The Psalmist and the Walkers
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
116:1 I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
116:2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
116:3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
116:4 Then I called on the name of the LORD: "O LORD, I pray, save my life!"
116:12 What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
116:13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
116:14 I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
116:15 [Costly] in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.
116:16 O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds.
116:17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD.
116:18 I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people,
116:19 in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!
Way, way back, long ago, decades ago, when 2020 began, I set a goal for the year: to read more for leisure at home. Before I became a pastor, I was an avid reader of novels and history, but I guess the amount of reading I do each week for sermon preparation and Bible study, not to mention continuing education, had an impact on my reading attention span away from my study. Oh and I am also an avid movie watcher, so there are only so many hours in the day! But I made it a goal to read more for fun this year.
And I've done it: a memoir of a Houston area TV anchor I grew up watching, The Tao of Bill Murray, Elton John's autobiography, several others. I am currently reading Bill Bryson's newest book-- I've read every one of his books-- The Body, a Guide for Occupants. He breaks down the components of our bodies, from the brain to the heart to the lungs to the lesser functions not suitable for discussion in a worship service. He also offers brief biographies of the scientists whose learning and discoveries made what we know of the body possible; it's clear we have much more to learn. I am thinking today of Bryson’s discussion of our eyes. Did you know: the human eye is capable of distinguishing between two and seven and a half million colors? And that compared to other animals we see the world in far less color and detail? The eye functions much like a camera, constantly taking pictures of the world around us for our brain to interpret. Here’s a fun exercise from Bryson:
“Your visual field is surprisingly compact. Look at your thumbnail at arm’s length; that’s about the area you have in full focus at any instant. But because your eye is constantly darting-- taking four snapshots every second-- you have the impression of seeing a much broader area. You have about a quarter million of [these eye movements] every day without ever being aware of it. (Nor do we notice it in others).”
I’m thinking about the eye this morning because it is a recurring theme of nearly every Easter story. Mary Magdalene in the cemetery on resurrection morning. She’s come to anoint Jesus’ body with fragrance, but the tomb is empty. She notices a man there, but assumes he is a gardener (why??). Striking up a conversation with the stranger, presumably looking directly at him the entire time as we normally would, it isn’t until he mentions her name that she recognizes him as Jesus. What mysteries of the eye are going on with Mary that morning? Last Sunday we discussed the disciple Thomas, and his insistence on seeing and touching the raised Lord before he will believe this resurrection talk. And today, a third story related to vision.
Two followers of Jesus are walking on the road. One is called Cleopas, a name new to us, and the other is anonymous. They discuss the events of the last few days. They are dumbfounded: arrest, crucifixion, now rumors of resurrection; it’s all bewildering and disconcerting. A stranger begins walking with them; the narrator tells us the travelers “were prevented from recognizing him.” The stranger asks what they are talking about. “Oh you don’t know the story of what’s happened these last days? What have you been hiding under a rock??” “Or behind one,” the stranger says, under his breath. They missed that. “Well, let us share what happened about Jesus, his death, and these rumors we are hearing.” Jump to Luke 24:24: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
The stranger breaks everything down for the walkers:
“Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
All of these references to sight: recognition, understanding, ability to see and discern what is seen. The disciples are clueless until Jesus does two things: opens their eyes, and interprets the scriptures. Now they see and understand. And they begin to share the story.
The writer of Psalm 116, on the other hand, has moved beyond recognition to celebration. Psalm 116 is a psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist has experienced--seen--the wonders and power of God; looking back, she is moved to praise and response:
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD: "O LORD, I pray, save my life!"
The psalmist is remembering past trauma. She was hurting, she was suffering. She had nowhere else to turn, but to God. And God delivered her. God saved her from her distress. In a few weeks we’ll hear from Psalm 8, which asks a powerful existential question: “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them?” The writer of Psalm 116 may have thought the same thing at one time: “God is too mighty, too concerned with bigger things or more important people to pay any mind to my own troubles!” Desperate, nowhere else to turn, the psalmist lays out whatever the need was. The imagery reminds us of Jesus’ own story: “Death’s ropes bound me; the distress of the grace found me.” But then God showed up! The same God who raised Jesus from the dead raised the psalmist from her troubles. God gave ear to the need and removed the suffering. How does the psalmist respond?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!
Lift/Pay/Offer/Pay. These are tangible, decisive actions in response to God’s mercy and grace.
The psalmist isn’t sleeping in on Sunday morning! The psalmist is ready to show up for worship, join in the singing, listen to the scriptures and message, support the ministry of the congregation, welcome the stranger, comfort the grieving, teach the children, serve in whatever capacity is needed. Her eyes are open to what God is doing in her life, and she is ready to joyfully respond.
The travelers arrive at the village after the seven mile walk, exhausted from the grief and emotion of the weekend, and yet uplifted by the conversation with their unknown/unrecognized companion. He intends to walk past, but they invite him to stay for a meal. Now they fully see Jesus. Their questions resolved, their pain and heartbreak healed, they responded by telling others about their strange encounter. I can imagine the questions.
“How can you walk for seven miles with someone and not know who you are speaking with?” “What’s the matter with you? Do you need glasses or something?” Maybe they did in the moment; but now after Jesus interpreted the scriptures and opened their eyes they know the truth; they see clearly. They tell the story. The psalmist experienced God’s healing and restoration, and responded with praise and thanksgiving. She tells the story through worship and praise.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed with all we are experiencing these days. So much suffering, so much trauma. We can feel lost in it all, insignificant and unimportant. Our eyes are limited in their function. Our brains filter out information so that we do not become overwhelmed, or it fills in the space and color to help us understand what we are seeing. But God doesn’t see that way; God’s vision is perfect. Nothing, and no one, is too small or inconsequential for God’s attention.
The psalmist is aware of God’s own grief when God’s faithful people suffer: “The death of the Lord’s faithful is a costly loss in his eyes.”
So Jesus shows up, disguised long enough for the travelers to tell their story as best as they understand it. He listens, corrects, enlightens, encourages. After fully experiencing his resurrected presence, they are changed forever. The psalmist is changed forever because God cares enough to show up and offer love and salvation. The experiences of the psalmist and the traveling disciples speak to the fidelity of God. A thesaurus may offer words like faithfulness or loyalty for fidelity, but fidelity is more than that. It means to keep faith in each other, as God keeps faith in us. 1 Peter 1:22 says, “...love each other deeply from the heart.”
It’s about seeing. We need to learn to see Jesus as our Risen Lord and Savior, not just another fellow traveler. As we walk this road together, may we look for the Risen Savior, our Lord and Christ, walking in our midst. He leads, walks alongside, and carries us. He is our brother and friend, even when we do not recognize his face.
companion on the way,
you walk behind, beside, beyond;
you catch us unawares.
Break through the disillusionment and despair
clouding our vision,
that, with wide-eyed wonder,
we may find our way and journey on
as messengers of your good news. Amen.