Proper 19a, September 14, 2014

September 15, 2014

The Fixer?
Psalm 103:1-13

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.

There was a tweet I never did figure out how to formulate while I was on my two week bicycle trip last spring, but I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to articulate it. What I wanted to be able to communicate in a few words was the sweet sensation of diminishing pain. I remember searching for the perfect words to express the wonderful feeling that washes over you when your suffering subsides. Because when you are about half way up a steep hill on an overloaded bicycle, and you are in your lowest gear, and you are only going fast enough to keep from falling over, and you seriously wonder if you have enough left in your burning legs to get you to the top – that first sense of relief is such wonderful sensation. And as the hill levels out and the pain subsides you begin to have this sense that the world is a beautiful place again.

I am convinced that one of the sweetest feelings in life is that experience of diminishing pain. Another thing that plagued me on my trip was cold hands. I didn’t think I would get cold hands in Mississippi in May, but I did. There were a couple of days when I was longing for some scorching heat because my hands were wet and cold. I hate it when my hands get cold and it’s so easy for me to get cold hands. And it would be so nice when the sun would finally come out or it would at least quit raining and the temperature would rise and my hands would begin to feel normal again. I just love the way it feels when pain goes away.

I never did get that tweet written. I guess the sweet feel of relief only lasted so long before I would become distracted by the sight of another hill. And once my hands got warm I probably began to get hot. The sensation of retreating pain is an illusive moment.

And as far as I can tell life is sort of made up this dance between the jabs of pain and the balm of relief. There are all kinds of variations of this theme. Certainly some people live in incredibly harsh situations or are dealing with situations where it’s hard for me to imagine that there is ever any kind of relief, but I’m guessing that in every circumstance there is an occasional sense of release.

And there are other people who don’t appear to have any pain at all. It seems like there are some people out there who have all the things most of us think we need to make us happy, but I’m pretty sure there’s not anyone with enough fame, fortune, health, beauty or charm to eliminate all the pain of life.

Suffering happens. Pain is part of the landscape for all of us. But I’m thinking we all know the feeling of relief as well. It may just be a blip on the suffering screen, but that sense of being delivered from something horrible is a wonderful thing. In fact, I believe what we have in today’s Psalm is the heartfelt expression from someone who had somehow been delivered from a terrible circumstance. What we have here isn’t wishful thinking – it’s genuine thanks to God for deliverance. This person had been on the brink of the Pit, but was back on solid ground and grateful to be there. And this person was giving God all the credit for getting them back to a good place.

This person didn’t get distracted by the sight of a new trouble before he could get this Psalm written. This person was out to remind people of how good life can be and of the God who is behind it all. This Psalm is full of good news – even for people who are still on the edge of the Pit.

After reading this Psalm a couple of times I found myself thinking that many of the characteristics that are attributed to God are in common with the character of Olivia Pope on the tv series, Scandal. I’m a recent convert to that television show, but I’m not just a fan of that show – I’m addicted to that show. I lost a good amount of sleep last week because there were nights when it came time to go to bed but I just had to watch one more episode – which sometimes turned in to two more episodes.

Those of you who have actual lives instead of Netflix don’t know how this works, but when you find a television series that you like you can watch years of a given show within a few weeks. And it can mess you up. I actually skipped the first season of Scandal, but Sharla filled me in on the essential details, and I got hooked on Season 2. Olivia Pope is a woman who heads a company, that finds ways to get people out of trouble. Olivia Pope is what you call a fixer. And as you can imagine, there’s a lot of business for a fixer in Washington, DC.

After watching that show, I highly suspect that that Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner has employed a similar agency after all of the ugly publicity the NFL has experienced this week. I feel sure it was a fixer who suggested that they hire Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI to investigate what happened in the domestic abuse situation involving the Baltimore Ravens running-back, Ray Rice. I feel sure the commissioner knows exactly who knew what happened and when they knew it, and if he doesn’t he could walk down the hall and find out what happened, but that wouldn’t take long enough. It’ll take months for Robert Mueller to generate a report, and no doubt someone else will have done something far more regrettable by then. And maybe by then Commissioner Goodell will have generated a plan that will enable him to keep his $44 million job.

I’m happy to say I’ve never done anything bad enough to need the services of a fixer, but from what I can tell, people who get themselves in horrible messes often get redeemed in dramatic ways. A good fixer doesn’t just get you out of trouble – a good fixer can turn your troubles in to gold. Of course you have to pay the fixer their share of the gold, but on television, and perhaps occasionally in the pseudo-real worlds of business, politics, and the church – people who get in to big trouble often end up in bigger offices.

That’s not such a good thing, but in the truly-real world – the world that God created, loves, and continues to touch – I think it’s also our troubles that can lead us in to a richer way of living. It’s often within the context of suffering that we develop a greater sense of awareness of the loving-kindness of God and compassion for other people. We are more likely to desperately scan the horizon for the illusive nature of God when we’ve put a foot in the muck of the Pit. We search for the forgiveness of God when we come to see how shallow and selfish we are capable of being, and that often leads us in to becoming more forgiving toward others.

And the good news is not that there are people out there who can help restore our public images when we do ridiculous and scandalous things – the good news is that we are more likely to find true life after we have destroyed those illusions that we harbor about how wonderful we all are and how perfect our lives are supposed to be.

I went to a series of lectures last Wednesday at 1st UMC here in Little Rock. The lecturer was a man named Peter Rollins, who is a young philosopher/theologian from Belfast, Ireland. I never had heard of him before seeing a flier about the event, but it sounded interesting, and it was interesting. He spoke three times last Wednesday, and what he had to say really spoke to me.

I can’t easily summarize what he had to say, but one of the things I think I heard him say is that it’s an illusion to believe that we will ever arrive at a perfect reunion with God in this life. This may not sound like a profound thought or even good news, but it feels like the truth to me. In both overt and subtle ways I think we church people often generate the false expectation that you will find yourself in perfect union with God in this world if you will practice all of the right things, and have the right beliefs. I may be totally wrong about what he was saying, but I think he sees faith as the exercise of carrying on with faith and trust in God without the expectation that all the pieces of life are going to fall perfectly in place for us.

This is not to say that this image of God as the One who saves us, and protects us, and guides us, and perfectly loves us is not an accurate image of God, but we should let that image of God be our guide for how we should treat one another and not be an excuse for doing nothing for ourselves.

I think Peter Rollins wants people of faith to be realistic about what we expect God to do, and to take seriously what we think God expects from us.

This Psalm is a beautiful portrayal of God. It provides us with a clear portrayal of what God is like. God is sensitive to who we are. God exudes deliverance, healing, redemption, justice, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, but we don’t generally experience these things apart from the actions of others or ourselves.

We are all in need of some fixing, and as long as we live on this earth there will be something that needs to get fixed within ourselves, within our communities, and within our world. God is on our side, and somehow God is there for us, but don’t count on God to repair your marriage, your workplace, your children, or your parents. God is a helpful presence for us all, but I suspect the most dramatic thing God is going to do is help us understand what it is we need to do.

God doesn’t fix things the way Olivia Pope does, and I sort of hate that. It would sometimes be nice if we could get God to make some clear adjustments for us, but it wouldn’t be so good when we are the ones who need to be adjusted. Whether we deserve it or not, God has largely entrusted this world to us. Our merciful God is with us, but we need to pay attention to what we’re doing. God is in the fixing business, but I think God is counting on us to do that good and holy work of redeeming, healing, forgiving, and caring for one another.

This may not be the good news you were hoping to hear today, but I’m thinking it’s the truth, and it’s not all bad.

God’s steadfast love does endure forever. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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