For anyone interested, here is the text of a sermon I delivered last Sunday, August 16, 2009 at Wilshire Presbyterian Church.
"The Prayer of the Destitute"
I'm going to start by asking you a question, although I don't expect you to answer me, just to consider. Now, the first part of Psalm 102 is a vivid description of individual suffering: grief and depression--"My heart is stricken and withered like grass … I like awake … I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink"; and physical distress: "my bones burn like a furnace … I am too wasted to eat my bread."
Okay, so here's the question: are you there with the psalmist right now? Are you suffering like that? If that's where you are, this psalm is for you. For anyone silently enduring, in terrible pain, know that this psalm and several others, was written to give voice to that unspoken anguish.
But what if you're not there with the psalmist right now? Maybe you knew suffering at some point in your life, but things are going well now and thankfully that all seems distant and pale. Or maybe you're extremely lucky and you've never suffered that much. Is this a psalm for you?
Let's take a look at verse 13. This surprised me as I was reading it. The psalmist affirms of God, "You will rise up and have compassion on"--Zion? Wait a minute. I was expecting it to say "You will rise up and have compassion on me." It's the "I" who is suffering, the "I" who needs compassion, not Zion. Right?
Suffering is a very individual experience, not least of all because it can tend to isolate people--and yet, it most often has some causes coming from outside the suffering individual. And as this psalm demonstrates, grief and depression are not just an individual problem, but a societal problem.
This has perhaps become more obvious to us as a result of the rising unemployment rates, especially in California. Job loss, and chronic unemployment can be a source of profound grief and anxiety. And as our drastic state budget cuts begin to take effect, it seems likely there will be a great deal more society wide suffering, as our state tries to deal with this financial disaster we've brought upon ourselves.
Psalm 102 is a prayer for all of us, because, like all the psalms, it is a prayer for public, corporate worship. It is the cry of the destitute, and it is a call for the rest of us to join with those who are afflicted, to notice them, and in any way we can, to care for them, and to pray that God's grace will break into our corrupt society--our neighborhoods, our city, our state, our nation, and our world.
This is a time for us to pray with the psalmist that God will again "regard the prayer of the destitute," "hear the groans of the prisoners," and "set free those who are doomed to die." This is a time to intercede before the throne of God for people have lost their jobs, or their homes, and especially for people living in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities, who are most at risk for being victims of violent crimes.
This is a time for us to pray that we will recognize any ways in which God may be calling us either as individuals, but especially as a church, to respond to this financial crisis in our state. This is time to remember that we are called to be God's hands of help and healing in a broken world. But we can start by praying.
Now, maybe your thinking, "Oh, I don't have much of a gift for intercessory prayer." If that's what you're thinking, YOU'RE WRONG. God hears every prayer, whether you were feeling especially holy when you prayed it or not, whether your mind was wandering, whether your heart was really in it or not, God listens to every prayer. And the effect of our prayers does not depend on us, and how well we prayed, but on God's will and power and grace. So, you have no excuses; we are all called to practice this ministry in some form, because it's something we all can do, and because the need is so great.
But I do have a suggestion for you, because I myself do have a hard time following a regular discipline of intercessory prayer. One habit I have found very helpful is that whenever I hear a siren--whether it's a police car, ambulance or firetruck passing by--I just briefly pray for the emergency personnel and for whatever situation they are trying to help with. Okay, that's something I do. I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of that.
But anyway, I have a modified version to suggest to you all. Uh, firstly, how many of you watch the news on t.v.? How many of you read the news--either a hard copy or on the internet? Well, my invitation to you is that whenever you see something in the news about the economic crisis here in California--about government programs being cut, or prisoners being released early, or rising unemployment rates, whatever it is, I invite you just to lift it up before God, just right then, and pray that God will have mercy on our state, upon those who are already suffering, and those who are the most vulnerable. Okay, so just take a moment, whenever you see it in the news, just to lift up the people of California, and ask for God's mercy, grace and healing in this crisis.
Okay, so you may have noticed the title of this sermon is "The Prayer of the Destitute" which is a phrase taken from the psalm. But I also wanted to use that phrase to talk about our passage from John. Because so far, we've talked about being destitute or afflicted in societal terms. But now I want to talk about it in terms of personal spirituality.
Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." The verses we read today do not go up to the point where some of Jesus' disciples were horrified by this apparently cannibalistic teaching and deserted. And indeed, this is a wacky sounding passage.
Some people will point out that no doubt it's some kind of reference to the sacrament of communion. But in the context, what is more important, and what explains it better is that eating Jesus is a spiritual metaphor. Like when Jesus says, in the Gospel of John, "I am the true vine," or "I am the gate"--these are also spiritual metaphors.
But even as a spiritual metaphor, what does it mean, "eating Jesus"? Well, Jesus himself says, if you don't eat him, you'll die. He might have said, you'll starve to death. Our souls need Jesus Christ as much as our bodies need food and drink.
Now, just imagine: what would happen if we tried to live as if we didn't need to eat or drink? We would turn into emaciated scarecrows, like Brandon over there. We would have no energy, feel awful all the time, and eventually we would either have to eat and drink something, or else die.
And in the same way, I know I frequently will try to live as if I don't need God. Like, I can just go along on my own power, my own initiative and will, without thinking about God at all. But then I start feeling tired. And all the joy, just starts seeping out of me. And I feel anxious about things I've done--Oh, maybe I shouldn't have said that, or done that, or left that other thing undone … And really oftentimes, I only remember how much I need God when I'm already spiritually dehydrated and faint with hunger.
So I want to end with another invitation for you. Two invitations! Oh my gosh, this is already way too much to remember, right? Okay, well, you don't have to do either one, they're just invitations. But how many of you pray before eating a meal? My family has always said grace before meals, and I've always thought of it as a time to thank God for providing food, and to remember God's provision in all aspects of life. But this week, I invite you, as you say grace over your meal, to remember that your soul needs Jesus as much as your body needs food and drink.
I'll give you an example of something like what you might add the next time you pray over a meal. And we'll just close this way. Will you pray with me? Lord Jesus Christ, teach my soul to feed daily on the abundance of your grace and truth, that I might learn to ask whenever I am in need, and receive from your hand this spiritual food and drink without which I am lost. In the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.