Chapel sermon for November 8, 2011
Text: Psalm 40
Given at Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary
(my senior chapel sermon)
“I waited patiently for the Lord.” You know, the longer I look at this, the less I believe in waiting patiently. I’m much better at waiting impatiently. Put me in the lunch line. Drop me into a traffic jam. Or if you want to see impatience at its best, put me on hold with customer support. To hear your current balance, press 1. To learn about exciting new features, press 2. Press pound at any time to return to this menu. But that’s not what I want? Umm… representative? Or maybe you get the fancy speech-recognition program. Just say something about the nature of your call. I would like to speak with a representative? I heard you say, check my current — No,REPRESENTATIVE! REPRESENTATIVE! I pay fifty bucks a month for this cell phone and at the very least I deserve some halfway decent service! I just want to speak with a real human being!
I waited patiently for the Lord, the Psalmist writes. And then my patience quit. If you don’t read the whole Psalm you don’t get the hard part. At first, it’s all going smoothly: the Psalmist was in a pit, the Lord pulled him out, so he set off the spread the good news. God did for him, so he does for God, to preach God’s faithfulness even in the great congregation. But then we get to hard part. I did my time, I did what you told me. And what did I get for my effort? Evils, encompassing me. Iniquities, overtaking me. My heart is failing, don’t back out on me now. We had a deal, but my patience has quit.
I don’t know where you are in this story, but I know that you’re in this story. It’s the story of so many of us in this place, we who count ourselves witnesses, we who stake our claim in the classroom, in the corridors of power, in assemblies of worship: I was in a pit, waiting for God. He pulled me out, now I want to testify. Show me the way to that great congregation! But that’s not where the story ends, that’s why we read the whole thing: some days your patience just quits. God, you know what I went through to get here. You know what it cost. You know how many years it took. You know how much I pay per month. The least I deserve is some decent service. I think we’re all in this story sooner or later, someday or another.
This is why we have to read the whole Psalm, because it names something that we can’t always name for ourselves: rage, the anger of one who has already done so much, of one who has been on hold for too long. And we keep reading, and the patience is gone, and the anger boils over in every direction: you who sought my life, shame upon you. You who desire my hurt, dishonor upon you. You – I heard what you said about me – how dare you. And the great congregation fades away. And the Psalmist is left with only one place to turn: do not delay, O My God.
Do not delay, O My God. I have waited too long. I have been here too long, waiting for you, My God – what a remarkable thing, to speak the words “My God” when nothing else is left, to call on God as if God has been there the whole time, waiting with you. But of course this is exactly where God has been, with us, beside us, waiting with us, waiting for letters of admission, waiting for job offers, waiting for test results, waiting for the right call, waiting for the wrong call, waiting for the calls no one wants to get, God waiting with us.
But I still think there’s more to the story, I still think we have to keep going, we who profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we who claim that God, my God, became flesh and dwelt among us, we who claim that Christ lives and works in this world, we who claim at the end of the day to be heard by a real human being. You see, waiting for a person – well, that’s a totally different story. Did we say 2:00? I totally forget, I had it in my calendar this way, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got the wrong place, maybe she meant the place across town. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Wait for a person long enough, you get past the impatience, you get this gnawing feeling that there was someplace else you were supposed to be, this creeping worry that someone else has been waiting for you the whole time.
This is where Christian faith lives. God waits with us, even in the dark hours of the night, even as we lose our patience. But it’s not the end of the story: God is also waiting for us. We wait for God in a place of rage and anger, but the incarnate God can’t be reduced to customer service; Jesus Christ is alive and waiting for us in a place of healing and mercy. Jesus has been the one waiting for us, we who count ourselves witnesses. Jesus is waiting for you. In this place. Just beyond these doors. In the classrooms of Princeton Seminary. In the corridors of power. In assemblies of worship. Even in that great congregation. Jesus is waiting for you: to do justice and love kindness. Jesus is waiting for you: to walk humbly with one another. Jesus is waiting for you, for us, all of us, we whom Gods counts as witnesses, we who were in the pit: Jesus is waiting for us to shout from the mountaintop the good news that God’s patience won’t quit. And when our stories come to a close, as the echoes of our testimony resound through the valley, as our voices run dry and our waiting-time grows short, God is there, arms outstretched, waiting for us.
And that’s saying something about the nature of our call.