One Nation Under

sermon on Psalm 66:1-9 plus 10 & 12

“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!” (ELW 888, st2)

Maybe some of our Psalm is in there, with God’s national concern and trials by fire. This Psalm has a verse about purifying silver; the song ups the ante with gold. I’d highlight the distinction that it singles out heroes and may end up misplacing the glory and adoration and worship, where the Psalm will attribute the good only from God, and for the common good.

We probably don’t need an exclusivist view that says we’re better than everyone else or that imagines we’re closer to God. When we read the Psalm in our more honest moments, we may even see not just others—other nations, other religions, other people—as the rebels and enemies of God, but see where our own country rebels against God’s will and we ourselves go astray.

Maybe to move closer to our Psalm’s theology, and for speaking of our nation, here’s a new verse I heard last week on WPR’s Simply Folk, written by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary:

“Oh, nation of the immigrant
The slave and native son
Whose loyal families labor still
That we may live as one
America, America
Renew thy founder’s call
Let liberty and justice be
The right of one and all”

That may feel more like us here, that it’s about justice and we’re working toward some sort of equity and equality, working to right former wrongs.

Still, compared with the faith of our Psalm, in that new verse God has disappeared from the scene. The focus is on us and on what we do.

As we’re considering this, we should notice that this Psalm is very, very specific. It specifies that God is the one doing it and specifies that God did it for someone else, one nation. You may have picked up hints of the Exodus story. We can’t claim special privilege or place. The specificity is not transposable to our own country. If we hear this as glorifying God’s connection to and work in a chosen people, it’s not appropriate for us to appropriate that biblical narrative and shoehorn in the United States of America.

While this may not be about the U.S. (nor is it about modern Israel), neither do we need to feel left out. We may hear echoes of our stories, echoes that resound in the hymn text, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way…keep us forever in the path, we pray” (ELW 841).

Further, this specificity is precisely meant to draw us all in. It portrays freedom from slavery in Egypt and going through the Red Sea, being brought into the Promised Land. But those details within the Psalm aren’t isolationist history or restrictive in favoritism. They certainly aren’t for gloating, either in solitary contentment or against the misfortune of others. The added verse reminds us that this isn’t about everything going great all the time or being singled out in God’s blessing when curses fall on others.

Rather than glorying in heroes of war or military might or economic clout or alleged moral superiority or bluer skies than other countries, as if we should or could claim credit in those things, this Psalm instead invites the praise of all nations, not a single national anthem but songs of praise, and indeed for all the world to shout with some kind of joyful noise. The end of the previous Psalm envisions the expanse we also witness in gardens and prairies here and farm fields around us. It says: “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” That leads straight in to our start: “Make a joyful noise to God, all earth.”

Through a specific lens, all are invited into the praise. And that seems what the Psalm wants us to know.

Plenty is not explained. It doesn’t say how God’s blessings are allotted or doled out, or even maybe what those blessings are or aren’t. It doesn’t say how God chooses or why. It doesn’t elaborate why bad things happen or how to rectify and reconcile when it feels you’re on the losing end. Maybe most troubling for us, it doesn’t offer any other agency. It doesn’t tell us what our responsibilities are or what we’re responsible for, versus what is dumb luck or what science might explain. The only credit the Psalm is willing to attribute is to God.

And our response still now, even for old stories that were far removed from us or our ancestors, is to join in making joyful noise.

Maybe we can think of the Psalm as an invitation to a party. When you’re invited to a party, it doesn’t involve explanations. It’s not suggesting alternatives. It’s not primarily about what you need to bring or do. It’s not really how you feel about it or how much you would’ve planned it that way. Instead, it’s graciously including you, asking you to share in the celebration.

Now, we could obviously see our response of praise and joyful noise as singing here in church. All are welcome in worship because from here God’s invitation extends without bounds. And the joyful noises don’t presume musical ability. I’ll say again I’m glad you came today to join in the celebration, you RSVP’d “yes.” Thank you.

But this is far, far from the only way. Beyond this, we might ponder how our whole lives sing and shout praise first to God, not seeking credit for ourselves, not gloating in our nation, not consumed by explanations, not lost in the negatives. How do we gird ourselves with overflowing joy? How do your days embody a reminder of God’s goodness?

There are zillions of possibilities. It might be that fireworks are a joyful noise, celebrating God’s blessings of life. It might be that splashing in water does it, or conversations that seek understanding. It might be as we turn our eyes to spacious skies. It might be in barbecues or brunch. As it says in the New Testament, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1Cor10:31).

Since this is about nations and our nation, it also quickly gets political. Praise and politics may be an unusual pairing of words these days. Since we’re recognizing the gift Ellen Lindgren has been to us in so many ways through the years, we can also celebrate how she’s come to the party, and how she’s brought us along with her. Ellen is certainly political, on her shirtsleeve and in signs she carries and through so many hours of her day. As we praise God, we can also give thanks for Ellen, who has worked so diligently for justice, for a politics that is about how life is enhanced and welcome is extended, so that more people may receive this invitation for an opportunity of abundant life, when living is itself praise of God.

Thank you, Ellen. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for the ways you expand praise and let your lives sing. And finally, thanks be to God.

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Boundary Lines & Waters

sermon on Psalm 16
It’s often said with much of the New Testament that we are reading other people’s mail. Paul writing letters to deal with issues and relationships that weren’t meant for snoopy us to eavesdrop.

A notch worse, I realize I have the feeling with Psalms I’m inserting myself into somebody else’s prayers, ancient or your own.

I’ve gotten to consider today’s Psalm for a couple weeks, including the quiet time in the Boundary Waters, where it joined Psalms I’m reading for my devotions this year and Psalms the youth were selecting day by day to fit their experience. It was so steeped in my mind I started jotting sermon notes at early dawn beside Ashigan Lake.

It was occurring to me it will be a challenge this summer to preach on Psalms, since it’s essentially trying to preach a poem. In a minute, I’ll do what probably should never be done by dissecting the poetry, picking it apart for kernels of my choosing, even though that doesn’t let the poem stand in its full voice. I have doubts that I could let it stand in its fullness and be able to hold all of that (even in these little 11 verses) and preach on the whole poem today, partly because it has such movement, vast theme and feel.

But the stand-out snippets make meaning for each of us, where a poem speaks to us, or in this case where we pray and speak with the Psalm to God.

I’ve been told by a famous poet that it doesn’t really matter what the poet meant or was thinking when writing. When it comes down to it, it’s the reader in conversation with the poem. It makes the author a third party to the conversation, not really having a say.

That leaves me as preacher more like a fourth party, really out of the channel of communication you are having with the Psalm. The most this sermon can be is a little boost, an echo cheering and encouraging you. I especially cannot tell you what it means. It’s not speaking a new word, adding a competing voice, trying to debate the Psalm. It shouldn’t be in opposition, making you feel your interpretation—much less your prayer—was wrong. At best, it should offer an opening that validates your prayerfulness, amplifying not my voice but your dialogue with the Psalm. It’s especially important because it’s not just a literary topic but involves your relationship with God. That is to say, I’m deeply hoping—worried enough to have been awake in a tent ten nights ago—that something of my reflection will resonate for you, reinforcing your faith’s voice.

To begin the dissecting, the Psalm’s snippet that stood out to me was “the boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places.” Boundary lines and Boundary Waters. I kept spiraling back to that, instead of getting absorbed into other snippets, trying to explain away the violent wrongs of blood-sucking devotions, or to question the theology of chosenness, or to deal much with the first commandment and how often we do have other gods.

birch lake“The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places” was a verse that grabbed me, becoming my prayer at least in part because I spent a couple days looking across Birch Lake with Canada on the other side. It was pleasant for the sun and sunsets and bird song and calm, quiet rippling waters and agenda-free hours. Instead of boundaries and borders as contentious and fearful, this boundary—an invisible international line floating someplace down the middle of the lake—felt very peaceful and pleasant.

I rightly realized I was lucky. My own fortunate place stood in contrast with many others, like as I was reading about Palestinians confronted with shifting boundaries that are deeply un-pleasant, and remembering last year coming back from canoeing to the news of family separations at our southern border, and that displeasing news continuing to fall all year long as we keep learning more about the horrific conditions we are putting those children through or of no-man’s-land demilitarized zones.

I may indeed feel very privileged, but the prayer of this Psalm doesn’t use that for guilt. It doesn’t mention my boundaries so I feel bad about others. It begins with gratitude. I can pray very honestly: “the boundaries for me have fallen in pleasant places.

“I have a goodly heritage.” It is, after all, an honor to spend a wilderness week with our young people as they’re overcoming challenges and exploring identity and discovering who they’ll be, thinking of their future.

Or if heritage is supposed to look back, it’s goodly heritage to be connected to Sigurd and Aldo and the 55-year-old Wilderness Act with foresight to preserve those Boundary Waters, and we inherit the rewards of their efforts. It’s also a stunning heritage to be on the same lakes and portage paths, not only of most of 50 years of the MCC, but more which French fur trappers and generations of native Americans used. Not to mention moose, wolves, and turtles with wild roses.

The Psalm says “My body rests secure,” itself a securing thought, instilling confidence while in a fragile tent and feeble body surrounded by wilderness winds and nighttime noises.

My boundaries extended back to Madison, of the goodness of life I came home to, back to my house, my routines, my rhythms, my fridge and running water, to stroll around the grounds and peruse my territory, to be in my own familiar and comfortable element. To be here now. The Psalm keeps helping me pray gratitude and contentment and hope.

To be clear, I might not have done that first; where up north I could’ve thought of bug bites and blood-sucking leeches and raindrops, and all that I was missing, and then arrived back here to wish again I was away from stress and emails and the stupid stuff in life, the Psalm instead keeps pointing me to gratitude and security.

Still, Bible and Beer on Tuesday night raised a question of gloating, of having it easy on the west side of Madison. Ken Streit compared it to wearing an old “Life is good” t-shirt. It could make us wonder whether this Psalm is only pray-able by fairly well-to-do people like us.

Yet that probably reads the Psalm backward. Circumstances don’t prove or disprove God. It’s not because I’m in a pleasant place that I can gain reliance on God. The Psalm doesn’t read from a happy situation as the lead-in to faith.

Rather, just the reverse and often the opposite, trust in God leads through the valley of the shadow of death. The Psalm begins exactly with a migrant, somebody displaced and maybe worried about being on the wrong side of the boundary or border, one worried about oppression: it says “I take refuge in God.” I, too, am a refugee. Even (or maybe especially) from American life, I seek refuge and a hiding place, and that place is in God. A refugee in whatever way danger and harm confront you, God is the safe place. This Psalm voices your confidence.

With this focus on Psalms, I had the chance this week to dust off my Hebrew a bit, and there’s a good word here: shamar. Many times the Psalms assert God as shamar, as Keeper, it goes with the image of a shield. But it’s also the word in the Garden of Eden, when the earthling is told to till and keep the soil, observing and tending and preserving. In a way, a translation of that Genesis phrase often gets placed on police badges; not just till and keep, the phrase can be “serve and protect.” It also is translated with guarding, watching over, caring for, remembering. For one thick view of God’s “keeping,” I suggest reading Psalm 121, where the word is used five times in eight little verses.

This expands the boundaries of our view of God. Yes, we can give thanks for all the good. But when something bad happens, it is not that God has forgotten you or turned against you. It is not that your prayer has failed. God is your Keeper, a refuge. Maybe not a shield that prevents any wrong from hitting you, but God will keep on keeping you. God will keep watching over you, without batting an eye, never slumbering. God will strive to lift you out of the mire and muck. God won’t give up.

This Psalm gets picked up in the New Testament, where it exemplifies the extent of God’s care. It is used in reference to the resurrection of Jesus, with the snippet verse “you will not abandon your holy one to the grave.” Far from saying that “life is good,” this is a confession that even though death may strike, God still will not give up. Even then God will rescue you, raise you, and bring you safely into the path of life with pleasures forevermore.

Again, I don’t think that’s needing to compare and say it’s even better than your life now, or that it makes up for the shortcomings now. It’s most directly that you may have confidence in God’s goodness. In the end, it’s not about how well you keep faith in God. It’s that God will faithfully always be your Keeper. And you are never left out of bounds for God.

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Why God?

sermon on Psalm 8, Holy Trinity Sunday
Clouds, sleepiness, and other factors have complicated things so far, but I’ll keep trying (maybe in the darkness of the Boundary Waters) to see Jupiter four times brighter than the brightest star in the sky. It’s so close (relatively speaking, of course) that the four Galilean moons should be visible with binoculars. Those moons were first spotted by Galileo 400 years ago, the biggest of around 79 moons Jupiter has. There may even be a chance to see the Great Red Spot, a centuries-old storm that had been three times the size of our entire planet, but has calmed by 20% in the past month, and nobody knows why.

It’s so phenomenal, and fits exactly with the Psalmist’s neck craned heavenward to the sun, moon, and stars that the Creator set in their courses. Like the composer of Psalm 8, we may be struck by a feeling of insignificance. Thinking on that scale, particularly enveloped by wilderness night sky, we ask “What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?”

I was hearing that Ben, three-year old brother of baptism baby James, is fond of asking Why? Sometimes even 20 consecutive answers and explanations still prompt a 21st “Why?” His dad Mike matches that with his own perspective on God, asking lots of Whys, always wondering, wondering, wondering.

And that’s what’s in our Psalm today. Looking up across lightyears, trying to fathom the unfathomable, pondering our place: Why would God care for humans?

The Psalm seems to have one answer for what makes us special, which might strike us as pompous and domineering. It presumes a hierarchy and finds our uppity place in it. This view draws a chart with God at the top, then angels or divine beings, and humans still pretty close to the top, going down from there to good animals maybe like gorillas or dolphins or pet dogs, followed by lower animals like blue jays and salamanders and hermit crabs, and then slugs and jellyfish and mosquitoes, on down to trees and flowers, which are still higher than dirt and rocks and a muddy puddle.

That tiered system may try to label what’s alive or not. There’s also food chain elements to it. And it involves a perspective on complexity, that your eyeball is more evolved than a jellyfish belly.

But it seems slightly suspicious to claim I’m better as a human being, while an oak tree hundreds of years old is nothing, or a structured colony of bees, or even my dog who understands my language though I don’t understand his at all. Not to mention claiming that I’m alive means I must be favored over (possibly) lifeless Jupiter, even though it’s 2.5 times as massive as all the other planets in the solar system combined.

Not only is it slightly audacious and dubiously defined to stake out that position for ourselves, but it comes with a terrible risk. For some reason, we wind up quick to abuse our territory, claiming we can lord it over other creatures, can trample them and do what we like without regard for others.

We should clearly realize that this Psalm is far from giving us permission to do harm or use up this earth. After all, creatures declare God’s majesty. A lake with its fish poisoned, a sky too polluted to see stars, a dead field that holds soybeans but harbors no life, diminish the praise of a majestic God.IMG_2299

Even in this sanctuary, when it’s too focused on humans, loses the best and most authentic praise. I’d really like to get a bird to sing Alleluias with us. But at least for the summer we’ve got plants and fish that rightly expand our praise.

I believe the place of humans is not better or worse, but different. See, birds sing their praise without instruction. Plants grow and bear fruit. Fish naturally know their place. Jupiter doesn’t need to be told how to be a planet. But humans need the reminder. Unlike the rest of creation, it seems, we need to be re-placed in these relationships, to be set right.

So instead of ranking it in a hierarchy to make winners and losers, instead of carving out our niche as haughty trampling tyrants on the one hand, or falling from the moral high ground into lament and despair of the damage we’ve done and how difficult it sometimes seems it is to do right, to be well, to live life as we should—neither placing ourselves abusively above nor so low and feeble, instead today we have a different perspective, and it comes to us from James Robert, or maybe with him.

“What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, O God, human beings that you should care for them?” That question remains. As a remarkable mark of mindfulness and care, God gives the promise in baptism.

God has claimed a place of prominence for James Robert. God has offered eternal assurances, tying him to the resurrected and unending life of Jesus. James Robert is clothed in the very presence of God, chosen for God’s mission in the world of right relationships of justice and peace. He has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Clearly that is a gift. Sure, we could say that James Robert is plenty cute, especially when he’s smiling. But God didn’t choose him for his looks.

It’s not because of his singing voice or because he knows the answers and can speak for God, though the Psalm says God’s praise and defense comes out of the mouths of babes and infants. I don’t expect the next time he’s wailing in the middle of the night it will feel like he’s praising God. Yet God must not need our articulate words, our songs pitched to praise. Even with a small sob, God wants to be identified.

Even more clearly, then, the status of humans generally and James Robert particularly is not from his potential, because he’s so powerfully capable. This is the really amazing thing about baptizing babies: it’s not their choice. It’s not their ability. It’s not their response. It’s not the good they have done or the bad that they’ll try to stay away from. It’s only and totally because God wants him. What are human beings that God is mindful, we little people that God cares? Well, with baptism we have the clear proclamation that our place is beloved. It’s not anything we are or aren’t but is because of what God is, a God of love, of relationship, a God of reconciliation and compassion, a God striving for life.

On this Trinity Sunday, maybe that’s what we notice, a God not of lording it over, not of power and might, but a God of possibility and life, even beyond death, a God delighting in creation, a God who is somehow with us right now.

We ask why. And we can’t fully know. We ask how, and we can just trust. We may only have that our tradition has been able to discern this God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, the Father of Jesus, God incarnate suffering to make it right, God’s Spirit invisible but still bringing Jesus to be with us as she leads us into this truth. And all that because God wants you to know your place: you are loved.

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