Those Violent Verses in Psalm 139

Sermon for Pentecost 7             July 19, 2020

images-1I was all primed to talk about the three parables in our gospel reading today. But for some reason, the psalm kept calling to me. That’s not too surprising; it is one of my favorite psalms. Still, every time I started to think about the parables, I got stuck. Or rather, my head was engaged, but my heart wasn’t in it. Psalm 139 beckoned. Don’t get me wrong; the parables are super important for understanding what Jesus was trying to convey to us about living in the realm of God and how we, as the church, convey that to our community and world. But that sermon will have to wait for another day. Today, I’m drawn to this heart-felt expression by the psalmist; and I’m thinking maybe some of you might be, too.

Generally speaking, the Psalms address two important aspects of human life:

  • our deep reluctance to let go of a world that no longer exists, and
  • our resilient capacity to embrace a new world coming into being.

In his book Praying the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that as human beings we regularly find ourselves in one of these three places:

  • a place of orientation, where everything makes sense in our lives
  • a place of disorientation, where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit
  • a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit, we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives and about God.

Obviously, we prefer to be in a place of orientation. But if we didn’t know it before, we certainly do now: human experience includes times of dislocation and disorientation. And one of the functions of the Psalms is to “tell it like it is,” so we can embrace these situations as the reality in which we live. This applies to both individuals and communities. There’s no denial or self-deception in the Psalms – especially as they express things like the feeling of being down in “the pit,” hatred of enemies, questioning God, its poignant yearning for older, better times.

But they perform another function as well. The language of the psalms does more than just help us recognize and embrace our real situations. In dramatic ways, they can alsoScream!_corkscrew evoke new realities that didn’t exist before and help us form or re-form (re-orient) life in new ways. Brueggemann’s point was that there are psalms that address each of these states of being.  But I wondered: what happens when orientation, disorientation, and reorientation are all happening at once? I mean, isn’t this the rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on this year?

We’re trying to adjust to a “new normal,” but we don’t even know what that is or if it’s going to change again tomorrow. We long for days past when words like pandemic and social distancing were foreign to our ears and masks were only about Halloween. One theme I hear consistently from people is that of experiencing anxiety, depression, or fatigue one day, and acceptance and resilience the next. Some have added stressors of financial insecurity, worries about jobs and schools – but despite our different circumstances, the fact is that our common plight is disorientation.

So, for some reason, in the midst of the roller coaster ride, this psalm spoke to me. Although I have to tell you that the lectionary didn’t include the entire psalm. It omitted verses 13-22 – which is fairly common. Ending with “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” emphasizes the sense of wonder and happiness at being so completely known by God.

I love this part. It’s such an antidote to all the negative messages we get from others or from ourselves. To be so fully known, so fully understood is a gift so many long for and never receive. Just the other night, I was watching a Netflix series about a couple who had lost a child. And like so many in that terrible situation, found themselves at odds with one another. At one point, the husband says that he understands his wife and she exclaims that he has never known her at all.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario. We’re each human, dealing with each of our family histories, life experiences, and other contributors to our psyches. Under stress, our differences are exacerbated. How wonderful, then, to learn that there is One who really does get us – each of us, in all our weirdness and wonderfulness, sinfulness and saintliness. It’s a message I believe cannot be understated. It’s the picture of the ultimate experience of orientation – being grounded, feeling safe and secure.

But wait, there’s more!
imagesBut there is more to the psalm. We begin to get some hints of disorientation in the question the psalmist asks of God: “where can I go to get away from your spirit; where can I flee from your presence? You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.” This sounds a bit ominous, as if perhaps he’s feeling a bit too known by God, perhaps there are things he doesn’t want God to know, wants to keep hidden and secret. If we look inside our own hearts, might we not find those kinds of things, too? Maybe we don’t even want to admit them to ourselves, certainly not to our friends or family members. Depending on what it is, if it’s based on guilt or shame, maybe we don’t always want to be fully known to God. The realization that there’s nowhere to hide could feel quite threatening.

And then there are “those verses”
Now we come to the part of this psalm that is almost never included in a church reading and you can understand why:

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If only, God, you would kill the wicked! If only murderers would get away from me – the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes; the people who are your enemies, who use your name as if it were of no significance.

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too.

Talk about disorientation! This is not how we would ever teach anyone to talk to God. Yet here it is, right there in the Bible. And it’s not the only place either. This kind of psalm is called an imprecatory psalm, an imprecation being a curse that invokes misfortune upon someone. Imprecatory psalms are ones that call down judgment, anger, calamity, and destruction on God’s enemies.

There are imprecatory words throughout the Bible, not just in the psalms. So as much as we’d like to dismiss them, there they are. So, how are we going to fit them into our understanding of God and humanity’s relationship with God?

They do sound awful read in church. Asking God to act in vengeance doesn’t fit with our idea of a Sunday morning worship experience. We want church to be uplifting, full of praise – and the good kind of prayers.

But then again, what about those times when the ways of the world intrude upon our church, like a persistent, unwelcome visitor – ringing the doorbell over and over, knocking urgently on the door, peeking in through the windows – demanding to get in? And what if that world is screaming in dissonance with the world that our churches are trying to create?

What if a church member has been attacked, fallen victim to a scam, been abused by a nursing home caregiver, been cheated out of their pension, lost a child to a drunk driver, been betrayed by a trusted friend? What if someone in our church is a victim of a hate crimes? How do we respond to the intrusion of an unjust world into our community?

There’s a story of a Carmelite convent in Dachau, Germany, which is an important stop for pilgrims traveling the paths of the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. In 1965, the nuns were given permission to stop praying the daily prayers of the church in Latin. But after a trial period of reading the Psalms in German, they were tempted to return to Latin. The switch, which had been made for the sake of the tourists, brought serious problems because of the  imprecatory psalms, and the cursing passages in a number of other psalms. The use of the Latin had at least covered up the difficulties of the psalms as prayer.

While I can certainly understand their dilemma, there’s another point of view that says we should find a way to make peace with these psalms. After all, what they reveal is as much a part of our human makeup as are compassion and other characteristics we’re much more comfortable claiming.

What if we have been subjected to atrocities that simply do not allow praise and worship? What then? What did and do the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants feel? What did and do the victims of slavery in America and their descendants feel? What about parents and children in Darfur and Syria and other areas of unrest in our world? How do the victims of violent crimes, hate crimes, and fraud feel? And what about children who are victims of sexual and other types of abuse? The imprecatory psalms remind us of the basic human desire for revenge when we or those we love have been wronged. Such words in the biblical text indicate to us that God does not ask us to suppress those emotions but rather to speak about them in plain and heartfelt terms. In speaking out, we give voice to the pain, the feelings of helplessness, and the burning anger.

I realized that these verses were actually what drew me to Psalm 139 this time. Well, that was a little disconcerting, so I dug a little deeper into the nature of  imprecatory psalms. And I found there are three characteristics that helped make some sense of them.

For one, the whole book of Psalms is filled with references to “the enemy” and “the oppressor.” That was because the life of the people of Israel was an ongoing battle against enemies. The people who prayed the psalms felt surrounded, threatened, and engaged in battle by a gigantic army of oppressors. Most of these psalms are communal – expressing the voice of the gathered community of faith – not expressing the voice of one individual.

Secondly, the cries for vengeance in the psalms are not about conflicts that could be resolved by generosity on the part of the ones praying. Those who pray these psalms are shouting out their suffering because of the overwhelming injustices and abject indifferences of their foes, their enemies.

Thirdly, the psalmists cry out to God in the midst of an unjust world. They call on God to mete out punishment, to “make things right” in the face of seemingly hopeless wrong. They are not cries from communities and individuals for permission to carry out their own retributive acts for the wrongs done to them.

Fix this, God, now!
These psalms were not written out of vindictiveness or a need for personal vengeance. Instead, they are prayers that keep God’s justice, sovereignty, and protection in mind. They’re a complaint that makes the loud insistence to God that:

shutterstock_1494985877* things are not right in the present arrangement.

* they need not stay this way and can be changed.

* the psalmist will not accept this way; the present      arrangement is intolerable.

* it’s God’s obligation to change things.

Well, I can relate to that. Things are not right in our present arrangement. People are getting sick and too many are dying. Black and brown communities are taking a harder hit and social safety nets are being torn to shreds. Basic issues of public health and safety have been turned into partisan wedge issues and causes of violence. Willful ignorance in some parts of the country is endangering those in other areas.

So, yes, I appreciate the permission by the psalmists to express my fear, anxiety, and anger – our extreme disorientation. Even the rants that I direct some days at TV news programs – expressions that I’m not proud of and wouldn’t want anyone to hear (I feel God’s hand on my back!) are OK. I am known in all of my human emotional self – and still loved.

And no, I do not recommend a steady diet of imprecatory prayer. What I do pray is that we accept ourselves and one another in the midst of our disorientation – where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit – and that we will have the courage, creativity, and resilience to embrace the new thing that will be born,  a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives.  Gratitude for God’s extravagant love for each and every person, gratitude for being so fully known, so fully loved, and so fully forgiven, gratitude for the vision of a new day when all will fly on the wings of dawn, with God’s hand to guide us; with God’s strong hand to hold us tight!

Amen

 

PSALM 139 (Common English Bible)

O God, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue that you
don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest
only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful – I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
when I was being put together in a secret place,
when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,
and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
before any one of them had yet happened
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.

If only, God, you would kill the wicked!
If only murderers would get away from me—
the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes;
the people who are your enemies,
who use your name as if it were of no significance.[
Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
Don’t I despise those who attack you?
Yes, I hate them—through and through!
They’ve become my enemies too. 

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts!
Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,
then lead me on the eternal path!

 

 

 

The Building Is Closed. The Church Is Not.

images-1Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

I bet you never imagined that going to church would be one of the biggest controversies in today’s news. Protesters and some government leaders, insisting that churches reopen, have claimed the headlines, along with a smattering of responses by others insisting  that we remain closed. Many congregations have members on both sides of the issue, which is causing quite a dilemma for their pastors and lay leaders. I’m grateful the ELCA has taken a firm stand on it. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has been unequivocal in her position that we do not open until it’s safe for all our members. On Friday, the bishops of the three synods in California also issued a “Joint Letter Against Re-opening for Public Worship.”

Even Martin Luther is being quoted from his response to the bubonic plague in his time: I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others.

Of course, those in favor of opening would claim that today the presence of Luther’s contemporaries is needed, that the church is an essential service that should not be denied. And as much as I don’t agree with their decision, I certainly get the longing for in-person church gatherings. As much as we rightly claim that the church isn’t a building, we miss being together. As much as I’m grateful we have the technology to be together virtually, it’s not the same as sharing the peace with a handshake or hug or placing the body of Christ into your hand. Although, current information is telling us that these actions, among others like singing, may have to be abandoned, at least for a while. It’s all rather complex. When the time’s right, reopening will take a lot of prayerful, thoughtful deliberation about how to do it responsibly. But in the meantime, we wait.

depositphotos_90132822-stock-photo-airport-waiting-roomThe Waiting’s the Hardest Part
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. Waiting for something to happen is like being at the airport. You’re not at home anymore, but you’re not where you’re going either. You’re in a middle space between here and there. Even when you’re not looking forward to something, the waiting is still hard. For example, you need surgery. Who wants to go through that? But you can’t go back to not knowing there’s a problem that needs correcting but it’s still two weeks before you go into the hospital. You’re in a middle space and time. Or you might remember from a couple of weeks ago, I talked about a book I’m reading called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re GoingLeading in a Liminal Season. Liminal is that middle space, the waiting area between one point in time and space and the next.

Like today. This is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday is Pentecost, one of the Big Three days on the Christian calendar, along with Christmas and Easter, although we don’t hear much about it outside of the church (that’s not true in Germany, where the Monday after Pentecost Sunday is a national holiday).

shutterstock_1190629858Wear Something Red!
I happen to love Pentecost, maybe because it doesn’t have any of the cultural trappings around it. Maybe also because it’s not something you can easily wrap your mind around. It’s a matter of wonder that we can get at only with symbols like fire, wind, descending doves, red balloons, everyone wearing something red to church to imagine the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, which became the birthday of the Church.

But it’s not Pentecost yet. We have to wait one more week for the fifty days of Easter to be complete. Although our tradition does say that something happened on the fortieth day, that after appearing alive over the course of the forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. The number forty should ring bells with us. It’s one of those biblical numbers that signifies something really important. In this case, forty days represents completeness; Jesus’ work on earth was finished. People back then would have gotten right away that the story of Jesus’ ascension was like the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. And as Elijah passed on his mantle to a successor, his protege, Elisha, so does Jesus; he passes his mission on to the disciples – and then through them and the Holy Spirit to the Church.

But before Jesus left, he instructed his followers what to do until the arrival of the Holy Spirit: that dreaded word – wait. By leaving them again, Jesus threw them right back into that middle space again, neither here nor there, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise they didn’t really understand. And here we are, too. Ascension Day was Thursday and we’re now in the midst of the ten-day middle space until Pentecost – waiting.

Not in an upper room, but sheltering in place. For some, stopping work or school; waiting for a vaccine, waiting for an all-clear from medical professionals to go back to work, school, church, etc. Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the social distancing and voluntary quarantine. By the way, did you know that ‘quarantine’ literally means forty days? It’s the waiting time that ships in 14th/15th century Italy had to stay in isolation before passengers could go ashore during the bubonic plague.

There’s a lot of commonality in the isolation, uncertainty, and enforced waiting of the disciples after the ascension, the passengers on 15th and 21st century ships, and us – longing to get back into our daily routines of work, school, family, church, and life. As Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

You Take It on Faith, You Take It to the Heartheart_faith
But the line right before that is, “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.” And faith is where we’ve got to take it. And this passage from Acts just might point us to what might get us through our quarantine.

Jesus told the disciples, “You’re going to have to wait a while longer. Go back to Jerusalem and wait.” So they went back to the room where they were staying.  And here, the details of all these people isolated together in an upstairs room, is kind of humorous. There was Peter, and John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. That’s a lot of people in one room! But it also conveys the seriousness of this liminal time. And while we’re waiting with them in our own context – we can take a lesson from them: “they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”

No binge-watching for them. Constant prayer. At first that might seem like a no-brainer, especially for those early followers. But when it comes to ourselves, sometimes we might find it difficult to pray or even to know how to pray. Then I suspect that many people feel guilty for not praying enough.

A Quarantine for the Soul
But you know what: sometimes we make things way too complicated. I like what the late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel had to say about it. He said that to pray is to open a window of the soul to God. Just meditating on that phrase for a while, imagining what that would be like – is a fine prayer in itself.

Heschel is also the one who said,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

He also said,
It is gratefulness that makes the great.

Which reminded me of the mystic Meister Eckhart, who said,
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

And when I read this from Heschel, I think I experienced radical amazement because he wrote this in 1945:
Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.

A quarantine for the soul.  In the midst of a quarantine that can sometimes feel soul-draining, the antidote is to quarantine ourselves in prayer. According to the crowd in the upstairs room, the best thing we can do as we wait for the end of this pandemic and for the spiritual renewal of Pentecost is open up our souls and pour out our hearts to God.

What Does It Mean to Be Church?
Now, make no mistake: as much as isolation takes us out of the world, it does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities to our world. What’s the old saying: you can’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good? Or as the two messengers in white said to the astonished disciples, “Why are you standing around looking up at the sky?”

Improv on “We are the Church” | Gifts in Open HandsEven in this liminal time, the coming of Pentecost is the perfect time to think about what it means to be church. For some, it obviously means getting back to business as usual with no concern for the risks. For some, it means a way to make a political statement. Church can and often has been co-opted for less than Christ-like reasons.

All the more reason to spend time about it in prayer. I’m imagining when we do get to go back to meeting in person that we will do a lot of praying and reflecting about what it means to be church post-pandemic. All the more reason to anticipate the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the realities we face today. In what ways, both old and new, will we pick up the mantle that Jesus has passed on to us?

I sure would love to be working on these questions now. I sure would love to be at 301 Burlingame Avenue this morning instead of on Zoom. I sure would love to be scheduling visits with all of you. And I am sure that you have your “I sure would love to . . .” list, too.

But Jesus says, “Wait.” And so we will. Dedicating ourselves to care for one another and to constant prayer as the day of Pentecost approaches. Not that I’m expecting the corona-virus to adhere to the church calendar and disappear amid wind and fire. But I am expecting that we will be renewed by the reminder of what has always fueled our lives as followers of Jesus – power from on high, the Holy Spirit of God. Just knowing makes the waiting a little easier.

We take it on faith, we take it to the heart, even when the waiting is the hardest part.

Amen

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ACTS 3:1-14

After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles – confirmed through many convincing proofs – over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God. On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem: ”Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak. John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

While meeting together the disciples asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight.  They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. They said, “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the sky? Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”

The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.

 

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