25 Jan 2010 02:15 PM

"Chanting a Curse"

Sermon by Deacon Sue Mosher on January 24, 2010

It must be the best known verse in the Bible, "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want," the first verse of the 23rd Psalm. It's comforting. It's reassuring. It's easy. Most of you probably can recite it from memory. Flip over a few pages to Psalm 51, and you'll hear phrases that echo through the versicles that we sing here before the pastoral prayer: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me." Familiar. Inspiring. You can speak these words with ease - and with perhaps even with yearning for God's company. However, if you keep flipping pages and you're still reading aloud by the time you get to Psalm 58, these words may stick in your throat: "Break their teeth in their mouth, O God! . . . . Let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, like a stillborn child . . . that they may not see the sun." And then there's Psalm 109, which agitated the blogosphere last year when T-shirts appropriated a reference to verse 8 as a barely veiled political slogan aimed against President Obama. Verse 8 says: "Let his days be few, may another man take his post." But the psalm continues: "May his children become orphans and his wife a widow."

The Hebrew name for the book of Psalms is Tehillim, which translates literally into English as "Praises." Did the compilers of the Psalms make a cosmic mistake? How can these curses, these calls for dreadful divine vengeance be cast as praises? Countless churches, synagogues, monasteries, and individuals include these psalm in their regular weekly or monthly rotation. How can they stomach to recite them? The contrast is just too great between the "green pastures" of the 23rd Psalm and the outrageous conclusion of Psalm 137: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" I wouldn't be surprised if you closed the Bible right then and there and never opened it again.

But I'm here this morning to ask you to give the Psalms another chance - all of them, the curses as well as the blessings. Now, I could spend the next few minutes explaining how much the psalms have meant to the church for their prophecy of the Messiah, their insights into Jewish ritual, their moral code, or their Cliff's Notes recitation of the high points of Israelite history. But instead, I want to make a case for engaging the Psalms on a more personal, less academic level and give you four reasons to consider:

Number 1 - The Psalms were an essential part of Jesus' spiritual vocabulary.

2 - The Psalms are rich in metaphor, especially related to the natural world.

3 - The Psalms can teach us about prayer.

And 4 - The Psalms embody universal passions.

A brief disclaimer: I have more material on the Psalms to share with you than can be covered in this sermon, so consider this a sneak preview -- an infomercial, if you will - for the 6-week class that I will teach during Lent, starting the middle of next month. So, now that the commercial message is over . . .

Reason Number 1 to Read the Psalms - The Psalms were an essential part of Jesus' spiritual vocabulary.

If we're going to understand the teachings of this prophet from Nazareth and his followers, we ought to know what they were quoting. The Psalms may have been akin to their Shakespeare - a centuries-old work that everyone knew well enough to "get" a short mention and know the larger context that was being referenced. Of the 150 psalms, 63 are quoted in the New Testament. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," he is quoting Psalm 37, which says, "The meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace." His listeners would have known exactly what kind of meekness he meant, because of the preceding verses of the psalm: "Do not resent those who prosper; this only leads to evil. The wicked shall perish; the patient shall receive their inheritance. So calm your anger, forget your rage." Jesus was referring not just to simple humility, but also to the ability to set aside the envy and resentment that arises when you see someone prosper even in their lack of integrity.

Furthermore, although some scholars link various psalms with particular rituals of Jewish Temple worship, the Psalms have long been the people's prayer book. Jesus would have used their words and phrases in his own prayers. What was it like for the one who told the parable of the Good Shepherd to himself call upon the heavenly Shepherd in the words of 23rd psalm? When we pray the psalms, we move closer to the heart of Jesus, closer to the wisdom of God as he experienced it.

Reason #2: The Psalms are rich in metaphor, especially related to the natural world.

The language of the Psalms, like much of the Bible, is primarily figurative, metaphorical, and poetic. Attempts to express concepts and experiences that extend beyond finite human understanding can only point to the ultimate meaning - sometimes gently, sometimes more forcefully - but to confine it to any one literal transcription is to lose the sense of the ineffable as surely as snow melts within a grasping hand.

Which is why I get exasperated with those who say the Bible does not instruct us to care for creation. Yes, it's true: There is no 11th commandment, "Thou shalt not pollute," nor did Jesus say, "Do unto the earth as you would have it done unto you." But the direction we're given in the Bible comes not just from the "Thou shalts." Often it teaches by example. For instance, in Psalm 98, the choir sings, "Let the sea, the world, and all people resound with gladness. Let the rivers clap their hands." How can the oceans and streams join us in praise if their voices are choked by plastic bags and other trash? The psalm continues, "Let the hills ring out their joy at the presence of God." I picture little joy among the mountains in West Virginia whose tops have been sliced off to yield the coal within. If the very features of the landscape are designed, are destined to praise God, as this psalm and many others picture, their preservation should be our concern, lest their voices be stilled.

Reason Number 3: The Psalms can teach us about prayer.

My fellow deacon, Marti Martinson, preached last week that the goal of prayer is not to move God, who is immovable, but to help us make the shift toward God. The Psalms show us how to do that, both by their example of different forms of prayer, but also sometimes with clear instruction. For example, in a single verse, Psalm 5 provides a complete, three-part model for daily prayer: "In the morning You hear my voice; early in the morning, I make my appeal and watch for You."

Part 1: "In the morning, you hear my voice" - The time when we awaken, when we are fresh, is also the hour when we can seek God's attention, before the numbing busy-ness of the day sets in. We can set the stage for what comes next in our prayer by offering praise and thanks.

Part 2: "Early in the morning, I make my appeal" - The second order of the day, after making contact with the Divine, is to lay our case before God. In what area of our lives do we find that human effort isn't enough and so we feel the need to call for help? This is what we usually consider to be the heart of prayer - asking God for what we require. But my hunch is that most of our personal prayers stop here and reach the "Amen" without including the final section that Psalm 5 teaches us. And that is . . .

"I . . . watch for You." Watching here means to wait attentively and not to fret. Many psalms end with an astounding affirmation that our prayers are heard and God's response is already in motion. Now. Not in the future. Right now. It is already accomplished, even before the words of our prayers died out. This aspect has led Father Thomas Williams to call the Psalms, "A Book of Trust." In his recent book, Can God Be Trusted?, he describes the Psalms' message - that "it is God alone who never fails and whose plans always succeed" - but cautions that trust in God is not a one-time achievement. It takes practice and continual effort. Hence, the repetition in the Psalms of this trust that God's saving response is on the way:

From Psalm 3: "Rescue is from God. On Your people Your blessing."

Psalm 6: "God hears my plea, the Holy One will take my prayer."

Psalm 31: "Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for God."

Through these affirmations, we learn new ways to voice what novelist Jan Karon's affable character Father Tim calls "the prayer that never fails" -- "Thy will be done."

Reason Number 4: The Psalms embody universal passions.

The world's scriptures - the Psalms included - are vehicles for ideas and experiences that are "true" for humanity as a whole, not just for adherents of one particular religion. The Psalms paint a broad picture of the passions that are meaningful to all people - joy so great you want to shout, hate so poisonous that you want to see a supposed enemy killed, fear, weakness, pride, courage, disappointment, paranoia, abandonment. The Psalms contain each of these in abundance. And yet the mystery indicated by our second reading from David Avidan ("A Public Warrant") is that any given psalm may encapsulate quite contrary feelings:

And sometimes it rains,
and sometimes it's hot.
And beautiful bodies and faces
sometimes smile, sometimes not--
sometimes he, sometimes she complains.

When you don't know whether it's raining or sunny, when you don't know whether to smile or cry, that's when you do know you're in the midst of the psalm territory. I felt that way this week when the news broke that a Michigan company had been inscribing references to New Testament verses on the gun sights that it supplied to the U.S. military and its allies. Could I shrug this off as a superstitious act by silly people who thought the equipment would work better if it bore a Biblical talisman? Or was it an act of sacrilege by well intentioned Christians who just didn't know any better? Or were these gun sights an outrageous wedge of secret evangelism that was only the tip of a larger conspiracy to turn the war in Afghanistan into a religious crusade? Or, could the answer be "All of the above"?

The Psalms, for all their green pastures and still waters and joyful noises, are full of such ambivalence. They reflect the irony of the Jewish tradition, which mandates a prayer for times of grief, the Mourner's Kaddish, that nowhere mentions either death or bereavement. Instead, it praises God and asks the blessings of life and peace for those assembled. Former nun Kathleen Norris explains that the value of the Psalms "lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, for without them, praise is meaningless." This is the paradox at the core of the Psalms and indeed at the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition: It is the human experience, in all its brokenness, that gives value to the praise we offer. Otherwise, our worship would be no more than mechanical.

That conversation with the Mystery reaches in both directions. Our first reading, Psalm 139, shows us an eternal Mind whose thoughts extend out equally to those walking in the light and those hiding in the darkness, in the shadows that cloak our true selves. As the Psalmist writes: "Darkness itself will not darken for You, and the night will light up like the day, the dark and the light will be one." The Psalms contain both light and dark moments. "We have nowhere to go," writes David Avidan. Nowhere to hide. And yet we need not go anywhere, because the Psalms assure us that God is present everywhere.

So concludes this very brief look at the value of the Psalms as Jesus' prayer book, as a source of wonderful natural metaphors, as a school for prayer, and as a universal mirror for our passions and anxieties. The Bible belongs to all who seek wisdom and understanding in its pages, not just those who encode cryptic messages on T-shirts and gun sights. I challenge you: Do you dare reclaim the Bible for yourself and not let it become the exclusive property of those who would enslave it to a narrow, literal interpretation? If so, come to my class next month. Or, just start stepping through the Psalms on your own. One warning: Don't try to read them all at one sitting. Slate magazine editor David Plotz apparently got an overdose during his project of reading every word of the Hebrew Bible. He wrote in his blog: "Reading one psalm is a joy, reading two is a pleasure, reading three is a chore, and reading a dozen or more is like sitting next to a desperate Amway salesman on a trans-Atlantic flight." Take them one at a time, and pause if a phrase or image or emotion jumps out at you. Let that impression sink in. Stick with that particular psalm for a while; maybe memorize a verse or two so you can carry it with you. And when you feel fully immersed in that one psalm, start considering your own response. Does the psalm prompt something you want to say to God - not necessary in words, but maybe in a picture or some other work of your hands? Once you've made that response, rest in it, too. Wait on God to lead you in the eternal way, as we pray with the psalmist, "Show me your ways, O God, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me; for . . . in you have I trusted all the day long."

Readings:

Psalm 139, translated by Robert Alter

"A Public Warrant" by David Avidan, translated from the Hebrew by Ishai Barnoy (available at http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/Avidan-a-public-warrant)

Posted by Sue Mosher at January 25, 2010 02:15 PM
Posted to Sermons