A Passing Guest
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, November 15th, 2020
Some psalms soar. “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there.” Some psalms make you want to dance. “Praise God with clanging cymbals. Praise God with loud clashing cymbals. Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.” Some psalms wrap their arms around you and comfort you. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Some psalms wrench our hearts, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Then there is Psalm 39. It is not my favorite psalm, not even close. When it appears on my list of daily devotions, I read it quickly on the way to a more treasured psalm. Its images are ragged and edgy. At certain points, the way it thinks of God, simply makes me cringe. So, why devote an entire sermon to this forgettable psalm? Stay tuned.
To get in the mood to sing Psalm 39, imagine Johnny Cash or Emmylou Harris or Ed Sheeran singing the old folk tune: “I am a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe.” The second verse of the song only deepens the sense of woe: “I know dark clouds will gather ‘round me. I know my way is rough and steep.” The only hope offered in this old folk tune is hope on the other side of the Jordan, on the other side of this life.
Psalm 39 is definitely not my favorite psalm, but it could well be the psalm that best captures the mood of our current public health nightmare and the sharp divisions in our body politic. It also captures the angst that many of us carry around within us. As you awoke this morning, you may have noticed how quickly each day is passing, how quickly life is passing. As you anticipate celebrating Thanksgiving, you may have thought about family or friends who will not be seated at the table this year. As you enter new dates in your calendar, you may see regular times blocked off for radiation or chemo. As you get off the phone, you may head off to get a Covid-19 test because someone you have been with recently has just tested positive.
“I will keep a muzzle on my mouth,” says the Psalmist in Psalm 39. He tries to keep all his anger, his disappointment, his frustration inside; he tries not to say something to God that he will later regret. He tries to keep a stiff upper lip, but he realizes: “I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me.” The Psalmist knows that some questions just will not wait. So, he opens his mouth and talks directly to God, “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. Surely every human being that stands on earth is a mere breath, a puff of wind.”
In Hebrew, “mere breath” is hebel. It is when you and I grasp how quickly life passes us by no matter what diet we are on, no matter how many laps we swim, no matter how many degrees we earn, no matter how many dollars we save.
Do you remember the parable of the rich, old fool in Luke’s Gospel? He is someone who never learns the “mere breath” lesson. He keeps building new silos, investing in new stock portfolios, setting up new tax shelters, buying more and more stuff, building more and more buildings because life goes on and on and on. In this parable, the rich, old fool dies unexpectedly, never the wiser that life is fragile and fleeting.
The Psalmist can whine with the best of us, but at least, he is no fool. He knows that life is fleeting and fragile. And, in his anger and disappointment, he attributes all his misfortune to God. Stung by a crippling illness or struck down by an unexpected lay-off or crushed by the end of a cherished romance, it is easy to think, if not speak to God, “I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. . . I am worn out by the blows you deal me.” The Psalmist has no doubt that life is hard and he has no doubt that it is hard because God has made it so.
I do not share the Psalmist’s view of how God works in the world, works in our lives, but many people of faith do. Many interpret suffering as punishment or testing by God. Many pray with the Psalmist as he wails out at God: “Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand.”
In John’s Gospel the disciples express the same idea of the Psalmist, the idea that God is the cosmic punisher and tester. They ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parent that he was born blind?” In this brand of theology, every sin has its punishment and God is the Divine Scorekeeper, poised and ready to make sure that we suffer for every single sin. Jesus puts a dent in this tit for tat theology when he responds, “Neither has sinned.”
Whether right or not about God being the source of his suffering, I cannot argue when the Psalmist laments the fleeting and fragile nature of life. Long before the old folk tune was crafted, the Psalmist could have sung with gusto, “I am a poor wayfaring stranger.” Instead, he sings, “I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” On a similar note, Jesus will sing the same tune, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
No matter how much you and I like control and order, life will not finally be controlled or ordered and there is no extended warranty on life that any of us can purchase, even rich, old fools. The sentiment of Psalm 39 is echoed in Psalm 90, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
To be more direct, Psalm 39 is downright annoying. I do not share many of its assumptions about God but its observations about the brevity of life hit far too close to home. Do you ever tire of looking in the mirror and knowing that no amount of Botox or Rogaine or “Just for Men” will change the fact that life is fleeting for you and for those you love? As the Psalmist sings: “For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.”
Long before the Psalmist wrote Psalm 39 his song was sung by the passing guest, the sojourner Abraham as he left his home to go to an unknown place. His song was sung by the Egyptian born Moses who sojourned as an alien in the land of Midian. Surely, his song was sung by Jesus as he resisted the call to stay put in any one town and instead set his face to Jerusalem.
Psalm 39 can leave us depressed, yearning for more days on this earth and knowing that no amount of yearning finally matters. Read in conjunction with Luke’s parable of the rich, old fool, though, this Psalm can also set us free. It can free us to stop fretting about tomorrow and to embrace today and each new day as treasured gifts from God.
This is when my family and friends start to smile or shake their heads. For anyone who knows me well knows that I am a first-class fretter. I worry about tomorrow even on the most glorious day, planning ahead so much that I frequently miss the joy of what I had planned.
Now, I don’t think Psalm 39 invites us into a careless life, devoid of planning, but it does invite us to sing to God each day, both that “My hope is in you” and “I am your passing guest,” to celebrate today and not to presume on tomorrow, to sing a song of enough, a song that the rich, old fool never lived long enough to learn.
I doubt that Psalm 39 will ever make my list of favorite psalms, but when I am tempted to buy one more thing because this latest thing will finally make me happy, I will thank Psalm 39 and put the money back in my pocket. When I am tempted to hoard more stuff than I will ever use in ten lifetimes, I will thank Psalm 39 and start to give my stuff away. When I am tempted to think that my life has some sort of magical shield around it to protect me from the march of time and the harsh winds that blow with it, I will thank Psalm 39 that each year, each month, each week, each night, each day that that arrives on my doorstep is a treasured gift from God given even to a passing guest like me.