What is the story we tell about our lives and about who this God is when the story doesn’t turn out the way we hoped, when the answers point in a crooked line? 

So we come to Psalm 22. This is a Psalm of lament, meaning a place inside of Scripture where the writer is incredibly honest about the fact that their life doesn’t look the way that they wish it would. The psalm starts off with a complaint and a cry for help. Even as you heard that back and forth of the affirmations of trust, the “but, yet,” which Joe highlighted for us last week,  it is in the midst of affirming trust for God, the the psalm then moves to a cry for help, clarifying the nature of the trouble that he feels, telling God that the bad stuff is God’s fault. I’m sure, none of us have ever felt that way, right? I heard that! So, okay, at least one of us. Thank you, Jeff, for helping me out. 

After this opening, there’s an extended cry for help. And then as Daniel talked about, the psalm modulates to a more bright key, anticipating the stories of God’s future deliverance, and reminding the community of how God is present. So I’d like to name a few things about this psalm, a few potential ways to understand it.

One of the offerings I think this psalm brings to us is that it opens up space for us to wonder about what was David experiencing in writing it. One of the options may be that David himself was in an acute period of a mental health struggle. Maybe he was dealing with depression? And for him in the middle of that space, as for anyone who lives with depression, the struggle is so real where one might actually not feel human, but like the Psalmist, maybe you feel like you are a worm because you are so beaten down.

You feel alone and isolated and even as we, your community, might seek to affirm you and say, “Hey, we care about you. We are here for you. We don’t think you are nothing!” that doesn’t change how you are feeling. And it’s important to me that we name this as one of the options for what’s going on in this psalm because for too long, and often in faith communities, we’ve treated people who are living with mental illness like they have some special sort of sickness which places them outside of the mercy and love and presence of God…the place where they believe themselves to be and are treated like they are worms. And this psalm offers an opportunity to interrupt that narrative and remind us that one of the songs in the cannon of Jewish worship and now ours is one which acknowledges that whatever we struggle with, whatever pain we carry, God can handle us raging about it and naming those realities. 

Another potential read of the psalm that may resonate for others, is that the psalmist is exploring what it means to be in a space of acute grief; what it means when the story doesn’t go the way that we had hoped or wanted it to. And maybe some of you felt this way, where it’s just too much and you feel absolutely alone. It doesn’t matter that you actually aren’t in that moment. In that moment, you can’t quite remember yet. You’ve forgotten that actually, there are like quite a few people who love you, and care for you, and are with you. And you aren’t alone in your suffering and grief. 

Again, remember that Psalms are a part of worship and as such this song may serve as that affirmation to anyone who is in grief as a reminder that we aren’t alone. And even if we don’t know everyone super well in this community, if we will just take a step of vulnerably to move towards one another, and name our truths, saying, “I’ve got to be real with you, I’m struggling.” And instead of trying to fix or dismiss one another’s complexities in our lives, we turn towards each other and just let one another know that we are there; that we are the embodiment of God’s faithful yes to us. That’s what it means to be community: that don’t have to be afraid of the dark because we are a people of resurrection. And we get the opportunity to be that to kind of life to and for one another.

A third read of this Psalm, which is connected to the second one is that the psalm is naming what happens in those moments where we’ve internalized a narrative that tells us that God is only with us if things are good. Let’s dissect that for a second. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of good in my life. I have food. I have water. I have enough air to breathe. I have a home that is safe and very cute…if I do say so myself! I have a wonderful spouse. I have family, and friends who have become family. I have an amazing job. I get to participate with people in the real of their lives, testifying together to the goodness of the love of God and Christ, wondering together what it means to be transformed, living out the goodness of a good news that says God’s love is for all.

But that’s not everyone’s story. And of course, it’s also not the fullness of my story either. But what happens if we think that only a good life proves that God is with us? How do you make sense of being laid off from your job then? Did God abandon you? Did you do something wrong that places you outside of God’s grace? If we think God is only with us in the good things, then God necessarily to be absent in the bad. And that theology is harmful to us. And not just to us who actually have very privileged and good lives by and large: what does this belief mean then for people who are in literally living in refugee camps? Did they somehow sin more than us? 

Maybe David had internalized part of that narrative. He’s like, “I’m a king. I’m doing God’s thing. I’m after God’s heart. Everything’s going well. God must be with me.” If so, then David missed the point. God wasn’t with him because he was king. God wasn’t with him because he had all this money. God loved David when he was a shepherd just because he was David: made in God’s image, and God cared about his heart. So this psalm offers an opportunity for us to complexify our vision of how God shows up,  where we get to say, “God with us, means God is with us in the most challenging and painful darkness, as God is indeed with us in the most brilliant of light.” 

So whether it was because of a struggle with depression, isolation, grief and or a theology that had tutored him to think God was only for him in the good times, this Psalm opens up to us, its readers, a space for the real of our lives and our laments and serves as an encouragement that in our own Bible are affirmations of grief and doubt and that this is an important element of our worship and life of faith.

Now, to me, the way this psalm opens up space to affirm human suffering gets really intriguing when you consider the connections between this psalm, and particularly the way that Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. Psalm 22 is quoted in both Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 as Jesus cries from the cross: ”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There seem to be other connections between this Psalm and the telling of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Mark 15:29 and in Matthew 27:39, it connects with the language in Psalm 22:7 with the passer-byers of the crucifixion, “All who see me mock me. They make their mouths at me. They shake their heads.” And it seems that Matthew 27:43 connects to Psalm 22:8. “Commit your cause to the Lord. Let God deliver. Let God rescue the one in whom God delights.” And all four of the Gospels talk about the crucifixion with language just like in this psalm does.

Additionally, it seems that Psalm 22:15 is probably in the author’s mind in John 19:28, where it records Jesus as saying, “I am thirsty”, and that Jesus had to say this in order to fulfill scripture. That’s probably Psalm 22:15. Isn’t that cool? 

It’s super cool. Really cool. 

Let me tell you why I think it’s really cool. Because particularly in the book of Matthew which was written to a Jewish audience, an audience who would have known this Psalm from worship it’s making a connection between David’s life and what is happening with Jesus on the cross. 

In making this connection, it affirms that Jesus himself knows the depth of human suffering, and sees us and is with and for us in it. And so no matter what darkness, no matter how alone, no matter how abandoned, no matter how silent God might feel, God is with us. God knows it and gets it. That’s why we say “Emmanuel, God with us.” I don’t know about you, but to me, this is really good news. It’s good news, which invites and challenges us that we don’t have to be a people who skip over the complexities and the pain in our own stories, nor do we need to be a people who do that to one another. But instead through Psalm 22, in the very words of Jesus on the cross, we get invited into the heart of the struggle and suffering and are reminded that God is with us. For me, that’s good news. 

Our best friends two summers ago, well, just over a year ago, experienced the devastating loss of miscarriage. Being best friends, we didn’t want to copy them, but we also miscarried in December. Well, they just had a most beautiful baby named Owen a couple weeks ago, which is wonderful. But back when we knew they were pregnant again I sent them a card. On the card was a bunny rabbit on a bike. I don’t know why the bunny was on a bike, but I digress. So there’s a point A, and then there’s a point B on the card and between them is a line….which is, of course, straight… That was the bunny’s intended bike path. But when you open the card you get to see the bunny’s actually route between A and B and it’s a more circuitous way. 

And we sent them that card to say, “Hey, we get it. We know that sometimes life doesn’t look the way that we thought or wanted it to.” 

But this is the good news: God is with us in our suffering and the crooked lines of how life actually works out. God is present and we get to be present to one another and not be alone. Indeed, we are invited to love each other, to bear witness to good news. This reminds me a lot of the admonition from Hebrews 12. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith.” Listen to this part, “For the joy set before him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who likewise endures such opposition, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

The words of the psalmist are a true testimony to human experience, and Jesus echoes them on the cross as a reminder to us that we are not alone, that- as the song reminds us: not only that is our life not going to unfold much like a straight line, and that God’s present in that, whatever it looks like…but even more so, it become an invitation to embrace the crooked lines as where God is present with us. For maybe, just maybe: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am (and we will be) to fine.” And that’s the second beauty of this psalm and of Christ echoing the words: to embrace the life that is pointing us in a crooked line.

For Christianity isn’t designed to be the pill that keeps us safe from having to endure any harm. No, it’s not the answer book that fixes and saves us from the hard things. No, this is not the good news. The good news, my friends is that yes, life is hard but  we have a God who became one of us and is with us, a God who loves us and calls us beloved. And no matter our mess (or beauty), we are image bearers of God’s goodness. And embracing the crooked line of life  frees us to dance, to bear witness, and to love,…for we don’t have to live afraid and ashamed as if we were worms. Because as Joe reminded us last week, God is here. God knows and God loves. 

So may we internalize and embrace the promise of the God who is with us no matter what we face. And may we in turn be people of this good news: that God so loved that God walked amongst us. 

God is with us, no matter what comes on this journey, and God’s love is for us.

Let us be a people who bear witness with our lives to that good news. And then maybe we’ll sing together with the Indigo Girls that: 

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains

There’s more than one answer to these questions

Pointing me in a crooked line

And the less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine, yeah

The closer I am to fine, yeah.

-Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine

“The closer we are to fine.”

And that, is just fine.

Let us pray together. God, for your gift of love that reaches down into the real of our lives, the love that walks amongst us, calling us home…God, you know that we are a people who get afraid. We are a people who sometimes don’t want to be loved. But God I and we believe in resurrection. So come by your Spirit in this season of Lent and remind us that there is no valley so deep nor any mountain so high that you do not journey with us. And may we likewise journey with one another and be a people who bear witness to this good news in the world that you are present in the crooked lines. For it’s in your name we pray. Amen.

  1.  Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine,” Indigo Girls (Los Angeles: Epic, 1989).

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