The beginning of today’s psalm reflects on a specific event – the Exodus – taking this moment in the life of the people and casting it out as one of cosmic proportion.1 Each line comes in parallel, repeating the content of the line before, as freedom comes from Egypt, a strange and foreign land, towards God’s sanctuary, home. And all creation helps – waters fleeing as the people strode through the Red Sea, mountains and hills -I love this language – fleeing, skipping, everything, Walter Brueggemann writes, ‘mobilized for liberation.’2 And what are the people called to do, as they remember when God heard their cries after centuries of slavery and brought Pharaoh to his knees? "Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord," who brought us out, who rained manna from the sky and drew water from a rock, who made the world new again. "Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord."
And while the trembling the psalmist describes is an act of worship, the mixture of fear and joy that comes in the presence of God,3 that isn’t the kind of trembling I have seen in recent weeks. The illusion of a carefree summer was first shattered when that gunman walked into the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado after midnight the morning of July 20. The nervous excitement for the movie premiere was quickly transformed through bullets, teargas and screams. Last Sunday, a man strolls into a Sikh Gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, bullets interrupting prayer. A mosque was burned in Joplin, Missouri, Monday. On Tuesday Jared Loughner, who walked into a grocery store last January, killing 6, wounding 13 including Congresswoman Gabbi Giffords, pled guilty and will never breathe free air again. Maybe this kind of stuff has always happened so frequently, and the media echo-chamber amplifies the effects. But it feels like there is a fear running deeply among us, a fear that threatens to consume.4
This fear shows up most vividly in these sad and sick individuals who commit these acts of violence, but these shooters swim in a current that is much broader. I think it starts in a different kind of trembling: our anxiety, over who we are and who we dream to do, over how we think of ourselves, over the petty worries that we all allow to take up more energy than they deserve. And, in our anxiety, it becomes all too easy – with help from politicians and too often religious leaders – to be afraid. And to look for someone to blame.
And as our eye roams for targets, the bull’s-eye tends to land on those who are different. Have you ever noticed how seldom people get intensely angry at people who are like them? This hatred of ‘other’ isn’t present in every instance, but sure comes around a lot. The people from that ‘other place’. To use the psalmist’s words, of strange language. In this season many of those ‘others’ are from the east – we don’t seem to care whether they are Muslim or Sikh – which we really are supposed to pronounce ‘sICK’, not ‘sEEk’ – Arab or Indian or Indonesian. They are ‘those people’ like the terrorists. That’s who they all are, we know it. It is those other people who are a different color, who live in a different part of town. In this hyper-partisan political environment, we have no tolerance for differing views, not that anyone is trying to express those views with any wisdom and nuance. Those other people are wrong. Obama, we have seen throughout these 4 years, is other. He’s not like us. Wasn’t even born here, they say. Same thing with Romney now. He’s filthy rich (and Mormon, though that is said a little less), and is different from us. He doesn’t understand our lives. The same day as the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, a truck carrying 23 illegal immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico was involved in a crash and 14 people were killed. The exact same number as in that theater in Colorado.5 But we didn’t see much on television about that…
And all of the problems we encounter are their fault, whoever they are. They did it. Jared Loughner went into that grocery store to shoot Giffords in part because she was of the government, another mysterious force that oppresses us. Our gay brothers and sisters take a ton of heat, too. It is their fault our values are crumbling, so let’s do something about it. Let’s amend our state constitution; let’s go eat at Chick-fil-a. We’ll show them how WE do things around here. But doing that begins the process of stripping the God-given humanity from that other, whoever they are. Sometimes we don’t mean to, but that’s the message we send. They matter less than us. They aren’t worth our time. Who cares what happens to them, regardless of the fact that anyone, anywhere comes created in the image of the one sovereign God. It’s not us and them, we MUST proclaim, it’s all us. It’s all US.
And I think it important to admit that in certain seasons the Christian church hasn’t done a whole lot to help. Even today’s text complicates things. The beginning of the psalm, while giving glory to God for this supreme act of the liberation, also begins to set up that same dynamic – we were freed from those people in a strange land. And part of me can’t really blame them. I can’t imagine the fury if my people had been enslaved for 400 years. And this glimpse of demonization pales in comparison to the images of all of creation praising God. But, as the psalm continues, the polemic builds. What begins (that is the first verse of psalm 115) as a reminder that any and all glory goes to God, not us, quickly moves into something that points a finger at other nations. Those people, you hear the Israelites, say, they don’t worship our God. Our God is powerful and free. They worship idols, they have mouths but do not speak, ears but do not hear, they never heed God’s call, they aren’t even capable of it. And you can see why they might think this way, embroiled in conflicts with surrounding nations. Scholars I read this week go to great pains to make excuses for this kind of language. But it doesn’t make it okay. I wish these portions of the text had been left out sometimes. It would be easier if the bible was simple and clean, unsoiled by humanity. Folks who are mad at the church already or hate other people already don’t need sections of the bible they can selectively quote to justify hate. We must to attend to the pernicious impulses within all of our traditions.
Yet we, as the church of Jesus the Christ, are called to a couple of things. We must listen to the broader meaning of the text as we sift out how to read this book. We read in light of the whole, we put a few verses up against what I believe is the broader meaning – praising God for God’s deliverance, pointing to God’s power over ALL human power, calling us to be a people of trust and of praise. As Christians we filter it all through the lens of the person and ministry of Jesus. But even more than that we must seek to live the grace at the heart of these texts, being the kind of community that roots out hatred and division from within itself, being in conversation with our Christian communities, honoring differences among us and far beyond. The world is shrinking so quickly. Our call is to reach out to all people as our friends and neighbors. I realized this week how completely ignorant I was to what it means to be Sikh. I am going to do better, and I hope you will, too. We must share our traditions and seek to understand theirs. We must listen with humility, as we hold hands and pray together.
Yet even beyond these practical matters of hospitality and intent, we are called to live as a people of defiant hope. That is what this psalm is calling us to do. The exodus, this one concrete event, serves as a template. God did this one tremendous thing to liberate the people from the height of tyranny. If God did this, might God be at work bringing liberation again? Even out of despair God did something entirely new. The psalmist plants the seed: How dare we believe God couldn’t do something like this again? Might our God be bigger than all of these things? Might our God be capable of using even this summer of hatred to create a new community?
Wednesday evening a handful of us went up Roxboro Road to the Sikh Gurudwara for an evening of worship and prayer. I was struck first by their extraordinary hospitality, far beyond the pleasant greetings we offer as folks come in here – so warm and sincere. The other thing was that, while a tragedy brought us together, so much of the night was not that much different from what we do. We all took off our shoes and put on head coverings, then ushers gave us bulletins, and we went upstairs and sat down. We did some singing, which was very beautiful. Some stood, some sat. There were a lot of kids around, some crying babies. A bunch of people spoke – some interesting, some not. We prayed and sang more, we shared a sacrament – a ball of dough, bread. We went downstairs for an amazing meal, folks piling our plates with rice, curry soup, a yogurt sauce and pan, salad and then, oddly, subway sandwiches. It wasn’t that different from the kind of stuff we do. As worship ended a young boy came in. He looked 4, about my son’s age, shorts and a t-shirt and an orange bandana on his head. And he walked up to the front for a moment and then knelt down, laying his forehead on the ground at the foot of the altar.
The word the psalmist uses for tremble is, as far as I can tell used only one other time in the bible, in Micah, chapter 4. There, instead of trembling, the same word is translated as birth pangs, labor pains, as the people were being delivered from exile back home. And so maybe as we tremble, because there are some things we ought to be afraid of, we could make sure that we are a community that is part of birthing something new. That carries itself with a defiant hope. That says to our Sikh neighbors, and anyone else, we stand with you against hatred. That God calls us to reach out in love, and we will not allow all of this trembling and fear to make us something we are NOT. So we might cry with the psalmist to all peoples: May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Might we be. Might this broken and fearful world be. Might we seek hope together.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), p 140
2. Brueggemann, Message, 141.
3. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1142.
4. Another interesting take on the nature of this fear comes from Russ Douthat of the NY Times in The Way We Fear Now
5. 14 Illegal Immigrants Are Killed When Pickup Truck Crashes in Texas I am grateful to my father-in-law, Bob Strowbridge, for pointing this out to me.