An Undivided Heart

Psalm 86
David A. Davis
November 8, 2020

If there is a refrain to take with you from our fall immersion in the Book of Psalms, a phrase of the psalmist to save to your heart file, a description of God to add your prayer language, it ought to be “steadfast love and faithfulness”. As here in Psalm 86, “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” “The steadfast love and faithfulness” of God. The words, the formula, seem to rest at the very core of the psalmist’s experience of God. Not just the psalmist for that matter, but for the people of Israel and their relationship of God as witnessed in the pages of the Old Testament.

When God calls Moses back up to Mt Sinai for the second tablet edition of the Ten Commandments, the Book of Exodus records that the Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation…” (Exodus 34: 6-7).  It is God renewing God’s covenant with God’s people after the debacle of the golden calf. “Steadfast love and faithfulness”.

King David, in addition to the psalms attributed to him, used the word pairing a few times in the form of a blessing to others. An expression akin to “the Lord bless you and keep you.” Just when he became king, he sent words of blessing to the people who had taken care to bury Saul the former King. “May you be blessed by the Lord because you showed this loyalty to Saul, your Lord and buried him. Now may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you”.  (II Samuel 2:5-6) To a loyal servant who would not leave his side when he was fleeing from Jerusalem amid Absalom’s revolt, the king tried to send him back. “Go back, and take your kinsfolk with you, and may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you.” (II Samuel 15:20).

For the psalmist, the formula functions as more than a blessing or a greeting.  In Psalm 25, the composer sings of “steadfast love and faithfulness” as the way, the pathway for all who keep God’s commandments. “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 25:10).Psalm 61 seeks to invoke God’s “steadfast love and mercy” on the king of Israel: “Appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!” (Psalm 61:7)The poet of Psalm 85 prophetically, prayerfully, and beautifully calls for God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” to fill the earth. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85: 10).  Psalm 89: “Righteousness and justice are foundation of your throne and steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14) The poetry of the psalms is full of “steadfast love and faithfulness”. It is the poet invoking God’s own self revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai. Just as God said to Moses from the burning bush “I am who I am”, on Mt Sinai God said, “I am steadfast love and faithfulness. Ingrained in the prayerbook, the songbook, of God’s people is the belief, the affirmation, and the proclamation that the refrain “steadfast love and faithfulness” is more than a greeting or a blessing. It’s who God is.

Which makes it all the more meaningful that the expression comes again here in Psalm 86. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  When categorizing the psalms by genre, Psalm 86 is considered a psalm of lament. Even a psalm of lament includes the refrain, the formula of “steadfast love and faithfulness.” The psalm of lament clings to who God is.

Patrick Miller makes a psalm of lament so clear and accessible in his book The Lord of the Psalms when he suggests that such a psalm is “more accurately described” as a prayer for help. A prayer for help. You don’t have to be plunging the depths of hell, or Sheol for the psalmist, to understand a prayer for help. Your tears don’t have to be your food both day and night to relate to a prayer for help. You don’t have to be surrounded by a band of ruffians who seek your life to find yourself in urgent need of a prayer for help.  On this All Saints Day as we remember those in our church family who have died in the last year, you know that every family member who will hear a name read from the Table in a moment knows about a prayer for help. A prayer for help. From the clinched teeth, fist raising kind to the only half kidding “a little help here God?” kind. Don’t let the descriptive, ancient, poetic language of the psalmist push you away. Is there any among us who doesn’t understand a prayer for help. Anyone of us who hasn’t been there, done that?

If you haven’t participated in Nassau’s adult education by watching the video on the website and with the worship link this morning, you should watch this afternoon or sometime this week.  Brent Strawn is teaching this week on the psalms of lament. His description of how a lament psalm typically moves from complaint to praise and what that move, that pivot could mean for us in the life of faith is very compelling. Yes, here in Psalm 86, the reference to God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” comes as one would expect in the section of praise. Psalm 86 is about half complaint and half praise. And the section of praise is long enough that it seems to move toward petition. The psalm concludes with “Turn to me….be gracious to me…give your strength….save the child…show me a sign…because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.” You have done it before God. I am begging you to do it again. That shift, that drift, that turn from praise to petition hinges on “steadfast love and faithfulness.” “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” 

Psalm 86 is a lament. It’s a prayer for help. Here is my complaint. Here is my praise. I know who you are God, you are “steadfast love and faithfulness”. And I am not just asking, I am begging you to do something about all of this. Not just because of who I am and where I am today, but because of who you are every day.  Maybe it’s a prayer for help with a bit of attitude. Or maybe it’s a prayer for help from someone whose undivided heart never wavers from the “steadfast love and faithfulness” of God.  “Give me and undivided heart, O God, to revere your name” and to have the Spirit-filled courage and honesty to cry to you for help. To beg for your help from depth of my soul to the depth of who you are.

All Saints Day. A day not remember not just those in our congregation who have died in the last year but a day to remember all who have gone before us. All who surround us in the great cloud of witnesses. Those who join with us by God’s grace whenever we celebrate this feast. A prayer of remembrance. A prayer of thanksgiving. Indeed. But a prayer of lament may be the genre of the day. This All Saints Day as we gather in this virtual way because a deadly pandemic is ripping around the world and ripping our country apart at the same time. This All Saints Day as we gather just days prior to a presidential election in a nation more divided than most of us can remember in our lifetime. This All Saints Day just weeks after two young teenagers were shot inside their home in Trenton from bullets fired somewhere outside. This All Saints Day, just after police in Philadelphia killed a black man after repeated calls from his family for help with his mental health crisis. This All Saints Day as the makeup of  the Supreme Court shifts and members of the LGBTQ community now worry afresh about the legality of their marriage and any legal protections for their jobs, their rights, their lives. This All Saints Day as some congregations near and far are being torn apart by political differences, or by arguments about safety protocols, or by long overdue hard conversations about race, racism, and antiracism and the silence of the white church. The communion of saints must look down on what the tradition calls the peace and unity of the church and just weep.

All Saints Day and a prayer of lament. A prayer for help. Who among us hasn’t been there and done that. And maybe for you, the prayer for help this morning isn’t even on that list I just gave. But how about when you come to the Table this morning, you ask for a table for two. Just you and the one who invites you. Just you and Jesus. And at some point during the meal, you find the courage and the honesty, you find that undivided part of your heart that is absolutely sure when it comes to his “steadfast love and faithfulness” , and you tell him, you ask him, you beg him.

Jesus, I know who you are and I am begging you to do something about all this.

Strengthen and inspire me to do my part.

Because if “Steadfast love and faithfulness” is who you are, then it has to be who I am.

And Jesus says, “take, eat, this is my body broken…..for you.”