“40”

“40”

 

A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

January 16, 2011

In Windmill Studios in Dublin, a young band of Irish musicians needed one more song to complete their ten-track album.

It was late; the next band was in the hallway waiting to record, and in desperation the lead singer opened a Bible and his eyes fell about Psalm 40.  Using the first four verses as the text of the song, they made their recording.  In the subsequent 25 years, this song, called “40” is often used to close concerts by Bono and the band U2, a group noted for social conscience.

At the time “40” was written, violence was raging in Northern Ireland, and Bono used the psalm to urge the world to “sing a new song.”   Psalm 40 is today’s psalm, and these are the first words of that psalm – and the song:

“I waited patiently upon the Lord;

       he stooped to me and heard my cry.

        He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;

       He set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.

        He put a new song in my mouth,

       A song of praise to our God….”

This psalm celebrates the virtues of patience and waiting, which are different things.  Patience is a certain kind of waiting, waiting with calmness and forbearance, and the faith that must underlie those things.  Then there isimpatience, which is waiting with restlessness and frustration.

For a thousand years, Jews such as John the Baptist and the disciples had been waiting for the promised Messiah, and this patience is rewarded when Jesus of Nazareth appears, whom they identify as their Messiah.

In our own lives, many of us still wait each day for Jesus to appear – in the face or words of friend or stranger, in the pages of Scripture, in the still, small voice of conscience.  For Christians believe that to know Jesus is to know God.

The person we honor tomorrow got tired of waiting.  Martin Luther King is the only civilian in American history whose life is honored with a national holiday.

I am no expert on Martin Luther King, but I am an expert on one part of his life.  For 26 years, I faithfully used the text and video of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in my Communications classes at Blake.  I can recite much of it from memory, I still tear up when I hear it, and I consider it to be the most perfect oration in all of American history, and no, I’m not forgetting Lincoln.  The structure, language, imagery and divine message, all presented with delivery worthy of Moses himself, makes this speech a living masterpiece. And in that speech, King says the time for patience has ended.

Delivered on August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial and 200,000 people, most of them part of the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King talks about the line between patience and action.  Promised freedom 100 years ago in the Emancipation Proclamation, King argues that the Negro still is not free, but “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

He says that Negroes have come to Washington to “cash a check, a promissory note,” for the rights promised them in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.” And he says that, “although the check has come back marked ‘Insufficient Funds,’ we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

Patience, he says, has been exhausted and there is no more time for  “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism….because the fierce urgency of now” is upon America.  King makes the compelling case for an end to patience and the beginning of restorative action. The civil rights legislation that followed is testimony to the power of his words.

Those whom King spoke for were out of patience, but this is different from our culture today which coaches us in all kinds of impatience.  One of the downsides of the marvelous technology that graces our lives is that things must be fast.  A computer a nanosecond too slow is torture; a driver going two miles under the speed limit frustrating, phones ringing in our pockets shortcut conversations; we’re a hyped up bunch.

Instant gratification is almost a given.  Writing this sermon, I stopped at least a dozen times to Google something – a definition, a date, a speech, an article – and there it was, instantly.  From snail-mail to email to texting, faster and faster we go.  Correspondingly, our patience, attention spans, and ability for sustained concentration diminish.

But sometimes, like with a computer, modern life gives us a jolt so stunning that we have to reboot, so to speak. One such national crisis was 911.  Writer Phillip Yancey says this:

This act of monstrous evil exposed the shallowness of an entire society.  Professional sports ground to a halt; television programming went off the air, as did all commercials.  In a flash we saw the comparative meaningless of much of our lives.  That three thousand people could go to work as part of their daily routine and never come home made us all aware of our fragile mortality. Married coupled canceled divorce plans; mothers and fathers trimmed work hours to spend more time with their children.  For a time attendance at churches swelled.  The shock conveyed good and evil, death and life, naming an absurdity in such stark terms that we turned for answers to pastors, priests rabbis—the people who have always warned us not to build our houses let alone our skyscrapers, on shifting sand….”

And yet nine-years later, a little girl, born that day, on 911, died on the sidewalk in Tucson, in yet another crime of staggering violence, her short, beautiful life bracketed on each end by horrific tragedy.

A statement by author and theologian Diana Butler Bass on an Internet site frequented by clergy was widely discussed after the Tucson shootings.  In response to clergy saying that we must not comment on secular events for fear of offending someone, she said this:

“If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.  Pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons in the next weeks will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness.  Right now we need to have some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans – how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our polities, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servant how much we hate.”

Good points, I thought. People have to stop all of this hating.  And a deacon’s job is to bring the concerns of the world to the church so I’ll step up.  Then the awful realization: there is at least one political figure that I actually hate.  I say it quite frequently: I just hate X.  In this person, I find nothing redeeming, no identifiable common ground, only an embodiment of one of my worst fears: ignorance in a position of power.

Certainly it’s only human to have these feelings, but I voice them quite a bit in the strongest possible terms, to my friends, my family, and various kindred spirits. I have to admit that it can even be a delicious, deeply self-righteous exercise in harrumphining about the latest stupid statement from this person.

How easily criticism can morph into hatred, specifics into generalizations, and disagreement into vehemence.

The “I Have a Dream” speech is remarkable for the absence of hatred.  Aside from one brief, unflattering reference to the governor of Alabama, King reminds us that “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

Are we able to do that – today – in our own hearts?  In our own behavior?  In our own words?  Without sacrificing our deepest truths?

No matter how patient we are, some people will not change, and we may listen to each other forever only to learn that we will never agree.  And then, God help us discern the next step.

That’s one reason what Bono calls “40,” is so important.  In Psalm 40, God promises us a lot of help: to hear our cries, to lift us up; to steady our footing; and to put a new song  — new words — on our lips.

Waiting is hard; patience is hard, but consider this perspective:

How many times, my dear friends, has God waited patiently on you?

Amen. 

References: Lectionary Homeletics, January-February, 2011

Phillip Yancey, A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith,  2003.

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