Sermon: September 2, 2018 – Psalm 42
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
Shannon and I grew up on the Prairies, and when it came time to decide where to go to seminary, we sensed that we would do well to go leave the Prairies, to give us an experience of a different perspective before returning home to begin our Ministries. The “elsewhere” we landed at, in the fall of 1984, was Vancouver School of Theology.
Immediately, our bodies told us that we were “sojourners in a foreign land” – we’d gone from a 2000 foot elevation down to sea level, so we had daily headaches for at least a month, and we had gone from hot and dry to temperate and damp. Our landlady, who had come from Calgary to the coast many years earlier, gleefully proclaimed “oh, Prairie people – you’re going to be cold all winter this first year.” She was absolutely right, no amount of layering could insulate us flatlanders from the wet cold.
It made absolute sense for us to go “away” for seminary, to experience the world from a somewhat different angle. And what we learned, as we met fellow students who had, likewise, come from a variety of topographies and climates, was the impact of where you come from, on how you experience life. The social mores of our childhood, the economic drivers of mining vs. fishing vs. farming, the way we relate to mountain peaks and wide open spaces, played a profound role in shaping each of us. Never was this more evident to me than when one of our classmates, who was born and raised just outside Vancouver and thrived in the rain, was settled in sunny southwest Manitoba after graduation and lamented, “doesn’t the sun EVER stop shining in this place?”
Our scripture reading for today, Psalm 42, is written from the standpoint of someone who is living someplace that is not their spiritual “home” and is feeling distant, not only from their home but from their God. For reasons unrevealed, they are in exile up in the north country by Mount Hermon, the location later known as Caesarea Philippi, at the headwaters of the Jordan. This is a particularly beautiful place, a nature reserve in present days, yet all the Psalmist can do is lament their separation from God. In his classic commentary on the Psalms, Artur Weiser (p.348, 352) suggests that the Psalmist may have held some significant office at the Temple in Jerusalem, and now “pines away in longing for the time he had once been privileged to spend in the house of God…a happiness of which he is now deprived.” His or her experience of God had been inseparable from the religious festivals and rituals, and now that they are geographically distant from that, it doesn’t matter how beautiful their surroundings are; they are like a deer, thirsting for water, desperate to drink deep of the one source that can sustain their life; in Weiser’s words, (p.350) “he does not respond to the powerful beauty of the vast scenery which spreads before his eyes – to the springs of the River Jordan whose waters rush down from rock to rock with ferocious force – but stands still and looks fixedly only at his own calamity”.
Psalm 42 has many lovely hymns associated with it, and I’d like to use one of those now, just for a few moments. In order to “get inside” this Psalm and its lament of being far removed from our heart’s home, I’d like you to bring to mind an instance of this in your life: a time when you have been physically distant from a beloved place, emotionally separated from a primary relationship, or spiritually removed from God. Tanya will play a verse of “As the deer pants for the water” (Voices United p.766) as we enter into this space…
There are times in life when we can identify wholeheartedly with this Psalmist. Perhaps it is exactly the experience described here – being many miles from a beloved place, place of family connection, or formative community of faith. Perhaps it is a blunt change in life – the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, being forced out of a job. Perhaps it’s a more generalized malaise, a sense that things aren’t the same as they used to be in your life, because of illness or body changes or a change in social context. Or perhaps it is a sense that your life has become distant from God, or that God has moved away from you.
There are so many instances where the landscape of life changes, and not for the better, and the hurt is indicated in our bodies: an emptiness in our core, racing thoughts or defeatist constructs in our minds, unexplained pains here and there. The emotions accompanying our experiences of isolation, loss or exile may range from sorrow to despair to bewilderment to anger and all individual variations thereof, and there’s often a spiritual component running parallel to that.
These experiences of isolation from home cross many centuries and many continents. On this weekend when our local Highland Games celebrate our Scottish connections, I recall family stories within my Mom’s maternal line, of the MacDonald clan coming from the Isle of Skye to rural Ontario in 1862, and the older family members being ridiculed as backward and stupid because they spoke only Gaelic. Similar stories of the old Scots being derided are told by the founding Minister of this congregation, Dr. Charles Gordon/Ralph Connor in his books, Glengarry School Days and The Girl from Glengarry. As much as we may romanticize the journeys to new lands, they often began as expulsions from one’s previous homeland, or a despair so deep that any solution was better than staying put; and the reception of those in the new land was seldom what we would call “welcoming.” The difficulties faced by immigrants in our day, are part of a truly regrettable Canadian tradition.
When we look at the world today, we see so much displacement. There is the physical displacement, with millions of refugees and migrants on the move from their homeland to some other place. Some of those stories have happy endings, others tragic, but most will include a degree of loss and yearning from the forcible expulsion from home. There is the experience of indigenous peoples around the world, of having people from elsewhere come in and claim your land as their land, and experiences of forcible confinement on land where free roaming used to be possible. There have been rapid changes in society and in the Church’s role in society, some of which we experience as progressive and life-expanding, others which more closely resemble wilderness wanderings. And again, we see such a range of responses to this displacement, some making the most of their new circumstances, others reacting to their fear of loss and change with hatred and divisiveness. From the vantage point of the here and now, the landscape of change may very well have us longing for days gone by.
And here, the 42nd Psalm has something to say to us. Many of the Psalms invite us to a world of hopeful lament: fully engaging the distress of the moment, within a framework that yearns for and remains confident in the presence of the living God. Psalms such as the 42nd and its companion, the 43rd, do not see the world through rose-coloured glasses but acknowledge both the depth of hardship and the power of faith. When the Psalmist says (v.3), “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” she doesn’t immediately dismiss her experience and say, “oh, I’m just being dramatic, it’s really nice here, it’s OK.” No, she goes deeper into her malaise (v.6-7): “My soul is cast down within me; [in] the land of Jordan and of Hermon, Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me”. Though many of us, as mountain-dwellers, meet God in mountain majesty, the beauty of Mount Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan do nothing for the Psalmist but remind her of the glory of Jerusalem – and the God whose presence she feels so strongly, in that other place.
And yet even here – even in this place of distance from the Divine – there is a confidence that if one keeps going forward rather than attempting to roll back the clock, the clouds will part, the sun will re-emerge, the embrace of God will once more be felt: (v.11): “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” says the Psalmist, and then a pause, and new resolve, saying to self “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God”. Though he is taunted for his belief and for his yearnings for the worship life back home at the Temple, he goes deep into the pain and in acknowledging it, opens once more to hope. It hurts so much, because it matters so much, and in embracing the pain he also embraces what it means to be held in the loving arms of God…and despair gradually pivots into hope.
In the Psalms, including the 42nd, we are encouraged to explore our inner landscape. Joan Stott puts it this way: “One of the many blessings of reading and meditating on these ancient psalms is the way they encourage us to be open and honest with God – and with ourselves. The authors show their own strong emotions as they offer their pain and anger, as well as their joys, to God in acts of worship.” Yet in the Psalms, as in much of the Bible, we also hear a specific attachment to the actual landscape around us, not just the emotional/spiritual landscape within. The Psalmist, a Jerusalem guy, was only made sadder by the cascading waterfalls that surrounded him in a place that was not his home.
This spring, as we travelled in the Land of the Holy One, we were struck by how different the topography was from what we may have expected. When we go out into the wilderness of the Rockies, the beauty is so evident, but in Israel it is bleak and unforgiving. When the 121st Psalm speaks of looking “unto the hills around” I picture the heather-covered hills of the Scottish Highlands, but most of the hills in Israel are rocky and marginal. Then we were reminded by our pilgrimage guides, Andrew Mayes and Richard LeSueur, that roughly 85-90% of the action in the Bible takes place on this rocky, hilly, unforgiving territory. This was not an easy place to live, yet this is the place where the people came to know and be known by God.
By contrast, their neighbours to the west– who worshipped other deities – lived in a place where agriculture was easy, where the rain was plentiful and the soil was fertile. No wonder there was such emphasis placed on remaining true to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God whom they met amidst “marginality, scarcity and suffering” rather than placing their bets on a god who seemed to give greater return on investment . As Richard put it, “it’s easier to worship the Gods of prosperity and ease” than to keep listening for the still small voice of calm.
As we looked around at the rocky, dumpy, difficult hill country of Israel and Palestine, we started to understand the power of this spiritual homeland of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. And it reminded us of the deep, familial connection that such a place engenders with God. For in contrast to a God who is found only in the bright and cheerful times, the God who walks with us through the slings and arrows of childhood, through the harsh challenges of parenting, through career change and health concerns, even through the valley of the shadow of death, is a God we do well to regard as the ground of our being. I get how the Psalmist, surrounded by natural beauty, would happily give it up just to be held in the loving arms of her mother God. The way we connect ourselves to certain aspects of God’s creation, the nurturance that will forever be attached to certain people and places and relationships, helped forge our connection with a God who resides in those deep places; and if we realize that our neighbours, who are from different places, who were nurtured in different ways, and who may have different images or language for the Divine, feel just as strongly about their spiritual roots, then we will grow in our understanding of them and us.
The God present in the waterfalls of Caesarea Philippi is the same God who was present in the singing of Psalms at the Jerusalem Temple. The God present in the roar of the ocean is the same God heard in rustling waves of ripened grain. The God who dances with joy at a family wedding holds us in love at a family funeral. We meet God in different ways, we know we are loved by God through many love-languages, and as we turn to the future with God, that sense of holy accompaniment will continue to be shaped by the shared experiences that have brought us to this point in our lives.
May we find, in that breadth of past God-experiences, and the promises of more to come, the future hope of the Psalmist: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” May this be so, Alleluia and Amen.
Gordon, Charles a.k.a. Ralph Connor. The Girl from Glengarry, New York: Dodd, Mead & company, 1933 and Glengarry School Days, Toronto: Grosset, 1902
Nystrom, Martin. “As the Deer Pants for the Water” © 1983 by Maranatha Music. Found in Voices United on page 766.
Weiser, Artur (tr by Herbert Hartwell). The Psalms – The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962. © 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church