Out of the Depths: A sermon for Proper 14 B, 2021

Proper14, Year B

August 8, 2021

As I started reflecting on the readings for today earlier this week, I found myself drawn to the Psalm. It’s a familiar one full of powerful imagery that draws us into the spiritual life of an author 2500 years ago and offers us opportunity to reflect on our own spiritual lives.

 And I thought it might be worthwhile to spend some time with the Psalm, and with Psalms in general to help us understand their role in our Eucharistic liturgy, and perhaps open up new possibilities for our own spiritual reflection and growth.

You may wonder why we recite or chant a psalm each week in our Eucharistic liturgy. Each week, following the first reading, there’s a psalm. It’s not a reading like the other readings, but a response to the first reading, meant to be a reflection on it and to repeat some of the first reading’s themes. It’s meant to be sung, or chanted, or read. When we read it at Grace, we usually read it in unison; but it can also be read responsively, with the leader reading one verse, and the congregation reading the next one. It can also, although this requires a bit more orchestration, be read antiphonally, with each side of the congregation reading a verse.

The psalms are prayers and for most of the history of Christianity, and of Anglicanism, they have been a central part of devotion and practice. Traditionally, if you read Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, you would read all 150 psalms every month. Doing that repeatedly over the years would cultivate a deep familiarity with them, not just with the words, but with the sentiments expressed, the imagery, the theology. In our current Book of Common Prayer, the daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer isn’t quite so psalm-heavy. Instead of a monthly cycle, there’s an eight-week cycle, and some of the psalms, and some verses of individual psalms, are omitted.

I don’t want to go into great detail concerning the history of the book of Psalms. If you know anything about the Bible, you probably know that David is associated with the Psalms. We’re told that David was a musician and some of the Psalms, though not all are attributed to him as author. But in fact, the book of Psalms is a carefully edited and compiled collection, brought together in its current form over many centuries. We know that because it’s easy to see that some of them were written long after David’s death. Psalm 137 for example, begins “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept, ere we remembered Zion.”

It’s clearly a lament, written by people who had been carried off into exile after having seen their city of Jerusalem, and their temple destroyed.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O God, Lord hear my voice”

Psalm 130 may be familiar to you; it’s one of the 7 penitential psalms in the Western Christian tradition as a group often set to music. In the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther translated it and is attributed as composer. “From deepest woe I cry to you…” #151 in our Hymnal.

Many of the psalms have instructions for their use or other information about them provided. Thus, we’re told that Psalm 130 is a “Song of Ascents.” It’s one of a group of psalms so labelled (Psalms 120-134). Many of them begin, like this one does, with an individual’s prayer to God: “Out of the depths, I cry to you Oh God.” You may be familiar with Psalm 121, which begins, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

What makes Psalm 130 particularly powerful is the place from which the individual cries—“out of the depths.” In the imagery of the Hebrew Bible, the depths mean the sea, a place of chaos, the farthest imaginable distance from God’s presence. And the writer of the Psalm doesn’t seem certain that God can hear him from that place—that’s one meaning of that first verse. I am crying out to God, but I am also praying that God can hear me.

Following that an initial plea to God to hear the psalmist’s prayer, the writer offers a statement of faith in God’s goodness and justice: 

“If you Lord, were to note, what is done amiss…

“For there is forgiveness with you

Then comes two verses that are simple yet powerful in expression:

“My soul waits for the Lord, my soul waits for him

“In his word is my hope”

The image of “waiting on the Lord” is repeated.

We may not think of waiting as a spiritual practice. For us, waiting often includes with it growing anxiety and discomfort—waiting for an appointment, waiting in line, waiting for someone who promised to come at a certain time and is late. Waiting often leads not toward serenity, but towards anger and resentment.

But here, waiting opens oneself up to the possibility of God’s presence, waiting to hear God’s response to the cry of verse 1. Waiting implies hope but also trust that God will speak into the silence of waiting.

And finally, in the last two verses, the individual experience of the psalmist is expanded to all of Israel, or to the whole community. If I wait for God, so too should Israel wait for God; for with the Lord there is mercy, It speaks to us as well.

We know about waiting, waiting in our own lives, waiting in the life of our congregation, waiting as a people struggling against injustice, in the midst of suffering, in a broken world. We wait for the Lord, and the psalmist reminds us that our waiting is not in vain.

“With him there is plenteous redemption

“He will redeem Israel from their sins.”

 A psalm written 2500 years ago, in a particular moment, by an individual struggling with her own faith, and praying to God for deliverance, became a prayer of the Jewish people and then was used by early Christians as well, to express their struggles and their faith. It speaks to us across the millennia, and it can speak for us. 

Often we feel like we are in the depths, alone, tossed about by chaotic times, turbulent seas. We feel we are far from God; that if we are crying out, there is no one to hear us, and we’re not sure that God, if there is a God, can hear us. But our cries can be acts of faith in themselves, assertions of hope that God will deliver us in the midst of our distress and suffering. And so we wait on the Lord, for in God there is plenteous redemption.

I am going to end by reading to you another translation of it, that by the great Jewish literary scholar and critic Robert Alter. Alter recently published his translation of the whole Hebrew Bible. It’s idiosyncratic but reflects his deep understanding of the Hebrew language, of the English language, and of the faith of the peoples who wrote the texts and have lived with hese texts for the last 2500 years:

From the depths I called you Lord,
                        Master, hear my voice.

                        May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea

Were you, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,

            Master, who could endure

For forgiveness is Yours

            So that You may be feared.

I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped

            And for his word I waited.

My being for the Master—

            More than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.

Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,

            For with the Lord is steadfast kindness,

                        And great redemption is with Him

And He will redeem Israel

            From all its wrongs.

Divers Diseases: Or why I don’t lament the passing of the KJV

As this past Sunday was the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, we read, as we do every year, Psalm 23. At the 10:00 service, the choir sang a setting of it. At 8:00, we read the BCP version. It stuck in my craw, as it did for most of those in the congregation, our average age being well over 50. We wanted to recite the version we had memorized: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

This is the 400th anniversary of the KJV, something I have already mentioned more than once on this blog, and an anniversary deserving of attention. There’s a great site here, with profound essays by the likes of Robert Alter. I agree with those who praise the beauty of the translation, the power of the words. But the Bible is also meant to be understood. And I, for one, am grateful for modern translations that bring the language and ideas of 2000 or 3000 years ago to life for people in the 21st century.

For all of the power and beauty of the KJV, what I remember most as a child is listening to people trying to read it out loud and make sense of it for themselves and convey that meaning to a congregation. More often than not, it came across as a foreign language. The words I remember best after forty years are hearing farmers struggle to read Paul to a congregation. I puzzled then, and I’m sure everyone else did, over Paul’s list of afflictions that included “divers diseases.” I wondered what they were, and how he acquired them by diving into the Mediterranean.

The KJV, for all of its beauty is as alien a language to the twenty-first century, as Latin was to the people of England in the 16th.