The Rev. Melanie McCarley
While leading a study tour of the Middle East, Jerome Creach, a professor of Old Testament, took his group to visit the the Abbell Chapel at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. The feature of note was the beautiful set of stained glass windows created by the artist Marc Chagall. You can see a picture of this chapel if you are looking at the front of your service program this morning. The windows are set high within a domed ceiling so as to direct the worshipper’s attention heavenward. They are not at eye level. The windows feature primary colors emitting a jewel-toned light into the worship space even in the midst of a cloudy day. As you gather in the space, above you float figures of animals, fish and flowers. Each window is dominated by a specific color and each contains a quotation from the blessings of Jacob and Moses.
As Creach and his students gazed at the windows above them, one member of the group noticed another unique feature of the chapel. Directly below the windows the floor is sunken, and in the middle of the depressed area is a pulpit and lectern. Curious about this design, they asked about this architectural feature; because, usually pulpits and lecterns are raised—just look at us here at St. Paul’s. The hospital representative explained, “The floor beneath these windows was made this way because those who designed the chapel believed all prayer should be offered ‘out of the depths.”
The psalm appointed for today—psalm 130 picks up on this theme. In older Bibles (and, if you are reading from your Book of Common Prayer this morning on p.784 ), you will see right next to the psalm the Latin words De Profundis meaning, “from the depths”.
This psalmist is calling to God from out of a pit. What kind of pit? A pit of despair, of fear, grief or anxiety, we don’t really know. What we do know is that this psalm is a call for help in the midst of uncertainty.
This is the second week in a row in which I’ve preached on the psalms. Perhaps, in our present moment, more than ever before, we have an opportunity to relate to the psalms in a way in which perhaps we had not perceived until now. The psalms are raw and unfiltered. They are deeply human—moving from one extreme of beseeching the Lord to annihilate one’s enemies (and their children) to calling for the hills and trees to clap their hands and shout for joy in praise of the Almighty.
Today’s psalmist is in a pit, and he (or she) is reaching for hope. We can relate. Perhaps you feel as though you are lost in the depths right now. Life is upended. We are disoriented. We are uncertain. Many of us who had packed calendars just a few weeks past now see day after day of blank squares—or, radically revised squares with Zoom links replacing face-to-face meetings, classes and worship services that we used to take for granted. And, while it’s true that we are carrying on—some of us with work, others with the education and care of our children, and many working hard to do both, and still more of us with the exploration and extension of new ways of reaching out to family, friends and neighbors, it’s also true that we are doing all of this from the depths. The depths of uncertainty. Perhaps the depth of fear. The depth of worry for vulnerable loved ones. As we see the numbers of the ill and those who have died increasing, more and more each day, we identify with the psalmist.
“Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.”
Now, about pits. The Bible is filled with them. Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers; Daniel landed in a pit with lions and Jonah found himself in the rather unusual pit of the stomach of a whale. But pits aren’t just physical. There are also pits of the spirit—anyone who has ever found themselves battling depression, despair, anxiety or grief know these are pits as surely as are the stone walls of the cell of a prison. Pits are places where we find ourselves stuck. No one asks to be thrown into a pit. If we land there—either by someone else’s wickedness, though our own fault or simply by a twist of fate—once there, we want to get out. So, let’s look to see what advice the psalmist gives us about life in a pit.
The first thing to understand is that psalm 130 is a lament. Now, a lament certainly contains petition—and even complaints. But in the biblical sense, laments are also a form of praise. The psalm begins “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Notice that this cry to God carries with it an implicit statement of confidence and faith. Even in that pit, the psalmist believes that God hears his voice.
Skip ahead to verse five. “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” Waiting is not giving up—waiting, in this sense, means to live expectantly, with awareness of how God has acted in the past and with keen anticipation of what God will do for us in this present moment and the future. Waiting is not akin to resignation. Waiting is the opposite of despair and hopelessness. In a very practical sense, the psalmist (and perhaps yourself), are still in the pit—but the posture here is of a supplicant who knows that God is listening and is actively waiting for God to act. The Nigerian writer Enuma Okoro writes: “We wait in confidence and hope not because of who we are but because of whom we trust and believe God is: faithful, steadfast, full of loving-kindness, true to God’s word, and present with us.”
Picture again the chapel of Hadassa in Jerusalem. The prayers offered there come directly from the pit. I suspect that many people who gather to pray in that hospital chapel are in a place of confusion, and perhaps even despair. Yet all they need to do is lift up their eyes from that low place and look up to the Lord. Standing there, in the midst of that depressed area, they cannot escape the hope that surrounds them—the beauty of light, of symbol and color, calling them to remember the blessings of God given to their ancestors—and bequeathed to them as well.
As we pray this week, may we lift up our heads, look above us and remember the promises and the blessings of God—promises which are to be fulfilled, and blessings which are before us, even now as we raise our hands in supplication.
The Book of Common Prayer is a wonderful resource. On the bottom of page 461 there is a prayer titled “In the Morning”. It is designed for use by those who are ill; but it is spot-on perfect for those of us who find ourselves in a pit. If you will, let us pray:
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie ow, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.