Bringing the Text to Life

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Between Cassandra and Pollyanna Psalm 22:25-31

Between Cassandra and Pollyanna

There are more reasons than ever to be optimistic about God's future.

At a Glance

The New Optimists are proclaiming that the good old days were not that good, and that, far from getting worse, the world is becoming a better place. This discussion leads us to Psalm 22, which begins in abject despair, but concludes with the power of God.

Editors' Pick

For material based on today's gospel text, see "Canopy Management," May 18, 2003, at

Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.--Psalm 22:30b-31.

When he was running for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan discovered a question that had powerful resonance on the campaign trail: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Standing before the microphones, Reagan asked it again and again. He won a resounding victory.

Once elected, President Reagan was famous for his sunny optimism. But as a candidate, he knew that cultivating a relentless pessimism -- and taking every opportunity to pin the evidence for that gloomy outlook on his opponent -- was a first-class ticket to the Oval Office.

The Gipper's question is still compelling: "Are we better off today than we were four years ago ... or 10 ... or a generation?"

Lots of people today would answer that question, "No." Every day's news bulletins are dripping with bad news. The cascade of negative data threatens to overwhelm our fragile sense of well-being. The "good old days" are looking better all the time.

But were they really? That's the question.

These days, finding reasons for pessimism is pretty easy. Based on a random collection of newspaper headlines and screaming warnings culled from social media, it seems like a no-brainer. It's a lot harder to assemble a list of reasons for optimism -- at least from those sources.

But that's only because so many reporters and pundits are working overtime to be pessimistic. Fear sells newspapers.

A growing number of experts, though, are taking the opposite view: that the times we're living in are by no means the worst of times. Considering the most important criteria for human well-being, they may even be the best.

This upbeat group has been tagged "The New Optimists." Taking a decidedly long view of history, they remind us that many aspects of the good old days were not good at all.

At the end of 2016, The Times of London columnist Philip Collins noted some inspiring milestones recently achieved: the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty fell below 10 percent for the first time; global carbon emissions failed to rise for the third year running; more than half the countries of the world had made the death penalty illegal; and giant pandas were no longer on the endangered species list.

A few weeks later, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof boldly named 2016 "the best year in the history of humanity." Kristof cited declines in global inequality, a child mortality rate roughly half what it had been in 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity every day.

Yet, most news consumers are unaware of these positive developments, which are the product of slow, incremental changes.

Positive stories like these are not the stuff of which headlines are made. Isolated incidents -- hurricanes, mass shootings, ethnic unrest -- get far more attention, even though their impact on the overall well-being of the human race is insignificant compared to the slow march of economic and technological development.

The label "New Optimists" is a deliberate foil to "the New Atheists," a group of scientific positivists led by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Just as those bad-boy philosophers examine certain findings of modern science and discard Genesis' conclusion that God created the world good, the New Optimists take a broader view and say, "Not so!"

Writing in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman observes that the New Optimists believe that "our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are -- illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity." The gloomy view is, he points out, an ancient survival mechanism programmed into the human race: "The cave-dweller who always assumed there was a lion behind the next rock would usually be wrong -- but he'd be much more likely to survive and reproduce than one who always assumed the opposite."

"Peace of mind," writes Richard Rohr, "is actually an oxymoron. When you're in your mind, you're hardly ever at peace, and when you're at peace, you're never only in your mind." Obsessive consumers of news stories -- whether gathered from traditional media sources or from endless, scrolling social-media feeds -- dwell in their own minds constantly. "The Early Christian abbas (fathers) and ammas (mothers) knew this," says Rohr. They "first insisted on finding the inner rest and quiet necessary to tame the obsessive mind. Their method was first called the prayer of quiet and eventually was referred to as contemplation."

Another way to put it is to observe that the human brain is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. It helps to remind ourselves that, for evolutionary reasons, our negative thoughts are so much stickier than the positive ones.

Burkeman also cites Swedish historian Johan Norberg, author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (OneWorld Publications, 2017). Norberg examines 10 important indicators of human flourishing -- food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood -- and concludes that the human race has seen improvement in all of them. Paraphrasing Norberg, Burkeman says: "It wasn't so long ago, he observes, that dogs gnawed at the abandoned corpses of plague victims in the streets of European cities. As recently as 1882, only 2 percent of homes in New York had running water; in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was a paltry 31, thanks both to early adult death and rampant child mortality. Today, by contrast, it's 71 -- and those extra decades involve far less suffering, too."

In order to overcome the drag of pessimistic obsession with "the good old days," a fundamental change in perspective is necessary. That sort of 180-degree turn toward fact-based optimism is not really new -- despite the "New Optimists" label. We can see it even in Scripture, in what is perhaps the most sonorous of all biblical laments, Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 -- a lament

It's hard to imagine a bigger about-face than what we see in Psalm 22. This psalm of lament -- which was, of course, the song Jesus himself quoted as an expression of his agony on the cross -- begins in abject despair: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

This afflicted soul's groan of lament proceeds onward through "I am a worm, and not human," through "my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast," to the stunningly graphic, "I can count all my bones."

But then, abruptly, at verse 22 -- just before this week's lectionary passage begins -- the mood shifts. It's a 180-degree turn, from lament to praise: "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."

The reason becomes clear in verse 24, as the poet praises God who "did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him." After all his tribulations, this long-suffering soul awards the Lord points for being a good listener.

So confident is the psalmist in God's reliability -- despite it all -- that he offers praises on behalf of those who will come after him: "Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the LORD, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it!" (vv. 30-31).

For all its gruesome imagery, Psalm 22 is extremely well-known. Perhaps that's because this psalm is a staple of Good Friday services. No doubt, the part with the greatest resonance is the "Why have you forsaken me?" opener. It's the psalm's somber first half our people are more likely to know. Curiously, the concluding shout of praise -- despite its world-conquering confidence -- has far less staying power for most readers.

Although the gospel writers only place this first line of the psalm in Jesus' mouth, it's very possible he didn't stop there, reciting the entire poem from the cross. Just as modern hymns are often known by their first line, the psalmist's use of the words "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" could be a shorthand way of suggesting that Jesus sang the whole thing, as blood dripped from his brow and flies circled his head. Wouldn't it mightily change many a Good Friday sermon to imagine the crucified Son of God moving from God-forsakenness to praise?

Reflecting on the crucifixion, most biblical theologians revel in the minor key, emphasizing Jesus' utter dereliction. Yet, is that truly the most faithful reading? Can we really believe that the learned Rabbi Jesus -- steeped in the Scriptures as he was -- would have stopped at the first line of lament, failing to recall where Psalm 22 ends?

Major and minor keys

Amid the turmoil of life, we too often find ourselves alternating between the major and the minor key. Life's struggles may lay us low for a time, but upon further prayer and reflection we discover deeper levels of devotion. These make room for more ambiguity than the simple, childlike "God will take care of you" faith many of us were taught.

The apostle Paul captures such a deeply nuanced faith in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."

These two opposite poles of spirituality are symbolized by two prophetic figures from the world of literature: Cassandra and Pollyanna.

The ancient Greek poet Homer gives us the figure of Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. The god Apollo endowed her with the ability to foretell the future, but along with that gift he also gave her a curse: that no one who heard her prophecies would believe her.

Cassandra is infamous as a prophet of doom. Again and again she warns her people of dire sufferings that will come upon them, but because they disbelieve her, she never has the satisfaction of knowing her words have had a beneficial effect.

We all know Cassandras -- people who are so caught up in a pessimistic worldview that there's little room for joy in their lives.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is another literary figure from a far less exalted source. Pollyanna is the title character of a wildly popular series of children's books by Eleanor H. Porter. The first Pollyanna book was published in 1913 and is still in print. The original novel and its many sequels came to be known as "Glad Books."

Pollyanna is a young girl who's ever cheerful and relentlessly positive in her outlook on the world. No matter what misfortunes befall her, no matter what suffering descends upon people she loves, Pollyanna always looks for the silver lining in the storm cloud.

The very name Pollyanna has become synonymous with wild-eyed optimism. People who always look to the bright side, even amid the most fearsome darkness, are labeled "Pollyannas."

The label's not entirely complimentary. Pollyannas are assumed to be a little unhinged. They're detached from the cold, hard facts of life. The "Pollyanna principle" is the determination to maintain a sunny outlook, despite all evidence to the contrary.

We do well, as followers of Jesus Christ, to locate ourselves somewhere between Cassandra and Pollyanna. It's important to be realistic in our assessment of our fallen world, with all its trouble and suffering. There's nothing to be gained, for example, by saying to a mother grieving the loss of her child, "Chin up, things will get better tomorrow." As the psalmist reminds us, there's an important place for songs of lament in the spiritual life.

On the other hand, lament can be overdone. Christians who are too quick to condemn the bad things they see around them can be pigeonholed as people who deny the fundamental goodness of God's creation.

We need to find the proper balance. Psalm 22 -- the whole of the psalm, from "Why have you forsaken me?" to "proclaim [the Lord's] deliverance to a people yet unborn" -- serves as a practical guide to achieving that balance.

Possible Preaching Themes:

+ The role of lament in our spiritual lives

+ Joy and depression

+ The messianic overtones of Psalm 22

+ The value of realistic pessimism

+ Why suffering and despair should have a voice


Burkeman, Oliver. "Is the world really better than ever?" The Guardian. July 28, 2017. Retrieved October 17, 2017.

Collins, Philip. "Never forget that we live in the best of times." The Times. December 23, 2016. Retrieved October 17, 2017.

Kristof, Nicholas. "Why 2017 may be the best year ever." The New York Times. January 21, 2017. Retrieved October 17, 2017.

Rohr, Richard. "Richard Rohr's daily meditation." Center for Action and Contemplation. May 5, 2015. Retrieved October 17, 2017.

THE OTHER TEXTS: April 29, 2018, Cycle B

Acts 8:26-40

What Does the Text Say?

This text is the well-known Bible story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. The "court official" of the "queen of the Ethiopians" had been in Jerusalem to worship. Now he was on his way home, and as many a traveler, he'd picked up something to read. In this case, it was the prophet Isaiah -- not exactly a trash novel. As he is reading from chapter 53, Philip suddenly appears running toward his chariot. Hearing the eunuch reading Isaiah, he begins a conversation by asking if the Ethiopian understands what he's reading. His response is: "How can I, unless someone guides me?" The catechism concludes with the Ethiopian's baptism. Philip then disappears as quickly and mysteriously as he'd appeared. The two characters in this little drama are both interesting figures. Philip the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the apostle) is like an Elijah redivivus, what with the Spirit plopping him here and there. The eunuch is an important official of the queen. He's from an exotic and faraway land -- Nubia, and the extreme edge of the then-known world -- and he's evidently a God-fearer come to Jerusalem to worship. But he's also a eunuch in every sense of the word, and therefore disqualified from converting to Judaism, and thus the words of the prophet regarding the Suffering Servant must have resonated in his own heart: "In his humiliation justice was denied him" (53:33). The eunuch thus becomes the first Gentile to receive the gospel from the witness of the Hellenistic community, specifically Philip who, along with Stephen and others, had been appointed to organize the assistance the early church offered to the widows and distressed. Philip is the happy evangelistic, joyfully sharing the good news with Gentiles in Samaria, and now in Gaza, and later elsewhere; Peter is the reluctant evangelistic who only brought Cornelius into the arms of the church after a vision and some divine coaching (see chapter 10).

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

So What's Stopping You?
Two great phrases pop up in this text. One is: "Starting with this Scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus" (v. 35). The other is: "What is to prevent me from ...?" (v. 37). Of the first, it is helpful to remember that, when all else fails, a) go to the Scriptures, and b) talk about Jesus. Of the second, we could ask ourselves what is stopping us from ... acting on the teaching of Scripture; from ... starting the new ministry we sense God is calling us to; from ... being obedient to the counsel of the Holy Spirit? Why do we delay to do what obviously God wants us to do?

*Homiletics has treated this text five times. Go to Select Acts in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

1 John 4:7-21 

What Does the Text Say?

This text is an admonition for the children of God to love one another. The reason why love should characterize the Christian community is that "love is from God" (v. 7), i.e., it emanates from God because "God is love" (v. 8). The anti-Gnostic sentiment of this text, and indeed the entire epistle, cannot be under-appreciated. God might be many things to the Gnostic, but love is not one of them, and certainly not a divine love which is incarnational ("God sent his Son ..."), i.e., enfleshed. God is not love in the abstract. God's love was demonstrated in a tangible, if shocking way. God "sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (v. 11). The text does not suggest that we grow closer to God by receiving love, but by giving love. The thrust of this text, then, is to promote love in the community of faith: "Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also" (v. 21). God's love is incarnational and transformational. John links knowledge (gnosis) ("By this we know ...") to love. If we truly know God, we will live with each other in a love that is without fear of what a final day of judgment may reveal: "Perfect love casts out fear."

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Epistemology 101.
How can we know ... if we are a child of God? Love. As the commentary above notes, the love of which John writes is not the love we receive from God, but the love we give to others. Without a love which ministers to our brothers and sisters, we cannot with confidence claim to possess any divine DNA. The people of God's family are people who just can't love and help each other enough. They're people who live with each other in a love that is without fear. Conversely, those who mistreat and hate others thereby positively identify themselves as enemies of God. We know God by loving others. We may know about God from written revelation and from natural revelation, but we truly enter into an experiential knowledge of God when we love others.

*Homiletics has treated this text three times. Go to Select 1 John in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

John 15:1-8  

What Does the Text Say?

Unlike the "I Am" sayings of Jesus in chapter 10 where Jesus is identified first as the gate and then as the shepherd, Jesus' identification with the "true vine" and the subsequent description of the connection between vine, branches and fruit is far less confusing. Jesus is the vine, God the Father is the vine grower, and the true believers are the branches. The branches get pruned now and again and some fall away on their own, which suggests the reality of crisis and tribulation for those who believe. However, the "pruning" is not for punishment, but so that the community of Jesus can be even more fruitful. Indeed, Jesus says that the pruning has already been accomplished and that those who remain have "already been cleansed" (v. 3). Yet, there is an ominous tone to the metaphor: There are branches that do not produce fruit and therefore these are removed, thrown into the fire and burned (vv. 2, 6). The hint of punishment by burning and being thrown into the fire is found in passages of the synoptic gospels concerned with last judgment (see Mark 9:43). However here, the fruitless branches that are burned are not those who do not come to faith, but apparently those individuals who were at one time fruitful (hence, believers) and yet have fallen away and are no longer "true" to the faith -- apostate. It is impossible to identify anyone or ones as these fruitless branches. 

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Pruning Is Not for Punishment.
We're well into spring now. Find a potted rose bush and find an expert in roses and ask her to explain briefly what she does with her snippers. Or, if vineyards are plentiful in your region, find a vinedresser. Ask the rose lady if she's angry when she removes the snippers from her gardening apron. Does she snip, snip, snip and chortle with glee, and laugh when each little twig falls to the ground? "There you go, my little lovelies! Hahahahaha!" The idea is absurd. The purpose of pruning is not to inflict punishment but to enhance production. It's the tree that resists the wind that is strong; it is the muscle that is exercised to the point of pain that is strengthened; it is the rose that's been cut back, that exudes the most beauty.

*Homiletics has treated this text three times. Go to Select John in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

Worship Resources

Music Links


Be Thou My Vision

Abide with Me

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms


How Good and Pleasant (Walker)

Everlasting God (Brown, Riley)

Glory to God Forever (Fee, Beeching)

†For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.

Other titles on these topics
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  • Keep the Stars in Your Eyes
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on Psalm 22:25-31

from Apr 29, 2018

Both ancient Israelites and followers of Jesus have used Psalm 22's individual prayer of lament to give poignant voice to both (1) their ongoing despair / crying-out prayers (vv. 1-21a) and (2) their fervent and widening praise for God's long-awaited deliverance (vv. 21b-31). This psalm and some others (e.g., Psalms 35 and 71), have this basic flow: "I am suffering and am in horrible anguish over ... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)

Animating Illustrations

An optimist sees the best in the world, while a pessimist sees only the worst. An optimist finds the positive in the negative, while a pessimist can only find the negative in the positive.

For example, an avid duck hunter was in the market for a new bird dog. His search ended when he found a dog that could actually walk on water to retrieve a duck.

Shocked by his find, he was sure none of his friends would ever believe him. He decided to try to break the news to a friend of his, a pessimist by nature, and invited him to hunt with him and his new dog.

As they waited by the shore, a flock of ducks flew by. They fired, and a duck fell. The dog responded and jumped into the water. The dog, however, did not sink but instead walked across the water to retrieve the bird, never getting more than his paws wet.

This continued all day long. Every time a duck fell, the dog walked across the surface of the water to retrieve it.

The pessimist watched carefully, saw everything, but did not say a single word.

On the drive home the hunter asked his friend, "Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?"

"I sure did," the pessimist said. "Your dog can't swim!"

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

--John Milton, Paradise Lost.

Random thoughts:

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.

--James Branch Cabell, The Silver Stallion.

We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.

--Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden.

The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little.

--Mark Twain.

I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope is admired by a large clan of persons as a sage.

--John Stuart Mill, "Speech on perfectibility," 1828. Retrieved October 16, 2017.

My wife, Ester, and I had just endured a difficult parent-teacher conference for one of our teenage children. It was a grades issue. The ride home was tense, until Ester broke the silence. "Think of it this way," she said. "At least we know he's not cheating."

That's an optimist. We need more optimism in America today -- especially in our politics.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? At the personal level, optimism clearly seems superior. Psychologists find that optimists generally enjoy better physical health than pessimists, and a greater ability to cope with setbacks. Optimists are happier than pessimists, as a rule.

On the other hand, optimism is not without cost. Research shows that optimists are more likely than pessimists to keep gambling after losing money. Optimism bias can be a contributing factor in car accidents, as drivers overrate their own abilities. Playing down the probability of disaster can lead us astray in other situations where assessing risk is vital, like choosing a profession or selecting a mate.

Optimism and pessimism have always competed in the American character. Think of it as Horatio Alger versus the Zombie Apocalypse.

--Arthur C. Brooks, "We need optimists," The New York Times, July 25, 2015. Retrieved October 26, 2017

Children's Sermon

Come to your children with a large measuring cup or a see-through bowl that is filled half way with water to which you have added food coloring for better visibility. Is this container half full or half empty? Have a show of hands: "Who thinks it is half full? Who thinks it is half empty?" Ask them if they can guess what it means when we say a glass is half empty. Agree that it might mean there is not enough or there could be more. And half full? Agree that this connotes that there is enough or a possibility for more. Point out to them that some people look at a situation like a glass half full and some see it as a glass half empty. Give them the example of a picnic. You choose where you are going, you plan your food and you get everything ready. Then it rains. (It is April, after all!) How would a person who sees the glass half empty view this situation? Agree that she would complain about the weather and think the day was ruined. What about the person who sees the glass half full? Agree that she would put a tablecloth on the floor of the family room and spread the picnic out, and everyone would watch a movie together or bake cookies together and eat them warm from the oven -- or do both! Close with the thought that sometimes we cannot control what happens -- like rain on a picnic day -- but we can control how we react to the rain.