Prosperous Labors?

sermon on Psalm 112

 

I’ll admit I didn’t like this Psalm to start, and was disappointed it was the final one in our Psummer of Psalms.

At first, I thought it was offering false assurances and guarantees, trying to sell a bill of goods. I was reading it to declare that if you believe in God enough, you’ll be rewarded with descendants, wealth, riches, triumph. Put in a little supernatural dedication to get utterly this-worldly possessions. I don’t believe that’s true, even if it markets well.

I was further disgusted when I discovered there’s a book called “The Psalm 112 Promise: 8 Keys to Becoming Stable and Prosperous.” Yuck. Hinting what might be inside those pages, it says the author is quote “gifted with a strong apostolic anointing.” If the dubious theological language weren’t enough, the guy also has a weekly Christian television show! I know I’m letting my arrogance and condescension show, but c’mon. The back of the book asserts that “this step-by-step guide will help you achieve not just wholeness in your relationships, finances, and health, but also restoration in your heart and soul.”

Now, I recognize that as much as I’m deeply skeptical of such things, it has appeal. I don’t want to be so dismissive as to ignore that somebody may have arrived here today wondering about material rewards for devotion, whether God responds to prayers to help in relationships, finances, and health, just as the book alleges. It’s a big proposition.

Yet any time there’s an If…Then statement about you and God, I get alarmed. Like the divine butler Emily preached about last week, who comes to respond to your requests, this subverts God’s will and action to your own. It makes God’s love and blessing conditional and dependent on you and your behavior. It negates any sense of a promise from God—and that God always keeps promises is pretty much my basic definition of who God is for you.

This book takes Psalm 112 and tries to discern 8 steps, 8 “if…then” statements, such as “If we fear God, then our lives will be blessed. If we worship God through obedience, then we will have generational blessing. If we intimately know the God we serve, then we will have more than enough.”

One church-speak phrase for such sentiments is “prosperity gospel.” Hawked by the sort of preachers who have toothy grins and drive (or are driven) around in luxury sedans, this claims the main focus of the good news, the driving purpose of God, is to make some people rich. And faith is then proven or showed off in being wealthy.

Such a concept would read this Psalm to mean that if you’re righteous, then you’ll be rewarded with the materials gains our world is constantly striving after. One commentary I read this week pointed out that if it actually worked that way with automatic compensation, righteousness might be more universally pursued.*

Yet even more than testing a bank account’s alignment with faithful dedication, the notion of God rewarding you with prosperity is given the lie most quickly simply by looking at Jesus, the embodiment of God’s will. When we want to know what God is like and how God acts, we look at Jesus. And Jesus is, of course, well-known for his nice white teeth and riding around in a luxury sedan. Wrong! He didn’t even ride a luxury donkey. The opposite of being blessed with wealth, Jesus was homeless, scorned, poor, and killed. How’s that for a vision of God’s blessing active in our world? Not so much the prosperity gospel.

When I went back with that sense of God through the lens of Jesus, I actually discovered the Psalm was closer to our Christian identity and further from the well-dentured limo-riders, and then I began to appreciate the Psalm more.

For our usual cultural sense, prosperity comes not from obedience, but it’s wickedness that pays. The cheats, the schemers, the liars, the selfish are the ones who get ahead, at least in our society’s definitions of who is winning and who is behind. We’re even told that greed is good, that the admirable ones are the cutthroat hedge fund billionaires or CEOs who manage to cut ends by mistreating their employees.

But this Psalm doesn’t actually establish the bottom line as a balance, as gross income, as net worth, with power over others. Instead, the focal point is those who deal generously and lend and act justly. Offering no interest loans is not a get-rich-quick scheme in the framework of our economy.

In fact, it’s probably better to remove this from our categories of economy altogether. We’re warped into thinking it’s all always about money. But this is really about relationships, about interpersonal interactions, about how we respond to people and their needs. This Psalm isn’t a handbook on shortcuts to financial independence, but rather commends dealing well with each other.

It reminds us that that is what offers security. We aren’t kept safe by taller walls and bigger guns and meaner attitudes gnashing teeth. Just the reverse, anger will proliferate the evil tidings and prompt fear and in the end prove futile. In the words of Jesus, those who take the sword will die by the sword. But if rage is defused, if it’s not a retaliatory environment, if it’s not about aggression over others, if it’s about cooperative relationships, then that clearly reduces fear that somebody is out to get you.

Again, that’s not modeled much in our world of border disputes and zero-sum bellicosity, where fear is marketed to us and most of our systems are structured around what you lack.

So what would convince you to give up pursuing that path, chasing the wind, rushing from discontent to discontent, always feeling the lack and fleeing fear?

Well, this Psalm is working to convince you. It proclaims that God’s way is with this generous living, the sustenance of relationships. You may come to church not so much with the questions of whether there’s a way to connive God into giving you wealth and a bigger house. Even with lingering yearning, you may not be quite convinced that there are 8 simple steps to God fixing your relationships and ensuring your health.

But I suspect you may well be like me, that you need this opportunity to be reminded that this way of living is good and right, that it is worthwhile, since generous living in relationships takes dedication and some courage.

When the cries of the world fight against a vision of charity and kindness and peace, when fear lurks in every decision, and when you’re worried about whether you have enough, whether you’ll get by, whether your kids will match the model of success, this needs some reassurance.

This is God’s way, God’s goodness, God’s freely given abundance that is every breath and every heartbeat and every bite of food and all our existence. This is the care and virtue God intends for us and from us. And so it is worthwhile to live this way.

It is especially worth considering on this Labor Day weekend. We most often think of labor as something to avoid. We consider work as a contrast to rest. We conceive of jobs as a way to make money, and often little more, and yet we define ourselves by that role and not by other relationships.

But this reminds us that God’s blessing extends in all the areas of our life, and our vocations are callings from God and callings on behalf of these relationships.

So instead of thinking how we fill our days or what our obligations are or what makes the most money, we are invited to consider how we extend God’s love and generosity, where our roles aren’t just for selfish gain, but serve to benefit others and extend security and delight.

We’re accustomed to see that in our offerings and donations as doing good for others. But it’s perhaps most in our families, where our deepest relationships are intended to foster life for each other. Such holy living isn’t by any means restricted to professions such as mine, nor the volunteering that you do in this place. God’s love and blessing radiate into all the places of your life and all aspects of your days, so that it may extend also to others, as you are blessed to be a blessing.

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3160

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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm 82pride

I’m glad that this Psalm happened to show up today.

Let me set the stage for that:

A lectionary is a set of readings. This Psalm appointed for this day is listed in a set of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle with some origin in the ecumenical movement of the 1960’s, eventually giving rise to this version in 1994. It is used in lots of mainline Protestant churches, like some Lutheran and UCC, plus Episcopalian and Presbyterian, a few United Methodists and more. It’s also fairly close to the Catholic lectionary. So lots of us might be hearing a specific Bible reading on a certain day.

As we are amid a Psummer of Psalms, and as we prepared to celebrate Pride Sunday as the MCC, I was eager to discover what the Revised Common Lectionary had assigned for today. Would the passage fit? Would it be able to relate in any way? After all, if we randomly open the Bible and point at a page, we’re likely to end up without much spiritual insight. It could be an instruction about an ox or a verse about Egyptians or telling of destruction. Or lots of general praise for God’s goodness. So what would make us expect a coincidence of some Psalm having something to say on Pride Sunday?

This question is important because the most frequent way the church has looked for the Bible to say something about or to people who are LGBTQ has been to go through this big mixed book and pick out seven little verses that probably aren’t even talking about the same thing we are and then to begin issuing condemnations. We could just as well find lots in the Gospels where Jesus is close friends with other men, he even kisses them, and refers to Lazarus as the one whom he loved. We might as well claim gay Jesus as definitive instead of the condemnation passages. It would have at least as much to say to our current context. And there’s plenty where Jesus redefines gender roles and stereotypes and sees that divide as more fluid than fixed, and we could say he was an early proponent sympathetic to transgender issues.

Partly, then, a lectionary restricts me from picking and choosing to reinforce my view, skewing a message from God. Given today’s random Psalm, not chosen particularly for Pride Sunday, not cherry-picked as pro or con, it’s an interesting opportunity to ask what a broader overall biblical message might be.

With that question in mind, I was surprised and delighted that Psalm 82 really does seem to speak to today. To start, this Psalm declares God as a God of justice. That’s the criterion, and failing to do justice is judged as ungodly, as not-right. God doesn’t want us on the side of evil, and the good side is declared by God as being “fair to the poor and to orphans,” working to establish life for “the helpless and everyone in need” and offering deliverance to “the weak and homeless.”

For an easy point of contrast, the acting director of the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration Services rather notoriously decreed this week that the poem on the Statue of Liberty needed an adjustment, that it should say “Give me your tired, your poor…who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

But God’s voice in the Psalm will not make such distinctions. It doesn’t tell to rescue the weak and homeless, orphaned unaccompanied minor as long as they have proper documentation and can prove their asylum case and jump through legal loopholes. It doesn’t say to help the helpless as long as they look like you and talk like you and share your religion. It restricts no timespan on assistance. It doesn’t ask one in need to prove their worth; it’s a given.

Our current national wrongdoing and injustice becomes still more apparent, since the last verse of the Psalm is directed as God’s judgment on the nations. God has explicitly judged that as misbehavior, as miscarriage of responsibility: those with authority have not done what they were called to do.

Another note on authority in this Psalm: Following much of the ancient world, this Psalm talks about a divine council, or literally a congregation of heavenly beings. As we think “waitasecond! the Bible is monotheistic!” other gods showing up probably throws us off. Some interpreters say these heavenly beings are more like angels. Others see it with a common early belief that each nation had a god. In this Psalm, the God of Hebrews stands at the center of their gathering with the most moral authority, pointing out that others had failed in their duty.

If you don’t like to picture our God like Zeus with a Greek pantheon, aren’t sure about a heavenly courtroom, and don’t like this notion of other gods or whatever, still you can picture any unseen forces that are beyond our control, ruling over us. There’s often something invisible to wondering where wickedness comes from.

And it’s always helpful to remember that a god is wherever we most put our trust. We continue to have other gods exerting their authority in our lives because we give allegiance to money or to laws, to national identity or in-groups, to popular culture and healthiness and to our own selves, claiming our own abilities and desires as the highest authority.

But in any of those cases, when it has called astray from defending the poor and assisting the vulnerable and working to establish a system that is on their side, when we fall captive to self-interests or to dominant ideologies, when the powerful get their way while the hurting are abandoned, this Psalm declares God’s strong judgment against it, warning that the very foundations of the earth are at risk and God’s intention for creation is threatened with collapse. But God declares judgment that those false gods will fall. Whatever immortality they had, whatever seemed to be godlike power will die. In one of the terms of our time, God essentially says there’s no such thing as “too big to fail.” This is a strong call to justice.

With that, I want to return to the emphasis that this Psalm was assigned for this calendar date. Not quite the randomness of flipping to any page, but this is what the Bible happens to be saying to us today, the voice of God being spoken, and asking to be applied into our lives, our context, including for Pride Sunday.

I would also pause to highlight that this is a more primary voice of scripture and of God than if we went on the hunt for seven little snippets reinforcing someone’s homophobia. To imagine that that perspective speaks for God or is what the Bible has to say in relation to LGBTQ lives is a gross warping of this more prevalent message that calls for justice and says God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable.

To be clear, that is part of why as a congregation we join our voices to God’s voice on this Sunday. It’s why I—as a straight, white, American-born, cisgender male—offer my presence, knowing still much too often, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in whatever way are threatened in our nation, facing injustices of losing jobs and housing, maybe risk life itself, living with unequal treatment, unfair opportunity, unkind interactions, and unjust pressures. If we follow our God, if we recognize God as the central moral authority and the judge, who created and holds the fate of the world, then we are called to stand on the side of justice, against persecutions, and together with these siblings, to be part of the work of “delivering them from the powerful hands of heartless people.” That is the life our God intends for all of us to be living together. Anything less won’t suffice. We’re clearly not there yet. There’s work to do.

But there’s another part of this Pride Sunday that doesn’t directly fit into the Psalm, that I want to keep inviting us into. That is celebration. The Hebrews reading reminds us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, that many of our ancestors in this faithful journey continue to encourage us, to lead us to persevere, as we follow Jesus the pioneer. In this long view, we’ll get there together. They aren’t left out, and neither will we be. We’ve come this far by faith, and our weary feet will come to the place for which our parents sighed (ELW 841).

And so we, with good reason both in looking back and looking forward today, gather in celebration. This year is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which makes it also the 49th anniversary of the first pride events. In faithful memorial, we might mark as martyrs for the cause, sacrificing saints who gave us steps forward to guide us on in progress.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the MCC. And we celebrate that for half of that existence, our congregations have been officially welcoming, striving for justice, witnessing to the world, celebrating that the image of God is equally and uniquely in each of us, that none of us is removed from God’s blessing, God’s effort for life. Since 1995, we have been continuing to practice more and more how we can be authentically the people God created us to be and is calling us to be. In 1995 there were only five open and affirming UCC congregations in the state. In 1995, Advent preceded any other congregations in this synod by a decade in becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. We have been and continue to be witnesses to God’s goodness, in our lives and for the sake of the world. This is to be celebrated, and we can be proud. We join in living with pride.

 

Psalm 82               Contemporary English Version

When all of the other gods have come together,
the Lord God judges them and says:
“How long will you keep judging unfairly and defending evil people?
Be fair to the poor and to orphans.
Make it right for the helpless and everyone in need.
Rescue the weak and homeless,
deliver them from the powerful hands of heartless people.
“None of you know or understand a thing.
You live in darkness, while the foundations of the earth tremble.
I, the Most High God, say that all of you are gods
and also my own children, all of you.
But you will die, just like mortals, including powerful rulers.”
Do something, God! Judge the nations of the earth; they belong to you.

 

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Life is Costly

sermon on Psalm 49

Why do good things happen to people?

That’s not our usual question, is it? We like to wonder why bad things happen to good people. Of course, we could just as well wonder why bad things happen to people period, to anybody. We don’t really need to label people either good or bad, since that’s mostly our own biased judgment anyway. And we could also ask why good things happen to people—not to bad people, as if they should be precluded, or to good people, as if some folks should be extra deserving. No, let’s just ask why good things happen to people.

But then we’d also better pause to ask what the good things really are. Lisa got us started on a question that I wanted to ask not just the kids but all of you: what do we typically count as the good things? …

 

That’s a good list – clean water, career achievements, family, friends, a house, compassion, health. As we think, we can get pretty esoteric, an enlightened perspective. I was going to add: Life long enough to enjoy grandkids. Traveling and exploring. Freedom. Praise or acclamation. Laughter.

But if boil it down, if we’re honest and a bit crass, we know our culture has one predominant answer. What’s the most important thing? Money. The big bucks. Moola.

We might say money enables you to buy most of the other stuff. It buys security and much of your identity. It funds wellbeing, at very least in terms of health care or food to sustain your body. Education, even if followed by student loans. It pays for vacations and leisure and relief from bad things. Though the Beatles sang Can’t Buy Me Love, tell that to Chalmer’s jewelers. Heck, you can even purchase legal assistance to spring you if you’ve gotten yourself into most sticky situations. That might make us observe that money is a good thing that happens much too often to bad people.

So this may raise questions of Why, of allotment. Why isn’t distribution equal, or at least responsive to a cause? Some may have earned their millions or billions with extreme skill at sports or as amazing innovators who came up with ideas helpful to humankind or they were really good managers or simply that they gamed the system and knew how to make it work.

For fairness and economics, we don’t much directly say that it is divinely influenced, that God apportioned wealth, deciding somebody should be rich while leaving others in poverty.

Well…we don’t directly say that, but I mention it exactly in order to remove that subtext from our brains. If we think wealth is a good thing and that God chose to give it to some and preclude others, by and large that is not the message of the Bible, and is frequently opposed by the God known in Jesus who sides with the poor and seeks to overturn the rich.

When we believe people with big retirement accounts are successful and lived fruitfully, and churches with big budgets are doing something right, and claim God blesses America as the lucrative financial place to be, then that misses the light of Christ and is idolatrous in identifying God with wealth, when we can’t clearly say where God is in it.

But that godly uncertainty doesn’t bother us much, since we are mostly like the Psalm in getting focused on a life of bank accounts and stock markets and our own fiscal possibilities and impossibilities without much of any mention about God. The Psalm doesn’t indicate that God gives wealth or directly say that God sides with the poor, even though it seems addressed to alleviate some of the fear or resentment. It doesn’t really include God in the perspective much at all. There’s no hint whether God has anything to do with good or bad people winding up with too much money. Psalm 49 seems uninterested in the why questions of fair distribution. The original assigned excerpt for today ended after 12 verses, with only one mention of God which was for the sake of negating relationship with God. That doesn’t say much.

And yet I suspect that’s largely true of not only our cash flow but the flow of our lives. Mostly we carry on without much attention to God. We assess our own sense of what is good and right, our own judgment on what is bad. It may be something is beautiful or pleasant. It may be because it is painful or sad. We may just trust our conscience or rely on society’s perception. We think we know how things should go, or what we want to have. Maybe we pause in prayer about that, to ask God to give us the good, or to lament and argue with God when we feel we unfairly receive the bad. But by and large we continue on without God. Though that may seem especially true in an age when fewer people are attending church or even professing belief in God, evidently it’s been mainly true for well over two thousand years, if we can relate so clearly to the Psalm’s perspective.

This Psalm is a genre in the Bible known as Wisdom literature, which is why we had Martha’s voice as teacher. The book of Proverbs is probably the main association of it. With odd false assurances like “No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble” (12:21), it’s some of my least favorite stuff in the Bible, because it’s mainly about how we live and fails to have much about God. It can end up saying awful things from a place of smug satisfaction, that my prosperity is evidence God rewarded me for what I did, which means your problems must be because you didn’t behave properly. The book of Job is some anti-wisdom literature, because Job says he tried to do all the right things but didn’t receive good and so that system wasn’t true.

At any rate, this Psalm is of a different sort. If wisdom literature is about how we live, and this piece is about money, then we’d probably expect it to tell us how to get more money, or instruct what we should properly spend our money on. Even if it didn’t say much about God but gave some financial insight, we would count that as wisdom worth learning. After all, NPR mentions the Dow Jones average in every single news update. Even the president doesn’t get that much coverage, much less any issue more relevant to our faith.

But this wisdom tells us that that focus on money isn’t worthwhile. It doesn’t pay. In the end, in the biggest picture, it doesn’t matter. That’s what this wisdom claims.

I know you can argue that wealth will extend life and somehow make you live longer, all the way to Google Director of Engineering and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, who figures he can upload his brain and therefore never die. But the wisdom of the Psalm, with its economic message, declares: no, no matter how rich you are, it won’t save you.

I know there’s lots of life in the meantime, with need for economic justice and your very personal financial worries. I complained that the sermon I heard last week on vacation warped Jesus’ very real concern for those in debt into something delayed and otherworldly. But that also might mean I’m guilty of putting money before God or the economy in the place of God, even if I want to claim I do it for good and godly reasons.

The Psalm will have none of that. It won’t let money get in the way of our primary relationship with God. It doesn’t care and completely disregards whether we have lots or too little. (Though there’s probably less risk of too little displacing God.) The wisdom of this Psalm may at first seem to be mainly a caution or a reminder simply about finances.

But we had to add extra verses to get the theological import and the real good thing that is our ultimate reliance. Its heart is in the words you spoke for yourself: “God will ransom my soul from death. God will receive me.”

Yes. In the biggest picture, for any of your successes or what you lack, for the short sweep with a very final ending, that is exactly what matters. God may teach us to love what is worth loving, as our Prayer of the Day said. But this isn’t only about what we treasure. That’s still about us. This is that nothing can overpower God’s relationship with you. Not money. Not death. Nothing. God gives you life. God sustains your life and your whole self. God cares for all of you. And God will never let go, not for the ease or the hardness of these days, not even releasing you into death, but paying with God’s own self that you will live.

 

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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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