Sunday, March 14, 2004

Were You There?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Psalm 63

Like the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 63: 1-8 is about faith, confident trust in God. The characteristic forms of lament are also present here. In this psalm, though, the words are spoken to God, not about God. Here we may find a helpful correction for some of our current spiritual life. This Psalm should put a little steady 4/4 rhythm into our willingness to talk to God. God is righteous, just, merciful, faithful…and gracious, we affirm. So, as this Psalm encourages us, we may find courage to lift our heartfelt prayers directly to God, to speak from the heart. It is healthy so to do. One college sophomore, recently considering the early choices about studies and majors that loom with later and larger consequences, said, in full and honest confession: “it’s scary; it’s scary to think hard about your future”. It is a brave person who will honestly admit and lament some fear, as this Psalm encourages us to do.

This matter of thirst both unites and complicates our poem. Like a fugue appearing and disappearing, the song of Psalm 63 names a “thirst” that will not be slaked by anything other than Ultimate Reality. Now some of this thirsty confusion may be due to a long observed confusion in the order of verses. Following H Gunkel, many commentators to the present day have arranged the verses to the order of 1,2,6,7,8,4,5,3 (e.g. I B, vol.4, 327). Yet the exact ordering of the psalm has little full influence on its interpretation. The verses hold together, whether in the inherited order or in the edited improvement, guided by a desire for lasting meaning. Once during a continuing education session at the local Veterans’ Hospital each staff person was asked to give a single word description of what he or she brought to the work of the hospital. What the nurses, technicians, physicians and administrators said, in a single word, has not been recalled. The chaplain’s word, though, stands out in memory: “meaning”. Her presence brings meaning to those singing in lament.

Finally, one formal feature of this set of verses deserves some remark. Like a repetitive staccato interruption, there is a physical praise at work in this song, a praise that employs “lips” (3), “hands” (4), and “mouth” (5). The praise of God is a physical act. It is healthy so to do. Praise involves presence. A pastor once went for his physical exam to the office of a backsliding parishioner. Said the doctor: “Why do you worry so much about numbers—worship attendance, giving totals, numbers of members? I don’t need to be a part of the numbers game to be faithful.” Replied the minister: “oh, for the same reason you worry so much about numbers—blood pressure, cholesterol count, even the dreaded weight scale. The body craves health—true of your body and true of the Body of Christ”. In Psalm 63 there is a physical interest at work. There is also an awareness of physical intimacy here that is startling: “upon my bed…in the watches of the night”. Our psalm lifts a physical, even intimate, grace note that surprises and disturbs, and sets us on a course of healing. The poet has found that there is some “help” here. A choral swell lifts the end of the song: “because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee” (v.3). (The Quarterly Review)

(The sermon records a hypothetical conversation, between a husband and a wife, in a modest Jerusalem flat, Passover 33ad.)

D: I’m home…come on down…I got somethin’ to show you…

M: Don’t be rushing me on Passover..the soup and unleavened bread are about ready…all you ever think about is eating anyway

D: Hey, come on down, I have a surprise…

M: Well my, my…

D: Like my robe?

M: Why that’s the most beautiful…..Were’d you get that robe?

D: So you like it, huh?

M: Did I say I like it? Did you hear me say I like it? I am not addressing that issue right now. I asked you where you got it?

D: So, you do like it?

M: Now you listen to me, you know we do not have money for a fine religious robe like that, all color and all design and all. We are simple people, frugal and hard working people. Where did you get it?

D: Touch it, feel it—isn’t it nice.

M: Did you go to work today?

D: Yes I went to work today. I worked all day. See the mud on my sandals. The donkey is ridden hard and put away wet. I work every Friday.

M: And the robe?

D: My Lord woman—I thought you’d be thrilled, you’re always telling me to dress better, get my hair cut, keep my tunic pressed. Here I come through the door on a Friday night all happy and all proud of a new purple robe and all you can do is ask questions! A man dresses up. His woman asks questions. A man has something nice. His woman is suspicious. A man does well. His woman has questions. You need to be able to sing both thanksgivings and laments, or didn’t you hear the sermon on confidence in the synagogue last week, it was all about Psalm 27.

M: Listen, mister, I’ll tell you something with real confidence. I am confident that you are not going to have any dinner until you let me into your confidence about this robe. Whence?

D: You like my robe, huh?

M: This is Friday—did they cancel the hill work for today, on account of Passover?

D: Oh, come on. No! I worked like I do every Friday, up on the hill.

Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? In Christian history, there have been multiple answers. One is that God sent Jesus to die on the cross to atone for the sin or sins of the world. A righteous God holds sinners accountable and sends Jesus to suffer and die to satisfy\appease God’s judgment upon sinners. This atones for human sin and believing sinners go free. For me, such a view seems to suggest that God is behind and wills (the film’s) awful brutality.

Another view is that Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. His uncompromising compassion and the integrity of his love challenged others. Threatened religious and political authorities then combined to put him to death. Where is God in all of this?

Some people came to see God’s love at work in Jesus’ love, a love willing to go to the cross to show the depth of its integrity. God does not cause Jesus’ terrifying crucifixion, but God can use it to show that nothing in life or death or anything else in all creation can separate us from such love, including crucifixion. God’s raising Jesus from the dead is God’s imprimatur on such love. (Paul Hammer)

M: So how did you have time to get a robe like…oh, no, oh, I….

D: Just listen! I got this robe fair and square.

M: How could you, up there on the hill? You were working crucifixion detail, right?

D: Same as always. No, not the same as always. But, yes I was there. We strung up three of ‘em.

M: Ugh, awful things those Romans do to us…And the robe?

D: Well, we were up there, and everybody was gone…we were waiting…you know I feel his eyes—the one in the middle—his eyes still on me, like a bird on my shoulder…I heard him say, or maybe he was even singing the 63 psalm, saying that he was thirsty…

We were waiting and I heard him sing that David song, ‘eli eli…’ I looked up at him.

How do people—how did he—endure the hatred of others, the betrayal of others, the mendacity of others, the backstabbing attacks of others?…Anyway, to pass the time we started to…

M: To what?

D: It was all fair and square….It’s like anything, like any religious or any political thing…You play the game…So I played and I won…

"Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice. Where gambling has become addictive, the Church will encourage such individuals to receive therapeutic assistance so that the individual’s energies may be redirected to positive and constructive ends. The Church should promote standards and personal lifestyles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling—including public lotteries—as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government." (UMC\BOD, 163).

M: You mean to tell me that you were playing dice at the foot of the cross?

D: I was there, yes I was there. We passed the time and played for the robe. A fine religious robe, like a religious leader would wear. We just waited and played. And I won.

M: You were gambling while people were dying?

D: I tried to tell you, it’s just like anything…I didn’t steal it, I won it.

M: You were rolling dice at the foot of the cross?

D: Yes I was. I was there. Seems like I’ve been there before. People supporting their own kind, race, gender, ideology, their own kind. Romans support Romans. Jews support Jews. Men, Women, minorities, majorities, all…It’s the same everywhere. I was there. I was there for the hypocrisy that ruins religion, for the selfishness that ruins business, for the fear that ruins politics…I was there, at the foot of the cross…

And it seems to me that…I SAW SOME OF THE REST OF YOU THERE TOO…

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Two Kinds of Confidence

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Psalm 27


There are two kinds of confidence, one of the morning and one of the evening.

There are two kinds of confidence, one of youth and one of age.

There are two kinds of confidence, one fit for going and one for return.

There are two kinds of confidence, and you are blessed with both. The Lord is my light and my salvation…One is a smooth stone in the right hand, marked ‘light’, and one is a smooth stone in the left hand, marked ‘salvation’.


There you were, not so long ago, with the light falling on your back. There was a skip in the bicycle, a chain guard out of place. You chose to walk. The sun dappled that brown and yellow shirt and your hair returned light to light. There you were—I think it was you, was it not?—walking out a spring road, looking and dreaming and looking at the light as it fell on a small smooth stone. You threw the stone. You tossed the stone. You kicked the stone. Then along a heavy flowing spring stream you knelt down and washed it clean. It was stored in your right pocket. Into the light of youth you traipsed, and then I could you see you no more. In the mind’s eye you were gone. I suppose it could been someone else. Her, or me, or someone—the light was brilliant and from the back it was hard to tell for sure.

It takes a certain confidence to walk off one stage and onto another. You have that confidence. You can do it. You can. I know you can. Look you can see that young one just going down over the hill, holding a stone in the light.

This sacred poem promises, again, that you shall have confidence. In fact, the psalm identifies this spiritual gift, this habit of being, this faithful obedience, as, simply, THE LORD. The Lord is…light, my light…The Lord is…salvation, my salvation.

There come moments when the confidence to try, to change, to learn, to grow (there is no growth without change) is our deepest longing. Are you facing any choices? Are you set before any decisions this season?

Viktor Frankl reminded us that we become who we are by making decisions.

Faith is an act, a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Faith is a daily affirmation that life affords meaning as well as happiness. Faith is the confidence that life is meaningful. Faith is the affirmation that if life has meaning, it is known in this confidence to choose.

When I asked my Lenten study group to name their favorite verse in Scripture, every one was an expression of confidence: Psalm 137, Philippians 4—every one.

Colin Williams used to say that what Christians need on Sunday is a restored sense of confidence with which to return to the world of choices and make a difference.

John Edwards left his campaign with two thoughts: first, life is full of hurt and heartache; second, people can choose to live in ways that make a difference.

If we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sin.

This Psalm can even give a preacher confidence… As the preacher gathers her mind and thoughts, either on Sunday for ordered worship, or at mid-week during a service of memorial, the cadences of this Psalm may spring upon the imagination. The preacher may recall that most commentators consider Psalm 27 to be, really, two songs, 27A and 27B, divided at the 7th verse. The first is a hymn of thanksgiving and faith. The second is a song of loss and lament. The psalmist lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.

He speaks from his experience. He teaches, like a grandfather teaching a grandson; spinning a fishing fly; boiling the sap down in the sugar house; watching a basketball game; watching the sun set. What do grandsons learn from grandfathers? Confidence. In the North Country (New York State just south of Montreal) I knew where I could find my men in a mood to talk. In the month of March, between milking times, you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim. The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap: have a donut, dip the donut, drink the syrup. Fathers and sons talking.

It may be too that the preacher will remember, in considering these two Psalms (27A and B), some of the features that they share with the rest of the Psalter. For instance, verse 7, dividing itself from verse 6 before, recalls quickly how much writers need editors and how much editors need writers. The Bible overflows with the interplay of editing and writing as the Psalms exemplify in the Hebrew Scripture, and as the Gospel of John best displays in the New Testament. Both have confidence! Writers need the caution and care of editors; editors need the fire and life of writers. Writers need the prudence and judgment of editors; editors need the breath and novelty of writers. Writers need the criticism and perfecting interest of editors; editors need the life-blood and faithful courage of writers. The community of faith includes natural writers and congenital editors. Sometimes a set of conflicts can be ameliorated by arranging things so that particular gifts may be spiritually used to the up building of the church. Let those who are creators be creative and those who are redeemers be redemptive!

Think of the utterly confident words used to declare our country’s independence: we hold these truths to be self-evident that, all (men) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now that is stellar writing. But all writers need editors, too. Grace edits history.

The author may have consigned his own slaves to 3/5 humanity, but his confident phrases outlive his less faithful deeds. The author may have ignored the fairer sex, his own mother and sister and daughter and all, but his confident phrases outlive his less faithful deeds. No, there is an ever expanding circle of freedom ringing across our time. Equal rights under the law finally have no lasting enemy, as this Psalm would remind us. Freedom will continue to ring. It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave. Wisdom to the mighty who will hear, and honor to the brave who will care.


Two kinds of confidence, one of morning, one of evening, one of youth and one of age, one the courage to set out and the other the courage to come home, one of doing and one of being, one for faith in Jesus Christ and one as faith of Jesus Christ.

There you were again, just the other day. You were walking toward me, on the way home. You were a little bent, a little gray. I had to imagine what your hands were like. You were to far off to see. It was you that I saw, was it not? Or was it her, or me, or does it matter. You had that second stone, heavy on the left palm. I could see the first, still in the pocket, still ready, still at the right hand. But somewhere along the way you had a found a second. Light and salvation. The confidence of morning and evening, going and coming, youth and age, doing and being. All in a lifetime. You can tell so much from the manner of one’s gait, one’s approach, one’s cadence. It seemed to me, that day, that with you came the learning of a lifetime. Not all problems find solutions. Not all relationships end well. Things often do end badly. That is why they end. Not all illness finds temporal healing. That not all tragedy happens elsewhere. That some things do not give way to the light, to the confidence of morning and youth and sunny departure. That it is a great life but few get out alive. You were coming home, I could tell. You had that homecoming look about you. And the second stone, dark and heavy, that told me too. There is confidence for going out. You have that confidence. You can do it. You can get home. You can. I know you can. And there is a confidence for coming in. The Psalms have both, both thanksgiving and lament. A few Psalms like 27 have both in one.

In our church a portion of this Psalm is frequently offered, during one particular hour of worship, in a soaring musical arrangement, sung by a strong baritone soloist. The particular hour of worship in which this Psalm appears, at least in our church, is the funeral service. In the face of sin, death, loss and a form of the threat of meaninglessness that surpasses most others—with the body of the deceased before us and the tear wrung family to tend—here a great hymn of faith is regularly affirmed: The Lord is my light and my salvation…

Those gathered before burial are ready to hear the wisdom of faith that comes in the experience of the community of faith.

To such similarly familiar rhetorical forms—the experience of faith learned in the community of faith-- a congregation and grieving family may regularly and healthily return during the time of saying goodbye.

Both may well fit into a set of forms for worship, and they may in fact fit well together (as some earlier editor has clearly decided). Yet they make two distinct movements and statements. Within the movements of all the Psalms (recall H. Gunkel’s five types of psalms: hymn, lament, royal, personal, thanks), they capture the two most significant themes: thanksgiving and lament. A congregation that knows how to face disappointment with honesty, and death with dignity, is a congregation being prepared for the singing of this Psalm. Recently Elaine Pagels, known mostly for her scholarship with regard to Gnosticism and the New Testament, spoke about stopping for a moment in the vestibule of a church at worship, and realizing that “here is a family that knows how to face death” (Pagels, Beyond Belief, 3). Honest lament and faithful thanksgiving are both parts of facing the uncertain present in light of God’s future.

In addition, the lines of Psalm 27 (A and B), carry examples of other typical features within the Psalms: rhythm, and parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, synthetic) which these give the psalms their beat (vss 1&2); poetic echoes which later reverberate in the New Testament (vs. 5); hymnic cadence that makes the Psalms so healthy for regular prayer (the Benedictines reputedly recite the Psalter every week, and St Patrick legendarily recited them once a day!).

There is one exegetical curiosity embedded in 27A that may provide a final interest for the one charged with speaking a divine word, in life and before death. A possible translation of 27: 4b reads: “to behold the beauty of the Lord “in the morning” in His temple (so, among others, E Leslie, The Psalms, 354). After a time of trouble, has the singer gone alone to the Temple? Has he there prayed and stayed all night long? Has he lifted his heart to God in the darkness of the dark night of the soul? Has he then watched through the anxious terrors of the night to see the sunrise, and so been cleansed and healed? Death, he seems to say, is not a candle snuffed, but an oil lamp turned down—because the Dawn has come! In the morning.

Here is Jesus, in the season of Lent, making his way home. Like Odysseus or the prodigal or Cold Mountain’s Inman, walking home. Whence his confidence? What is the meaning of his cross? We revere the suffering of the cross most when we accept the cross as the final sign of God’s own divine giving, “who loved me and gave himself for me”, “so loved the world that He gave his only Son”. The divine gift of calvary says, “Yet, I will be confident”. You can withstand even what you never will understand. Every step of the via dolorosa—let the reader understand—is embedded with the “yet”, “nevertheless”, “nonetheless” of this Psalm. The confidence of the Gospel is named by a mere adverb, “yet”. It is not the suffering that carries the meaning, but the meaning that carries the suffering. Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley knew this well.


Teach me your way. Lead me on a level path. Though conflict rise against me yet I will be confident. Confident. Confident.

There are two kinds of confidence here, that of doing and that of being, both. Sometimes a couple will share and blend them. Sometimes a congregation will assign, over generations, some standard soprano voices to lift a confidence of thanksgiving and some standard alto voices to lift a confidence even in lament

What was that preacher talking about on Sunday when they read Psalm 27? Oh, I think he saying that we have a right to be confident. Confident to change and confident to endure. Confident. Not certain? No, not certain, but confident. Not sure? No, not sure, but confident. You cannot prove for sure, that is the thing about faith, there is always a leap in it somewhere…

There is a confidence of the morning and of the evening, of youth and of age, of going and coming. You have both, all you need of both. Confidence that is light to see. Confidence that is salvation to hear. Confidence to do what you can do—that is faith in Jesus Christ. Confidence to endure what you will endure—that is the faith of Jesus Christ. Confidence, two kinds.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?