Giving Thanks – Part One

Autumn_Leaves
Click here for the audio version of this sermon.

Editorial note: the first of the sermon can also be found in my November 14th post, Falling Down.

My family and I are hikers. As often as we can, we take to the trails, enjoying nature in all its peace and solitude. Recently, the family went on a short two-mile trek, mostly just to get out of the house and enjoy a warm sunny day in November. As we hiked, the mental noise and clutter of all the things going on in my life began to intrude, robbing me of the relaxed mood. I didn’t realize just how much until I yelled at my son for falling down. He’s eight, a little wobbly on his feet, but full of energy and at that moment in need of expending some. He took off down the trail, running full tilt and stumbled over some rocks. As he hit the ground, I yelled something at him about getting up, a response born not out of the situation itself but mostly from my own anxieties about the ‘clutter’ in my head. My wife looked at me and offered a few less than gracious words about yelling at him and then added, “He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up.”

Those words, He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up, are, I think, apropos for the situation that United Methodism finds itself in now. Historically, it seems like every generation of every denomination has needed to fall and pick itself up again. In this case, Methodists have been falling for years: since 1840 and the schism into MEC (Methodist Episcopal Church) and MEC, South; since the end of the classes and bands in the late nineteenth century; since the 1920’s and rise of Liberal/Boston theology in our seminaries; since 1972 when the General Conference instituted the wording on homosexual ministers and homosexual marriage. Depending on your context, any or all of these things can be positive or negative and yet each of them marks a point at which disagreement arose and was never really settled. In each of these cases, we as Methodists decided either to ‘leave each to his own’ or we simply ignored the existence of these things happening by hiding in our local contexts.

What is happening right now with the Commission on a Way Forward and the 2019 General Conference is simply the UMC having to figure out how to get up. We have been falling and now we’ve hit the ground. The question is, how will we get up? Options exist from the extremes and the middle with a great deal of commentary from all sides, at times polite in the name of good discourse and at others hostile with ill intent, to the point that this week, the Council of Bishops had to issue a letter saying,

In recent months, we have experienced these negative behaviors escalating into more aggressive, and violent expressions of hate, prejudice, and anger directed against others. We are hearing of and observing angry words now escalating to actions that are resulting in fear, anxiety, loss of security, and even physical harm. These actions are repugnant to us as your bishops.”[1]

As I watched my son lie there on the trail, every instinct demanded I reach down and help him up. I’m his father, he’s my son, this is a no brainer. And yet he needed to lie there, feel the sting of those scratches and bruises as a reminder that next time, he’ll have to be more careful. In a way, I think God is allowing us to hit the ground, feel the sting and sharp pain from the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves and pick ourselves up again. Many questions abound as to how and frankly, I have no idea what that will look like: a single denomination segmented into local areas that contextualize their theology to the people they serve, a fracturing into three or four denominations, an implosion of the whole thing. Who knows? I believe, however, that no matter what it is done we will have to correct the hostile attitudes and take more of a gracious, thankful attitude in order to hear and respond to one another.

I believe that this kind of situation is something familiar to Paul as he writes to the Philippian church.

Gratitude in the face of hostility

Philippians is possibly a two-fer, meaning that it may have been two or more letters collected together over time as a single piece of correspondence, similar to Second Corinthians.[2] Paul wrote the letter of Philippians after a not so gracious beginning in Philippi, making the first section of the ‘friendship letter’ part an even more gracious response from the Apostle, as Paul wrote to them from a prison cell in another city. As with most of Paul’s letters, and those of antiquity, this one follows a formula: salutation, thanksgiving, body of the letter, moral and ethical instruction, and closing.[3]

As we look at the thanksgiving section, we will notice that there are three sections: an expression of gratitude (vv.3-6), an expression of affection (vv.7-9), and a prayer for the church (vv.9-11).[4] Paul starts by talking about how thankful he is for the Philippian congregation, specifically that he is thankful when he prays, saying that a prayer about and for the congregation is “a prayer full of joy.” In the second part, Paul talks of his affection for the congregation saying that he keeps the congregation in his heart and calling them his partners in grace. He even compares his feelings toward the congregation to the compassion of Jesus. Paul ends this section with a prayer for the Philippian congregation that they will be insightful and knowledgeable and that the knowledge would be used to make good decisions about “what really matters” while being “filled with the fruit of righteousness…in order to give glory and praise to God.”

What makes this an interesting expression of thanksgiving is reading Acts chapter 16 and seeing what Paul dealt with on his first trip to Philippi. In verses 6-10 of that chapter, Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia who pleads with Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul, along with his companions that included Timothy and Silas, went to Philippi and began to minister to people. They met a woman named Lydia, ‘a Gentile God-worshiper’ who dealt in dyed purple cloth, a business that would have catered to the elite of the city and been relatively profitable. Lydia became a follower of Jesus and her and her household was baptized, a practice common in the early church.[5] Lydia would become a prominent member and supporter of Paul’s ministry in Philippi.

Paul’s work in Philippi was not without difficulty, however.  As he and Silas were walking to pray one morning a slave woman who ‘had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future’ called out to them. “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.”[6] This annoyed Paul, most likely because of the woman being used and abused as a slave by her owners, even as she declared a truth. Paul drove the spirit out of the woman, leaving her owners without the means of making money off her ‘gift’. The owners decided to get even with Paul by claiming to the authorities that, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” The crowds began to join the slave owners, no doubt afraid that Paul and Silas might take away their entertainment or livelihoods, and eventually, the authorities had Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, and thrown in jail.  After this, we have the rather famous incident of the earthquake that shook the prison and the prisoners who didn’t try to escape leading to the eventual conversion of the jailer and his household and afterward, the release of Paul and Silas.

You would think that this might leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth regarding a certain city where they were beaten and jailed. You might even think that someone would consider never stepping foot in that city again and never contacting anyone there again. It would not be an unreasonable response given the suffering that Paul experienced. And yet we hear Paul offering these words of affirmation and encouragement to the church at Philippi. How is that?

Paul saw the big picture. The situation with the slave woman and the slavers had nothing to do with the church at Philippi. From everything we see in Acts 16, Paul is treated well and supported in his efforts by Lydia, the jailer, and others who come to believe and those are the people he writes to in this letter. You will notice that the letter does not begin with the salutation, “To the slavers and people of the marketplace who had us thrown in prison.” No, it is addressed to “all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.” Paul was able to see the big picture and recognize that the people of the church at Philippi were not responsible for his suffering there and offer the church his encouragement and affirmation.

When we look at life, often we lump the bad in with the good, especially if that bad was particularly painful to experience and to remember. Yet, in the bad, there is usually good. Off the top of my head, I can think of places I would never want to serve as pastor again. The experience of those places was painful to my family and me in a way that just being there would bring back to mind all the difficulty suffered. Yet, I have many friends in those places who supported our ministry and work and continue to do so to this day. While I would not see me being the pastor of those places as a profitable appointment, I still see immense value in the ministries there and have great affection for those who loved and cared for us while we served there. It reminds me of the old saying about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You need to make sure there isn’t anything valuable in the tub before the dump out the water.

So, I ask you, what is your Philippi, your place to be thankful for in spite of the adversity you experienced?

References

Craddock, F. B. (2012). Philippians: Interpretation, a bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press.

Ehrman, B. D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Powell, M. A. (2009). Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.


[1] http://rmcumc-email.brtapp.com/files/content/communications/mountain%20sky%20area/cob%20pastoral%20letter%20nov10.pdf

[2] (Ehrman, 2004, p. 340), (Craddock, 2012, p. 5), (Powell, 2009, p. 348)

[3] (Craddock, 2012, pp. 3-4)

[4] (Craddock, 2012)

[5] Acts 16:11-15

[6] Acts 16:16-18

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Perspectives on John: Semiotic Theology

Perspectives
Click here for the audio version of this sermon.

When is a Thing not a Thing?

In the cabinet to right and above the stove, are four Ball Mason jars, two wide mouth and two regular, each quart sized. They are what you would commonly think of if you thought of a Mason Jar, transparent glass with the word ‘Mason’ imprinted on the bottom and the word ‘Kerr’ in script above it. Normally, my wife and I drink water out of them, trying to stay hydrated the best we can by making sure we get around two jars a day. Occasionally, they get used for craft projects for the children or as flower vases if we happen to bring in wildflowers.

And yet the Mason jar is more than a simple drinking jar; it is a series of memories and cultural affectations, born of a lifetime of experiences. It is drinking sweet tea in the backyard of a particularly humid evening at the parsonage in Thomaston. It is seeing my aunt Louise’s cellar at Possum Trot on the Berry College campus filled with summer vegetables to be eaten at family dinners in the fall or winter. It is an afternoon of painting random things on typing paper with my children or the centerpiece to a table set for neighbors at seminary in Kentucky.

It is a drinking jar and yet, it is much more than that. It is a reminder of home and the things that make home, well, home. It is a connection to something deep, meaningful, a sense of belonging that comes with the combination of memory and experience. That drinking jar is a sign, a significant marker of an emotional bond existing beyond the time and space of its birth.

Each of us could probably think of something that we see or use in a similar fashion. And the truth is it can be anything from a physical object to a certain smell to a certain feeling you have. All of these things can be signs that bind us to people, places, and moments in time.

A definition of Semiotic theology

When we read biblical literature, we find texts filled with allusions to signs, things which are representative of something other than themselves. I say signs rather than symbols because signs are part of a system called codes, a series signs that are put together to send out direct and meaningful communication. It’s like developing a language using not only words and thoughts but gestures and movements, all done for a particular circumstance.

For instance, say you went to a college football game. How would we know that a particular person was a fan of a particular team? The stadium will be filled with colors, those of the home team and those of the visiting team.  Let’s say the home team is red and the visitors are blue. A man wearing a red shirt is standing just outside, watching people walk into the stadium. Is the red shirt a definite giveaway that he is for the home team? Not really. He could just like red and be standing there to see what all the commotion is about. But what if add a red hat to go with the shirt? It’s still not enough to say for sure that the man is interested in the home team. What if I told you it was Saturday and you were in Athens, Georgia, outside Sanford Stadium? Almost there, but still not quite. One final crucial touch, one more sign is necessary to make the code complete, and that sign is the letter G. The G on the shirt would be the definitive sign to make the code complete or at least make it close enough to reasonably assume so.

All of these signs – the red shirt, the red hat, the location, the crowd – point in the direction of a certain thing but it requires one crucial sign, the G, to let you know with some certainty that the man is a fan of the home team. When all those signs come together, we call that a code, which is kind of like a language for a specific circumstance. In this case the language is made up of clothing that is a certain color, a location that has specific purpose, a certain day of the week, and an insignia on the clothing. This is the language of college football and any fan in the south would have recognized with just a few of those signs the language or code being spoken.

An application

John chapter 21 is actually an addendum, like the first part of chapter 1. Most scholars believe it was added later after the basic manuscript was finished[i] and our job is to look at the signs and see what code they point to, to try to find out why it might have been added and for what purpose, kind of like being spiritual code breakers.

Fishing as a sign

Peter, as several other disciples, was a fisherman. As our story begins in chapter 21, Peter goes back to doing what he had always done, what he knew how to do: fish. Given that Peter could not handle the boat and nets alone, he enlisted the help of his fellow disciples.[ii] The disciples go fishing and find nothing all night for their troubles, not a solitary fish for the effort. The next morning, exhausted physically from the work and mentally from recent events, they head in to shore. Waiting there on the shore as they head in is a man they do not recognize who refers to them as children and asks if they caught anything. They say no and the stranger tells them to throw the net out to the other side of the boat where they find ‘so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net.’[iii] Peter recognizes Jesus and impetuously jumps into the water, swimming to shore while the others bring in the boat and the net. Once ashore, they find Jesus sitting there at a fire, waiting with bread which he gives them to go with the fish (a common menu reminiscent of John 6:1-15). The writer of the addendum notes that Jesus has now appeared three times to the group since his death.

Fishing, according to one theologian, might represent bringing to light those things in your subconscious that you have previously not wanted to deal with. Eating also has subconscious overtones, in this case to begin to assimilate or accept things that you have previously not wanted to accept.[iv] In the disciple’s case, they are having to deal concretely, with the death and consequent resurrection of their master and friend. So, this fishing episode may well be a sign to point to their acceptance of Jesus death and resurrection.

Asking Simon “Do you love me?” three times as a sign

The second part takes place after breakfast, as Jesus asks a very pointed question to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” This question plays on two things: Peter’s tendency to react quickly or impetuously and Peter’s internal desire to set himself above the other disciples. We see this throughout the gospel of John as Peter is often the one of the group to speak up, out, and often too much for and in the situation.[v] The words used for ‘love’ are different in Jesus question and Peter’s answer. Jesus says, ‘do you agape me?’ and Peter responds ‘I phileo you’. This is an important distinction in that the words are translated into English as the same but have very different meanings. Mixed in with this is Jesus admonition to take care of the other followers: “Feed my lambs”, “Take care of my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”. This repetition is similar to the repetition of Peter’s denial in John 18 and points Peter back to a time when he had said, “I’ll give up my life for you”.[vi]

Agape is best understood in light of the meal that the disciples share with Peter, a meal reminiscent of the Eucharist or love feast meals of the early church. This idea of agape is the idea of love of man for God and God for man. It is akin to the idea of a complete, unreserved feeling of affection for another.[vii] Phileo on the other hand, is a lesser expression, which has to do with have feelings of fondness or to treat someone with kindness and affection. Phileo is more a surface expression of affinity for something where agape goes to the bone, a deep, intense connection.

The second sign seems to be that Peter will be tasked with a responsibility for the ‘sheep’ of Jesus’ flock and that Peter will be expected to love as Jesus loved and most likely die as Jesus died.

The disciple Jesus loved as a sign

After their discussion, Peter looks and sees ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ – who many presume to be John the son of Zebedee – and asks, “what about him?” In other words, Peter is saying, ‘you are giving me all this stuff to do but what is he going to be up to.’ It reminds me of my kids doing chores when one of them is doing something and the other is doing something they regard as easier. “Why does he/she only have to do that?”

Within this passage, the Greek gets a little technical. Suffice it to say, the point is about whether the beloved disciple will remain alive until Jesus returns as is mentioned in Mark 9:1. Jesus makes it clear that this is irrelevant in the grander scheme of things, saying to Peter, “It doesn’t matter what he does. You know what you have to do.” Ultimately, the point is the point I make to my children, “You each have things to do. Now, go do them.” Jesus is saying that each disciple will be tasked with something according the direction that the Spirit of God give them.

As a sign, we might regard this as a commissioning of sorts, with each disciple having a God-given responsibility in the years to come.

The code for the signs

If we were putting these signs together into a code, a collection of signs that point to a singular idea or expression of something, it might look something like this. The disciples, having faced their grief over Jesus death and shock over his resurrection are now being given individual tasks to live into going forward. The code for this might be that this future assembly of followers will also have to come to grips with the death and resurrection of Jesus as they who follow the followers and the follower’s followers learn how to live into the life that God calls them to through the work of Jesus.

So, what do you think?

References

Barthes, R. (1977). Elements of Semiology. New York: HIll and Wang Publishing.

Danesi, M. (2008). Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things (2nd ed.). New York, NY, USA: Palgrave MacMillan.

Eco, U. (1979). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Haenchen, E. (1984). John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 7-21. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Richards, I. (1965). The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford Universtiy Press.

Sanford, J. A. (2000). Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Spong, J. S. (2013). The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

 

[i] (Sanford, 2000, p. 332)

[ii] (Haenchen, 1984, p. 230)

[iii] John 21:6

[iv] (Sanford, 2000, p. 333)

[v] John 6, 13, 18, 20, 21

[vi] John 13:36-38

[vii] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=agaph&la=greek#Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=a)ga/ph-contents

 

Psummer of Psalms: Being Family

Meadow
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

Psalm 133: Being Family

A dysfunctional family

A number of years ago, I concluded that the news really wasn’t the news. What I mean by that is that the news as we hear it is shaded by the commentator, the news service, or the owners of those entities to their personal bias. For instance, if you want a conservative slant on world events, watch or read Fox News, Breitbart, The Drudge Report and The Blaze and if you want a liberal bias watch or read CNN, Politico, Huffington Post, and the New York Times.[i] Traditional news sources like the Associated Press and Reuters News Service tend to be without bias but in this day and age, I find it hard to believe such a thing exists. Most of the time, I read the same story from a left, right, and centrist source and look for all the things that are common.

A little over a week ago, a protest had been planned in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the main campus for the University of Virginia. “Right-wing blogger Jason Kessler planned what he called a “pro-white” rally to protest Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.”[ii] The rally was met with a counter-protest and according to sources present, “Rally supporters and counter-protesters screamed, chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other Saturday morning…” There were also fights Friday night throughout the Charlottesville area.[iii] A state of emergency was declared and protesters and counter-protesters dispersed. Unfortunately, thirty-five people were injured in the violence and one young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed in the violence when one of the ‘right-wing’ protesters, James Alex Fields, drove a car into a group of protesters.

Those are simply the facts to the best of my ability to gather them without bias or prejudice, a simple recounting of the events as they happened.  After watching the video of the car being driven into the group of protesters, I can also say I was horrified and sickened by what our country has become. I have talked with many of you and made my feelings known that when it comes to politics: extremism of any kind has no place in a peaceful society. The violence displayed by both sides in the protest/counter-protest was wrong. To have an opinion that is contrary to that of your neighbor is your right according to the Constitution and the laws that we live under; to bring harm to another human being is simply and unequivocally wrong.

Yet, the Bible speaks of the restoration and the stewardship of all things, creation included (cf. Genesis I-II, Psalm XIX.i). We are not agents of destruction but workers tasked with building the Kingdom of God on earth and the stewardship of His created order. As God called creation into order out of chaos, so too are we tasked with calling out into the chaos of man-made world systems and helping people find peace and well-being with God and neighbor.

So, what do we do as followers of Jesus in a world that is increasingly fragmenting into extreme expressions of life and faith? How do we create a space where we can “live together as one” as brothers and sisters, where we can be a family?

An Ideal Family

I think perhaps an idea may come out of the life of the twentieth century’s most famous martyr: the German Pastor/Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer began his ministry in pre-World War II Germany and opposed Hitler’s dictatorship, speaking out on many occasions about the dangers of the burgeoning Nazi regime. In 1935, a time when all the seminaries of the country were under Reich control and being filled with Nazi doctrine, Bonhoeffer accepted an offer to work with a community of pastors as part of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Movement was focused on maintaining their Christian faith without the socialist dogma of the ruling party. The result was a ‘hidden’ seminary in the town of Finkenwalde where Bonhoeffer and a group of ministers held classes and lived together in what could only be described as a modern version of the church described in Acts chapter two,

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers…All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.

(Acts II.xlii, xliv-xlvii)

The seminary was eventually disbanded by the Nazi party and twenty-seven ministers were arrested by the gestapo. But out of this experience came one of the great works on communal church, Life Together. I’d like to share with you some of these ideas on Christian community that have been influential in my life and many others.

“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 19)

I believe Bonhoeffer is speaking to the mutual support and encouragement that being with one another brings to the heart of the believer, especially when we can be at peace with one another. When we draw on the strength of one another, we draw on the strength that Jesus prayed for in John when he said, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us…”[iv]

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 21)

When Jesus speaks of being ‘in God’ in John XVII, I believe he is speaking of the idea that we are immersed in the presence and person of God in a real, personal way. In the same way, Paul, and above, Bonhoeffer, speak of being immersed in the presence, the life, the being, and the teachings of Jesus. It is this immersion that allows the connection of the community to come to fruition as the Spirit of God draws us together to share these things.

“…the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” (Bonhoeffer 1954, 23)

The definition I use for salvation being the process of becoming whole and having well-being or shalom with God and man through our understanding of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This wholeness, this well-being is born of the connections we have with and in Jesus and one another.

Each of these quotes speaks to the common life we saw in the disciples as they followed Jesus, the common life of the early church as recorded in Acts, and the common life available to us if we choose to be a people who wish to live into the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught in his life. It is found in the way Jesus cares about the daily life of people like Jesus turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana, how we answered the questions that stirred people’s hearts like Nicodemus, the way he met the physical and spiritual needs of those around him like the feeding of the five thousand or the healing of those with infirmities of the body and brokenness of the spirit.

Building family

So how do we build family and community in the church? We do it by being family to the community and the people around you. Look again at the Psalm we have read this morning. This Psalm was a communal song, chanted by the people as they went up to the Temple on feast weeks and celebrations.[v]  The people would sing this together as a communal expression of their faith and connectedness. Verse one speaks of families but according to some commentators, the word in Hebrew could just as easily refer to those beyond the basic family to extended relationships in the community.[vi]

This communal aspect of things is most important, especially considering that this was passed down through generations and probably written as a memory while the people of Israel and Judah were in captivity in Babylon. One commentator writes,

“Psalm 133 represents the synagogue’s credo and the essential value of Reconstructionist Judaism: Belonging to a community comes before all beliefs save for a belief in belonging. Belonging comes before behavior.”[vii]

For the Jews who had lived through the long journey to a foreign land or had been born in captivity, this concept of belonging to a community was central and identity as a people of God was the defining characteristic. For us as followers of Jesus, our defining characteristic as a community is how we live into being disciples. The way we approach our faith and understanding of Jesus, who he was, how he lived, died, and was resurrected, is the DNA of who we are and how we present that to the world around us. Our community becomes our witness. Our people, those connected to the greater Church, become the voice of our community to the world and frankly, I think we sound like an album left in the sun. Our voice is a scattered cacophony of dissonant noise as we have politicized our faith and made it a commodity to be sold off to the highest bidder. It is as if we have sold our message to a corporate world and political parties in exchange for a few social considerations. As we near the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation there are currently more than forty divisions within the Christian family under six major groups.[viii]

Knowing this about the greater church, we have the responsibility to our community to speak with one voice in agreement of that which can all agree with: Love God, Love Neighbor. To that end, I want to share one more story, one that my wife, Heather, shared with me about a man named Daryl Davis.

“For more than two decades, Daryl Davis, an African-American musician, has been going out of his way to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups in the hopes of persuading them to recognize their common humanity…Davis began his crusade by asking himself the existential question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” After a chance meeting with a member of the KKK following a gig, Davis began to reach out to members of hate groups, and he found that the more willing he was to hear them out, the more open they became to embracing him. More than two dozen white supremacists have since renounced their ideology of hate in part because of Davis’ peace offering. And as part of that process, they have symbolically handed over their Klan robes and paraphernalia to him.[ix]

If nothing else, this is a story about how love triumphs over hate, and isn’t that what the gospel is all about.


References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 1954.

Booij, Thijs. “Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant.”.” Biblica 83, no. 2 (2002): 258-267.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Snyder, Howard A. “Salvation Means Creation Healed.” Asbury Journal 62, no. 1 (2007): 9-47.

Wertheimer, Jack. Belonging before Belief. 2009. http://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/465476 (accessed Aug 17, 2017).

 


[i] According to a Washington Post article that cites a Pew Research Center poll (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/21/lets-rank-the-media-from-liberal-to-conservative-based-on-their-audiences/?utm_term=.c6c19d20e4a9)

[ii] http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/US-Va-Protest-Clash-1-NR-Lon-/2374c7b0bfc444e23d589e1595fee9e2?query=Charlottesville%2c+VA&current=35&orderBy=NewestFirst&hits=68&referrer=search&search=%2fsearch%2ffilter%3fquery%3dCharlottesville%252C%2520VA%26from%3d21%26orderBy%3dNewestFirst%26allFilters%3dAP%257C8976%253APartner%26ptype%3dIncludedProducts%26_%3d1502897676698&allFilters=AP%7c8976%3aPartner&productType=IncludedProducts&page=21&b=fee9e2

[iii] ibid

[iv] John XVII.xxi

[v] (Booij 2002)

[vi] (Mays 1994)

[vii] (Wertheimer 2009)

[viii] http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/research/documents/2ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf

[ix] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/documentary-about-black-man-s-attempt-befriend-ku-klux-klan-n534006

Psummer of Psalms: Good Boys/Girls

Meadow
For the audio version, click here.

Psalm XV: Who’s a good boy (or girl)?

When I was a kid, I wanted a dog. I read all the great works of literature from the nineteenth century about a boy and his dog and decided that my walks in the wood were incomplete without a dog. The problem with having a dog was two-fold: my mother had allergies to cats and dogs at the time and my father wasn’t interested in having another animal in the house, he already had two kids. That said, we tried for a while to be pet owners. Tried, but ultimately did not fare so well.

We tried birds. My parents bought a couple of parakeets early in their marriage and things seemed to be okay for a while: until they went out of town and the weather changed. My parents left on a Friday to visit family and it was early fall. They came back and it was early winter. Even in Georgia, that means freezing temperatures in the early morning and without the heater turned on for them, the birds froze to death. The second set of parakeets died when they were placed outside to get some air…above a gas grill…My father came out to start the grill, turned the gas on, and heard the telephone so he went inside. He forgot to turn the gas off and when he came out, well let’s just say he cooked more than the hamburgers.

We also tried fish…several times. Some of the fish we got were substandard as fish go and died of fin rot and various other fishy diseases in a brief time. Once, we had been doing pretty well with the fish and had gotten into the habit checking all the tiny details needed to take care of them. It didn’t help. We set the thermometer on the tank one Friday when we were leaving for the weekend and while were gone the heater decided to stick itself in the ‘permanently on in thermonuclear’ temperature setting. We knew something was wrong when we got home and the tank was giving off heat from a foot away and the fish were swimming sideways and upside down.

Birds fly away (when you don’t barbeque them) and you can’t walk a fish. So, finally, we managed, or my mother managed, to get a dog when I was in high school. My mother was given the dog by a friend at work and named it Princess. No one in the family called it anything but Puppy. Miraculously, the dog lived for thirteen years, making it without a doubt, the longest surviving pet in our household. We still committed a few ‘no no’s’ when it came to taking care of the dog. Puppy ate table scraps, M&Ms, chocolate, and any number of other digestive canine nightmares. I teased her mercilessly. I mean, she wasn’t even a real dog, it was a cockapoo. I held pillows over her head and she would snarl at me and snap at the pillows. I would throw things into the hallway knowing that she would run after it and slide on the hardwood into the closed door at the end of the hall. I never actually hurt the dog, no need to call the SPCA or Humane Society. No dogs were harmed in the last few years of my childhood.

One thing about Puppy, however, if you called her, she came to you. I could be holding a pillow over her snarling maw as she tried to chew a hole through the cloth and if I put the pillow away and walked to the door, she followed. Puppy was as much family, more so sometimes than anyone else. And like all dogs, she displayed a loyalty to us, no matter what. This faithfulness was a quality that our dog shared with most other members of her species, a reason that many have given dogs the generic name Fido, from the Latin fidelis or faithful.

A Practice of Presence

I think this idea of what it means for a dog to be a good girl or boy has some similarity to the ideas of what it means to be a good and faithful in Psalm XV. Just as a “good dog” has certain qualities that make it a “good dog”, the Psalmist sees certain qualities that we should have in order to remain in the presence of God. Now, this is not to say the list here is completely qualitative or absolute. The Psalmist is making a greater point beyond the list as we will see.

I believe James Luther May gets to the heart of this Psalm with these questions: “What is at issue when we come into the presence of the Lord? Who are we, and what should we be, as we come?”[i] These are questions of worship, in the Psalm with reference to sanctuary worship, but I also believe it can a prescription for worship beyond the doors of the gathering house especially if we look at this Psalm in light of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and the Sermon on the Mount.

Psalm XV is, of course, intended as liturgy, a song to be used in the formal worship of the Jewish people and by extension, we continue in the tradition as Followers of Jesus. Patrick Miller speaks of the original use of Psalms in worship saying,

“Psalm xv is a “torah” liturgy which sets forth the conditions for entry into the sanctuary for worship…Whatever the precise cultic occasion or liturgical acts involved, the intention of the psalm is clear. It declares the necessity for purity of life and righteous conduct as a prerequisite for appearing before the holy God (cf. Is. xxxiii 14) in his sanctuary and elaborates the character of such conduct in the body of the psalm. The inextricable link between worship and ethics which runs throughout the Old Testament is the underlying assumption of the whole Psalm.”[ii]

Catholic and mainline churches make use of the Psalter, a section in our hymnal that uses call and response verses that are both sung and spoken. As Miller notes, there is a sense in which the church learns a theology and an ethic in the music when Psalms are used as liturgy.

Each has its own message to teach and Psalm XV is no exception. I think a key to understanding this Psalm lies in the intent found in verses one and two: “Who can live in your tent, Lord? Who can dwell on your holy mountain?” I think it is possible to see these two places as, for the Jewish people reading this at the time, references to places where God has revealed himself or been present with them: The Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The idea behind this usage is that of asking “What kind of person abides in the presence of God?” Presence is the key to understanding this as the idea of shalom or well-being is tied to the idea of God’s presence. When God we feel or experience God’s presence, what we are experiencing is this shalom. The obverse is also a reality, when we do not feel or experience the presence of God, we cannot truly know well-being, making this the central idea behind the Psalm.

Being a good boy/girl

When we think of being good, we think of lists of rules that must be obeyed with absolute certainty and unwavering loyalty. For many, the idea of good is a matter of following the prescribed law without fail in order to please or appease God. If we do all the right things, say all the right things, then everything will be fine. In this and many other Psalms, and for that matter throughout the Old Testament, the law is something punitive, a type of punishment to be meted out for certain infractions. “Do this” or “Don’t do this” and positive or negative things will happen depending on the circumstances.

Much of this Psalm is written in that way. The Psalmist asks the question about who is able to be in the presence of God and then answers with a series of prescribed rules:

“The person who lives free of blame, does what is right, and speaks the truth sincerely; who does no damage with their talk, does no harm to a friend, doesn’t insult a neighbor; someone who despises those who act wickedly, but who honors those who honor the Lord; someone who keeps their promise even when it hurts; someone who doesn’t lend money with interest, who won’t accept a bribe against any innocent person.” – Psalm XV.ii-v

In short, you can be in the presence of God is you speak well and treat others fairly, especially with the way you talk and the way you deal with finances. Such things were terribly important in small, agrarian communities where gossip and slander could destroy a person or family’s standing in the community[iii]. Ultimately, the Psalm is calling for us to have respect for God’s worship and respect for the worshipping community, a means of being at peace with God (by obeying the Law as holy expectation) and peace with their neighbor (by obeying the law as moral/civil code).[iv]

The Apostle Paul, however, has a different idea. For the first half of his letter to the Roman church, Paul talks endlessly of the law: how the Jews knew it and didn’t do it (Romans II), how Gentiles can be righteous by doing it even if they don’t know they are doing it (Romans II.xxvi ff), and how those of us who are in Jesus or living in the ways and being of Jesus are no longer accountable to the Law as it was understood but are bound to the interpretation of the law understood by Jesus (Romans VII.iv, VIII). In other words, Paul saw the Law of Moses as training wheels on a bicycle. Use it until you learn the way of living and being in Jesus.

So, what do we do with the Law once we ‘take the training wheels off’? How do we understand good and bad once we move away from the lists of laws? As disciples, we are seeking to be imitators of Jesus, those who understand as he understands, think as he thinks, and live as he lived. The magnum opus or great masterpiece of Jesus-like thinking is found in Matthew V-VII, The Sermon on the Mount. In this relatively short treatise recorded some two generations after Jesus death, we find a collection of the great teachings of the great master. In this, we find a way of living and being that calls us away from the Law as a simple moral code of do’s and don’ts to a higher relational law.

The Sermon on the Mount is a call to a new way of life beyond the legalistic, control based understanding of the Law as was practiced by the Pharisees of Jesus day and the expressions of empty worship that Jesus condemned in the Sadducees of his day. Consider Jesus words in the Beatitudes, a calling to a life of peace within ourselves that leads to a life of peace with God and neighbor. A call follows this to be salt and light with a reinterpretation of the previous understanding of Law. That reinterpretation sees the previous perspective to be lacking, as it never gets to the root of why the Law exists: to learn to have a change of heart and being. Consider the reinterpretations of Jesus as he says, “you have heard” (the former understanding of the Law) and “but I say to you” (a deeper, change oriented understanding of the Law:

  • You have heard it said, don’t commit murder…I say, don’t hate.
  • You have heard it said, don’t commit adultery…I say, don’t have a lustful heart.
  • You have heard it said, don’t make solemn pledges…I say, don’t swear at all.
  • You have heard it said, an eye for an eye…I say, if people slap your right cheek offer the left as well.
  • You have heard it said, you must love your neighbor…I say, love your enemies.

On and on through the sermon, Jesus reiterates that the heart attitude is so much more important than just following the rules. We are called to live beyond the rules to their heart which is ultimately a change in being for the purpose of changing the worlds around us. When we live into this way of life, the Kingdom of Heaven becomes not a place in the by and by but place of the here and now, where it is experienced by all and salvation or wholeness of well-being, comes to every heart.

So, let us be good boys, good girls, but let us know that it goes far beyond the action to attitude, far beyond the hand to the heart.


References

Barré, Lloyd M. “Recovering the literary structure of Psalm 15.” Vetus testamentum 34, no. 2 (April 1984): 207-211.

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Miller, Glen T. “Psalm 15.” Interpretation 65, no. 2 (April 2011): 186-188.

Miller, Patrick D. “Poetic ambiguity and balance in Psalm 15.” Vetus testamentum 29, no. 4 (Oct 1979): 416-424.

Weiser, Artur. The Psalms. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.


[i] (Mays 1994, p. 83)

[ii] (P. D. Miller 1979, p. 416)

[iii] (G. T. Miller 2011, p. 186)

[iv] (G. T. Miller 2011, p. 187)

Psummer of Psalms: Teach Me, Lord

Meadow
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

Psalm XXV: Teach Me, Lord

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to know. I didn’t care about the subject always, I just wanted to know. I started off by asking simple questions that all children ask like, “Why is the sky blue?” or “How does electricity work?” and worked my way into deeper questions like, “Why do people behave the way they do?” or “How did societies conclude that entertainment is more valuable than pretty much anything in society?” (If you don’t believe that’s true look at the average income of a major professional athlete, singer, or actor).

These questions have persisted in my life and I have never stopped asking them (and God willing never will). But as I look back on the journey of learning, I can see it as an apprenticeship, a partnership between myself and many teachers along the way. Initially, my parents helped me to begin this journey, answering all the mundane and banal ‘why’ questions that a toddler could ask before deciding to teach me to read. As soon as I learned to read, my father invested in a set of dark green Collier Encyclopedias. I continued to ask questions and my father would point me to the encyclopedias. After a while, I stopped asking and just went to the bookshelf. But it didn’t end there.

My next evolution in the learning journey came with my first library card. I don’t know how old I was, but it came from the Lithia Springs Public Library and by the time they moved on to modern, digital cards, I had gone through quite a few of the paper ones. I read everything in the kid’s section that was the least bit interesting to me and then to adult non-fiction and finally adult fiction. I learned the card catalog there and at school and I began to really dig into ideas. For those of you who are wondering, yes, this was before the internet. AOL, Yahoo, Google, and all that didn’t come along until I was well out of college and into a career.

I wasn’t always a good student, however. I remember Mrs. Barrett in sixth grade calling a conference with my parents which concluded with the idea that I was being lazy in her English class. I never really got the hang of Math in high school, no matter how many questions I asked. To this day I hate to see numbers and letters together. I would rather write the word two than the number. And I gave up on being a physician when I found out I had to pass Calculus in college. I only lasted one day in the Pre-calculus class I took.

For all the bumps in the road and detours, I have spent my life learning, usually by apprenticing myself to those who were willing to teach me. People like Art Martin and Bob Chandler who were willing to let me look over their shoulders to learn graphic design. People like Colin Harris and Tim Craker who endured me playing devil’s advocate as an undergraduate student and Beverly Johnson-Miller, Bob Stamps, Michael Pasquarello, and others who let me play devil at the seminary. This apprenticeship is what we are talking about as we look into Psalm XXV, an apprenticeship that we undertake at the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The Plea of an Apprentice

So, what exactly is an apprentice? In ages past, there were no colleges or technical schools that people could enroll in to study a particular discipline or subject. People learned a trade (and thus a way of making a living) by becoming an apprentice. The apprentice would seek out a master, someone who was respected for their craft and begin to learn from them. Over time, they would try their hand the master’s work, learning more, until they could do anything the master could do. It was a model similar to that of Jesus and his Disciples. Jesus taught them a new perspective on looking at God and the world (or perhaps a refined perspective from the former) and they learned it with the intent of teaching it to the next generation of disciples.

The fourth and fifth verses of this Psalm provide a way of interpreting it with respect to the idea of becoming an apprentice. The Psalmist writes, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—because you are the God who saves me. I put my hope in you all day long.” In other words, “God, I want to be your apprentice. I want to learn how to see and understand the world the way you see it.” This prayer of the Psalmist can be for us, a model prayer for beginning or continue the journey of being an apprentice of God. A few major themes about this idea of learning from God come out of the text: learning comes from prayer, learning takes many forms, and finally, learning is the way to salvation or wholeness as the Bible understands it.

Learning comes from prayer (conversation with God)

This week I took a little test on varied ways people learn or amass knowledge. It was relatively short, only about thirty questions, but it was interesting to me that during the test I was essentially having a conversation with myself. Yes, I know, you assumed I do that all the time. But the truth is we all do. How many times have you talked your way through working on a project or something around the house saying things like, “Okay, if move this here and that over there, I can make a bigger mess than I already have. Then I’ll have an excuse to have someone else do it.”

The thing is, conversation is one of the major methods we use to learn. Most of us learned the skills we have partly from reading about them but also from watching someone do it and listening to them explain as they did. The Psalmist in Psalm XXV is asking God to engage in that kind of teaching so that he may learn. “Make your ways known to me, Lord”, “Lead me in your truth, teach it to me”, these are among the pleas the Psalmists make in an effort to have a lifelong conversation with God on the way of life.

Learning takes many forms (think learning methods – visual, auditory, kinesthetic/tactile)

I am a combination visual/kinesthetic learner. I found this out on Tuesday when I took the test I mentioned before and I can’t say I was that surprised. Like most people, I use more than one kind of learning style and like many, mine is a combination of hearing someone talk about it and then working out the kinks myself. A good example was when I learned to play guitar. Dan, Danny, and host of other musicians at the church I was going to all took the time to show me little tricks and tips for creating chords, strumming patterns, and picking patterns. I watched and then I tried the best I could. It has only taken the last fifteen years for me to become an absolutely mediocre musician.

Our own knowledge of faith is born out a similar conversation that we have with God, an intentional engagement between Creation and Creator to be or become at shalom or well-being. But this conversation is one that looks different from person to person, circumstance to circumstance. Some people have this conversation through prayers, some through the study of the Bible and biblical things, some through their engagement with the world around them.  If we were to look at the words of the Psalmist in Hebrew, we would find that the Psalmist is using nearly every Hebrew verb for teach or teaching available in the language. (Mays 1994, 125) It is as if the writer wants to make sure that the audience gets the idea no matter what.

Notice how the writer uses so many different metaphors for learning: teach me your ways, lead me in truth, make your ways known to me, guide the weak, teach sinners, teach them the paths. One theologian says, “The subject of the instruction prayed for is identified in diverse ways as though no one way defined it adequately” (Mays 1994, 126). The methods of God’s teaching are varied as well: covenants and laws in verse ten, compassion and faithful love in verse six, and integrity and virtue in verse twenty-one.

Learning is the way to salvation or wholeness (the end result of learning is being remade to wholeness)

When I was in the tenth grade, I had to take geometry, the one math that made sense to me because it was about remembering axioms and looking at pictures with very little algebra involved. Of all the various forms of math that exist, it is probably as advanced as I have ever been able to understand. In that respect, my ability to do math is not exactly what you would consider a holistic knowledge.

Yet, that is what the Psalmist seeks in this prayer/song. The Psalm is one that calls out to God with the hope of learning the ways of God that the person will find salvation or wholeness. In the first three verses, the Psalmist shows his trust in God saying, “I offer my life to you, Lord. My God, I trust you.” This trust becomes the basis for the relationship that allows the person to become a disciple of God, a comfort and safety that allows for an environment of instruction.

Then, the Psalmist declares their intent to be a disciple in verse four, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths.” Throughout the next seven verses, the Psalmist seeks to define how they might be a disciple; they seek to follow the path God shows them in verses four and five, they recognize the need for praise in verse six, and then they seek reconciliation with God in verse seven through eleven. This pattern is a pattern of discipleship: seek to follow God, praise God, and be reconciled when you fall.

The next section talks about who are those who honor God and what God does in response. The idea here is that being a follower of God has a specific result in our lives. The Psalmist says, “They will live a good life, and their descendants will possess the land” and God will “make his covenant known to them.” The life of being a disciple leads to this very specific way of being that connects us to God and his blessings and his protection, “because he will keep their feet from the net.”

The closing section is a plea for forgiveness and mercy. It is a cry for the salvation of the individual but also for all the people of God. Ultimately, that is what the Psalm becomes a primer for the idea that being a disciple of God, following in the paths and ways of God, becomes our salvation, our way to wholeness and well-being, shalom as we said last week. This is the goal of the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation, that we as a part of Creation are made whole, restored to a place of peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with Creation. It starts with following the teachings of the covenant and laws and continues for us into the teachings of Jesus. It is a path that walks from Mount Sinai to the Sermon on the Mount to show us how we have come to understand God and how we believe God has revealed himself to us.

Being good apprentices

A few things could be said of a good apprentice. First, they learn, whatever their style or way of doing so, they learn the trade. In our case, the trade is being disciples, followers of God, through our understanding of a personal experiential faith and the examples of others who walked ahead of us or with us now. Second, they practice. We do not become disciples by talking about it. Love God and neighbor. Show mercy. Give freely. Serve without reservation. When it comes to faith, we don’t step into the water and wade out a little deeper, it’s all deep end, just jump. And finally, good apprentices become teachers to master the art. We become disciples to make disciples. As Jesus says in Matthew, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”

References

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Weiser, Artur. The Psalms. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.

Psummer of Psalms : Justice, Poverty, and Other Things

Meadow
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

Psalm 72: Justice, Poverty, and Other Things

Irony and Politics

William Henry Harrison was the last president born as an English subject before the American Revolution. A native of Virginia, he attended college with the intent of studying medicine, but opted to join the army before finishing his degree. President John Adams took note of Harrison’s exemplary service in the Indian Wars of the Northwest Territories and, in 1801, appointed him governor of the Northwest Territories (now Indiana and Illinois). Harrison later fought in the Battle of the Thames River during the War of 1812. He went on to become a congressman and the ambassador to Colombia before running with John Tyler on the Whig Party ticket in the presidential election of 1840.

Much to the horror of the political establishment, Harrison and Tyler campaigned in a vigorous style considered unseemly in their era. They used Harrison’s nickname, Tippecanoe, which he had earned during a brutal Indian War campaign at Tippecanoe Creek, and concocted the campaign slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. Harrison and Tyler held boisterous rallies during which they handed out free bottles of hard cider housed in little log cabin-shaped bottles. Their tactics, however controversial, were successful, and on March 4, 1841, Harrison was sworn in as the ninth U.S. president.”[1]

It was during the inaugural address that things began to go wrong. On a horribly, wintry day complete with a snowstorm, Harrison “delivered the longest inaugural address in history, which may have been his undoing. This first presidential speech, delivered on a bitterly cold March morning, clocked in at one hour and 45 minutes. Harrison went to bed at the end of inauguration day with a bad cold that soon developed into a fatal case of pneumonia. Some historians have claimed that a case of hepatitis may also have contributed to his demise.”[2] Thus, Harrison served the shortest term in office, a mere thirty-two days, most of which was spent trying to recover from the illness brought on by his excessive and record setting presidential speech.

Our text this morning holds some similarity to a presidential speech in that Psalm 72 is a declaration most likely, written for the inauguration of a Davidic king in Jerusalem, edited during the Captivity in the sixth century and directed at the office of king, not any one specific person (Mays 1994, 236). It is “…both traditional and socio-cultural probability [which] would suggest that this psalm…represents how the dynasty itself wished to be understood” (Houston 1999, 344).

I think that is an important idea, that this is how the Davidic dynasty wished to be remembered. It is important because it says to the people, “this is who we should be.” The stories of the kings from Saul to Zedekiah in the north and Jehoiachim in the south are stories of men being given the task of becoming vassal rulers under the leadership of God. The understanding of how this works goes back to the story of Saul and Samuel when God gave in to the pleading of the Israelite people to have a king. The king acetd as the implementer of God’s justice which would be relayed to him through the prophets. For example, Samuel as the man of God would hear from God that things were to be done a certain way and Saul was tasked with making that happen. In this understanding, the king of Israel is really a ‘prince’ under the true ruler, Adonai. Another way of saying this would be, “In direct contrast to the autocracy of oriental despotism the Old Testament kingship is subject to the statutes of God for the execution of which the king is responsible to his divine Lord.” (Weiser 1962, 503) Thus, the kings would want to be remembered as those who lived into this role well as ‘defender of the people’ and ‘executor of the Lord’s justice and righteousness’ which leads to the country being at shalom with itself and God. As one theologian puts it, “The Hebrew king lives under the scrutiny of God, and if he rules with justice and righteousness, the troubles of the poor will cease and the whole of God’s people will prosper.” (Buttrick 1955, 379)

This leads us to ask the question, “What does this look like?” or better still “how did the people understand the role of king?” It was a matter of the king living in the righteousness of God according to the covenant God has made with Israel in the Torah.

“Since the standard of judgment is the covenant law of God, ‘righteousness’ can acquire the sense of ‘behaviour in conformity with the covenant requirements’, bringing about the possibility that right covenant standing can be observed in ordinary behaviour.  In addition, the judge, or king, must conform to a different sense of righteousness: he must try cases fairly, i.e. he must be true to the law and/or the covenant, must condemn evil, show no partiality, and uphold the cause of the defenceless.”[3]

The righteousness of the king is in essence, a mirror-image of the righteousness of God, which is promised to the people of God in their need for protection and to those individual members who depend on his assistance. (Weiser 1962, 503) This sovereignty belongs to Adonai, and all the Psalmist wishes and claims for the king is a murky reflection of the heavenly reign (Mays 1994, 238). This keeps the weak from becoming prey to the mighty. “For the expansion of the king’s power is motivated in vv.12-15 by righteousness and compassion for the weak whom he shall deliver from the pressure of violence” as the earthly representative of God on earth because this is what God feels and this is what the person occupying the office of earthly ruler is expected to live by in ‘regard for the life and dignity of the individual human being’ creating a bond between those who have been cared for and the king who cares for them (Weiser 1962, 504). This is what brings about peace in the kingdom and this is regarded as righteousness.

Getting into the passage

With that in mind, we come to the Psalm itself. The ‘righteousness’ term used here in this passage is a term for ‘world order’ with the central idea being a righteous king offers “justice for the poor, their deliverance from exploitation” specifically to be enacting “measures to remedy the effect of oppression put in hand by kings or high officials” (Houston 1999, 346). It was the place of the king to make justice and righteousness his first and organizing responsibility on which all else depended” (Mays 1994, 236). This saving justice and righteousness for the helpless is the definitive mark of the reign of God, that which signifies the one who is the lord of all the world, an idea common among the prophets of Israel in the eighth century BCE and following. (Mays 1994, 236)

The idea is that the king is responsible for distributing the ‘shalom’, or well-being, of God from the deity to all of the people. Remember, the king is to be the conduit, the channel through which God’s blessing made its way to the people. This is largely due to the common belief at the time that the king, any king in that time period, spoke for the deity or deities of the land. When the king said, ‘thus says our gods or goddesses’, the people assumed it must be true due to their being elevated, apparently by the gods themselves to the throne. Throughout the Old Testament stories, we see that the people of Israel followed in the religious and social mistakes of the kings, in spite of warnings to the contrary by generation after generation of prophets.

Yet there is an ideal, a king that the people could follow after if that ruler could accept his place as one who engages in and creates the expectation that the people engage in the righteousness and justice of God. That is a king who by example, shows the people what it means to be a people who live by these things. Notice the desire of Psalmist, and by extension, the nation’s prayer, “God, give your judgments to the king. Give your righteousness to the king’s son.” In other words, show the king what leads us to a life of shalom, well-being so we can know how you want us to live. Why?

The psalmist answers saying,

Let it be so, because he delivers the needy who cry out,
the poor, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the weak and the needy;
he saves the lives of those who are in need.
He redeems their lives from oppression and violence;
their blood is precious in his eyes.

This is not a declaration of what the king has done (we see the stories of the Old Testament that the kings fall far short), but this is the role of the king as it should be, the ideal king if he listened to the righteousness and justice of God and live in that way. Notice who benefits most, who is protected: those in greatest need. Those who are needy, poor, those who have no deliverer, the weak, those who are under oppression and violence. These are the ones that God would have the king, and by extension, his kingdom, deliver and have compassion on, redeem and save because “their blood is precious” in the eyes of the greater King, the King of Heaven.

This is why, I believe, the writer of Luke has Jesus read the prophet Isaiah in chapter four saying,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[4]

This is about, in large part, what a just rule looks like. (Houston 1999, 346)

The why question

So now we have to ask ourselves a few questions, “Why did people write this down, why did they feel the need to words to this, or better yet, why tell this story, this way?”

People wrote this down to remember that the poor of their country – those who are needy, poor, those who have no deliverer, the weak, those who are under oppression and violence – needed a champion and that champion was supposed to be their king, a king who acted as God would act on their behalf. The people wanted a reminder to read with each king and each holiday feast and every other occasion that these words were read, a reminder of what a land of shalom, well-being, was to look like. That it was a place where those who were in need and cried out would be heard and rescued.

If this is the answer to the why question, what do we do with it? How do we respond?

It seems to me that despite what many people may do to say otherwise, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, the God of the Jews and the Christians, is the same God. The God we are speaking of is one who cares for and answers those in need and calls us through the prophets, the writers, the teachings of the Torah, and the teachings of Jesus to be a people who in his name become deliverers to the poor, the needy, the oppressed, depressed, unimpressed, stressed, detested, and just plain forgotten about. If we are what we claim to be, ‘little Christs’, our objective is an emulation of the flesh and the spirit of Jesus. Ultimately, love of God and love of neighbor, all our neighbors – red and yellow, black and white as the song says, becomes our reason for being, that the hands and feet of Jesus may continue to find their way to love and serve those that God would continue to love and serve through us.


References

Barbiero, Gianni. “The Risks of a Fragmented Reading of the Psalms: Psalm 72 as a Case in Point.” Edited by Jürgen van Oorschot, & Jan Christian Gertz. Journal of Old Testament Science (Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft) (DeGruyter) 120, no. 1 (2008): 67-91.

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Houston, Walter J. “The King’s Preferential Option for the Poor: Rhetoric, Ideology and Ethics in Psalm 72.” Biblical Interpretation 7, no. 4 (Oct 1999): 341-367.

Jacobson, Rolf. Working Preacher: Commentary on Preaching Series on Psalms. Jun 11, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270 (accessed Jun 06, 2017).

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Weiser, Artur. The Psalms. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.

Willgren, David. “Psalm 72:20: A Frozen Colophon?” Journal of Biblical Literature (Society of Biblical Literature) 135, no. 1 (2016): 49-60.


[1] http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/harrison-dies-of-pneumonia

[2] ibid

[3] http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/righteousness/

[4] Luke 4:18-19

Psummer of Psalms: Reorientation

 

Meadow
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

 

Psalm 30

Re-orientation

I want to share a couple of poems that I believe will resonate with everyone here in one way or another.

Now by Prince Redcloud

Close the bar-b-que
Close the sun
Close the home-run-games we won
Close the picnic
Close the pool
Close the summer
Open school [1]

Or perhaps this one, Welcome Back to School, A Funny School Poem for Kids by Kenn Nesbitt.

“Dear students, the summer has ended.
The school year at last has begun.
But this year is totally different.
We’re going to only have fun.
“We won’t study any mathematics,
and recess will last all day long.
Instead of the pledge of allegiance,
we’ll belt out a rock-and-roll song.
“We’ll only play games in the classroom.
You’re welcome to bring in your toys.
It’s okay to run in the hallways.
It’s great if you make lots of noise.
“For homework, you’ll play your Nintendo.
You’ll have to watch lots of T.V.
For field trips we’ll go to the movies
and get lots of candy for free.
“The lunchroom will only serve chocolate
and triple fudge sundaes supreme.”
Yes, that’s what I heard from my teacher
before I woke up from my dream. [2]

I realize that we are more than a month from starting all of this again but every year, millions of school children walk down halls and corridors with their parents looking at signs and plaques on the doors to find just the right one. For the parent, they are thinking things like, “Will they have a good teacher?” or “Will their class be a good group of kids?” The student is probably thinking along with the Continental Philosopher Michel Foucault, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucault 1979, 228) or “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions – to define, classify, control, and regulate people.”[3]  Students will complain that their friend is in another class. Parents will complain about teachers and administrators. Teachers will suffer through the onslaught on both counts and try to make the best of it, while lamenting their own luck of the draw. Michel Foucault once wrote, “Everyone will like some things and not so much like others.

But for the student, going back to school is a memory jog to get them back into the right frame of mind. They have three months (if they are lucky) of running, playing, goofing off or if they are older, working and are now having to reset their mind around a building, a group of classmates, and a set of teachers. They are the same in some ways (still students, still with most of the same people they have known for years) but they are different in others (older, different interests). Coming to school requires that they bring themselves physically and mentally (we hope) to a familiar but not quite the same situation. It is an opportunity to start again. It is a re-orientation.

Experiential Psalms

As we said last week, the Psalms are rooted in the life experiences of both the Israelite people and the individuals who wrote them and in some cases, edited them after the fact. The truth that they speak to us one born of having lived life in comfortable times and troubled times, the times when we could almost see God standing next to us and the times when we could not find God for anything. Psalm 30 is the kind of Psalm that was written in a quiet moment after everything has died down, on the other side of challenging times when you can look back on the journey and see that God helped you to get through it. It is a Psalm forged in the fires of pain written after the burns have cooled and healed. For the Psalmist, the time of great crisis is over and God has delivered them safely through. Rolf Jacobson writes,

“Psalm 30 is a song of thanks, which would was composed for moment when the person of faith has made it through the time of crisis — when one has climbed out of the darkest vale of Psalm 23, and now can now look back from a place and time of safety.”

The Psalmist is however, no fool. Despite coming into a time of relative peace, they know that the road could lead to more difficulty. They remember the past, deliverance or not, and hopefully the lessons learned in them. Psalm 30 gives us an understanding, a pattern of how we might respond to God having gone through circumstances similar to the Psalmist.

The first three verses are a praise to God. The Psalmist has been “pulled up”, “his enemies will not celebrate over him”. This was in response to him crying out to God who healed him, bringing him back from what seemed like certain doom. The writer of the psalm recognizes what God has done to bring him back to a place of safety and refuge. There is a sense that the writer has created a pattern and response, a common expression in the Psalms, where one cries out and God responds to their cry. This is a thread throughout the Jewish scriptures as the people were in bondage to Egypt, cried out and God responded. The same happens in the time of the Judges and the time of the Kings and the time of prophets and in the Babylonian/Assyrian captivity. Consider how much like our own life this is, how similar to our own pattern of behavior. Whether we cry out to God, to our parents as children, to our spouses and friends as adults, we cry out in the time of trouble or distress with the expectation of being rescued and restored.

But restoration brings forth praise and not just our own but that of others. Notice how in verses four and five the Psalmist calls on those “who are faithful to the Lord” to “sing praises unto him; give thanks to his holy name.” The people who are hearing this are being called to celebrate what God is doing but also by implication to remember what God has done for them as well. The statements made in this section are general statements about how God has moved not only in the life of the person writing and inviting others to respond but in the lives of all who walked in the writer’s shoes. For instance, some theologians believe that this Psalm may have been written as a parallel or similar text to Hezekiah’s ‘composition when he was sick and then recovered from his illness.’[4] In it, Hezekiah recounts his illness and then calls on the people to celebrate with him saying, “The Lord has truly saved me, and we will make music at the Lord’s house all the days of our lives.” The idea here is that for one of us to be rescued is reason for all of us to celebrate, a communal act of praise in response to God restoring one of us and, I believe, an opportunity for all to remember those times that God restored us in the past.

The writer of the Psalm then begins to recount their circumstances in a general way. They remembered being a person comfortable with where they were and how life was going, feeling like God’s presence was there and would never be anywhere else. How often do we find ourselves in this place where we too feel comfort with our faith and our connection to God? How often do we make assumptions about our relationship with and to God and accept the idea that all is good and will stay that way? But then we like Psalmist remember how the bottom fell out as it did in Psalm 13 a few weeks ago and then we cry out to God as we did before. As the Psalmist remembers, I believe he renews a commitment to live in the presence of God.

We see that commitment in the closing section of the Psalm where the writer declares,

You changed my mourning into dancing.
You took off my funeral clothes
and dressed me up in joy
so that my whole being
might sing praises to you and never stop.
Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

This is one of the most famous quotes in the Psalms, emblazoned on practically every surface that can be found at Lifeway, Cokesbury, and other Christian bookstores and websites. The idea is so engaging and desirous to us that many declare it as a life verse or going even further (though unadvisedly so at times) ‘claim’ these verses as a personal promise made to them by God. If we look at this closely however, we see that this is a personal celebration, one we can relate to and certainly agree with but not a promise to be ‘claimed’ as a guarantee from God. It responsive on our part, not on God’s part and we are agreeing with the Psalmist, making the declaration about what God has done for us not what we assume he will have to do again.

Yet, it is still a powerful expression of how we can respond to God in similar circumstances. We have all mourned before God and one another and found ourselves dancing and celebrating when God moved in our lives to help us past the challenging times. We have known the joy of seeing the worst of times become the best of times. And we have felt the feeling that we could praise God now and for the rest of our lives in response.

Janus

This Psalm is wonderful example of life for each of us. We live life and things seem good. They get dark and the world seems to end. God steps in and we recover, grow, and move on to learn a new way of being. Yet, just as the Psalmist celebrates the present, the past is remembered, a past that become our present again. I was struck in writing the sermon of a vision of Janus.

For those who may not have heard of him, Janus,

“…frequently symbolized change and transitions such as the progress of past to future, from one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood. He represented time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other.”[5]

In the same way, I would encourage you to recognize where you have been, good and bad, consider the future and what it might bring, but most importantly, live in the moment now, experiencing God’s grace, mercy, and love as cumulative expression of his life in you.


[1] http://teachingrocks.ca/the-tuesday-12-12-great-poems-for-back-school/

[2] http://teachingrocks.ca/the-tuesday-12-12-great-poems-for-back-school/

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1260.Michel_Foucault

[4] Isaiah 38:10-22

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus from Macrobius Saturnalia I 7, 20 and I 9, 4: Antevorta and Postvorta or Porrima are his associates deities in this function. Ovid Fasti I 133-40 states his double head means he as caelestis ianitor aulae, gatekeeper of the heavenly mansion, can watch both the eastern and western gate of heaven.