Grace Presbyterian Church
March 18, 2018, Lent 5B
A Psalm of Penitence
This is not a fun psalm.
Unlike last week’s psalm, with its repeated refrains and vivid word pictures and sailors staggering to and fro as if drunk, there’s nothing in this psalm that has such appeal. This is a psalm that is, in our modern parlance, all business.
There’s no preamble here: the psalmist is right to the challenge at hand: “Have mercy on me, O God,” invoking the “steadfast love” that so characterized Psalm 107 as well. It does not take the psalmist long to move to the heart of the issue: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
And here we come, already, to the theme that makes this psalm so difficult, even alienating for our generation. We don’t much like the word “sin,” do we? In fact, we’ve come pretty close to achieving a society, and in some corners even a church, where the word “sin” is not so much abolished as disappeared. We can’t even summon up the word in situations where it is about the only word that should even be applied.
Take the case of People v. Turner, just three years ago, when a member of the Stanford University swim team was caught in the act of sexual assault on an unconscious 22-year-old woman. One of the most revolting aspects of that case was the apparent inability of many, both legal professionals and family members of the defendant, to grasp the degree to which such an action was wrong; the defendant’s father, protesting against an extremely minimal (and sub-minimum) six-month sentence handed down in the case, brought scorn upon himself by claiming such was “a steep price to pay for twenty minutes of action out of twenty years of life,” as if somehow sexual assault were a victimless crime, or not even a crime at all, just something young men do. Even worse were those defenders who urged that the “boy” not be punished so harshly for one “mistake,” as if he had gotten the wrong answer on a math problem. When our society is so impoverished that it can only call such crime a “mistake,” we clearly have little headway to address the idea of sin, or even more so sinfulness.
At the minimum, the psalmist in this case does not seem to suffer such a delusion, writing, “my sin is ever before me” as we just read. Verses 3-5 present an understanding of sin as not merely being about one wrong act, but a constant presence in the life of even the most repentant. We cringe, to be sure, at the image of verse five – “born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” – but the idea of original sin, a standard part of Reformed theology, observes that no human being escapes the taint of sin, so we have a means of understanding the psalmist even if the image disheartens us.
What becomes challenging for us most of all, though, is where the remedy for this sinfulness is found. The psalmist’s speech turns from self-description to address; the psalmist knows enough to know that the answer to that sinfulness is not to be found within, but in the direct intervention of God. The call to God – “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”; “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean”; “hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” “create in me a clean heart, O God” – all of these point to the utter helplessness of the psalmist, or any of us for that matter, to “fix” ourselves where this sinfulness is concerned.
In the 1986 movie The Mission, Robert DeNiro plays a Spanish soldier, Rodrigo Mendoza, deployed in the South American colonial holdings of the Spanish empire in the 1700s. His general contentment with his life, which included the unsanctioned kidnapping and enslavement of the Guarani, the indigenous population of that area, is only disrupted when he kills his brother in a dispute turned violent. Seeking penance, he turns to a priest, Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) who runs a mission working among and seeking to convert those same Guarani peoples. Father Gabriel obligingly assigns Rodrigo an act of physical penance; he is assigned to carry about a heavy burden, one which included the armor he wore as a soldier. Rodrigo bears the burden without complaint, doggedly lugging his burden about the daily tasks even as at times he is dragged down a hillside or stranded in a stream by the weight of that burden. Even Gabriel’s fellow priests become convinced that the penance is too much to bear, but neither Gabriel nor Rodrigo will relent.
The breaking point comes with the intervention not of the priests, but of the Guarani. As Rodrigo collapses under his burden yet again, one of the Guarani breaks away from his people and goes to him, speaking their indigenous language, which is of course quite alien to Rodrigo. At first it appears as if the Guarani man intends to kill him, as he holds his knife to Rodrigo’s throat; instead, he uses the knife to cut Rodrigo’s burden loose. At this Rodrigo collapses in tears and wailing, as the other Guarani come to help lift him up and disperse his burden.
Only in that radical moment of forgiveness does Rodrigo learn what he had really been seeking all along. He had come to Father Gabriel seeking penance – an act by which he could “make up for” the sin of killing his brother. What in fact he needed, though, was first an awareness of the sinfulness in which he was enmeshed – sinfulness in which killing his brother, as awful as it was, was merely one small part. Only in the fully undeserved act of forgiveness from the Guarani did Rodrigo realize the humanity of those whom he had been kidnapping and selling into slavery without the slightest twinge of regret or even consciousness of the horror of that act. He had to be confronted with the scope of his sinfulness before he could move beyond mere penance into genuine penitence, or repentance – a changing of direction, a turning back from that sin and towards the repair that only God can provide.
We have not engaged in anything quite like Rodrigo’s sinfulness, you and I (not that I know of). Nor have we, for the most part, indulged in anything quite so horrible as the act alluded in the preface to this psalm, in which David not only seized another man’s wife and raped her, but also moved to have her husband killed to cover up for the consequences of that crime. The choice to invoke that act in the preface to this psalm makes the words of verse 4 frankly awkward at best; clearly David’s sin was not against God alone, as Bathsheba could attest (as could Uriah, her husband, if he had survived it all). As was demonstrated in the movie scene above, the genuine act of repentance came about not in separation from those against whom Rodrigo had sinned, but in the very confrontation with them.
Still, though, we are likely to struggle with this psalm and the accompanying story if for no other reason than that we frankly have trouble recognizing the sinfulness in our lives. When we do something wrong, we can identify that sin, but sinfulness is a different thing altogether. Indeed, we find it difficult to echo the psalmist’s claim that “my sin is ever before me.” We’re good Christian folk, and good Americans, too. What kind of such broad sinfulness can we possibly even be a part of?
What happens when you go out to buy new clothes, or maybe over to Publix for coffee or tea or other indulgences? (I know, coffee hardly counts as an indulgence – more like desperate necessity – but bear with me.) Do we have any idea what went into the production of that clothing or coffee or tea? When a story reaches our ears about a garment factory in Bangladesh that burns to the ground or collapses, killing all the workers because the doors had been locked to keep any of the desperately underpaid laborers from leaving, do we grasp that they were there to make the clothing that appears on our department store shelves? Do we understand that the child-labor and even slave-labor practices in too much of the coffee- and tea-growing business directly lead to that cup we have in the morning? Yes, there is a web of sin, and we are fully enmeshed in it.
Or maybe closer to home: are we so caught up in our image of, say, teenagers or preteens as those kids with their faces buried in their phones or their social media apps (which, because we see one such teenager, must be true of all of them, right?) that we are incapable of hearing the desperate pleas of thousands of teenagers all across the country in the past month, young people who can no longer accept the premise that the simple act of going to school might be an occasion for their bodies to be torn apart with military-style weaponry? Are we capable of listening to that cry? (Some of those teenagers and college kids too will be holding an event this Saturday here in Gainesville, in support of the larger “March for our Lives” event in Washington, DC, that day; maybe it would be a good idea to go listen to them – actually listen to them without prejudice and blinders, and hear what they have to say.)
Maybe the thing we most need to pray for from this psalm is to get to the point where “my sin is ever before me.” Maybe what we most need is to have our eyes jerked open to just how profoundly we are caught up, despite the best of our intentions, in the very structures of the world that we take for granted, structures that visit desperate harm upon the world’s most vulnerable. And then, with that awareness before us, we can join in the psalmist’s prayer to be cleansed, to be purged of that sinfuness, to have a clean heart and a right spirit placed within us. It’s hard to repent until we know what we need to repent of, even if that good Lenten repentance is what we most need in our lives.
As odd as it sounds, maybe our first step is to pray that our sin is ever before us, if only because we can never truly pray for it to be purged away otherwise.
For mercy, for awareness, and then for repentance, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #421, Have Mercy, God, Upon My Life (Psalm 51); #427, Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days
Note Re: your coffee and tea: the image above displays several products (including coffee, tea, and chocolate) from the Equal Exchange cooperative, one of a number of organizations that strive to meet fair-trade practices that provide for the living wage of those who produce the products they sell. equalexchange.coop
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 11, 2018, Lent 4B
Psalm 107:1-3, 10-22; (because so much of the psalm is referenced, it is linked in full)
A Psalm of Preservation
This is, in some ways, a fun psalm.
It’s a long one, to be sure, but it is also organized in a way that makes it quite easy to follow. The first three verses are a kind of prelude, setting the stage for the particular story of God’s goodness about to be told. Following are four particular stories, featuring particular examples of “those he redeemed from trouble.” The final eleven verses add a soberly joyful reflection on what has been said, and bring the song to a thoughtful close.
Within that structure one can see, to a degree beyond most of the Psalms, indicators of how this particular song might have been designed. Each of the four “stories,” as I’ve called them, note that the afflicted “cried to the Lord in their distress” and are brought to a close with the repeating instruction “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”
We already expect these psalms to be songs (that is, after all, one of the basic original meanings of the word “psalm”), but in this case the repeating structure suggests a song with a specific purpose, probably one to be used in a worship liturgy as a statement of gratitude on the part of the congregation. Considering that this psalm, like those that follow after it in the biblical book, probably dates from much later than the rest of the book – to the period when the people of Israel were returning from exile, probably little more than two centuries before the birth of Christ – the call to gratitude probably carried with it a little extra fervor and a little more thoughtfulness than, say, a psalm written by King David at the height of his power. Gratitude tends to be heightened when suffering is past.
The psalm is also fun, so to speak, because it is so vivid. It seems the psalmist is searching out the most expressive words possible and going for the strongest and most evocative expression possible throughout the length of this considerable song. It’s not just a desert, it’s a “desert waste.” They weren’t just prisoners, they were prisoners “in misery and in irons”; the Lord “brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.”
The fourth scene, beginning in verse 23, offers perhaps the most vivid of imagery in its accounting of those who “went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” where “they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.” It reads so vividly, doesn’t it?
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
It’s little wonder that composers have found this psalm, and that story in particular, irresistible for setting to music.[i] (follow the footnote for some examples)
While all of this makes Psalm 107 particularly enjoyable for reading or singing, there is a point to all of this poetic and visual imagery. In the end, no matter the particular struggle or grief or turmoil the people go through, it is the Lord who delivers or preserves them through it – “then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out from their distress.” Those men “doing business on the mighty waters” didn’t redouble their efforts or “dig deep” or find the strength within; “they cried to the Lord in their trouble.” The ones wandering in desert wastes didn’t suddenly invent a GPS and devise their own way out of the desert; “they cried to the Lord in their trouble.”
Another point, one that goes with that main point, is that these instances of trouble were (and are) entirely too often self-inflicted. This is made explicit in the second and third stories. The prisoners, those bound “in misery and in irons,” were there because “they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the council of the Most High.” The third account, beginning in verse 17, declares that “some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and drew near to the gates of death.”
Many students of scripture conclude that this particular passage is a reference to the story found in the Old Testament reading today, the odd story from the book of Numbers. It certainly fits; the Hebrew people grumble against Moses, complaining about the wilderness; God sends poisonous snakes among the people, many are bitten, and many fall ill and even die; “they cried out to the Lord in their trouble”; the Lord instructs Moses to fashion that bronze snake and put it up on a pole, so that anyone bitten who looked upon that snake would live. It does fit; “sick through their sinful ways”; crying out to the Lord in their distress, delivered out from their suffering. You’ll hopefully notice that the gospel reading from John also makes reference to this story, comparing that serpent Moses “lifted up … in the wilderness” to Christ lifted up on the cross, again a “lifting up” necessitated through the sinfulness of humanity.
But there is one more point about this psalm, one that contradicts a devoutly and passionately held belief among many who call themselves Christians. Notice that in each of these cases something is true that we’d prefer not to be true. The ones wandering in the desert were in the desert, suffering thirst and hunger, fainting in their souls. The ones imprisoned, because of their rebellion against the words of God, were in prison, “bowed down with hard labor.” Those who were sick because of their own sinfulness were sick, afflicted, near death. The ones who went off to sea found out the hard way just how hard it is to endure when you rush off into a stormy sea.
These were not prevented from the consequences of their actions. They weren’t magically delivered from any hunger and thirst or hard labor or illness or storm-tossed staggering. Because of their choices, because of what they did, they suffered.
But “then they cried to the Lord in their trouble.”
God is not a magic talisman, guaranteed to keep us from suffering or being hurt no matter what stupid or foolish thing we do. It was particularly true for the Hebrew people in the wilderness; grumbling against God and God’s appointed leader was pretty much bound to bring trouble, from which God was gracious to deliver. But in all the cases the psalm includes, whether from rebellion or recklessness, those who did wrong didn’t escape the consequences of their actions, but they were preserved through them and led out from them.
Even the psalm’s epilogue continues the theme when the wicked suffer the consequences of their wickedness, when they are brought low and the lowly are lifted up. It’s the kind of thing that gets quoted on occasion in the New Testament, for example in the Magnificat the young Mary sings to her cousin while carrying the child Jesus. Jesus himself will make such allusions a few times as well.
Finally the psalm ends with something of a “mic drop” – “the upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness stops its mouth” – and a word to the wise; “consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” It’s still good counsel today.
For the steadfast love of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #653, Give Thanks to God Who Hears Our Cries (Psalm 107); #792, There Is a Balm in Gilead; #654, In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 25, 2018, Lent 2B
Psalm 22:23-31 (because so much of the psalm is cited, the whole psalm is linked)
A Psalm of Presence
Today’s reading comes from one of the most well-known lament psalms to be found in this whole collection. You wouldn’t know it from what we read together, though.
It is true, though. Psalm 22 is most well known for its opening words – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words were among the “seven last words,” the different things Jesus was recorded as having said while on the cross, according to the different gospel accounts. This particular saying is recorded both in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 (the latter probably borrowing from the former).
It isn’t just that first verse that makes Psalm 22 stand out. Many of the images evoked in this psalm give pause, so full they are of sorrow, fear, desperation, degradation, and even horror. Listen to some of these found in the first two-thirds of this chapter:
Verse 2: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest…”
Verse 6: “But I am a worm, and not human…”
Verses 14-15: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”
Verse 16-18: “My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. … they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (You might also recognize that last phrase from the crucifixion accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John.)
Even for psalms of lament, those are striking and even overwhelming images of everything bad that can happen to a human being, and some we can’t even imagine, really. “I am poured out like water”? It stretches the mind beyond its capacity to imagine. There are those halfhearted attempts at faithful talk, in verses 3-5, and again in 9-11. But overwhelmingly, this is a dark, harrowing psalm.
And yet… and yet, and yet, and yet: “You who fear the Lord, praise him!”
Where did that come from?
There are, upon closer observation, two major differences (besides the emotional tone) between the early, lamenting two-thirds of the psalm and the rejoicing final third. Both of those differences, in fact, can be captured in one word: presence, or its opposite, absence.
The first parts of the psalm are about absence. Clearly, in the mind of the psalmist, God is absent. That famous first verse makes that clear – “why have you forsaken me?” – and the psalm continues in that vein; “why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Even when the psalmist tries to sing of God’s deeds, it’s all in the distance, as in verse 3 – “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” – lofty and far off. Or it’s all in the past, as in verse 9: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth…” Finally in verse 11 is the plea for return: “Do not be far from me…” God is not present, at least in the eyes or the mind or the heart of the psalmist.
God is not present, nor is anyone else. Notice all the first-person pronouns in this first part of the psalm; all either “I” or “me.” “…why have you forsaken me?” “I cry by day, but you do not hear…” “But I am a worm…” “Many bulls encircle me…” You get the idea; the sufferer is alone in his suffering. There is no community to which the psalmist is able to turn, apparently.
All of this changes starting, actually, in the last half of verse 21. God is present now, and acting to save: “from the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me…” or even more explicitly “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” We don’t know what specifically happened, but somehow the singer has seen the Lord’s intervention and is no longer wallowing in misery; God is present, God has come, and the singer is restored.
Not just restored to the presence of God, but also restored to the presence of community. Suddenly the psalmist who was all ‘woe is me’ with the emphasis on the singular ‘me’ has practically turned into the choir director.
Verse 22: “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters” – where have they been all this time? and “in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
Verse 23: “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him…”
Verse 25: “From you comes my praise in the great congregation … “
Finally the community expands out to “All the ends of the earth” in verse 27, and even into the future: “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord” in verse 30.
Presence of and with God, yes, but also presence of and with the people of God are the end result. It’s not so much a question of which is more important; in the end, the two inevitably come together. It is when both are restored that the singer is restored, drawn back from the precipice of despair and death.
Lent is one of those times in the life of the church that, for good or ill, puts a lot of emphasis on the individual and that person’s discipleship, repentance, self-examination and confession. Those should not be ignored; all of them are necessary and vital parts of not just Lenten observance, but any kind of growing and deepening spiritual life. But in the end, even those individual pursuits play out not as Lone Ranger-style quests, but as part of the church, part of the body of Christ, seeking to be bound together in worship and service and discipleship. Even when we go it alone, we don’t really go it alone after all. In the presence of God and the presence of the people of God, our joy is restored, and our praise can be sung.
This psalm, especially the opening verses, does return in the lectionary on Good Friday. That’s fitting, as both that opening sentence and the evocation of casting lots turn up in Good Friday gospel readings. But we won’t hear only that lamenting, despairing part of the psalm; the Good Friday lectionary reading includes the whole psalm, right down to this song of praise. And when Jesus cries out that awful cry on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – that isn’t the only part of the psalm that rings in the air. A good Jewish listener of that time would have read this account and brought to mind not just that opening sentence, but the whole psalm, the progress from lament to praise. May it be even so with us, from lament to praise, knowing the presence of God in the presence of the people of God.
For knowing both kinds of presence, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #543, God Be the Love to Search and Keep Me; #165, The Glory of These Forty Days
(For the curious: the picture is of a roseate spoonbill in the midst of a group of great egrets, the collective term for which is apparently “congregation.” Therefore, “in the midst of the congregation…” I promise the pun is way better than the sappy oversentimentalized claptrap you can normally find to go with phrases from Psalm 22…)
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2018, Lent 1B
A Psalm of Paths
The novelist, essayist, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner offered, in his collection The Alphabet of Grace, an unusual idea for how one might examine one’s own spiritual condition. Introspection, he suggested, could not be completely effective, because (in his words) “every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for.” In the end, he concluded, perhaps the best way to see and examine yourself at your truest and most honest was to follow, of all things, your feet: “…when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, this is who you are.”
Perhaps the psalmist would not put it quite that way, but on some level it seems as though this author grasps the truth represented in the statement. One thing to which the psalmist returns, after passages calling on God for protection and mercy, is the assertion that the Lord would lead, particularly along “the paths of the Lord” as verse 10 finally says.
The passage from the psalm that we have read together falls into a pattern in which the psalmist first expresses a concern – not being put to shame in verses 1-3, or being held accountable for former sins in 6-7 – and then seeks consolation in the Lord, consolation tied specifically to seeking and following the paths of the Lord.
The two responses are not exactly the same; verses 4-5 have the quality of a prayer, seeking instruction in God’s ways, God’s paths, and God’s truth. Instruction is key; the word “teach” turns up twice, along with the more convoluted but similar construction “make me to know.” Maybe the most striking part of this section, though, is how it ends: “for you I wait all day long.”
Waiting comes in for a hard time with us humans. We don’t like it. We moderns are particularly good at being impatient, and the idea of waiting offends us. I remember in my teaching days the informal and not at all true guide to how long students in a class had to wait for a late professor before taking off – five minutes for an assistant professor, ten minutes for an associate, fifteen for a full professor. Or how many advertisements promise “no waiting,” or “instant credit,” or any number of other possible immediate-gratification possibilities. In short, we take waiting as a burden at best, and invoking the idea during the newly-begun season of Lent only adds to the aura of burden and bane that accumulates around waiting.
That’s not how the psalmist sees it, not at all. For one thing, the psalmist waits “all day long,” as the verse says. For another, the psalmist has made it clear that the instruction of the Lord is worth waiting for. The language comes up again later in the psalm, outside of our reading, making clear that the waiting is a thing of integrity and goodness.
Yesterday, while trying to struggle through writing this sermon, my attention was caught by a photograph that appeared in multiple locations on social media. In the picture a young boy is clearly seated in a movie theater, with a huge tub of popcorn on his lap and a large drink in the cupholder beside him; clearly a parent is taking the picture. What is most arresting is the boy’s eyes. The anticipation in those eyes speaks of the anticipation of Christmas morning and birthday and basically every other good thing a child can possibly imagine. In this case, the boy is waiting for the start of the new superhero movie Black Panther that opened this weekend. Clearly, waiting was not burdensome or unbearable for this child. It was in its own way part of the joy of being there at that movie.
So seldom do we take such joy in waiting. Ultimately, we don’t wait, most of the time. We turn aside, following other less demanding paths – the path of financial security, or patriotism, or social stature, or political party, or a nice stash of automatic weapons – anything in which we can claim security that is ours to control and manipulate, and that doesn’t involve waiting. To put it in terms we might recognize, we “take charge of our own lives,” or we “go our own way” – it always sounds good whenever we put it that way. Sometimes those paths don’t take us into such horrible places; we don’t turn into ogres or monsters or abusers, but nonetheless we are separating ourselves further and further from the paths of God, slowly dying to all the things that matter even as we “live our best lives now.” We find ourselves wealthy or powerful or secure, and cold and unfeeling.
No, the paths and instruction of God are not easy, no matter how much they may be worth the wait. But they are, as the psalmist ultimately reminds us, “steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” God’s instruction is where life is.
Of course, this last passage introduces another unpopular word. If we don’t like waiting, we surely rebel against being instructed in humility. That might be even worse. Look what I’ve accomplished, we say. Look what I’ve made of myself. I’ve earned the right to be proud of what I’ve done and who I am. Leaving aside for now the theological shakiness of not recognizing the gifts of God in what we have done in our lives, again we are separating ourselves from the paths of the Lord, from the instruction in goodness and righteousness and faithfulness and love that is part of what God is longing to show us and give us.
To return to Frederick Buechner’s instruction about watching our feet, where do they lead us? What paths are they following, even if we little recognize it? “Wherever your feet take you, that is who you are”? May our feet take us on paths of righteousness and love, goodness and uprightness, truth and salvation. May we be blessed in the waiting and sure and steadfast in the journeying. May our Lent be one of seeking the wisdom and love found in those paths, and following these paths of instruction with grateful hearts.
For the paths of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #396, Brethren, We Have Met to Worship; #420, Lord, to You My Soul Is Lifted (Psalm 25); #417, Lord Jesus, Think on Me; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing
Grace Presbyterian Church
Feburary 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday B
Acts of Love
This particular confluence has out there for a while. Pastors, who actually do try to plan ahead when time allows, started thinking about Lent weeks, or even months ago (maybe even before Christmas), and saw this coming: Ash Wednesday falling on February 14. Yup, Valentine’s Day. And pastors everywhere thought to themselves, “Oh, you have got to be kidding.”
It’s not as if the liturgical event given to self-examination and repentance is a natural fit with the highly commercialized and overly sentimental celebration of “love.” Ashes don’t go well with hearts and flowers. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” doesn’t quite fit with “be mine, Valentine.” And yet, to an awful lot of pastors, the juxtaposition can’t be ignored. There’s got to be some way to make this work, right?
Maybe Isaiah has that answer.
From the very beginning of his prophetic oracle you get struck by just how insistently God is pushing on Isaiah to say this – “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Let ‘em have it, Isaiah! Give ‘em what-for! And yet the people to whom God directs Isaiah to tell this are … well, verse two says “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways”; that’s a good thing, right?
Well, one of the things about old books, even the Bible, is that unless it’s made obvious in the text, we can’t always pick up sarcasm; given the tone and context of the larger passage, we have to consider the possibility that this description is maaaaybe just a little sarcastic.
Maybe what follows is a clue – “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God”. Modern slang has even made a specific indicator of sarcasm out of those two words – “as if!”; maybe you’ve heard that? So, yeah, maybe God’s being juuuust a little sarcastic with Isaiah.
Clearly we’ve got a mismatch here between the professed faithfulness of the Israelites and their actual behaviors. They fast and pray, but exploit their workers; they fast and pray, and then use that sheen of righteousness as a club with which to beat others. And somehow they believe all this posturing is cool with God.
On the other hand, here’s what God has Isaiah identify as an acceptable fast:
- stop injustice – not just stop doing it, but stop it from happening;
- set the oppressed free;
- share your food with the hungry and “bring the homeless poor into your house” (!!!)
- clothe those who have nothing to wear;
- stop with the “pointing of the finger” and evil talk against one another.
Somehow, I get the feeling that the idea isn’t just to do that during the season of Lent.
It is a custom, among those who observe Lent or at least know what it is, to observe some small-scale version of a Lenten fast. For the most part we don’t go for anything big; maybe we give up something like chocolate or red meat or wine or some such thing. A few might take up a specific additional activity – keeping a reflection journal, a specific course of scripture reading, an extra act of service.
It is just possible, though, that the best Lenten fast we could choose is … none.
Until we are ready to do these acts of love (there’s your Valentine’s Day connection) – acts not merely of human but divine love, the love that God has already shown us and awaits for us to show to all of God’s other children – then maybe the best Lenten discipline is none. If that giving up or taking on isn’t pointing us towards living up to the challenge of a world in need, or at least to stop contributing to or exacerbating that need, then maybe we shouldn’t do it. Maybe the best we could do is simply look inward – look hard – at what it is that keeps us from the fast that God so clearly desires.
The answer might be challenging. It might point to the privilege in which we live with barely a second thought. It might show us how grindingly determined we are to have what we want, the rest of the world be damned. It might just point out how shallow that façade of righteousness and goodness is that we wear. But maybe that’s the best discipline we could take up this Lent. Maybe then our light “shall rise in the darkness”; maybe then the Lord’s guidance will be what we truly seek and follow; maybe then we will truly be called repairers and restorers, instead of destroyers and ravagers.
Maybe when we finally see and hear what God sees and hears coming out of us, we will finally be able and willing to live up to what God sees in us.
For the discipline of self-examination, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #167, Forty Days and Forty Nights; #422, Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God; #169, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 4, 2018, Epiphany 5B
What Are We Willing to Do?
What are we willing to do?
That type of question faces us in many different corners or spheres of our lives. For me these past two weeks, the question has taken the form what are you willing to do to get well?, finally resulting this past week in my doing something I utterly despise doing; “staying home sick.” I hate it. I get so stir crazy. But even though I waited until Thursday to come in to the office even for a little while, that one day almost set me all the way back, or so it seemed that night. Even this morning I’m not sure I have this thing completely out of my system yet. I am, however, a lot better off than I was, and have to admit with some reluctance that I probably made things worse by taking so long to give in and “be sick.”
What are we willing to do?
To a great degree this question sums up not only the particular verses found in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the final one we will hear in this stretch. It actually works pretty well, as it turns out, as the final reading for what might be loosely framed as a series of readings for the cycle of Sundays that fall after Epiphany. You might remember, a little less than a month ago, the occasion when the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus was observed? Those traveling star-watchers proved themselves willing to take up a difficult and arduous journey to see the One to whom the star pointed. On the other hand, we are presented the opposite side of that coin in Paul’s argument to the Corinthians here, continuing from chapter 8 and proceeding into chapter 10. For us here the question is not what are we willing to do to see God?; rather, we are presented with this question:
What are we willing to do so that others can see God?
The question is so framed by Dr. Carla Works, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and it does reflect remarkably well how Paul describes and defends his own approach to his ministry in Corinth. To Jews, he related as a Jew (though he knew himself not to be bound to the Law); to Gentiles he related as a Gentile (though he knew himself to be bound to his service to God). Rather than take a salary or reward for his ministry, he worked a regular job as a maker of tents to support himself, in order to be able to present himself and relate to other poorer laborers instead of only the well-off. As discussed last week, if one to whom Paul sought to bear witness couldn’t cope with the thought of eating meat lest it had been offered to an idol, Paul wouldn’t eat meat. With typical overstatement Paul claims that though he was “free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win more of them.” Later it’s stated even more extremely: “I have become all things to all people, that I might save some.” Notice that: some. Even Paul knows that not all will be saved, no matter what his efforts are. But to Paul it was still worth it.
This can become exaggerated and even damaging when heard wrong. Paul does not literally become a slave to all, and he does not literally “become” a Jew (he had already been that) or Gentile or “weak” or “strong”; he does find a way to speak to and relate to each of those with a language and demeanor and perspective that might be winsome to each particular audience. That’s challenging enough to accomplish itself without losing one’s mind.
One mild example of this is found in Acts 17, the speech Paul gives at the Areopagus in Athens to the intellectual who’s who of that city. It’s dramatically different from the sermons recorded elsewhere in Acts or much of anything in Paul’s letters. It starts with an understanding and acknowledgment of the intellectual foundation of his listeners, rather than scorning them as some nasty “elite.” He quotes from their favorite poets. He acknowledges their literature, and in that literature even finds support for his own message. His gospel was not compromised; when it came time to talk about the One raised from the dead Paul absolutely went there, even if half the audience immediately checked out on his speech. And yes, some – by no means all, but some – were won that day.
What are we willing to do so that others may see God?
What, then, does this injunction look like to us?
Some things this congregation already does well. We are welcoming folk, that much is for certain. But is that enough?
We live in the midst of what gets variously called a realignment or a shift or even a new reformation within the larger scope of Protestant Christianity. One of the most pronounced current manifestations of that realignment or shift is the degree to which the institutional church is simply not appreciated or respected or feared or even, frankly, noticed in a way certainly not seen in many decades in this country at least. The church in Europe is frankly even further along in this regard. Where church was once virtually mandatory – for one’s social standing, for one’s circle of friends, for one’s patriotism, for all sorts of side reasons – that no longer holds true. Where even magazine advertisements – not ads run by specific churches, just plain old print ads and radio ads run by the Advertising Council[i] – encouraged you to go to church, nowadays most ads encourage you to be virtually anywhere else on a Sunday morning.
It’s not, however, that religious belief or “spirituality” has gone away. Rather, the institutional church no longer holds the authority it was once believed to hold on what or who God is, or what it means to be “religious” or “spiritual.” Often this is identified as a generational thing, but in fact this increasing trend cuts across generations and has increased in every generation since the 1970s.[ii]
So, then, what do we do? How do we bear witness to those who frankly have no interest in coming anywhere near a church, and will quite firmly defend their own “religousness” in doing so? How do we bear witness to a people who reject our way of doing things, or at least reject what they perceive that to be? How do we show that welcome we’re so good at outside the walls and doors of this church?
What are we willing to do so that others may see God?
What about closer to home? What about this very neighborhood? What would it take to reach out right here? What would that mean for us?
What are we willing to do to reach out in a town, a county, or yes, a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily look like the one in which we grew up? A town in which in a given year about six thousand women and men come here from nations around the world just to attend the university? A town in which refugees from Syria and Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean, fleeing from war or natural disaster, have arrived and are continuing to arrive? Can we manage to find a way to speak and sing our good news in words and tunes that may not be familiar to us, but will be words and tunes of home (not to mention good news) to some of those newcomers in our community? Can we lay aside some of our comfort to be bearers of gospel to the world outside our window?
What are we willing to do so that others may see God?
For the courage to ask, and answer, that question, not in Corinth but in Gainesville, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #287, Gracious Spirit, Heed our Pleading; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #733, We All Are One in Mission
[i] See Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, p. 133 for an example.
[ii] See statistics from Public Religion Research Institute; also frequently cited in the works of Diana Butler Bass. Also see Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America.
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018, Epiphany 4B
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…” Well, doesn’t that sound like one of the great burning questions set before the church today? No, and nor is it the kind of thing that inspired Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby to write new hymns.
Evidently, if you were part of the church in first-century Corinth, somewhere around mid-century, it was. Remember, we are in that part of this letter where Paul is answering questions that the Corinthians have asked Paul, and that initial phrase of his response makes it pretty clear that he is answering a question rather than engaging in teaching of his own particular accord. Clearly, whether or not we understand the particular issue, it was an issue for the members of the church in Corinth. So, how do we understand this? It’s time for a little context.
Many scholars have observed that of the churches Paul founded or assisted or taught or preached in during his missionary journeys, most consisted of persons not drawn from the crème de la crème of society. While a few were highly placed enough to own slaves, many were not, and some were even slaves themselves. The one church that seems to have been an exception to this tendency was in Corinth, where apparently a few of Corinthian society’s elites somehow found their way into the fledgling Christian community, along with poorer members of that city’s society.
Not surprisingly, this caused tensions. Some of those we have already seen playing out in the chapters read the past two weeks, and another such set of tensions shows up here. Again, some of those elites have latched onto Paul’s apparent teachings about freedom in Christ and, armed with that knowledge, have worked out a position on what was a pressing issue for some in the congregation, an issue concerning the decidedly non-Christian temple down the street.
At that Corinthian temple, sacrificing was big business. Many different sacrifices would be offered across the course of a day. In typical practice, only a portion of the meat would be in fact burned on the altar. Some of the meat was reserved for feeding the priests of that particular temple. What happened to the rest of that meat (which was usually, but not always, the “food” being offered for sacrifice) was where the problem arose for some of the Corinthian Christians.
At least some of their number were still vulnerable to the power that the “gods” – idols – worshiped in that temple had once held over them. You don’t leave an abusive and tyrannical system without suffering. Some react to the “freedom” of leaving an abusive cult by swinging wide to the opposite extreme and indulging in every freedom possible; others still live in fear, even though they are “free” and out of that system, unable to comprehend or believe fully that the old idols really have no power over them anymore, or even to comprehend that they do not actually exist as anything other than pieces of wood or stone. For those members of the community, anything associated with the old idols and the practices of that temple was traumatic. Today we might potentially observe that such persons suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome upon leaving behind the practices and sacrifices of that temple, struggling to find a life that was no longer shadowed or clouded by it.
And here’s where that sacrificed meat comes in. One of three things might happen with it; (1) it might be sold off at or by the temple itself; (2) it might be “outsourced” to local markets to sell; or (3) it might be used later, in large civic events hosted at and by the temple. In cases (1) and (3), it was pretty clear that the meat being sold or prepared had been offered at the temple, but in theory in case (2), you could be buying at the local market and have no idea where it came from. (“Truth-in-labeling” laws weren’t big in the Roman Empire.)
For those struggling, traumatized members, the experience of food that had been sacrificed to those idols could indeed become burdensome upon the conscience; therefore, seeing another person, particularly another member of the Christian community, buying or eating the meat offered at the temple became an occasion to fall. While for the one eating, it was no big deal because hey, we know idols don’t exist, for the “weak” one to take that food might have been somewhat akin to an alcoholic falling off the wagon – it wasn’t just taking the food, it was taking in everything that idol-offered food represented – the sacrifices and the fear and the abuse and the shame.
Paul insists that causing a brother or sister to fall that way is unacceptable.
Paul has knowledge. He knows that the idols in that temple are nothing but wood and stone, powerless. As far as he is concerned, it’s just a hunk of meat, and if you like it, go ahead and eat it.
If eating idol meat causes your sister or brother to stumble, don’t. Just don’t.
No, it doesn’t mean anything. No, the idol isn’t “real” and the meat is just meat. No, it’s not a sin to eat meat that has been offered in that temple. But if doing so causes your struggling brother or sister to stumble, don’t do it. Don’t be that stumbling block.
Now, a few caveats: this doesn’t equate to being held hostage by the complainers in the congregation. There’s a difference between those who are deeply and genuinely struggling with the demons of their past, whatever they may be, and those who are loathsome about change or new people or anything that isn’t exactly the way they remember things in the glory days and is bound and determined to drag the church back to those days kicking and screaming if need be. Just for example. Discerning the difference between the truly wounded and the hostage-taker is always a task the church must approach with care and honesty and integrity.
This also isn’t a license for the “weak” (as Paul keeps using the word) to keep on being “weak”, so to speak. Growing into “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” to borrow from Ephesians, is still part of the Christian’s charge; healing and being healed by the love of Christ and the moving of the Spirit is part of that charge too, however long it takes. Turning from that path is no call for a follower of Christ.
But here, the challenge is to the “strong”: what do we do that causes our sisters or brothers to stumble? What reawakens old traumas, dashes healing, crushes souls and spirits?
Whatever it is, don’t do it. Don’t be that “stumbling block.” Just don’t.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #15, All Creatures of Our God and King; #36, For the Fruit of All Creation; #450, Be Thou My Vision; #749, Come! Live in the Light