August 3, 2014
When the Night is Over
Good morning. I hope some of you, like I do, welcome this opportunity to be in closer proximity to one another as our sanctuary is being beautifully refurbished. In our church archives as a number of you know, there are photographs, the kind that were developed in dark rooms, not Instagram or selfies, that recorded the history of this very room we are seated in this morning. Long tables placed end on end in rows, with table cloths, cutlery, real napkins, and dinnerware, glasses, even a roast beef dinner. If that’s not astonishing enough, there were people, members, sitting elbow to elbow, LOTS of people; many, many, members.
Clearly, something has changed. Of course this church is not alone in declining numbers. All over the country, even in the bible belt, and certainly throughout Europe, church properties are being shuttered or sold, rented out bit by bit. It is happening to seminaries as well. When I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the grand English gothic campus was slowly being consumed by the behemoth Columbia University, and rented out to the production company that filmed Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Something about that is quite unsettling. Or, as my elders would say, “That’s just plain wrong.” Change; it is inevitable. As much as many of us dislike it, resist it, dig our heels in and fight it, in the end, change does not ask for our permission.
During the month of August, our preaching theme will focus on the Psalms. Even if we were to meet as often throughout the week as Southern Baptists do, we’d hardly make a dent in the Psalter which contains 150 chapters and 2,461 verses. It is serious. What we can do, is become reacquainted with the psalms, or maybe be introduced to them for the first time, to see if there is something of value, some word from God we have yet to hear, some recognition of the universal human longing for wholeness, justice, and peace.
There are several types of psalms that our time this morning doesn’t permit us to review. The psalm we read responsively this morning is an individual lament-- not a lament of the community. But we read it as such, so that each of us could participate, get a feel for the psalmist’s anguish and despair and hope.
The book of Psalms is an ancient anthology of songs, poems, and prayers. These religious lyrics are confessional in character. Normally, they are expressed in the first person. It is important to realize that they are deeply personal and more often than not, they are addressed directly to God. Some of the psalms are humble and penitent, others like Psalm 17, are indignant, defending the psalmist’s innocence. They are written from the heart, not the head.
Reflecting theologically on the Psalms as a whole, we can make the following observations. The first pertains to the character of God. God’s love is trustworthy and without end. Second, we see that even the most faithful of the psalmists are not always in good health, prosperous, or secure. Third, and this may be worth our careful attention, the psalmists do not mince words. They do not hold back or repress any of their unseemly feelings, thoughts, or desires for revenge.
This is a kind of unburdening. A laying bare of all that is on the troubled mind and broken heart of the psalmist. There are the fist-raising demands for God to listen and act, that God in short, holds up his end of the deal. Then, just as in our own lives, there is the transition, however impermanent, from anxiety and doubt to assurance and trust. So too, the psalmists proclaim their trust in God, and offer their praises to the One they call upon, when, after many heart wrenching petitions, the night is finally over.
As with the poet, the psalmist is wont to sort and rummage through all the words at their disposal to describe the indescribable. Listen to the intimate longing and trust in verse six; I call upon you, for you will answer me, O, God; incline your ear to me, hear my words. Then in verse eight and nine: Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. The psalmist uses the feminine imagery of a mother bird protecting her precious young, to describe the kind of protection the psalmist expects from God; imagery that is understood metaphorically, as it should be. Indeed, if one is to find these ancient songs, poems, and stories relevant today, it is best that they be held in the tension of metaphor and revelation, in order to live open-mindedly with humility in the 21st century.
One of our most prolific current Old Testament scholars is Walter Brueggemann. I like to think of him as the Joyce Carol Oats of theology: he pumps out at least a couple of books a year. He has published many on the Psalms. One of his foundational interpretations of the Psalms is -- as a sequence. First, orientation, followed by disorientation and concluding with new orientation. In Psalm 17, the psalmist not only believes God will listen, he also believes he will be found without wickedness -- this is the orientation. Then, as the psalmist describes his enemies we can see the disorientation, finally after all petitions have been made and he is unburdened, hope appears anew when the psalmist will be satisfied beholding God’s likeness- new orientation.
This understanding also describes the cycle of our own lives. Growing up in Texas, I really did believe bigger was better. I thought family was a man, a woman, and two children. I also believed the censored American history books with glossy pictures depicting a wholesome and free democratic society. As you can imagine, this orientation changed in more ways than one; beginning with my own orientation. When I realized at sixteen that I was never going to marry a man, I had to work out my disorientation alone. I also had to work out my salvation with fear and trembling as described in the book of Philippians. More disorientation. Then, I got radical. I started reading MS. Magazine, the NYT and the New Yorker. These publications were not easy to find in Texas. I read James Baldwin, and began studying the Civil Rights Movement.
Sadly, it took longer to shed the bigger is better belief, exceptionalism is a trap. Needless to say, there were many nights of me shaking my fist at God, throwing my Ryrie study bible across the room, daring God to bring it on. I left my evangelical church in the dust, replaced my Amy Grant cassette tapes with Joan Armatrading and began to read the scripture for myself. For those of you who don’t know who Amy Grant is, don’t confuse her with Debby Boone who sang, You Light Up My Life. For those of you who don’t know who Joan Armatrading is, she preceded the Indigo Girls. If you don’t know who the Indigo Girls are, they preceded Lady Gaga. If you don’t know who she is -- I can’t help you.
We grow up holding certain beliefs about our family, perhaps our religion, and our
country. Almost inevitably, something happens to disrupt, even dismantle these beliefs, and then a new orientation emerges offering hope where there was once confusion, disillusionment, and despair.
As I mentioned earlier, change is inevitable. It seems to me our country, even our world is in a state of disorientation. Perhaps our personal lives are too. I don’t know a lot, but here is what I do know. God is big enough to unburden yourself upon. Say it all, every last unacceptable thing you feel or think. Go ahead and take God at face value, even giving the idea of God the benefit of the doubt. Hold God to his end of the deal and then live up to yours. Here’s what it looks like; do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.