Sunday, June 25, 2017

The (beautiful) math of Psalm 23

Psalm 23

            The 23rd Psalm is so ubiquitous; it’s so well-known; and it’s used in so many places and contexts that it’s hard on a Sunday morning during the summer with free reign to take it anywhere and everywhere to figure out from which angle to consider this Psalm. In the past, I’ve sung this Psalm with guitar around campfires and re-told the story of David, I’ve read this Psalm with a person who was dying, I’ve preached on this Psalm at a bunch of funerals, and it’s been read at many others. Besides that, the 23rd Psalm has been used in more pop culture references than probably any other verses in the Bible. You all know it—probably in the King James—so this is the opposite of most scripture: You know it and it’s dear to many of you.
            So, I’m going to dig deep today and try to show you something about this Psalm that you might find interesting. It has to do with everybody’s favorite subject—math—so you know it’s going to be good. OK, it’s not math but proportions and ratios. Did you know that authors who wrote in ancient Hebrew were often obsessed with numerology and ratios? And this is for a very straight-forward reason, actually. Every letter in ancient Hebrew was also a number; they didn’t have a separate system of letters and numbers like we do. So, as you might imagine, clever authors would often play with words and numbers to create some beautiful double-meanings (this is also proof that even in ancient Israel there were nerds, which helps some of us relate). If that doesn’t interest you, perfect, because I’m not going to talk about numerology with Psalm 23.What I am going to talk about with this Psalm is its ratios, or how ancient Hebrew writers would elevate certain verses based on their placement in the poetry.
            Shakespeare did this in English, too—really, every good author does this in one way or another—but ancient Hebrew is better suited on the whole for this kind of work than English because the words were meant to be chanted and so they had a bit of musical feel to them already, making emphasizing some parts of a phrase that much easier to do. For this reason, you will often find in the Old Testament that a part of a poem is emphasized based on its placement in the verse, and often the part that is emphasized most is precisely at the middle. Sometimes you can see this in English translations when certain words are stacked like a pyramid toward the central meaning of the verse and then the same words descend on the far side. Sometimes, like in the book of Jonah, you have Jonah uttering 39 words against God, and God responding with 39 words that put Jonah in his place. Today, in Psalm 23, like the Jonah example, you have structure that is not so obvious in English, but if you start counting the words in this Psalm you will find a remarkable thing. There are twenty-six Hebrew words to begin the Psalm and twenty-six Hebrew words to end the Psalm and smack-dab in the middle is one simple phrase that this Psalm is all about: “You are with me.” The 23rd Psalm is a pyramid leading us to chant aloud: “You are with me.”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Deliverance Psalms and the Bedrock of Faith

Psalm 13

I have a couple of strongly differing opinions on Psalms of deliverance like Psalm 13. One is that I think I really like these Psalms because they feel incredibly honest to me. They start, like Psalm 13 starts, by asking “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” That’s a brutally honest question that one part of me rather likes. But the other side of me trembles at these Psalms because I feel like many people—perhaps most people—hear this not as some honest, beautiful prayer of vulnerability but as some kind of affront to their piety. It feels like doubt and doubt feels to us like the opposite of faith. I think we are at risk in our modern world of losing that sweet spot of vulnerability where we can pray prayers like this. I see plenty of examples of people who pray prayers of thankfulness or prayers of necessity, but prayers of trust in spite of the circumstances seem rarer. Perhaps this is because we are results-oriented people, so the idea of praying “How long, O Lord?” quickly turns to “I don’t believe in God because God has not answered me to my timely satisfaction.”
            For the writers of the Psalms trust in God is the bedrock of their lives. Because God is their certainty they feel free to pray anything and everything—they pray “How long, O God?” and they pray, “Defeat my enemies, O God” and they pray “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They pray all this and so much more because God is not under debate—they are. They are more certain of God than they are of themselves. The modern problem is that we approach prayer, like we approach so many things in life, as a test of what is true in the world. God is very much under debate and often we are not. This is the opposite approach to those who wrote the Psalms.
            For the Psalmist sometimes prayer is simply yelling stuff at God, because to yell our barest emotions at God is still to acknowledge God first before ourselves; it’s OK to be upset with God, just not to decide, in a moment of crisis, that now is the time for a crisis of faith as well. It is much better to yell at God than to decide in the midst of turmoil that God doesn’t exist… that God doesn’t matter… that a truly just and merciful God would never allow this thing to happen to me. In the face of despair all the cracks in your fa├žade will appear and the question of what you truly trust will rise to the top. The Psalms don’t have time to decide in what they put their trust; by the time it’s here it’s too late.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Lutherans and Praise

Psalm 100

It was VBS time at Red River this past week and so it feels like a good time to talk about praise. Children do praise well. Of course, some kids are shy and some of them are afraid to stand in front of people, but the one thing kids do that adults often do not is they give it a shot. They try things. Often those things don’t work because kids aren’t always all that bright, but they try nonetheless. The adults in their lives—their parents, teachers, whomever—are constantly having to set boundaries because kids will try anything and everything. It’s why we put covers over light sockets and locks on the cleaning cabinet. Given the opportunity, kids will try it.
            I’ve spent a good deal of time recently pondering that bit in the Gospels about becoming like children. The last three Sunday scripture readings have, in different ways, left me considering the positive attributes of children’s faith. Today, talking about praise I feel the need to revisit this subject one more time because, let’s face it, adult Lutherans aren’t the best praise-ers. I was just at Synod Assembly the last two days and I can tell you that this is not specific only to Kittson County. The only swaying I saw in Moorhead was related to the 90 degree weather in the non-air-conditioned room. Heat stroke and praise are not the same thing. But it did get me thinking: What does it look like for Lutherans to do praise? Because I don’t think the only way to do praise is lifting up ours hands and saying, “Praise Jesus” half-aloud. I also don’t want to mock that, because if it’s earnest it’s good. I just wonder if we need praise, and if so, is that the only way? Because I have my doubts that many of us will ever do anything praise-ful if that’s what it is.
            That wondering about praise brought me back to children, because I watch Natalie when she’s into something religious—and she’s old enough now that she does sometimes get into prayers and church songs and whatnot. At VBS—at seven at night—maybe not so much but at other times she does. And when Natalie is doing song and dance she is doing praise, even if she doesn’t really understand the thing she is praising, and it’s exactly that realization that caused me to pause. She doesn’t really understand, I thought, but who among us does? Who among us really understands who and what it is that we are praising? More to the point, is praise about understanding at all? Isn’t praise a response to a feeling? Today is Trinity Sunday—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—who can wrap their head around that? Who really understands how all that works?
            The funny thing is if I ask Natalie, “Do you know what we’re doing when we’re praying?” She’ll say, “Yep!” And then she’ll stand there and wait for me to explain. It might be a bad sign that she already think she’s knows whatever I’m asking, but I’ll take it as a good sign that she at least waits for me to explain it after she’s said she knows. Anyway, again I found myself thinking, “Wait, isn’t that how the rest of us are too?” If I ask you, “Do you know what we’re doing when we’re praying?” You probably also think, “Yep!” And then you wait and ponder what that might mean, and maybe you even wait for me to say something to try to make it clearer. We aren’t so different from children. God is a mystery, and better yet, God only becomes more mysterious the more you study him and the more you wrestle with your preconceived notions of who God is. Praise comes in understanding that I don’t get it, but still I want to say “Thank you.” Praise is however we live out our feelings of gratitude.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hourglasses and time's fullness

Galatians 4:1-7

            Last week we heard from Paul who wrote in Galatians that there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free but all are one in Christ Jesus, so you are excused if you find it a bit strange that in the very next chapter in Galatians Paul begins by comparing children who are heirs to slaves. But that should also be a clue that Paul is making a point about who we are as human beings—that we were enslaved to sin even outside of our control, and so God sent Jesus to adopt us while we were still children. Still, this is a jarring metaphor. So, is the metaphor of being children. Mostly, we don’t like being called children. Sure, we can understand Jesus telling us we must become like children to enter the kingdom of God, but being like a child is different from being called a child. We don’t want to be slaves or children—can’t we just be adults?
            One way to understand Paul’s metaphors is to understand God’s time against our time. All of this has to do with time actually, specifically how our lives move forward from childhood to adulthood toward becoming an elder in your family or your community. We see time as a progression—a gradual expense that builds us into wiser, better people. We spend time, but Paul uses a slightly different metaphor for time. He says that time gets full. I find myself drawn to this metaphor in Galatians 4:4, which reads: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…” I find myself in wonder over the concept of time’s fullness. This is a metaphor that is hard for us in the 21st century when time is measured by our phones and watches—when time is told by arms moving around a clock-face or, more often, by numbers scrolling across a digital display. Time, for us, marks the next in a series of to-do list items, and so we imagine it’s always in short supply. We don’t talk about time’s fullness for one because we don’t use hourglasses anymore—even our board games that once had those little minute-glasses have been replaced with digital countdown devices that go tick-tock, tick-tock—but we also don’t talk about time’s fullness because we are so busy cramming things into our time that we don’t step back to consider the way that time can fill up rather than drain away. Our image of time is so often of running out, but God’s image of time is fullness. Sand accumulating, not sand spent.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

In Christ, we are one

 Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

            “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” says Paul, “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
            Funny, because it looks like there still are those things to me. I still see different nationalities—not just Jews and Greeks, but Chinese and Indonesian and Pakistani, Sudanese and Romanian and Peruvian; Native American and Caucasian; white and black. I still see those things, so I’m guessing you do too. I also see slaves and free people. 30 million people in the world today are slaves according to the Walk Free Foundation. Around 60,000 people in the United States of America today are slaves, mostly in the sex trade. 60,000 people in the USA… 14 million in India… 4% of the population in Mauritania. Slavery is not just history; it is the present. Then there is this matter of male and female. We all see that—we all experience sex and gender in different ways—but nobody is suggesting it isn’t real. Nobody, except Paul.
            So what gives?
            Paul is clearly making a theological point that in Christ there is no distinction. No woman or man is lower for being created one way or another; no slave is lower for being a slave; no person is excluded from the promise of salvation because of their nationality—or because of anything thrust upon them beyond their control. This is a fascinating and revolutionary statement that would not have been obvious to many in that day. Jews were heirs to a promise by virtue of being born into it. Men were given all manner of property rights over women by virtue of being men. Paul wasn’t necessarily arguing against that, but he was suggesting, one way or another, that ultimately none of it matters in the kingdom of God.
            Therefore, the big question—in a world where our reality does not match God’s reality—is how do we respond? What kind of life do we live knowing that God sees this world profoundly different than we see it?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Grace and graduation

Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-21

            I really don’t like preaching on Paul’s writings. Paul’s words, in spite of being the foundation of much of our theology, are tough to parse, so I’m stuck in the role of Paul’s translator and I don’t much like it. For example, in Galatians today Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” And Paul says, “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” And we say, “Oh yes, Paul. Give us another!” Something about grace and faith; something about the law serving a purpose but salvation is through Christ, etc, etc. There is more Paul in the Lutheran Confessions than anything short of the Gospels, but just because this is what the church confesses doesn’t mean it’s easy. Instead, I find that it leaves people asking: But now what?
            That’s the problem. I basically have one sermon in me and it centers of grace. I preach on grace pretty much every Sunday and some of you buy half into it 99% of the time, others of you buy into it fully about half of the time; still others have no idea why any of this matters and you are waiting for me to reference some cultural marker you can relate to so you can perk up. Nothing is more offensive than grace because feels like I might be saying “None of this matters!” And that’s what we’re afraid of after all—that none of this does matter. So when the pastor stands up and proclaims not expensive grace, and not cheap grace, but free grace—grace that is yours free of charge, no acceptance necessary—well, that sounds like a free pass to meaninglessness paved on a road of anything-goes. Just the kind of thing we want to be telling our graduates, right? Anything goes?
What do we do with this grace?
            For graduates it comes in the following questions I’m sure you have heard once or twice recently. “So, what are you doing next year?” “So, where are you going to school?” “So, what kind of work are you doing?”
            Now what?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Grace first, potluck second

Acts 15:1-18

What rules should stay and which can be changed?
Isn’t that a fantastic, 21st century question? Well, it was also a first century question and a second century question… a third century question… a fourth… a fifth. Actually, it’s an every time question, especially as it pertains to faith. The church is, as the Reformation taught us, semper reformata—always reforming. The question is, as always: Which parts?
            Is it necessary that I preach from the pulpit? Most of you maybe don’t care. But at what point in the aisle does it become a little too Pentecostal? Where’s the point where I’ve taken it a little too far?
It’s an interesting question.
Or how about what we teach in the church? How about Confirmation? Most of our ideas about what Confirmation should look like have their roots in what Confirmation was for us. So, how do we take what Confirmation was for us and make it something that works today?
We can do this for everything we do as a church: Rules about communion… about who can serve in leadership roles… who can get ordained. It goes on and on.
Whatever your opinions about these things you have all seen these practices change in the last twenty or thirty or fifty years, and many other practices have followed in a similar vein.
The early church had even more dramatic shifts. For the first time, in today’s reading, they decide that Gentiles—uncircumcized, non-Jewish people—were able to be part of the church. This is revolutionary because they are saying that the thing that united the people—their Jewish faith, culture, and ethnicity—was now not the only way to be part of a shared faith. If Greeks could be part of the church then Lord only knows who else could be? Romans… Africans… people from the east. This is crazy stuff; it’s a giant change in the practices of the church. But Peter persists: Salvation is by grace, not ethnic heritage.
Ethnic heritage questions have not gone away in the last two millennia. Our churches still claim certain heritages. The real question is: At what point does our celebrating of our heritage constitute exclusion of others who don’t share that heritage? It might seem odd to you, but most people in the world don’t go out of their way for lefse bakes… or know what lefse is, for that matter. I was reminded of this when I typed “lefse” in Microsoft Word and it put that squiggly red line underneath, telling me it wasn’t in the dictionary. People don’t know what this stuff is. Now, I’m not saying it’s a problem to make lefse… or celebrate St. Lucia Day… or whatever ethnic festival is important to you—not in itself—but Peter, Paul, and Barnabus remind us to be aware of all the ways we subtly exclude by suggesting that who we are ethnically is more important than the faith we share.
A few weeks ago I asked our Confirmation students to brainstorm and highlight the things that make Lutherans Lutheran. Their answer? The one thing they could agree on was church-defining for Lutherans: potluck.