Sign ‘O The Times
Psalm 69:1–16 | The Music of My Mind Sermon Series | Third Sunday After Pentecost | June 14, 2015
A few years ago, I was at church on a Saturday evening. I was the Associate at First Christian-Minneapolis at the time and the church was still located in just south of downtown near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The church had an alarm system, which they needed, because there had been a number of robberies and vandalism at the church over the years. I was always a bit nervous with that system and more than once I had set it off. This is exactly what happened that night. I came in ready to do some work and for whatever reason, I didn’t turn off the alarm and it went off. It tried doing everything to stop the alarm, including calling the number for the alarm company. It took about 20 minutes or so, but the alarm system was finally shut off. While I was dealing with the ringing in my years from the loud alarm, I was concerned that the cops would arrive. And my concern was well grounded, because they did arrive. I was able to explain to the Minneapolis police that I was the Associate Pastor and I had acceidentally tripped over the alarm. They checked things out and looked at my driver’s licensed and then left.
All the while that the alarm was ringing, I kind of half joked that the cops would come and think I was robbing the place. It’s only recently that I realized that I was concerned that the cops would come, think that a middle-aged black man was in a church building robbing the joint and shoot me. I had internalized the fear that many African Americans face: that the person in blue doesn’t see me as a person, but as a potential threat because of the color on my face. Before Ferguson or Baltimore or McKinney, Texas- before the focus on the fraught relationship between African Americans and the police, many black men were concerned that someone might mistake me for a criminal.
Of course, not every police, especially white police are racist and seeking to harrass or gun down black people. But sadly, the world we live in is one where African Americans can’t always assume that the cop that comes by is a friend or an enemy.
Today’s Psalm is considered on of lament. Lament is defined as a passionate expression of grief or sorrow and this passage is definitely an expression of sorrow. The writer feels like things in his life are out of control. They are drowning in the troubles of the world. “Save me, God, because the waters have reached my neck!” The writer says. Life is chaotic and the writer is exasperated. The writer has cried as much as one can. They have enemies that are ready to pounce on them. And all the while, they wonder, where is God? Why doesn’t God answer? Why is God allowing this to happen?
Psalm 69 is a very pertinent passage in this time. My fear of the Minneapolis police is something that many African Americans face. The stories over the last year or so about police harrassing and/or killing unarmed black persons distress not only African Americans, but a good chunk of American society. It is distressing to see the people we are taught to trust, taught to see as the good guys, not act like good guys. It’s also frustrating when some people don’t understand the ongoing problem and think that the harrassed must have done something to be treated so harshly. You get the feeling that injustice is going on and no one seems to care. You wonder if God is even aware or even able to answer.
But it doesn’t have to be about police brutality that we issue a cry of lament. We have all faced moments when something in life trips us up. Life become chaotic and out of control and we hope for some relief from somewhere- anywhere. But the relief doesn’t seem to come, at least not at the present time. Psalm 69 reminds us that life is not simple or easy and neither is our faith. We lose jobs, a friend or family member gets cancer, a loved one dies, something somewhere happens that makes us think life is not fair.
I remember when I preached my first funeral. It was for a young man, about a year younger than I am who killed himself. His friends were distraught, as was his partner. Maybe the hardest thing was the grief on his father’s face. This young man that died was an only child and you could see the pain in the older man’s face at having lost his only child in the most unimaginable way possible. Being an only child myself, I could understand his profound grief.
Save me, God, because the waters have reached my neck!
Life isn’t perfect and this Psalm makes that known like a sledgehammer. Psalm 69 also reminds us that God is here with us. I know I say this enough to sound like a broken record, but God is with us-even during the hard times. “But me? My prayer reaches you, Lord, at just the right time. God, in your great and faithful love, answer me with your certain salvation!” the psalmist writes. The writer trusts in God, even when God seems distant or silent. The writer knows that God is faithful and will not forget the writer.
Trust in God doesn’t mean the pain isn’t there and we surely don’t have to hide that from God. The writer trusts God, but that doesn’t mean they act like everything is fine when it’s not. The psalms of lament remind us that we don’t have to pretend being happy when life just sucks. God can handle our complaints.
I could have picked a few songs for the sermon today. I could have picked Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” a hit from his 1971 album of the same name. I could have also chosen “Inner City Blues” also by Marvin Gaye which also goes by the name “Make Me Wanna Holler.” For good or for ill, African American music includes a lot of songs of lament, for some obvious reasons.
But I decided to choose a song from a hometown artist: Prince. In 1987 he released what some critics think was his best album called “Sign O’ The Times.” The title track was released as the second single from the album and in many ways it was an 80s version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Just like Gaye was talking about what was going on in his time like the Vietnam War, Prince decided to talk about the AIDS crisis, drug use and nuclear war. This is from the first verse:
In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same
At home there are seventeen-year-old boys and their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples’
High on crack and totin’ a machine gun
Things were not right to Prince in 1986 and 87 and things aren’t right now. But what Psalm 69 remind us is that in good times and bad, God is there and God will set things to rights.
Sadly, we live in a world where people wonder if the police could over-react in a situation. But we also live in a world where God is here. A God that can listen to our cries of anguish and a God that cares for us. No matter how bad life gets, God isn’t far off. That’s good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.