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Monthly Archives: July, 2012

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  1. Sermons : So That We May Seek God’s Name

    Psalm 83
    Matthew 5:43-44 

    When we began to plan this summer Psalm series, Chris sent out a list of potential psalms and assigned preachers. I was glad in the midst of a busy youth summer I had the privilege of preaching. Then I read the psalms I was assigned. Thanks, Chris. Give the least experienced preacher the most vengeful and violent psalm on the list. At first, I was a little nonchalant about it. I thought, "I can preach that! Maybe I’ll even do a full Hebrew exegesis, right after that mission trip and those two youth conferences." Again – least experienced preacher. 

    When I did sit down to study Psalm 83, I read it almost every day over the course of the past few weeks. I prayed it, taking each line apart and seeking God in the spaces between. But I didn’t really see God at work in the text. It was all too much, too enmeshed with history and hurt, unknowns and unsettled questions. And quite frankly, reading it every day was beginning to infuriate me. The lament of Israel’s people began to get under my skin.

    I decided to take the psalm apart into easier, more manageable bits. It would be far more attainable if I preached the first verse, "O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!" Now that can preach. How often do we demand God to move in our chaotic yet at the same time lethargic, relentless world? Titles swirled in my head, "Are you there God? It’s me, Taylor" or "God is Still Speaking."

    Or better yet, I could preach a sermon on the last verse in the psalm: "Let them know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth." That’s a piece of cake! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Add a story about sovereignty of the Most High, maybe a bit about creation. Perfect!

    Verse 1 and Verse 18 – that was a good solid sermon frame. God does not keep silence for God is Omnipotent.

    Then, I remembered how disappointed someone would be if he heard my solution. Mr. William R. Crout was a faithful attendee of the Harvard University’s Memorial Church Morning Prayers which I led whilst at Divinity School. In this 15-minute service (a tradition since 1638 they would want you to know), students, faculty, and community gather to recite a psalm, hear an anthem, ponder a homily, sing a hymn, and say the Lord’s Prayer. That’s a lot to accomplish in 15 minutes. It is the seminarian’s role to choose the psalm of the day. Since we read the psalms antiphonally – leader reads a verse, congregation reads the next and so on – it was crucial that the seminarian state the verses to be read. Mr. Crout knew every psalm in full and was keen to take note when the leader (maybe myself) cut short a psalm because it seemed too long or too arduous in such a succinct service OR cut short a vengeful psalm OR showed a pattern of skipping over the judgemental hymns for the "friendlier" psalms. When I made this mistake, Mr. Crout pulled me over and let me know. He asked me why I eliminated the last verses of a psalm from our reading. I fumbled. He told me that all verses were worth our time. That these verses, however painstakingly uncomfortable they might be, were still God’s Word, holy and not ours to edit. Shying away from the cries of pain and suffering was to shy away from the fullness of God.

    I have to agree.

    Let us pray. O God, do not keep silence. Do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Let us know that You alone are our God, the Most High over all our thoughts and actions. Bring us to a deeper understanding of our shared covenant in You. In Christ’s name who calls us to new life, Amen.

    During our sermon today, I ask that everyone keep their bibles open to Psalm 83. Seeing the words in print can help us study what we can’t see.

    Ancient Israel spent much of its communal life dwelling in dark, frightened places. In response, they lamented. With violence at their every border, Israel made their grief and despair audible, uniting them against oncoming threats. Israel also lamented as a way to communicate with God about their enemies. Look at verses 6-8 wherein the psalmist calls out the vengeful countries and people. Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites…so on and so forth, naming ten in all. So desparate to be heard by God, the psalmist gets specific and demanding. Do to them what you’ve done other places, O God. Destroy them, shame them, make them like a whirling dust. In a time of heightened fear, Ancient Israel cries with overflowing detail so that God might know all the wrong done to them.

    But unification against threat and communication with the Holy is only part of why the psalmist laments on behalf of her people. God’s existence is at stake, too. "If Israel is threatened, YHWH, the God of Israel, will also ‘vanish.’"1 Israel is crying to its Holy Parent – do not leave me, do not abandon me because if You do, we and YOU are no more. The surrounding nations were making a unified effort to destroy the monotheistic culture and its so-called God, too. Israel is terrified of being left alone, without a defense, without a God who will protect them. Israel is terrified that no one else will ever know their history with the Holiest of Holies. So they sang as loud as they possibly could, whirling cries for judgement like the mightiest of winds. Lament carried them through the toils and snares that were sure to come.

    Our own nation has been singing a lament as of late. One week and two days later, the cries of anger and despair continue to bellow from Aurora, Colorado and the victims of an outrageous shooting. Instead of calling for judgement on long-gone nations, we cry out for judgement on a collection of so-called enemies. Depending on where you stand, blame could be placed on the NRA for their support of guns, on the liberal media for lax rulings on violent video games or on the multi-million dollar bloody blockbusters. Blame has been placed on the parents, on school systems for ignoring James’ tendencies, on the internet for the easy access to weapons. Blame has been placed on the victims themselves for not being quick enough to react. Blame lies heavy on James himself, a young man whom we don’t know but yet we are quick to judge. Watching our communal lament unfold is ugly. It is unsettling and yet it is what we are supposed to be doing. We are getting it all out there, all the nasty mean bits of it and we are sharing grief. No one really likes to see it. We might avert our eyes or our ears, trading news updates on Aurora for more pleasant sounding pieces about animal rescues or the Olympic games. But yet the song of lament is loud and clear with overflowing detail of every second in that theater.

    I tend to avert my own eyes, my heart. The lament for Ancient Israel, for Aurora is like quicksand sucking me into an abyss. I can’t get out of all this talk of blame and enemies and violence. When I studied Psalm 83, I could barely move past verse 15’s threats. Verse 16 seemed like yet another awful request from Israel – "fill their faces with shame." "My God does not shame people," I asserted to the unknown psalmist. Hoping for refuge, I read the next line: "so that they may seek your name, O LORD." It took a while to crawl out of the quicksand. To realize what is being said here.

    This psalm, while a lament for judgement and vengeance, is also a prayer unlike any other. Israel is praying that their enemies – the very ones that are threatening to destroy them – be brought into covenant with them and their God. Judge them, O God, but please don’t let that be the end of this story. Teach them to seek You and not violence. Show them Your way, not the way of war. Give them guidance, God. Turn their swords into plowshares so our family of faith may grow and multiply.

    Certain death? Enemies? Violence unending? This is difficult. But it isn’t the most difficult part. It was not enough for Israel to lament in response to their enemies nor the sins committed against them. Israel sought out the very ones that persecuted them to be reconciled with them as one communion of believers. Their love for God could not be contained. It was greater than death. It was greater than fear. It called them to share a life-giving covenant no matter what had happened.

    "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."2 When Christ was establishing the new covenant – the new way to be in community with one another – he drew out the call from the covenant of old. Once a people so in awe and honor of God, Ancient Israel invited its very enemies to share in faithful life with them. When Christ said "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," he sought to repeat the sounding cry "so that we may all seek your name, O LORD." To pray for those who persecute you isn’t to pray that they will stop or find their judgement or vanish from the earth. To pray for those who persecute you is to pray that they will enter into covenant with you, with your God, with your community. It is the second part of lament. It is the next verse after a long chorus of wailing. We love our enemies when we pray they might find a welcomed place among you, your God, and your community.

    I might preach a big game of loving your enemy, of praying that those who sin against might enter into covenant life beside you but I am hear to tell you that it is possibly the hardest thing about being a person of faith. Even though it hurts, it is easier to lament. It is easier to name grievances. It is easier to demand that God fix the broken pieces. I confess to you that as a child and even now, I pray for judgement upon my parents and all the fighting and custody battles we ensued. I grieve the loss of one true home as I bounced back and forth from my mom’s to my dad’s week after week. I lament having four parents with conflicts of their own, demanding that God give me freedom from my struggle. And I think that’s ok and in a way, called for. But I also pray that it isn’t the end to our song as a family. Through the years, Christ has weaseled his way into all our hearts. He has taught us to pray through the many toils and snares so that we might be a family, cohesive in our scars. It is the revision of a covenant that once was before all the divorce and fighting and is a covenant made new in our reunion. It is not perfect. It is quite ugly in fact. But, it is ours and God has yet to abandon us. I share my lament with you because I hope that you know you are not alone in your cry or in your fear of reconciliation. It is the hardest thing – to join in covenant with those who persecute us – but you are surrounded by a community of people just like you.

    Many of you know this story, many of you were here. It was a time of much lamenting, much grieving. For years it sounds like cries of so many sides were screaming out for judgement, for a sure and fast fix. In 1971, a task-force was gathered in Durham to discuss the racial integration of the public school system. Two people were chosen as chairs of the task force – Black civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader CP Ellis. Enemies. Each likely demanding that God act in defense of their people. For ten days, the two sat at a table, learning about one another, about one another’s communities. Both Ellis and Atwater cared about their children, the children of Durham, and the fate of our schools. A common tie uncovered and now unbreakable. Walls were broken down. New friendships formed. One thousand from our town gathered to hear the results of the task force’s meeting. As I’ve heard it, Ellis walked towards the microphone and pulled out his KKK membership card. He held it high and tore it to pieces. Having spent the time to seek God’s name together, Ellis and Atwater entered into a new covenant with one another.3

    It might be the hardest thing to do. But Lord, do not keep silence. Teach us to seek Your name with our enemies. Let us pray for those who persecute us. Let us be one family of faith together. In Christ’s name all God’s people said, AMEN.

     

     

    1. Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, 41.
    2. Matthew 5:43-44, NRSV Translation.
    3. I owe the discovery of this story to our own Barb Schmidt who told me about it a few months ago. I heard it again from Casey Thompson, Keynoter for Montreat Youth Conferences Weeks 3 and 4, 2012.


  2. Uncategorized : July 29, 2012

    July 29, 2012 Bulletin


  3. Sermons : July 29, 2012 Psalm Resources

    Psalm 83 is a difficult psalm. It is angry, a psalm of lament. It speaks of violence and curses whole nations, begging of God to condemn enemies through cruel acts.  

    Psalm 83 is also not alone in the canon of psalms that are "imprecatory" (invoking evil) or vengeful, angry, lamenting psalms. Psalm 83, along with the other major imprecatory psalms (Psalms 58, 69, and 109) and a host of less violent but still disturbing psalms (Psalms 5-6, 11-12, 35, 37, 44, 52, 56, 58, 79, 137, 143), are nowhere to be found in the Christian lectionary, the three-year cycle of Scripture for Sunday readings. There are four imprecatory psalms that are in the lectionary (Psalms 37, 40, 54, 139), but the cursing or lamenting verses are absent.
     
    Why is this so? Is it because of the violent nature of these poems? Does it counter how we think of God as merciful and loving? Does it thwart our solace in God born among us as our peaceful and healing Savior Jesus Christ? Songs sung from the depths of Ancient Israel’s communal heart are not confined to tunes about shepherds and mountains and harps, as the lectionary partly suggests. While these are beautiful and crucial to our relationship with God and Holy Writ, what are we missing when we skip the psalms of vengeance and violence? Are we stifling the breadth of human experience that we choose to share with a God who sees all and waits for us to comment upon it?
     
    Preaching Psalm 83 or any of the imprecatory psalms is difficult, too, but it is a challenge I hope you’ll join me in taking today. It is my prayer and hope that through Psalm 83, we might together expand our understanding of how God works and calls us to covenant life in this broken world.
     
    For further reading, I suggest A God of Vengeance: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath by Erich Zenger. A short and informative text, Zenger explores several imprecatory psalms in-depth.
     


  4. Sermons : Have Mercy!

    II Samuel 11:2-5, 22-27
    Psalm 51

    "Have mercy!" may seem like a strange sermon title to any who watched the sitcom "Full House" back in the 1980’s. This was one of my young daughter’s favorite shows, so we watched it a lot, even when it went into syndication. The handsome young male character named Jesse used "Have mercy!" whenever he came close to an attractive woman, later to just his wife, or when he was in a dangerous situation, like diving off of a cliff or riding his motorcycle on the railing of a tall building. "Have mercy!" came to my mind as I studied Psalm 51, but in a slightly different sense than Jesse might have used it. "Have mercy" is probably a good summation of what Psalm 51 is all about, and it is the first word in Hebrew, the first two words of the psalm in English. So there we have it, end of sermon! There is no need to say anything more. Everyone knows what it means for God to have mercy on us, right? Let’s go home!

    Oh, but there is so much more to this psalm. Psalm 51 certainly is a prayer, an individual prayer for God to redeem the one praying. But it is not like the other penitential prayers in the psalms. It does not name the specific wrongs, either that the psalmist has committed, or that someone has committed against the psalmist. There is no complaint at all against God or others in this psalm. And that is unusual. Look at other penitential psalms, and you will find more specific complaints – "All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back and in a moment be put to shame" (Ps.6:10); "Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you" (Ps. 32:9); "All day long my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger" (Ps. 102:9). These are certainly more graphic and dramatic complaints. And some of us could cry these words along with the psalmists. Psalm 51 makes its plea in more general, but still very precise, terms.

    The subscription attributes this psalm to King David upon his repentance after Nathan the prophet confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. It certainly would seem a good prayer for King David to have made. It even agrees with David’s words in II Samuel in response to Nathan. "I have sinned against the Lord" (II Samuel 12:13), he said. Most scholars, however, think this reference to David was added by later editors to the Book of Psalms, and that Psalm 51 was used in the liturgical setting as a prayer of confession. The Psalm was most likely written, at least in part, in the exilic or post-exilic period (since it refers to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the later verses). Both of the exilic prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel preached God’s promise of restoration to the Israelite people, quoting God as saying: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you" (Ezekiel 36:26).

    This is also a prayer unlike the others because no blame is put on anyone else. All the blame for the sinfulness lies within the psalmist. "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me" (v.5). As is possible with almost all Bible verses when pulled out of context, this verse alone has been used for good and for bad. It has been used to prove the doctrine of original sin – that we are born with sin in us because of Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden. It has been used by some preachers and teachers to condemn sex itself. Whenever we interpret the Bible, we need to do so in light of its historical context, to see it as the first hearers might have heard it. The people of ancient times did not have a doctrine of original sin (or any other formal doctrines). They did not see sex as sinful in and of itself. They did know the stories of Genesis 2 and 3 about Adam and Eve, and so they understood that humans have always been sinful, from the beginning of God’s creation.

    Some have questioned the sinner’s confession in verse 4 – "Against you, you alone, have I sinned," the prayer addresses God. We can read this to say that the writer does not see that he/she has sinned against anyone but God. Yet such a notion would not be present in the ancient worshiper’s mind. Perhaps ancient peoples had a greater sense of community, as they knew that their sins affected others. But they also knew that the one to whom they had to completely and truthfully confess their sin was (and still is) God alone. God’s laws reveal our sins, not earthly laws. We sin in relation to God, even while we sin against other human beings.

    This prayer of confession does not admit one sin, or even a series of sins. It admits the full sinful nature of the one praying. James L. Mays, who used to teach Hebrew and Old Testament at Union Seminary in Virginia, says that the first petition of this psalm (verses 1-2) uses all of the OT words for sin – the words translated as "transgression," "iniquity," and "sin" – and that these words are both singular and plural. Even though the psalm uses "I" throughout, he tells us, it is the prayer of the whole people of God. This is true of our confessions today. Even as we pray the words of the Prayer of Confession in our bulletins, we are not praying for ourselves alone. We are praying to confess the sins of all people. Even when we bow our heads in silence to give our own personal confessions, we pray within the community in which we live and breathe and sin – and in which we are forgiven, over and over again. "Repentance concerns what I am, not just something I have done that is an expression of what I am," says Mays. "The prayer of confession always has a corporate dimension" (Mays, p.202).

    The psalmist confesses sin from the deepest part of his body and soul, down to his very bones. In OT thought, the heart was the central organ of all life – of physical, intellectual, emotional and moral life. The heart was also the way through which one connected with God. After Ezekiel said, "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, he added, "and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances…and you shall be my people, and I will be your God." (Ezekiel 36:26-28). Bones, mentioned in v.8, were seen as a source of physical and emotional strength. So this confession of sin is as deep and complete, whole body, mind, and soul, as one can be without mentioning specific sins. This is why Psalm 51 is used, in part or in whole, in worship and in song, so often.

    Having admitted the complete depth and helplessness of the sinner, the psalmist next turns to God asking to be recreated, remade, restored. The Hebrew word for "create" here (bara) can only have God as its subject. Only God can create clean heartsand pure hearts. To create is to bring into being something that was not before in existence. "To cleanse" means to free from dirt or defilement or guilt, to purge or clean deeply. We talked about other OT scriptures, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that spoke of the new heart and spirit. Jesus too said "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matthew 5:8). The restoration requested in this psalm is just as deep and abiding as is the confession of sinfulness.

    "Deliver me from bloodshed" (v.14) seems all too appropriate after the shootings early Friday morning in Colorado. But the word used here is less specific and likely refers to deep guilt. However, "bloodguilt" would refer to killing of the innocent, as did occur so tragically at the movie theater.

    In the latter verses that some scholars think were added at a later date than the first part of the psalm, the writer recognizes that God does not accept rote worship. The only confession acceptable to God is the complete emptying, as the author of this psalm has given – "a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart" (v.17). Only when we truly understand how dependent we are on God can we admit such utter helplessness to redeem ourselves. This kind of thought seems to run counter to the modern cultural expectation for self-confidence and the drive to succeed on one’s own merit. But really it does not. For in admitting our complete reliance on God, we can achieve more good in God’s kingdom on earth than we ever could achieve in earthly expectations. When we admit our complete dependence upon God’s grace, we can delight in "right sacrifices," which, for Christians, come in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we hear each Sunday morning in our Assurance of Pardon, in Jesus Christ, we know that we are forgiven and loved.

    If such a person as the young man who shot so many people early Friday morning, or any seemingly cold-blooded killer, came to God with such a complete and utter emptying as this psalmist gives, I believe that God would forgive him. He would still have to pay the penalties of society for what he has done. He would still be guilty of breaking one of God’s greatest commandments against neighbor with such senseless killing. But God’s forgiveness and love runs deeper than anything we humans can even imagine.

    One of our church members, who has since moved away, taught me so much about love and forgiveness one day as we sat in a prayer group in our parlor several years ago. She described the horror another young man had done, by breaking into a young woman’s apartment, assaulting, and then killing her. The young woman was a friend of this woman’s daughter. I thought, as she told us the horrible details, that she would ask us to pray for the woman’s family, and for her grieving daughter. She did. But the first request from her mouth was that we pray for this young man and for his family. I find myself remembering such good advice and sense of God’s grace whenever such horrors occur as did then and on 9/11, at Columbine School, and early Friday morning.

    "Have mercy," we pray. When we pray "Have mercy on me," we petition to God for all humankind, "Have mercy on us." When we come before God with such true worship and humility, God hears us and forgives us our sins, and creates in us new and clean hearts. God gives us an inner peace and even joy that can overcome the deepest sorrows, with the knowledge that God loves us and "delivers us from evil." The chaos of evil will still be around us in this world at times, but we can live in the knowledge that God can overcome the evil when we but give our whole being to God. For we know from the Scriptures that God is so much greater than anything on earth, and that God’s love for us runs deeper than anything in life or in death or anywhere in between. So loved, so forgiven, so embraced, God’s love calls us and enables us to reach out also in love and grace to others. "Have mercy on us, O God, according to your steadfast love." Amen.

     


  5. Uncategorized : July 22, 2012

    July 22, 2012 Bulletin


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