Sermon: Lift Up Your Soul

February 21, 2021

Psalm 25:1-10
Mark 1:9-15

by Eric Anderson

The young lau’ipala didn’t want to go to school.

That’s not all that unusual for a young lau’ipala, or a yellow tang in English. They’re not generally a schooling fish, unlike the moi or the ‘ahi, at least when they’re young. Like most of those his age, this particular lau’ipala had staked out his part of the reef and would try to chase away interlopers.

His part of the reef was pretty close to shore, and one day he overheard a human being who had come down to the water’s edge to read and to pray. The woman read Psalm 25 aloud – you know, like we’ve just heard – and the young lau’ipala heard the words “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths,” and they made him think and think hard. What would be the ways of a lau’ipala, he wondered. What would have the taste, the smell, one might even say what might have the tang (the yellow tang?) of truth?

He went off to search for a yellow tang with some truth.

He couldn’t look for his parents. Like lots of fish, lau’ipala hatch from eggs drifting in the water. There are other older fish around if you look, and they usually form small schools as they drift over the reef and graze on the algae. He looked for one of these groups. It would have some elders he could ask questions of.

He found one soon, and rather cautiously joined the school. He was accepted without fuss. He floated over to one of the elder fish and asked, “What are the ways of a lau’ipala?”

The older fish looked at him and said, “You are young to ask that question.” He didn’t want to admit that he’d been inspired by a human, so he said nothing. She continued, “but that’s the question that we all have come to ask, and we all got the same answer. Stay with us and see.”

“Isn’t there a shorter answer?” he wanted to know. “I’d really rather get back to my section of the reef.”

“Not really,” she told him. “We have come to learn that we learn best together.”

And so he stayed. He stayed and learned things about tasty algae that he hadn’t known. He learned things that he’d already known – for instance, that most fish that like to eat yellow tang can’t actually see the difference between yellow and the colors of a reef, so it’s relatively easy to hide. He learned, though, about scaring off predators as a group rather than hoping to find a hiding place in time. He learned about the ways of the lau’ipala.

Most of all, he learned that the first step in learning is to realize you have something to learn.

“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” Those are the opening words to Psalm 25. After these many months of pandemic, months of imposed separation, months of anxiety over real risk and uncertainty about the reality of risk, months of economic hardship for many, months of griefs that could not be shared for many, months of… well, months of the Lentiest Lent ever lented (a phrase that has run around the Internet so widely that I don’t know who to attribute it to), we might well transform these words to, “O LORD, lift up my soul.” And it would be a worthy and heartfelt prayer.

Let’s go there. I could use it. I know a lot of people who could use it. I’m guessing that you could use it.

There are many ways to lift up one’s soul. A perennial favorite, of course, is energetic music and the opportunity to dance. Each generation has its own notion of what energetic music might be and what appropriate dance might be. In the last two hundred and fifty years in Hawai’i, hula has been regarded as: sacred, wildly inappropriate, a cultural treasure, and hopelessly old fashioned. The waltz, enshrined in European tradition as stately, courtly, and respectable, was widely condemned as it made its way from its origins among low-income Germans to the wealthy and powerful. In 1771, novelist Sophie von La Roche published Geschichte des Frauleins von Sternheim, or The Story of Lady Sternheim, in which one of the characters says this about the waltz: “But when he put his arm around her, pressed her to his breast, cavorted with her in the shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans and engaged in a familiarity that broke all the bounds of good breeding—then my silent misery turned into burning rage.”

Well. I think we’d be better off if we followed the advice of songwriters Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, who advised,

“You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”

Psalm 25 utterly fails to mention dancing, which is covered in other psalms. Psalm 25 does mention some other ways to lift up the soul, and they can help alongside music and dance but also in silence and stillness as well.

The poem opens with a direct request to God for aid and protection. “Do not let me be put to shame.” We would tend to read this as a protection against embarrassment, but that would be just a small portion of the psalmist’s broader meaning. “Shame” in the ancient setting of Israel would also include actual harm, physical, emotional, or economic. Shame would reflect damage to relationships as well as to reputation. Shame would refer to a broad spectrum of life that is no longer lived in fullness and prosperity. I could be put to shame by someone slandering me, but I could also be put to shame by someone robbing me or physically assaulting me.

The poet’s direct request to God for aid, therefore, is an example to follow not just for those of us concerned about our reputations, but also for those of us concerned about our health, safety, and well-being. It is as much a guide for our prayers if we are threatened by a human oppressor as it is a guide for our prayers threatened by a global pandemic. “Protect me, O God,“ is a soul-preserving, soul-strengthening, soul-uplifting prayer.

The poem turns rapidly to another source of soul-reinforcement: the knowledge of God. “Your ways,” says the Psalmist, and “your paths,” and “your truth,” “what is right.” “Teach me,” writes the Psalmist, “for you I wait all day long.”

The ancient poet would have had fewer written accounts of the knowledge of God than we do. The New Testament, of course, had not been written. The Psalms had not been assembled into a single book and who knows which of them had been written and which had not at the time this psalm was written. Some of what we now recognize as Scriptures might still have been in the form of stories told and retold down the generations. Some of what we now recognize as Scripture might have been in the actual words of one of the prophets. Who knows what this ancient poet might have heard with their ears rather than read with their eyes?

So seeking after the truth of God has to be done with Scripture but also outside of Scripture. The Psalmist appealed directly to God for guidance, and that it still good advice for our prayers today. The United Church of Christ is exactly right in its declaration that God is still speaking, that God’s voice is not silent, that God’s guidance is still at hand. The Scriptures testify. The voices of our tradition have their influence. And God continues to offer direct sustenance and nurture to the human spirit.

A crucial step, as the psalmist notes, is humility in the human spirit. It is a sad truth that you don’t learn anything if you know everything already. It’s what the lau’ipala learned, isn’t it? It’s what we humans learn, often painfully – or we don’t learn, and then it’s usually painful for ourselves and all too often for others. God “leads the humble in what is right” because it’s the humble who are prepared to listen.

I’ll just mention again that the first step in listening is… to stop talking. It’s also an essential step being nurtured in the knowledge of God: to let there be silence in your prayer in which God can speak and move.

There is one other thing the Psalmist has done in this poem that we might also wish to follow to lift up our souls: to trust in the mercy and steadfast love of God.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford writes at Working Preacher, “Mercy (raham) and steadfast love (hesed) are two of the words found in God’s self-revelatory words to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. Recall that these words were spoken by God to Moses on Mount Sinai after the Israelites had fashioned the Golden Calf and worshipped before it. When Moses came down from the mountain, he broke the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:19); in Exodus 34, he ascended the mountain again and God encountered him once again, this time not only giving Moses the Ten Commandments, but also a self-description that echoes throughout the pages of the Old Testament:

“‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful (raham) and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6).”

Trust in God’s mercy and love are at the root of the Psalmist’s decision to seek God’s aid at the beginning. Trust in God’s mercy and love undergird the Psalmist’s choice to seek God’s direction. And they lead the Psalmist to a moment of confession – “do not remember the sins of my youth” – offered with a sense of assurance that the confession will be restore and not harm the Psalmist’s relationship with God.

That is the heart of it all, the deep source of our faith and confidence, the foundation that can, indeed, lift up our souls: the raham and the hesed, the mercy and the steadfast love of God. Seek those in prayer, in Scripture, in the world about you. Seek the mercy and steadfast love of God in times of quiet and in the exuberance of dance. Seek the mercy and steadfast love of God when it is obvious and when it is obscure. Seek the mercy and steadfast love of God, because that is what will lift up your soul.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of February 21, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

The sermon text above is as it was prepared. We prepare for realities ahead – and they are not the same as what we prepared – as we can see.

Photo of lau’ipala (yellow tang) by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on February 21, 2021

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