June 19, 2016 — Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Making a Way Out of No Way
On our second day in Israel, we woke up at 4:30am and got on a bus to the Wadi Qelt, in the mountains about an hour from Jerusalem. A wadi is a dry riverbed, an arroyo as they call it out West. This one runs through a beautiful mountain range, and was probably the path Jesus used when he walked from Galilee to Jerusalem. The bus arrived at a plateau on top of the mountains. We were given 45 minutes to hike or meditate in silence and then we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist as the sun rose. It was, as they say, a mountain top experience. Some Bedouins came up as we were worshiping and we passed the peace with them and bought scarves and jewelry from them after the service.
As we were leaving, I noticed a couple of deer on the mountain, and I was amazed that they could survive. It is a dry landscape, with bits of scrub here and there and no discernible source of water. Psalm 42, which we read this morning, came into focus in a new way: “As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” In that dry landscape, every living thing thirsts for water, and lives for the rainy season when that dry riverbed becomes a flowing water brook.
The psalmist longs for God as much as living creatures long for water in an arid landscape. We are not always in touch with our desire for God, but we were made for God, and the desire for God is woven into the very fabric our being. I was very moved to hear someone say recently that she is always starving for God.
Weren’t we all starving for God this week in the wake of the horrific shooting in Orlando? Our tears were our food day and night, as we struggled to take in the senseless violence that left 50 young people dead.
Orlando exposed many of the demons in our society. Violence, hatred of homosexuals, fear and scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims—our shadow side was full view with this shooting and its aftermath.
The psalmist’s refrain is “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?” But the Hebrew is much stronger—the word translated “soul” (nefesh) is more accurately translated “life” or “life force,” and the phrase “full of heaviness” is more like “broken down,” or “thrown down.” Why are you thrown down, O my life? Why are you broken down around me?
As our bishop pointed out in his pastoral letter, Orlando was the 133rd mass shooting this year (meaning four or more people were shot), and the 15th in June alone. How did this level of violence become normal and acceptable? How has the political process become so dysfunctional that we cannot even pass a background check to keep mentally unstable people or people with ties to terrorist groups from buying assault weapons?
It is so overwhelming—like being in a flood with waves crashing over our heads, to use the psalmist’s metaphor. Where do we begin? How do we address the fear and hatred of homosexuals that still exists; that helps create a climate where hate crimes become possible?
How do we respond to the fear that blames immigrants and Muslims for the problems of our country? How can we stand with immigrants, Muslims, and our LGBT brothers and sisters, and also love those who are afraid? How can we live into God’s commandment to love our neighbors and also our enemies? How are hearts transformed from fear to love?
“I will say to the God of my strength, Why have you forgotten me? And why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me? While my bones are being broken, my enemies mock me to my face; all day long they mock me and say to me, Where now is your God?”
“As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” Where is God in this all of this?
Toward the end of our trip to Israel, we visited the Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem. There are enormous, ancient olive trees growing there–they are at least 1000 years old, and are probably descended from the olive trees that were there on the night that Jesus was arrested. It is not hard to imagine Jesus throwing himself down on the ground under those trees to plead with God, in fear and heartbreak: “Father, take this cup from me.” Please don’t let me be arrested, cruelly tortured and executed at the age of 33.
There is a beautiful church next to the garden. There is something unusual there that I’ve never seen: on top of the roof, at the peak, there is a cross, and on either side of the cross, there is a deer gazing up at it. Our guide told us that the deer are a reference to Psalm 42: “As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Those who built the church imagined Jesus praying this psalm on the last night of his life—a heartfelt lament and a cry from the depths of his being to God.
What enabled him to stay there and wait for the soldiers to come and arrest him? What enabled him to face the awful death he knew awaited him? “While my bones are being broken, my enemies mock me to my face; all day long they mock me and say to me, ‘Where now is your God?’”
His anguished cry to God, his intense desire for God’s presence, recalled him to his trust in God. He didn’t go because he thought suffering would make him a better person or that suffering per se was good. He went because he trusted God, and believed that God would transform this death from a victory for hate and fear into the ultimate victory of love. He went out of love for us, believing that love breaks down walls and transforms hearts, and overcomes all evil.
Psalm 42 moves from an agonized sense of God’s absence, a lament over suffering, to the memory of God’s help in the past. The psalmist resolves to trust God, and finally, at the center of psalm, recalls the truth of who God is: “The Lord grants his loving-kindness in the daytime; in the night season his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”
In that long night in that garden, pouring out his grief and fear and longing, Jesus recalled God’s loving-kindness, the song of love that is more powerful than hatred, cruelty, sin and death.
When you pray to God about Orlando, and our nation and anything else that is breaking your heart, don’t hold back. With Jesus, pour out your heart to God even if you are angry, grief-stricken or despairing. When God seems absent, cry out for God’s help. Let the desire for God seize you until you too thirst for the living God.
Prayer is the desire for God, and it moves us from anguish to the recollection of who God is, and who we are. God is the God of life, the God of reconciliation and peace. In God, there are no divisions, there are no Muslims and Christians and Jews, no Buddhists and atheists, no gay and straight, no immigrants and citizens. There are only children of God, who have been forgiven and made one. Through prayer we become able to forgive as God forgives us. Our eyes are opened to the humanity of the other, and we can take part in healing and reconciliation. With Jesus our brother, let us trust God, for whom nothing is impossible. The problems of the world seem impossible, but as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”