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Matthew 26:6-13; Psalm 69:1-7, 13-14

When I was in middle school, our church youth group took a trip to a backyard lake owned by members of our church. The people who owned the lake had constructed a raft that floated like an island in the center of the water, and they had invited the youth group to come spend one of the first truly summery days of the year playing in their lake, swimming to the raft-turned-island, and eating snacks on their back porch. 

I was excited to go to the lake. Even though I was a shy, introverted kid with very few friends, my church youth group was the place where I felt safe. They were an extension of my family, and I was excited to spend time hanging out with them. I was also terrified to take the trip to the lake. What pre-teen looks forward to having to wear a bathing suit in front of all of their friends? I had chosen a swimsuit that covered as much of me as possible, and I started out my time lakeside wrapped up in a towel so I could keep myself hidden.

After a little while, I decided it was silly for me to hide like that. I was supposed to be having fun with my friends! So, I spread the towel on the ground near the lake and started to sit down. One of the youth group kids yelled in my direction, “Look at her! She’s so skinny, I think she’s sick!” Everyone started laughing. Someone else yelled a word at me I didn’t know. I found out later from my mom that it was a word for a person with an eating disorder. Even though I didn’t know what the word meant when it was yelled at me, I knew it was an insult meant to hurt me, and it was coming from people I thought were my friends.

Fighting back tears, I decided to wade into the lake. I wanted to let the murky water cover me and make me invisible. Maybe the splashing water would also drown out what my friends were shouting at me. I stepped into the water, and I felt the mud squish between my toes. I waded in a little farther, and the shouts of the kids behind me blurred so that I couldn’t make out their words. Even still, their fuzzy shouts continued to hurt me, so I moved even farther into the water. When the water was almost up to my neck, I took a deep breath and exhaled out all the tension in my body. Almost all of me was covered and I could no longer hear the words I was trying to escape.

Just then, I felt a piece of algae, or seaweed, or something, brush against my trembling leg. I stumbled as I tried to get away from it. I felt plant material surrounding my other foot. I thought I was going to trip over whatever it was under the water, but the plants clung tightly to my foot. My head started to go under the water. I managed to wriggle my foot free, but at the same time, I slipped down into deeper water. I stood on my tiptoes and my chin was just barely above the water.

My toes were sinking into the mud, and I found myself struggling to keep the dirty lake water out of my mouth. I flailed and spun, trying to get myself on more stable ground. For a moment, my voice joined with the writer of Psalm 69: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”

I don’t know how I managed to get out of that situation, but after a brief moment (that felt like an eternity), I found a rock with my feet. I stepped onto the rock, and my body stopped sinking down. I caught my breath, and I waded back into shallower water. Whenever I think about that experience at the lake, I remember feeling like the flood was coming at me from all sides. The water was below me and rising quickly. The insults behind me washed over my head and threatened to push me under. I held back the tears, only because I didn’t want to add to the water that surrounded me. I felt overwhelmed by everything.

Psalm 69 is a psalm of lament–a prayer for help. It’s a psalm of disorientation.The psalm writer faces all kinds of obstacles: he has so many enemies he can’t keep track of them all, he is alienated from his family and friends, he feels separated from God, he even feels like a stranger to himself. The psalmist is disoriented in his faith because he believes God is a good God, a God of steadfast love and mercy, and yet everything around him is pointing to the contrary. His suffering is so intense that many people who read this psalm can’t help but think of Jesus and his journey to the cross, even down to the detail of being given vinegar to drink. 

This morning, we continue our sermon series “Jesus and the Psalms,” on Palm Sunday. And perhaps this seems like a strange psalm to choose for such a joyous day. But, let’s take a moment to reflect on the journey of Jesus so far this Lent. At this point in the life of Jesus, tensions were high. The Jesus movement had grown so much that the religious leaders were afraid they were about to lose control. Jesus’s friend Lazarus had died, and Jesus raised him from the dead on the fourth day, and this miraculous event swelled the number of Jesus’s followers to a tipping point. The religious leaders decided their only option was to kill Jesus, otherwise they would be up against a movement so large they wouldn’t stand a chance to stop it.

As the opposition to Jesus’s teaching grew, so did the desperation of Jesus’s followers. In first century Galilee, almost 90% of people were living in poverty. The rich were getting richer, and the poor were struggling to find enough food to make it through their days. Even though the Jewish people had some freedom to worship in the Roman Empire, they were still oppressed, and they did not have possession of their land. They longed for the day when God would send the Messiah to rescue them, and all signs were pointing to Jesus as the one they had been waiting for. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, so many people were sure Jesus was the Messiah that they eventually formed a parade in the streets and shouted out to Jesus in desperation, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”

This psalm, the story of the woman with the alabaster jar in Matthew 26, and the journey of Jesus into Jerusalem, call us to offer our whole selves to God–even the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of, the parts we would desperately rather hide. In the time we have this morning, I’d like to invite us to listen in these Scripture passages for three things: the call to embrace our whole selves, the call to make space for the whole selves of others, and the courage to bring our whole selves to God.

First, we are called to embrace our whole selves. The psalmist lays it all out on the table: his feelings of being overwhelmed, the pain he is experiencing from others, his fears that he is somehow separated from God. He says all of this to God, even though he also says God is a God of steadfast love. The tough stuff in the psalmist’s life–his fears, his doubts, his anger–-none of it indicates a lack of faith. It’s what’s real for the psalmist. It’s what is true. So, he offers it to God, shadows and all.

Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson says this about psalms of lament and disorientation: “[These psalms] give us words for the deepest, darkest nights of our lives — when the bottom drops out, when the pain seems too much to bear. They tell us that God is big enough for everything we’ve got — our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. They even suggest that genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. And that God is present with us precisely when it feels like God isn’t there.” [1] We are called to embrace our whole selves.

We are also called to make space for the whole selves of others. In the story we looked at from Matthew 26, the woman with the alabaster jar anoints Jesus with expensive oil. She takes a risk and gives extravagantly to Jesus. And how do the disciples respond? You can almost hear the anger in their voices as they say, “Why this waste?” Jesus rebukes them: “Why do you trouble the woman?” The word for “trouble” in this verse is the word kopos in the Greek. This word means “to hit” or “strike a blow” that causes weariness or exhaustion. At that moment, Jesus isn’t concerned with her extravagant gift. He’s concerned about the way the disciples are harming her vulnerable display of worship. “Why are you hurting her?” 

It’s easy for us to reject the whole selves of others– culturally-condoned, even. We do this because we’ve been taught to do the same to ourselves, that certain emotions are OK, and others are a problem. Take the movie “Inside Out” for example. As the main character Riley grows up, she begins to receive the message that her emotions are unwelcome. She starts trying to stuff them down and bottle them up, and eventually she reaches a breaking point. I wonder how many of us grew up in homes or went through situations where we were told (verbally or through the body language of others) that how we were feeling wasn’t welcome. I would guess almost all of us have experienced something like this at least once. And because we were discouraged from being comfortable with our whole selves and all our emotions, we are uncomfortable when others express the same emotions we were told to hide.

Take for instance this joke Jeff came across online: “Why don’t men often show their true feelings? Because they don’t have any.” Seriously? Of course men have emotions! God created us with the beautiful and complex ability to feel different things in response to different situations. Look at the writer of Psalm 69. He talks openly about his tears, and even puts them in this psalm that would have been sung in worship. A huge contrast with a page of a children’s book I recently saw that said, “I wanted to cry, but I was brave so I didn’t.” One of the bravest–and healthiest–things we can do is learn to get comfortable with the wide range of emotions we have so that we can learn to have a healthier relationship with our whole selves. By doing this work, we not only embrace who God made us to be, but we also make space for the whole selves of others.

We are called to embrace our whole selves–unsavory things and all. We are called to make space for the whole selves of others. And, we are called to bring our whole selves to God. The psalmist writes: “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.” Psalm 69 is 36 verses long, and most of it is lament and turmoil. Yet here, in the very middle of the psalm, the writer says, “God, I’m going through all of these things, and I’m telling you this because you are faithful, and you are a God of steadfast love.” He has faith in God, while also experiencing pain, doubt, anger, and sorrow. 

So, how can we begin bringing our whole selves to God? We can learn a thing or two from Jesus. As he hung from the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He didn’t hold back. Now, you might be saying, “I’m not that skilled with words” or “I wouldn’t know how to begin praying like that.” Barb Roose, author of the book Finding Jesus in the Psalms, wrote this: “I’ve heard it said that ‘help’ is a complete four-letter prayer. God isn’t looking for eloquence or length when it comes to our prayer.” Author Anne Lamott says the three prayers any of us might need are, “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” 

God loves us so much that he created us with the ability to experience and express a wide range of emotions. And, he loved us so much that he sent his Son Jesus to save us and to show us what it looks like to live fully human lives. Jesus wept. He got angry. He showed compassion. He despaired. And yet, he was without sin. May we find the courage to embrace all of who we are, the grace to make space for the whole selves of others, and the trust to bring all of it to God in prayer. As the favorite hymn say:

“What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,

All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

[1] Rolf Jacobson on WorkingPreacher