Incline Your Ear
| Psalms 86
||Sun, June 22, 2008
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.” The eighty-sixth psalm is a song for the poor and needy. There are other psalms for those who are grateful for abundance and energy and success. There are psalms for those who are learning the faith, psalms for those who need to confess their guilt and psalms for those who are deep in lamentation. But this is a psalm to be sung when God is needed here, now. Listen to its cry. Does it sound familiar to you? “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long ... Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication. In the day of my trouble I call on you.” I can find no record of the scripture that was read at the inaugural service of University Hill Congregation. We don’t even know when the first service was held in this congregation. Yes, the Vancouver Presbytery established the congregation in 1928, but the first record of a congregational meeting does not appear until 1930. We do know that the congregation first gathered in the brand new chapel of Union College and that the service was led then, as it was for twenty-five years, by the principal of the theological school. The United Church of Canada was only three years old when this congregation was created. There was great energy and enthusiasm and optimism in the air. Yes, there were problems but the future seemed an open book rather than a final chapter. One suspects that the situation did not call for Psalm eighty-six. Of course, we have not chosen Psalm eighty-six for today’s Eightieth Anniversary celebration. It simply happens to be the text for the day. Yet, could there be a more appropriate prayer for us as a congregation at this time?
This is a season of trouble for the church in Canada, for the whole church, for our denomination and for this particular congregation. We could list the troubles. But that does not seem necessary. It is enough to admit the obvious. When the church turns to God in our time it prays with words like this: “O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.” The life of the church - the life of this congregation - is at risk in this generation. The forces that conspire to silence and weaken the church are various. Some are obvious, others less so. Together they make this an arid environment in which to nurture the distinctive witness of a Christian congregation and of Christian discipleship. Given such a challenge our first inclination as children of a technological age is to get busy finding a solution. We look for the right program, the right music, the right message that will attract our target market so that we can survive. But Psalm eighty-six would teach us a different way. The eighty-sixth Psalm teaches us to pray: “Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you ... Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul ... Teach my your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name ... Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant.”
“An undivided heart to revere your name”. This is what we long for as a congregation. We long for a heart that is undivided in its desire to revere and praise and speak the name of God, the one who comes to us in Jesus Christ: the one who saves us sinners from our wandering ways, the one who heals and restores and redeems the sick and the ostracized and the devalued, the downtrodden and the forgotten. We long for an undivided heart because our heart is regularly divided. We forget that our single focus, our sole purpose, our only reason for being is to revere the God who is made known to us in Jesus. We begin to imagine that there must be other purposes for a church. We dream up all sorts of good things to keep us busy. Our heart becomes divided. We turn the church into a project for doing good. We forget that the church is God’s project for saving us from our own good intentions. The Psalm puts the right words in our mouth. It teaches us to say: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth.” It reminds us to be a congregation with a teachable heart. It is tempting for us to imagine that we know-it-all, that our unique denomination, our beloved congregation, our own inclination is particularly progressive and intelligent and faithful. But the eighty-sixth Psalm corrects our arrogant presumptions. It keeps us humble. It keeps us honest. It keeps us open.
That is a good thing. It is a good thing because if we are open we just may come to know and trust and believe in the God of Psalm eighty-six, the one to whom we sing: “You are my God” ... the one who is “good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you”. This psalm would not have us speak of God in the third person, saying ‘God is like this and God is like that’. No. The Psalm teaches us to sing to the one who calls University Hill Congregation into being, saying: “You are great and do wondrous things, you alone are God ... Great is your steadfast love towards me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol ... you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness ... you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.” This is the reason that we dare to ask for God’s attention and energy and power today. We pray “incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me” because for the past eighty years, and for countless generations before, this prayer has been answered wherever God’s people have lifted up their collective soul.
Yesterday my good friend and colleague Chris Erdman, who pastors a church in Fresno, sent me an email. In the midst of it he wrote: “We are not rendered disqualified by our brokenness, rather our brokenness is the very stuff of our testimony”. Do you hear what he is saying? He is saying that our own journeys into Sheol, into our own living hells, into our desperate places of grief and loss are the very places from which our faith emerges. He is saying that when the church lives through a time like the one we are living through it is being given a testimony, it is being saved for a purpose, it is learning to trust in God and not in itself. And that is not only true of the church beyond these walls or of this congregation. It is also true of you and of me. We are not disqualified by our brokenness, rather our brokenness is the very stuff of our testimony because it points to God, the God who delivers our soul from the depths, who helps and comforts even you and even me. So it is that Psalm eighty-six can teach us to sing with one voice: “I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name for ever.”