“I Love, Therefore I Am”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice
and my supplications.
2Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, save my life!”
5Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
6The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
9I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
10I kept my faith, even when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”;
11I said in my consternation,
“Everyone is a liar.”
12What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
13I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
14I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
15Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.
16O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
You have loosed my bonds.
17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
18I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,
19in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)
Psalms 113-118 constitute the Hallel, a grouping of psalms that, for countless generations has been recited verbatim on high and holy days during the Jewish year. The Hallel is a liturgical remembrance of Israel’s story from exile, through the Exodus, and into their new life of faith.
Psalm 116 is interesting in that it presents a personal testimony to the faithfulness of God in the midst of a communal celebration. It illustrates how one person’s life experience and the experience of the faith community as a whole mirror each other. It declares that the sufferings and the joys of all of us cannot be separated from the sufferings and the joys of each of us.
The psalm is written in what scholars call a chiastic structure, which means that the first half of the psalm contains specific elements that move stanza-by-stanza to a middle, then those same elements pivot and are repeated in reverse order.1 So, the psalm ends where it begins, and vice-versa. It moves from praise and thanksgiving, through the encompassing snares of death and the tearful bitterness of affliction, back to praise and thanksgiving.
Lying at the very heart of the psalm is gratitude for God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and mercy through all seasons of life. And there’s nothing in the psalm to indicate the worthiness of the one cared for and redeemed. There’s only the fact of God’s proactive presence. In light of this grace, the psalmist stands in receptive awe of all that God has done and is capable of doing. Guided by gratitude, the psalmist can face anything, gladness or suffering, because he trusts God.
Psalm 116 defies superficiality regarding gratitude. When the psalmist says that he will “pay his vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,” he intends much more than marking a box on some religious to-do list. For the psalmist in particular, and spiritually speaking in general, gratitude is more than uttering the words Thank you. Gratitude that never ventures beyond speech atrophies into entitlement. The spiritual discipline of gratitude reveals an abiding posture of heart and mind. Gratitude is the source of the creature’s capacity and desire to live generously in the Creation as a humble response of love for and in praise of the Creator.
Now, while the challenges the psalmist faces are not specified, they’re not theoretical, either:
He has experienced the grip of distress and affliction.
When he lost faith in his fellow human beings, he called “everyone…a liar.”
He has not only feared for his life, he has witnessed the deaths of ones that both he and God loved. His lament, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones,” oozes with the poignancy of one who has seen death first hand and has felt helpless in the face of it.
The psalm declares the confident hope of one who has learned to live in the great Nonetheless that is faith. And his testimony becomes our call to join him in that great Nonetheless. We, too, live in a distressing, afflicted world in which goodness often gets choked to death by selfishness, and brutality, and, just as often, by trite religiosity that baits us by confusing material excess and destructive power with God’s blessing.
Familiar translations of Psalm 116 may even permit such confusion. Biblical scholar Alice Hunt notes that while many translations of this text begin with “I love the Lord, because he has heard by voice,” that translation requires making “the Lord” a direct object for “I love.” Dr. Hunt says that a more literal translation of the Hebrew would be I love because the Lord has heard my voice.2 Without limiting the object of the psalmist’s love to “the Lord,” the psalm opens up, doesn’t it? I love. And I love because I serve a God of not only responsive but proactive engagement in my life and in the life of the Creation—a God of grace. If I am made in the image of God, and if God is love, then loving makes me who I am.
Loving doesn’t make us deserving of God’s grace. Merit and grace are mutually exclusive. To love does signify our holy humanity, though. And for us, as Christians, to love as Jesus loves us, declares our faith. To love as Jesus loves is to be fully human and fully alive. Even when surrounded by “the snares of death,” when enduring “distress and anguish,” when “stumbling” and weeping, when “afflicted” and distrustful—to love, Nonetheless, is to live in the confidence that God hears our voice, and continues to incline God’s ear to us.
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Covid-19 now shapes virtually everything we say, do, and think. As of this morning, I know of no member of Jonesborough Presbyterian who has the virus. I do know that family members of members have had it and are, I am grateful to say, recovering. I also know that a woman in my wife’s home church in GA did die from it. We all feel distress, anguish, and the snares of death surrounding us. And how we love in this moment defines us. How we love today will determine our living in the future.
Last week, David Brooks wrote an opinion piece entitled “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too,” and subtitled, “You May Not Like Who You’re About to Become.”2 In that article he gives a brief synopsis of a number of pandemics throughout history. The ominous trend during these experiences was a general disintegration of the bonds holding societies together. When the world reminded us of how little we control, even in our own lives, many human beings responded in the most un-loving ways. There were mad scrambles to scapegoat and even persecute those who suffered.
Things are no different now. Yesterday morning, I was heartbroken to see a picture of someone at a rally in Nashville—someone hiding his face behind a mask and a pair of those huge, aviator sunglasses—holding a cardboard sign that said, “Sacrifice the Weak.”4
There will always be people who choose selfishness and fear, people who propagate attitudes that are fundamentally antithetical to what Jesus taught, indeed, antithetical to what people of grateful faith proclaim, regardless of their spiritual tradition. We do not have to live that way. We do not have to give up on love and capitulate to despair.
Now more than ever is God calling us to live as signs of gratitude and hope in and for God’s beloved Creation. And through the promise of Resurrection, we can sing with the psalmist:
I love because the Lord heard my cries.
Because God has delivered me from the bonds of selfishness and fear, I will love gratefully by living compassionately.
I will love by reaching out in generous response.
Because Jesus loves, I love.
Because he is, I am.
1Alice W. Hunt, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. Pp. 407-411.