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…

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