This is a sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Psalm 52, which refers to events recorded in 1 Samuel 21 and 22.
I wonder, as we read the psalm this morning, which side of the dialogue you identified with more?
Is that a strange question? Should I assume that we all wake up bright and cheery in the morning and burst out of bed like a green olive tree? (I hate to tell you, but that’s really not me…)
But the thing is, I’ve been around churches long enough to know that some of us come here, when we gather, not feeling joyful and full of beans, but perhaps relating more to the images of being broken and uprooted.
And so when I saw these images side by side for this morning I wanted to have a look at them and think about what they do mean, and, more importantly perhaps, some of what they definitely don’t mean.
Bear with me, because the first thing I have to point out is that being broken down, in this psalm, is about judgement. “God will break you down for ever…” and so forth. But that does not mean – I really can’t say this strongly enough – that does not mean that all human brokenness is about judgement. People who experience brokenness because of illness, or trauma, or abuse, or grief, or any other of life’s circumstances, are not there because God is punishing them or judging them; not because of their sin or inadequacy or worthlessness. The last thing people who are suffering need is to be blamed for their own circumstances.
I need to say that so strongly because I know that so often even very well meaning Christians give out that impression, or say thoughtless things along those lines. And not only are those messages profoundly damaging, but they get in the way of what passages like this can helpfully say to us.
In the psalm, David was venting about a man whose actions, as they’re recorded for us in Scripture, were pretty evil. He destroyed a whole town, men, women, children and animals, including eighty-five faithful priests of God. But the mistake we all too often make is to then take these words – and other words like them – and assume that therefore, wherever there is suffering, it must be a consequence of wrongdoing.
Of course it’s an attractive illusion. If I can convince myself that someone else is suffering because of something that is her fault, then I can reassure myself that since, I, naturally, am not guilty of the same things, I am safe from the same judgement.
But when we think in this way, we lose sight of those other important Scriptures – like Job and Ecclesiastes – which remind us that life is never that neat and simple. That bad things do happen for no apparent reason. With that ambiguity in mind, then, we can ponder the idea that our relationship with suffering isn’t certain or clearly defined, but rather one in which we have to think about and discern the meaning of our life and experiences on an individual basis. It’s harder work, yes, but perhaps more honest than trying to shove everything into one category of understanding.
There are some important things about the idea of God’s judgement which we do need to hold on to. We do need to recognise that God wants us to be “good,” (although what that means is beyond the scope of this sermon). We do need to recognise that we can do things which are wrong, or evil or stupid, and which can cause suffering. Cause and effect is a pretty basic principle of the universe. We do need to recognise that when we get it wrong, God does want to reach into that situation, to judge what is wrong, to break apart any hold that evil has on us, and to realign and reset us in a new position (just as sometimes a bone needs to be broken again before it can be set in the right way for proper healing).
That’s important stuff. I don’t want to sound like I’m not actually taking judgement seriously, because I do. But what I want to put in front of you most strongly today is the idea that when we encounter someone who is suffering, and we tell them that it is their fault in some way, we are putting a meaning to their situation which may not be true, and which will almost certainly not be helpful. Telling someone else that God has caused their suffering directly as punishment is seldom going to help them in finding the beginnings of a healthier relationship with God (and don’t we all need a healthier relationship with God?)
Because just like a doctor who breaks a bone to reset it, we should never see God’s judgement as being separate from loving concern. There are deep, deep lies that our world tells us; lies that God does not love us, that God will not love us unless we are perfect, or at least doing our very level best to be perfect.
Except that’s not what Christ’s life and death show us, is it? Christ didn’t come to a world of perfect human beings. He didn’t even choose perfect disciples. He certainly doesn’t have perfect clergy today. But he loved us enough to seek to set us right anyway. All the tyrants he encountered, the disciple who denied him and the disciple who betrayed him, and each of us… his love, and his merciful willingness to set us right, don’t depend on how good we are first. And praise God for that!
So what do we do with this? The task, as I see it, is first to be honest. To name our pains correctly and listen with an open mind when others do the same. To discern the structures, the practices and even the ideas about God which push us away from our own well being; away from the house of God, as the psalmist put it. And when we encounter suffering, looking for what can be set right, rather than where we can assign blame.
At the end of the day, a psalm like this one can’t present us with neat answers, good guys and bad guys, black and white, because our own experience of life tells us that that isn’t the truth – or at least the whole truth – of our own situations. Instead the psalm can only open up questions which invite us to explore our own reality more deeply.
The thing about refusing to respond to other people’s brokenness with blame, is that it creates room for us to hope instead. It’s in the context of human brokenness that Scripture has given us some of the most powerful symbols of hope in the Christian imagination; the leaven that raises the whole lump; the faithful remnant; the suffering servant; the new growth on the tree. These symbols invite us to hope, even when we encounter brokenness.
And hope means more than just wishing that things will turn out alright, in the end. It means grasping a vision of what could be, and making a personal decision about the part we mean to play in it. One English theologian put it like this: ‘There is dissonance in the universe, but if I strike the right note it becomes harmony and reconciliation – and though they may kill me for it they cannot spoil that harmony.’
They killed Christ for it, of course; but they did not break the harmony that he brought. It’s up to us to keep the song of hope and healing going.