Psalm 119:33-40 (CEB)
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 10 September 2017
1- Lord, teach me what your statutes are about,
and I will guard every part of them.
2- Help me understand so I can guard your Instruction
and keep it with all my heart.
3- Lead me on the trail of your commandments
because that is what I want.
4- Turn my heart to your laws,
not to greedy gain.
4- Turn my eyes away from looking at worthless things.
Make me live by your way.
3- Confirm your promise to your servant—
the promise that is for all those who honor you.
2- Remove the insults that I dread
because your rules are good.
1- Look how I desire your precepts!
Make me live by your righteousness.
I remember checking the book out, curious at what all the fuss was about. There were reviews about it, and some ministers that I had heard of before were condemning it. So as soon as the library would allow, I reserved it. I was not the first one to do so, so it would be a few weeks before I would have a chance o read it.
Rob Bell was a fascination to me at the time. He had figured out how to relate concepts of the Bible and Christian faith to normal experiences in an effective way. I had heard a few of his sermons, and watched many of his DVD’s that had him or other people doing mundane tasks while giving a monologue or while one was spoken in the background. Of course, eventually what they were doing was revealed to be an unfolding illustration of the point.
I enjoyed them, and it was a welcome shift from the usual preaching and church message I received at the time, even though at first I didn’t notice the difference. I just liked his work, and it seemed like something I would be comfortable sharing.
Sometimes, at least for me, I would feel guilty that I was embarrassed to share the kind of Christianity that had been communicated to me. I think that guilt was not so much that I was ashamed of my faith, but rather that what I was supposed to believe really was shameful.
At some point I resolved to stop that pattern. One more moment along the way was when I began reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Now, I can’t really remember what it was about in detail, and I have no idea what I would think of it now, but his argument was along with the title.
He was in the process of leaving the large mega-church he had started, and was professing that in the end, God would not let anyone go, that love would win no matter what it took.
However, there was something else in that particular book. The person before me had placed sticky notes throughout the book. That wouldn’t be odd itself, and if you look at my books, small sticky notes and markings are everywhere.
It was what they said. Throughout the book this person felt compelled to argue and refute Bell’s points, condemning him to hell and everything else. I am sure this person would claim that they were just worried about people’s souls. All I know is that I felt ashamed for them.
I wasn’t really upset, but as their tirade against a book continued page after page, it became clear that if I was to go about building a theology and practice of faith I could be proud to share, then I had work to do.
The psalmist is also ready. I don’t imagine that we are reading the words of a person new to religious practice. This doesn’t appear to be the development of a new faith, but rather an active realigning of a current, and maybe even long and vibrant life as a faithful Hebrew writer and poet.
One way to look at it might be to say that they have strayed from the faith and are in need of repentance, that they have failed to follow religious law and it needs to be pounded into their head. This might sound familiar, and fit in well with many sermons this happening morning, but I don’t buy it.
The psalmist surely knew all the laws, and lived them as best they could. Maybe they knew them so well that they realized that the law must be revealing something about them as a person and how God relates to them. Perhaps it was a realization that comes with persistence that what the law was really doing was pointing to something, and was more a path to fullness of life than anything else.
That must be getting close, or else instead of asking God to teach the psalmist the law, they could have just read it again themselves. They could have memorized it better, or argued for it more convincingly with “unbelievers.” I hear guilt is an effective way to build a big following, as long as deep spiritual anxiety and a sense of self-loathing among the people is worth it.
Speaking of anxiety and self-loathing, yesterday the different ministries of the this church met to plan the calendar for this new year. There was great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Many of you have attended the ministry retreat before. We began the day by talking about vision and mission; where we are going, and how we go that direction.
We of course did not finish that work, or really even get started. But before we began planning for the year, it was important to at least ask what all the planning is for.
Within congregations like ours, whatever you call them, mainline, progressive, reformed, liberal protestant, there is a common reaction to the kind of Christianity that pours on the guilt and leaves sticky notes in a book condemning the author to hell and praying the reader doesn’t risk their soul by reading it.
I suppose we should be glad they risked their salvation for us.
The reaction for many of us is to get as far away from that as we can. Fair enough. But there is more to it. Sometimes we run so fast out of repulsion that we lose track of where we are going. The problem is that it is easy to be overly cautious of claiming any conviction too strongly, for fear that they end up repeating the kind of Christianity we want to avoid.
We do not have to become dogmatic and hateful to be clear about where we are believe we are going, and in what direction we are headed. But we do have to stake a claim at some point, and even though we may not claim that we or anyone has the final word on what God’s mission is, we are called as a community to practice our faith and to act it out as best we can.
We need to boldly proclaim the love of God we have come to experience. Then skillfully gather up our talents and efforts, and being aware of our limitations, with the Spirit’s guiding, go about the work of living that out.
What I am quite confident of is that however we work out our faith together, it will surprise us. It will surprise us because none of us contains the whole thing. Only as we work it out together, negotiating, stretching, giving space for each other, will we get a glimpse of where we are going.
We all have gifts to bring. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The key for us as a church is to harness our collective gifts in service and worship for the God who has gathered us together.
Negotiations that will need to be made. We will not all agree on how to do a particular thing well. But through an intentionally prayerful process of witnessing to what we bring, and responding to what others may bring, the work of God within us as a body takes place.
The key is to remain focused on why we are doing anything in the first place. I do not always know best. I don’t always have the correct answer. As the minister, and especially as a Congregationalist minister, I recognize that we all bring one voice, on vote. We all have a part to play. Of course, we elect and set aside some to lead. But even then, we still all have one vote and a part to play.
There is a single line in the Psalm reading for today that I find captivating. The psalmist is asking God to act in many ways, but there is one that warms my soul as I read it. They know that they don’t get everything correct much of the time. So they ask to be taught, helped, lead, turned, turned, conformed in their call, winnowed and made lean in their action.
This list is then ended by the psalmist asking God to do something that does not quite fit with thee other requests . They ask God to look at them, to see how they try and desire to keep God’s precepts, God’s instructions. After God turns, removes, helps, confirms, all actions that God does to the psalmist so as to develop a fuller understanding, the psalmist just needs God to see them.
It is also of interest that when you break this poem down, another pattern arrises. You see, Hebrew poetry does not use rhyming patterns as does English poetry. Instead, the poetic pattern is repetition and enveloping.
Repetition is straight forward. If a particular translation does a good job, they will translate and retain the repetitious use a particular word. In English it can sound repetitive, but that is the intention.
Enveloping is when the first and last lines match, and as you step in from both this pattern continues until you get to a central line, or a pair of central lines. Today you see the repetition at the center the chiastic envelope. Turn is used twice. In a confirmation of a recent sermon, sometimes we need to turn, or be turned in order to respond to what God is doing.
But I also love that teaching and looking are paired together. Many psalms speak of being taught the Torah, but this time it is directly connected to God seeing the person or persons who are learning. It is not a heavy-handed instruction, but rather a recognition of value. It even might imply that God is turning with the psalmist.
The Torah, as far as the psalmist is concerned, instructs the way to true happiness. The psalmists wants to learn again what they already know. It is not necessarily a brand new thing, but it is an ever returning reality.
The psalmist, in a moment of probable self-consciousness, or even inner defeat, calls to God to notice the effort. It doesn’t seam to be a boastful cry for attention at how great they are, but instead the very real human need to be noticed for the contribution they bring.
It is not a self-assured claim that what they now believe is guaranteeing them anything, but that they have staked their claim as best they can, and in that they feel confident that what they believe has meaning, not shame, as its result. They want God to see what they have attempted, even if there is still work to do.
It is okay to try hard, and even fail doing it. It is okay to get it wrong, and then learn from it. Most of all it is worth the effort, even when we are not sure if what we do matters or is even noticed. It is worth it because, as the psalmist knows, the desire still requires the seeking after what God is up to, even as we are unsure if we are going in the right direction.
Claiming where we are going, and how we plan to go in that direction is also risky. But if we don’t take the risk, it is not shame we are avoiding, but rather life lived to the fullest.
May we do the work, may God help us and lead us, turn us and turn us again, confirm and remove. But most of all, may God look upon our efforts and be proud of us. May God’s face shine upon us and the peace and love that eclipses all understanding reveal the boundless care of a God who is never ashamed of us, and always bidding us forward.