My head of staff colleague is out of town for over a week, so it was my turn to preach yesterday. One of the lectionary texts this week was a part of Psalm 139. I am always suspicious when the lectionary cuts out part of a text, and this one is one of my favorites, so I chose to read and preach the whole thing. I was a bit nervous this week for a number of reasons including the holiday weekend, our university losing a football game (a weird thing for me to care about, but it is important here) both of which meant there would be fewer people at church, and leading on my own this week without the help of either our head of staff or christian educator. I have used most of this sermon before, more than once, but it still needs work each time to be sure it speaks to my current context, so I was a bit worried about how it would go.
With those nerves going on it was wonderful to hear laughter at appropriate points, and other responses while I preached. Then following worship I got more compliments about my sermon giving folks something new to think about, about the whole service including the sermon being a lovely one overall, and other things, than I have ever had. One of the retired pastors in the church told me this was his favorite too, he had preached it many times, but never had preached the "If only God, you would kill the wicked" part and that my analysis was spot on.
So basically I went in feeling a bit unsure and came out feeling like the pastor equivalent of a rockstar. That is a rare thing, and so I shared it in a closed clergy group I am a member of, and in response to the story someone wanted to read the sermon. So I thought posting this and then offering it there would be the easiest way to do that.
1. I don't write sermons for anyone else to read them, I have subsequently edited this, but it may still be hard to read. sorry.
2. I intermix the translations of the Psalm here between the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible as well as my own translation and paraphrase. Hope thats not too confusing.
So here it is:
Sermon on Psalm 139 and Luke 14:25-33
The Price of Adoration
Sunday September 4, 2016
First Presbyterian Church Norman, OK
Psalm 139 is one of my favorite scripture texts. This is true for so many reasons- beautiful hymns are made from it, it expresses something that feels like Truth with a capital ‘T’ about what it is like to know the presence of God in life, and when we read the whole thing, and not just the ‘good parts version’ that is in the lectionary, it feels raw and like what life is really like, not just the nice parts. I have preached this psalm in just about every church have served since seminary. And every time I learn something new.
So much of the psalter is complex and expresses the wide variety of ways we humans interact emotionally, logically and physically with our God. And psalm 139 is no exception. This psalm, as John Calvin put it in his commentary on the psalms: “insists at large upon the truth that nothing can elude the divine observation”. A truth that we all probably wrestle with. In moments of fear we can all affirm with the psalmist that “God hems us in, behind and before”. God is a help in hard times, and God’s ever-presence is a comfort in moments of fear, but sometimes also can be a struggle for us to accept.
The first 6 verses of the psalm talk about a God who protects, who accompanies, who knows us. These verses have always sounded to me like the way a very articulate child would express joy and love for their parent. Everything about us is known, every moment we are known and that is good and important.
-Mommy was there when we took our first steps, said our first words, slept in our first ‘big kid bed’ and will be there forever. This is the God we want when we grieve, when we find hope hard to hold on to, when we struggle to keep our feet on the path. This is the God of childhood sunday school- of rainbows, and Jesus Loves Me, this is the part of God I often call Dad or Mom when I pray. This is a real and powerful part of who God is for each of us. This is the God we fall in love with, who cares for us and keeps us safe. We love this God, this God is easy to love and we often wish this was the only relationship we had with God.
but…..then we move on to verses 7 to 12- the Psalmist says Where can I go from your spirit God? Where can I flee from you? If I go to heaven, or if I go to hell, there you are. If I go as far away on earth as I can imagine, you are even there leading me and holding me fast. Even when I go to dark places to escape you, that is of no worth, because to you God- darkness is as bright as day. Not exactly the teddy bear and blankie God of those first 6 verses.
This is perhaps the God of adolescence- the God who we sometimes resent even as we worship and praise.
The psalmist here still sounds to me like the voice of a child speaking to their parent, but perhaps this child is a Middle Schooler. The child who still loves, deeply, but does not wish their parent to know everything they do. The one who wants independence to figure things out on their own without the watchful eye that both cares and leads, and sometimes micro manages. Sometimes we just want to figure things out on our own first, and then come to God with the answer, we don’t want to struggle in front of God any more than a tween wants to struggle in front of their parent.
This voice is probably similar to the one in all of our heads and in our prayers when we disappoint ourselves and believe we disappoint God. 'Gee God, life would be so much easier if I could just forget that this relationship is falling apart... that I have worked as hard as I can, and still don’t measure up at work... that today felt like every little thing that could go wrong did'. This might be the voice that nags at us that we don’t pray enough, read scripture enough, serve enough, worship enough or whatever 'enough'. This is that nagging voice of conscience that is helpful but oh so annoying.
Perhaps this is where the concrete voice of Jesus in Luke Joins us as well. In these moments of angst we might hear echos of Jesus reminding us to lay a good foundation, to be ready and strong enough to carry our own crosses. This is the voice of God that I suspect the Psalmist hears when wishing that he could escape God’s presence. The voice of God asking the hard thing, the true but difficult thing of him.
It is true in the journey of being a faithful person that God asks the unimaginable of us. To leave family, to give up our very lives, to give up possessions to do the work of following God. These times are the ones when faith sometimes feels like a burden, when we are not at all sure it might not just be easier to stop talking to God all together. But in these moments, like the adolescent chafing in their relationship with their parent, we still know God is our strength and love. Or if we forget, God (and our parents) remind us.
And so the psalmist moves on verses 13 to 18 then is a third voice- the voice that moves us from adolescent chafing at God’s power and love, into perhaps a metaphorically adult relationship with God. A relationship where we know, and can appreciate and praise God for being our creator, for knowing us inside and out, and still remember that all our days are God’s and have been known by God since before creation, that God’s knowledge is too heavy for us, greater than the grains of sand on the beach. Again we hear a voice that says that no matter where we turn, or how far we go, God is there. This voice moves beyond the reticence of the last one to say that this, while heavy and difficult, is a good thing. In the end God is there, even after all that struggle and challenge. God remains steadfast and present even through and certainly after we struggle. This is the voice that has experienced life, life’s disappointments and fears and failures, but comes out the other side steadfastly in awe and praise for God.
...Aannd then there are verses 19 to 22, probably the hardest verses for us to hear:
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.
A voice that we shy away from admitting we can relate to. The Gospel and our tradition teach us not to turn to God for vengeance, even at the sake of our own lives. Jesus died on the cross instead of turning against a faith and a culture that despised and reviled him. So I’m not supposed to be angry, right God? To live in the path of Christ is to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to pick up my cross…but what about those times it seems like evil wins out, those times despair turns to rage, the places in my heart where I’m just not sure I can be a good and faithful follower of the peaceful reign of Christ? This voice is one that says ‘on your behalf God, I hate those who do not do what you ask. Those who I wish you would make go away, those who do evil against you or your people’
haven’t we all had those moments? I know I have.
Doesn’t this voice sound familiar in this time and the rhetoric of political campaigns- such certainty in one’s own rightness that those who oppose us must be the enemy.
This is a story that is familiar, but perhaps the most complicated and often the most problematic part for us to accept in the Psalm. It is a story that sometimes leads us to emphasize sin and guilt, at the sake of relationship with each other and with God.
At these moments in my life, the moments when I desperately want the rules to be followed even to the point of ignoring those around me there are two voices that come into my head-
first- my father’s- who in the moments his passionately fair-minded daughter would rage against the world’s injustices- from those who steal shovels from smaller kids in the sand box (which at 5 years old, led to the only black eye I have ever had), to the evils of encountering the KKK for the first time when I was 6 at an MLK parade, would say “Jessica, you have read the Princess Bride…Life Isin’t Fair” and remind me that in the complexity and diversity of the created beings we are, God did a wonderful thing, but often a hard thing.
And second, the voice of Anne Lamott who says “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Both of these voices remind me that anger and even rage are sometimes part of living in a world where we have free will, where we will never agree on everything, and where evil undeniably exists. These voices tend to help me calm those prayers of anger, and turn itto something more productive... but not always very quickly.
.....I have no idea what ran through the brain of the Psalmist 2500 years ago in between verses 22 and 23, but I imagine that he had voices that were formative for him, like these two voices are the ones that are formative for me…because in a seemingly abrupt shift the Psalmist returns to verse one, but as supplication this time: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
This voice I imagine a bit sheepishly saying…'ok my tantrum is over. I know that I fall short of your glory just as much as anyone else, it just really bugs me that the world is unfair'. 'I give it all up to you and what you want from me. Instead of being righteously indignant, I will focus on the splinter in my eye before the log in someone else’s'.
This is perhaps the hardest part of the psalm to see or relate to. Knowing that our path is away from simple anger and toward God’s will is a huge struggle in the life of every Christian, every person. Christ calls us to follow a path that includes passion, includes struggle, pain and even indignation, but does not include God or people punishing those who annoy or even harm us just because it would make us feel better.
This shift from verse 22 to 23 may be the most profound transition in the psalm. A long psalm that includes a breadth of the internal monologue or prayer life of faithful people, arguably even the whole story of scripture and the relationship between humanity and God, but this final idea moves us from what we want from God to what God wants from us.
Poetically it is a call back to the first verse, but with the shift from statement to request. In the beginning there is the acknowledgement that God knows us, but in this final request God is engaged in the life of the psalmist. It moves from being the kind of prayer or song where we praise God or ask something of God, but don’t expect God to do anything to us, to one where praise and prayer are real, where the expected outcome of prayer and praise is not for God to change, but for ourselves to be changed by God.
While the first 22 verses of the psalm speak to the life of faith, the way that we move in our daily lives from praise to struggle to request and back, all sometimes in a moment, the transition here in these final two verses speak to the reasons we show up for worship every week, why we give our time and talents all our lives, and why we choose to be in Christ’s community…because we know that God acts in us, changes us and moves us for the better.
With the Psalmist let us affirm that we want God to move within us, not just for us, that God is the one who guides and teaches and challenges us in all situations. And with the psalmist may we ask that God search and know us, test us and lead us in God’s Way everlasting. Amen.