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.