October 25, 2020; St. Stephen’s Maple (Zoom Eucharist)
“Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? Be gracious to you servants.”
That has got to be the prayer for 2020. The longing and groaning for an end to the suffering and quarantining and cancellations and all the other things that have made this year oh so difficult. A longing for God to step in—break into time like a new apocalypse—and restore us to safety and to communal gatherings in-person.
Now, Dan was right last week to call us to a renewed perspective about 2020, to embrace the new possibilities that hashtag-The-Circumstances have opened us up to. And I want to repeat this call to a fresh perspective because the obstacles to it haven’t disappeared in the span of seven days. And whatever your approach to The Circumstances is, the prayer for God to come and be gracious to us is always in-season.
Our biggest obstacle to hope is implied in the first section of our Psalm. We have come face-to-face with both a respiratory disease and the disease of countless human institutions that “turn [people] back to the dust.” More people than ever have been able to see how so many of our societal structures and assumptions condescend down at people, dismiss their experiences with a simple “Go back, O child of earth.” They claim to reduce people to insignificant blips, covid case numbers on a screen or an “other” to be controlled. And they arrogantly assert (in not so many words) that their reign can so easily last a thousand years.
To be clear, I don’t think the real obstacle to a fresh perspective on 2020 is that we’re so much more aware of the systems behind these acts: that awareness can be a hopeful opportunity for change as much as it can be a source of despair. I think our biggest source of despair is the feeling that God is like this too. That God is distant and uncaring, a self-satisfied, status-quo enforcing watch-maker who sits back and lets us die of pandemic and injustice without so much as a hint of compassion. Because for better or for worse, our lived experiences of authority—be it parental or societal authority—have a profound impact on our sense of what God is like.
I should also be clear that I don’t think the Psalmist is expressing this same despair about God’s response to human suffering and cruelty. The first portion of Psalm 90 that Scott and Nadra sung tonight simply reflect what we continue to believe about God’s unfathomable greatness. It’s true: he does predate the mountains, the land and the earth. A millennium to God actually is the same as a day, or a night, and he can reign over both just as easily. And a simple visit to the cemetery will remind us that the span of our own lives, in this form, will end, that this body will “go back” to the dust for a time, but God’s life will continue.
So does this mean that God dismisses us, looks at us as small or insignificant? Well forty years ago, we heard a short, green-skinned teacher on a distant planet assert to his student, “size matters not! Judge me by my size do you? And well you should not!” He was confronting his student’s presumption that the larger and more powerful you are, the more important you must be. If that were true, then we would have no business thinking that an infinite and eternal God cared about us or listened to us at all.
And yet, God cares, God listens, God loves, because when it comes to God’s love, “size matters not.” A thousand years are the same as a day, because God made them both: both are equally important, and all the human lives lived in them are equally valued and loved. We’re the ones who can’t handle that kind of prodigal equality: on our own, the task of caring for every single life suffering from pandemic and injustice is utterly overwhelming. But God cares, God listens, God loves. And so it’s a very great mercy that human kingdoms rise and fall, even pandemics come and go, while God’s reign is eternal: thank God that he is in charge, that he is the judge, and not us.
This is the very point that the psalmist is getting across: not just that God is in charge, but that his eternal reign is good news for us. The second half of the psalm turns into a petition, appealing to God’s graciousness and steadfast love, his ability to “make us glad” and “prosper the work of our hands.” But this prayer is only possible because God is already “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” The psalmist, and you and me, can “boldly approach the throne of grace” because God is really here, present with those who are suffering from coronavirus, with those who have experienced systemic injustice, with those who feel lonely from isolation or uncertain about the future of their communities. He has “been our refuge from one generation to another.”
In this prayer, God carries us beyond our capabilities and roots us in his love for the world and in his own eternal life: we find our place in the life of this God who predates the mountains, who continues to reign when our bodies lie in the dust. This God who can and does love every single life that has ever lived. And thus rooted in God’s life, we become the answer to our prayer: the compassion, generosity, perseverance and courage that we show to those in whatever corner of the world God has given us somehow become enough to show the whole world what God is like. You and I aren’t going to “fix” everything wrong with the world tonight, but we can carry on the work that God has given us to do, trusting that he actually does know how it all fits together, and has the power to make it prosper by his gracious and loving will.
In this light, God’s answer to our yearning, “how long will you tarry,” is “no time at all.”