“Help! I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up”
A Sermon on Psalm 54 for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached September 20, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“Can you tell me how I should pray?” “What’s the right way to pray?” As a pastor, you get asked questions like these every so often. Perhaps you yourself have asked one along these lines… or given that many of us here are good New England UCC-ers, perhaps you’ve wondered something like this but have been keeping it to yourself. After all, we wouldn’t want to get too carried away with all that religious talk, would we?
When I get asked what’s the “right” way to pray, my default response—as you might imagine, since I too am a good UCC-er—is usually something along the lines of, ‘well, there isn’t any one “right” way to pray.’ There’s lots of different ways to pray, and different ways are work for different people. What are the ways you think you might find meaning in?
This is, of course, a very UCC sort of response. After all, we’re the people of the soft verbs… we rarely like to tell anyone to do or think anything, particularly and especially when it comes to things like faith, belief, church, or spiritual practice. We rather tend to ‘invite’ people to ‘consider’ entering into a ‘journey of discernment’ on which they might begin to open themselves to what possibilities bring meaning to their experience of the divine—in whatever way they understand that. Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating—we aren’t the Unitarians, after all—but it’s only a little exaggeration.
So, yes, that reply—that there isn’t any single “right” way to pray is very UCC of me. But all joking aside, it also happens to be true. There isn’t only one right way to pray. There are perhaps countless ways that Christians have engaged in prayer, through the ages and across all our different traditions today: Prayer we do as a part of corporate worship, and personal prayer we do by ourselves. Formal words, structures, and written-out liturgies; casual, conversational, intimate and informal words; even spontaneous and ecstatic and charismatic language. In fact, there are a bunch of prayer practices that don’t even involve words at all… and I don’t only mean things like prayer-through-dance or prayer-through-art, but also something like centering prayer, which aims at a complete emptying of one’s self and one’s mind, much like certain forms of meditation.
You know, there’s an old quip that the best version or edition of the Bible for you is whichever one you actually read. Prayer’s like that too… the right way to pray is the one that you actually do.
No one knows for sure what was going on for the writer of Psalm 54 when its words were first prayed. If you look at it in most bibles, you’ll see a little preamble that indicates it was written by David during his struggle for the throne with King Saul, at a point when David had been betrayed by the Ziphites—a story you can find in the book of 1st Samuel, chapter 23. Now, all that is certainly possible, but we also today know that all of those little preambles and inscriptions we find before the beginning of each psalm were probably added much later on, when the various psalms were being gathered up and put together into the final collection. In other words, it’s probably a later tradition or interpretation that attributed these words to David at that moment in his journey. Could it be? Possibly… but it’s definitely not the only possibility.
Anyway, again, the fact is that we don’t exactly know who wrote these words or exactly what prompted them. But we do sense the danger, the fear, and even perhaps the anger. Save me! Vindicate me! ‘They’ have risen against me. And even who the “they” is here is up for grabs—it could be the “insolent”, it could be “foreigners”, it could even simply be “estranged ones”. And so, these words that were probably first uttered in the midst of a fairly specific problem, a particular moment of struggle and strife for someone, they really begin to open up to be possibly a prayer from any of us. As one scholar observes, “Whether we are beset by a specific unjust person, wrestle with xenophobia, or we are assailed by estrangement from those most dear to us, we share with the ancient poet the fear that peace will not come to our relationships.” So, not only can we receive these ancient words and sense their passion, but in fact we can hear in them our own passion, our own struggle with shattered trust and broken relationships.
What may be truly remarkable about this psalm, though, is simply the fact that it is a prayer. It is a turning to God in the midst of just that kind of struggle. As I was saying earlier, the right way to pray is the one you actually do, and whoever it is whose mind and heart we’re getting to peek into here, the truth is, they prayed. One pastor puts it this way, “When confronted with false witness, with accusations meant to tear down and destroy—reputations, self-image, and, in due course, lives—th[is] psalm turns us not to rebuttal or reprisal, but to prayer in worship.”
I think that’s an important reminder and encouragement. Whatever ‘enemy’ seems to be ‘attacking’ us—“from drones to derivatives to nuclear terrorists … the people of Ziph revealing our refuge, or the seemingly intractable worldwide financial [unrest], or rising global temperatures,” or the deathly doldrums of depression, or the deep shadows of grief, or even the bondage of a broken relationship that we can’t figure out how to ‘fix’—whatever the ‘enemy’, we can turn to prayer. In fact, like the writer of this psalm, we can choose to turn to prayer instead of turning to always-so-tempting road of defense and defensiveness, of taking matters into our own feeble hands.
So, indeed, the ‘right’ way to pray is the one you actually do, the one you actually practice. Which is to say, again, that there isn’t necessarily any one ‘right’ way to pray. But I do think there probably are better ways to pray, though. Not a right or wrong way, but there probably are things we can attend to, and strive for, that will make our prayer life more honest, more faithful, more life-giving, more God-revealing.
Really, we could probably fill up any number of sermons—or perhaps workshops would be a better format—exploring prayer practices and what we might attend to in them, but this morning I want to highlight just one. It’s something perhaps more deeply profound than it first seems, and it’s something that the pray-er of Psalm 54 models for us.
Except… it’s actually not as apparent as it should be in the way our English translation read today. At the opening, we heard, “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth.” But “save me” and “hear my prayer”, that’s not actually where the psalmist starts. In the psalmist’s original Hebrew words, they start with none other than God: “God, by your name, save me. … God, hear my prayer.”
It seems like such a minor detail; what difference does it make whether it reads “Save me, O God” or “O God, save me”…? It all means basically the same thing, right? Well… yes… and no. I mean, in terms of language and poetry, yeah, they’re both just different ways of expressing pretty much the same thought.
But let’s take it a level deeper. I do think it makes a difference when we start with God, when our prayer—and perhaps more importantly, our lives—are rooted first and foremost in the very name and presence of the Holy One. In fact, if you remember, that’s actually one of the complaints that the writer of the psalm registers about whomever or whatever is causing the strife: “they do not set God before them.” It is calling upon the very name of God that gives the pray-er the confidence to cry out “save me!” and the foundation for asking their prayer to be heard.
And at the end, it comes back around to that same name and presence of God—“I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good. For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.” Clinging to the name of the Lord in the midst of a danger and a struggle that is still taking place, the psalmist dwells in that place where they can trust that deliverance and victory are already there. Calling on the name of God, the eye can look and see that which is still yet-to-come, and be thankful.
I think so often that rootedness in God’s presence first, that orientation of calling on the name of God as our first word, it so often gets lost these days. As humans, we so often are much more comfortable figuring out what we want to do, or what’s wrong with the other guy, or any other number of ways of putting ourselves first… and then calling upon God to rubber-stamp what we’ve already decided. Perhaps it’s in the drive to be supposedly “relevant”, you know, trying to “make God or faith relevant to our lives.” In fact, that was quite an emphasis of a lot of liberal Protestant faith in the 20th-century. The great liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich was known for his orientation of starting from the big questions of human life and existence and from there seeking how our faith intersects that. Or, then there’s the story of the late 20th-century rabbi who once commented to a UCC pastor that every liberal Protestant sermon he’d heard went something like this: “The New York Times says… A cartoon in the New Yorker says… A poem that I recently read says… But perhaps Jesus said it best.” And lest you think I’m picking on ourselves in this tradition a little too much, the conservatives seem to come at things rather often from that us-first direction too, with so much of conservative religiosity focused on what we have to believe and what we have to not be doing in order to be “good Christians.”
But what happens when we start with God first?
This past Thursday on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air, host Terry Gross interviewed Lutheran pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber. Nadia Boltz-Weber has become fairly well-known in recent years for being a rather unexpected embodiment of a Lutheran pastor—heavily tattooed and pierced, a recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comedian who admits that she tends to swear like a truck driver. In 2008 in Denver, she founded a new church start congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America called the “House for All Sinners and Saints,” a congregation that has grown to basically standing-room only, full of people like her, “academics and queers and comics and recovering alcoholics” as she puts it.
While Pastor Nadia is a somewhat unconventional-looking Lutheran pastor, and her congregation is filled with lots of people you don’t often find in conventional mainline Protestant churches in the suburbs, she’s actually a very conventional—even “orthodox”—theologian and person of faith in the Lutheran tradition when it comes to her theology. And a significant part of that rootedness in the deep streams of our Reformation-tradition Protestant Christian faith is that it all starts from God, not from ourselves.
In the interview, Terry Gross and Pastor Nadia had been talking about the fact that for Nadia and her church, the message isn’t so much about what you have to believe, or even about what you have to be doing—especially because of all the ineffectiveness and even damage that the fundamentalist churches have caused with their focus on controlling behavior. Terry asks her, “To sum up, your issue isn’t what people believe or whether they believe. And it’s not their actions either. So your goal is – your job is…[?]” To which, Nadia replies:
[It] Is to preach the Gospel. I mean – so my job is … to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they’re absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late-stage capitalism, for instance, that they are … named and claimed by God and that this is an identity that is more foundational than any of the others. … and that they’re, like, completely forgiven and their, all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God’s mercy and God’s ability to … redeem us and to bring good out of bad. Like, all of that – like, that message is what I just keep preaching over and over and over. And I think that there’s a particular effect. I think when people hear this over and over, they become free. And I think they actually do start making good choices for themselves and healthy choices, self-respecting choices without the church telling them what that has to look like.
So, I simply want to leave you with this for today: what difference does it make when we start from God first, and discover the power of God’s presence and the good news that God’s grace and love and action is larger than anything we ourselves can do or be or say or even pray? What happens when we start from God first, calling on God’s name as our first word?
Will we then perhaps find our prayers lining up with the psalmist’s, that even in the midst of what makes us cry out “Save me!”, we know with confidence that God has already delivered us from every trouble? Because, indeed, my friends, God has.
Blessed be the name of the Lord, now and forever. Amen.
 James K. Mead, “Commentary on Psalm 54” for 20 September 2015, WorkingPreacher.org, accessed 19 September 2015 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2533.
 Karl Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 54” for 23 September 2012, WorkingPreacher.org, accessed 19 September 2015 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1461.
 Nibs Stroupe, homiletical perspective on Psalm 54 for Proper 20, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B Additional Essays (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), digital download.
 As told by Rev. Matt Fitzgerald, senior pastor of St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago, relaying an anecdote from the Rev. Martin Copenhaver while discussing in an interview with the Rev. Shannon Kershner, senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. the growing shift from liberal to post-liberal styles of preaching in mainline Protestant churches. Shannon Kershner, interview by Matt Fitzgerald, The Christian Century: Preachers on Preaching, podcast audio, 14 September 2015, http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-09/episode-1-shannon-kershner.
 Nadia Boltz-Weber, “Lutheran Minister Preaches A Gospel Of Love To Junkies, Drag Queens And Outsiders”, interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, National Public Radio, 17 September 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/09/17/441139500/lutheran-minister-preaches-a-gospel-of-love-to-junkies-drag-queens-and-outsiders.