Poets, Psalms, and Heavy Hearts

A sermon preached April 21, 2013 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

Psalm 23

Acts 9:36-43

I had another sermon planned for today. But then this week happened. And kept happening.

Bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon.

An explosion at a plant in Texas.

Ricin filled letters mailed to elected officials in DC.

Shootouts on the streets of Boston.

Flooding in Chicago.

Earthquake in China.

Failure in the Senate to even discuss meaningful reforms to our gun policies.

Bombs in Iraq.

And then North Korea.

Remember how just last week fears of a crazy person in the Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons was our worst fear and was all over the news?

Anyway, I’m not sure how you responded to the news this week that just kept coming and coming and coming. Many people were unable to turn off the TV coverage. Some people ended up with insomnia and anxiety. It is easy to see why. So much bad news.

When 9/11 happened, my family was living on the Navajo Reservation and we didn’t have any TV reception, barely had internet. So I heard all of the news on the radio. I didn’t see the horrific images until the next day in the newspaper. I’m thankful for the distance I had from that media circus. It helped me not get sucked in to subsequent media saturation of other tragedies.
Yes, I read the newspaper. Yes, I listen to the news on the radio. But that’s not all I do in the aftermath of national or international bad news.

I go for bike rides. I take the carpool to soccer practice. I go to dance class. I practice my cello. I do laundry. I write newsletter articles. You know, the usual.

But I found myself doing some slightly less usual things this week too.

I read more poetry than usual. I often read poetry, but I found I needed it more this week.

Like this:
Morning Poem by Mary Oliver 
from Dream Work (1986)
Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

And then this, From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke:

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

I think I turn to poets because they speak difficult truth so beautifully, giving us room to re-create the world as we know it should be, even when we can’t see it. They remind us to seek beauty in creation. They call us to live into the tensions of our world.

The other poets to whom I turned this week were the psalmists. The assigned Psalm in our lectionary this week is the 23rd Psalm. You no doubt recognized it in our liturgy. I’d like to read you this Psalm from a translation you are likely not familiar with. While the beauty of King James English is comforting and perfectly appropriate for us to read, Scripture can also speak to us differently when it is unfamiliar. So this is from Robert Alter’s translation from the Hebrew:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.

My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.

Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.

Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.

You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.

Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long days.

In addition to thinking about poets and psalmists this week, I’ve thought of the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion. They must have been feeling like we have been feeling,  right? First their friend and leader is arrested. They scatter in fear. Jesus is tried and convicted, with the crowd whipped into a frenzy. And then Jesus is crucified, dying a horrible death on a cross, while they stood there helpless in the crowd, unable to do anything against the terror.

And after the crucifixion, we’re told they gathered together, hiding from the news, hiding from the officials who wanted to arrest them too.

This week I wondered about what they were doing in the locked upper room. I wondered if they were reading the Psalms, hearing those refrains of the promises of God’s help and presence. Like these words from Psalm 46:

God is a shelter and strength for us,
a help in straits, readily found.
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.

Its waters roar and roil, mountains heave in its surge.
A stream, its rivulets gladden God’s town,
the holy dwelling of Elyon.

God in its midst, it will not collapse.
God helps it as morning breaks…

I hope they were reading psalms and not watching CNN make up news to report.

It is as they are gathered together that Jesus shows up in their midst and breathes his peace into them, giving them resurrection hope and the courage they needed to live past the terror into beauty and back into life.

I also thought about our story from Acts this week as events unfolded. We don’t know how Tabitha died. Had she been an innocent bystander at the finish line of the Joppa Marathon?  Was she working at her job when the factory caught fire and exploded? Did she have a cancer diagnosis?

However Tabitha died, we know her friends were devastated. They had gathered around her, preparing her body for burial, grieving through tears and by sharing memories, showing Peter the clothing she had made, putting together slide shows with pictures from her life. Perhaps there was a memorial like we see today with flowers, candles, and teddy bears, ribbons woven through the links of her chain link fence.

They rushed into that place of vulnerability to show their love for their friend. They are described as widows, a nameless crowd of women who knew their own kind of loss. They had lost husbands, at the least. And they rush in to care for Tabitha upon her death.

It reminds me of the story I heard this week about a man who was at the finish line of the marathon when the bombs blew. Carlos Arredondo is the father of a fallen US soldier and had been passing out American flags. He is also the father of a son who died of suicide after the war in Iraq. Like the widows, he knows about loss.

And when tragedy struck, he ran in to the danger to help people, using his clothing to stop bleeding, staying with people until ambulances arrived.

When Peter arrived at Tabitha’s bedside, he found people who offered love and presence in the faith of death. And it is in those moments that resurrection happened.

When Mr Arredondo rushed in to help, he saved the life of a man named Jeff Baumann, who moments before had seen the men who dropped the bombs at his feet. Mr Baumann helped the FBI identify the suspects.

Every time people run toward danger to help others, resurrection happens.

Every time people choose love instead of hate, resurrection happens. Every time people come together instead of dividing, resurrection happens.

In this season of Easter, we remember we are resurrection people.

Like the disciples who left their locked room to go feed Jesus’ sheep…

like the widows who rushed in to care for their friend Tabitha…

we are called to offer resurrection.

As resurrection people, we show the world that life is beautiful and as the confessions say, “a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage” (Confession of 1967).

And we give thanks that we can gather together to offer each other love, comfort, and the peace of God. We can worship, sing, and pray together. We can remind each other of the beauty of life in the midst of the heartbreak of this age.

Let’s be resurrection people this week. Let’s be poets this week, helping each other see the beauty in the brokenness of this world.

And let’s continue in prayer, for those who mourn, for those who turn to violence, for those who respond with courage, and for those who give us hope.

And here is the video from the start of worship today:

2 thoughts on “Poets, Psalms, and Heavy Hearts

  1. 46 is my trouble psalm, has been forever and ever.

    I heard a Good Friday sermon a few years ago that made the striking point that the difference between us and the disciplines during the Triduum is that we know for sure that Christ will has risen, while the disciples could not be sure — so much more our obligation to offer succor and hope on the basis of what we’re sure of.

    (I use the first person plurally narratively above).


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