A Wider Conversation

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”

As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.

I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.

For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16

My sermon from the Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 26, 2022) on Psalm 16.


So when my kids wrap up their school year, they bring home lots and lots of stuff. The dumping ground that has become my house is currently filled with partially used art supplies, pencils without erasers, flashcards for reading and math, and lots of paper filled with some really creative thoughts. I think it’s very cool I get to see all they’ve done but I also lament having to figure out what to do with all the stuff. I don’t have the physical room to store every piece of paper my kids bring home but I do like to hold onto a few things that are unique. It’s my way of letting them discover how, through it all, they’ve grown. While getting ready to sort through the current pile of stuff, I opened up the file full of everything I’ve saved. And right there, in the front, was a piece of paper I didn’t know was there. It was a random handout of 47 questions handed out at a back-to-school night. That piece of paper wasn’t for kids but, rather, was to help older folks move past simply asking kids: “how was your day?” The hope was instead of getting a one word answer in return, we might actually have a conversation. By using these 47 one sentence questions, kids would learn how to think about their own story while showing older folks how big their story is. Some of the questions felt small like asking: “what was the best thing that happened at school today?” But others seemed to ask all of us to be a bit vulnerable with one another. We could, for example, invite kids to name who they sat next to at lunch; who they didn’t want to sit next to during circle time; and who, at recess, is that one kid they would like to play with that they’ve never played with before. We could also ask how they were a good friend today or if they were able to do the really hard thing of asking for help. And if that wasn’t enough, we could ask what made them frustrated or angry or caused them to laugh so loud, they completely disrupted the class. An honest conversation, rooted in real listening and real questions, isn’t the easiest thing for parents, guardians, and kids to have. We older folks assume we know what’s up and kids always remind us we don’t. When adults engage in this kind of conversation, we discover what kids actually go through and what we thought we knew ends up being challenged. That’s an uncomfortable place to be because it requires us to look beyond what we thought we knew and towards what’s right in front of us. 

And that, I think, is something to be mindful of when we’re sitting with the psalms. Like I said last week, the book of psalms is a book of poems and songs written over hundreds of years that, in their own way, speak to incredible possibilities of life. Some were meant to be sung in the Temple like some kind of liturgical chant while others were prayers full of sorrow, joy, and fear. When we read, listen, and recite these psalms, we’re not just absorbing the words into our heads. We’re also stepping into a conversation people have been having for a long long time with this God who always listens. We’re wrapped up in a conversation between us and the text; between us and God; and between us and whatever we’re going through. Yet this conversation is also much bigger than us because we’re part of a body of Christ – a community filled with other people having this same kind of conversation right now. The psalms are always bigger than just words on a page. They’re also words Jesus meditated on and even quoted out loud when he showed how God’s love can, and will, transform us and the world. 

So if the psalms put us within a wider conversation that includes us, our community, our world, and our God – what should that conversation look like? Last week, psalm 22 showed how this  conversation isn’t always going to feel reverent and holy. God is okay with us feeling all our feelings and allows us to even bring our anger to God. Today’s psalm tries to give us a tool we can use during that conversation when we’re worried, scared, and afraid. Psalm 16 is a miktam which is a word I’m pretty sure I’m mispronouncing. A miktam is, most likely, a type of psalm that, in the words of Ellen Charry, “teach[es] one how to think and behave theologically when [in danger].” When things get hard, it’s not always easy to know what faith can do. And so psalm 16 is structured as a literal conversation between a speaker and their very human audience. It begins, in verse 1, with a simple request for refuge. The psalm doesn’t describe exactly what this kind of divine protection might look like but it seeks safety away from all the stuff that’s going on. It takes a bit of guts and a lot of humility to admit our need for help and to say we might not be in control. That’s one of the ways we begin having a real conversation with God. And once we turn to God, the speaker invites us to utter – like a kind of mantra – one simple phrase: “You are my LORD; I have no good apart from you.” 

Now it’s a bit surprising this psalm gives us only one sentence to address everything life might bring. It doesn’t feel like this is enough since this moment feels like too much. If the author of the psalm was like me, they would have written many more verses;  hoping that the sheer volume of words they wrote would somehow reveal the one word that could change everything. But instead, we get one sentence: telling us to claim who our God is and why being with God matters. When we’re overwhelmed by whatever we’re going through, we’re told to pause and recognize our place in God. Regardless of the danger, the pain, the worry, the fear, and the anxiety we’re living through – we belong to God. And that won’t change. The psalm isn’t trying to diminish or lessen all we’re feeling in our moment. But the psalm knows that when we’re feeling hopeless, what we need is hope. When we’re living through what we’re living through, we don’t always have the ability to see beyond what’s around us. What we need is a word to come to us, breaking through all the stuff that encircles us. That outside word often comes through the conversations we have with each other and with our God. The Psalms are like a tangible expression of the ongoing dialogue between us and the divine. The songs and poems are not the end all, be all, of that ongoing conversation but they serve as little reminders of how God is with you as your life progresses. When we find ourselves going through things that are so consuming we can’t see beyond them, we need a word of hope to say that this moment isn’t the limit to our story. There is still more because you, through the baptized and faith, are part of Jesus; whose own story shows what God’s love will do. Right now isn’t the only part of your story and when you need to be reminded of who you and whose you are, that’s when you can turn towards God and say: “You are my LORD; I have no good apart from you.”