Third Sunday of Lent – April 26, 2020 – Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; Luke 24:13-35 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)
In today’s gospel, we hear a familiar story once again. Jesus is made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Some of you may already be thinking about the fact that we can’t do that today.
But look at verse 27. Jesus also opens the scriptures to them. We can do that. But rather than stick with the gospel, I think we should look more closely at the psalm.
It’s fitting to turn to the psalm, I think, because it’s the only piece of scripture that we read this morning that was around back then, when these travelers walked the Emmaus road. Remember, the scriptures referred to here are those of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the “Old Testament” today.
Last Tuesday, at our weekly Bible study, we discussed Psalm 116 with Dr. Becky Wright, of School of Theology fame.
The psalm certainly has an air of Easter sweetness. It is, of course, not ours alone to claim as Christians. As Becky pointed out, it is one of the “Hallel” psalms. “Hallel” refers to a certain set of praise psalms typically recited by Jewish people on holy days, such as the Passover.
If we listen closely, we’ll hear why: salvation is at work!
“I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.”
To get a sense of all that this psalm has to offer, we can, and must, go beneath the surface of our Prayer Book’s translation. As Becky shared with us, the phrase “I love the Lord” in the first verse may be better translated as “I am loyal to the Lord.” The concept of loyalty points beyond mere emotion to a deeper truth: God’s steadfast fidelity to us, his people.
At a time when “cords of death entangled” him, the psalmist not only prays—he also experiences God’s response to his prayer. God’s response is especially evident in verses four through six, which are among those that the lectionary has us omit this morning.
“Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me. Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well.”
This psalm is the song of one who has experienced God’s steadfast faithfulness. It makes me think of another song, “Great is thy faithfulness.”
“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”
I feel a special kinship with this hymn because its familiar tune was written by William Runyan in Baldwin City, KS, where I attended Baker University.
But it’s more than a familiar tune. My college chaplain once pointed out that he likes this hymn particularly because it assigns the responsibility of faithfulness exactly where it belongs—to God.
As Christians, we consider ourselves people of faith, and we often measure ourselves based on our ability to keep the faith. But in this hymn, it is God’s faithfulness of which we sing, not our own.
It is, as we said more commonly in generations past, “meet and right so to do.” God’s faithfulness makes our faithfulness possible. God has told us from the very beginning, “I will do what I promise.”
We called to mind some of those promises just a few weeks ago when, during the Easter Vigil, we listened to the stories of God’s saving deeds throughout history as we sat by the soft light of our candles. The story of God’s relationship with humanity is the story of God’s faithfulness to us.
It is God who created the universe. It is God who set his bow in the clouds as a sign of his everlasting covenant with his people. It is God who renewed that same covenant with Abraham. It is God who led Israel to freedom from bondage through the Red Sea.
It is God whose breath restored a valley of dry bones. It is God who calls prophets to forecast his new vision for the world. And it is God whose saving work is revealed in the resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.
Each year at the Vigil, we recount the stories of God’s saving acts throughout history as a means of recalling God’s loyalty—God’s faithfulness—to us, as we prepare to revel in our Easter joy.
And revel in it we do—even today. Yes, we are physically distant, so we cannot break bread. But we gather anyway, to hear what the Spirit is saying to us through the Acts of the Apostles, the First Letter of Peter, the Gospel according to Luke, and, yes, even the words of Psalm 116.
As I mentioned, it is somewhat ironic that the Easter spirit is particularly evident in the verses that the lectionary leaves out. Listen to verses seven and eight. “For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.”
Perhaps there is a lesson for us here, in what is left out.
We are, after all, a people forced to do without these days. Without hugs and kisses from our grandchildren. Without stopping to chat with a neighbor in the grocery store. Without commencement exercises. Without birthday parties. Without weddings and funerals.
Without friends popping in for morning coffee, or evening refreshment. Without dinner parties. Without Tea on the Mountain. Without first-Sunday potlucks. Without the breaking of the bread at all.
Perhaps we should take a moment right now, or this afternoon, or in the coming week, to think about the things that are left out. If we do, I wonder if we might experience what they mean to us in a whole new way. I wonder if we might realize that the grace of God that was present with us then is present with us still.
I wonder if, when we think on these things, we might, like those early disciples, find our hearts burning within us. If we do, we just might realize that Christ is alive, proof positive that we will never, ever have to go without the faithfulness of God.