Saturday, August 27, 2016

“Tambourines and Trumpets” - August 28, 2016

Psalm 81:1-10

            Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is a mystery set in a monastery in northern Italy in the thirteen century.  An English Franciscan named Brother William of Baskerville and his novice/sidekick Adso are investigating the death of a manuscript illustrator when they unexpectedly run afoul of the monastery’s self-appointed conscience, Brother Jorge.  In the movie version, this is how it goes:

            Jorge is the sort of person that John Wesley had in mind when he remarked that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion”.  He’s the type of person – apart from theological definitions – that H.L. Mencken defined as a puritan, calling Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” 

            For all the sincere admiration of holiness and all the true effort to be holy that such people display, that kind of attitude is not consistent throughout the Bible.  Sure, the book of Ecclesiastes emphasizes how life is fleeting and full of sorrow, and we are often urged throughout the scriptures to be serious and to use the time we are given for matters other than our own pleasure or gain, nevertheless one of the things that the Psalms enjoins on God’s people is that they should let themselves be happy and express joy. 

            That belief shows up over and over and over and Psalm 81:1-4 is only one spot, but it puts it well.

“Sing aloud to God our strength;
   shout for joy to the God of Jacob. 
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
   the sweet lyre with the harp. 
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
   at the full moon, on our festal day. 
For it is a statute for Israel,
   an ordinance of the God of Jacob.” 

This celebration is grounded in the awareness that God sets his people free from the things that weigh them down, as he freed the slaves held by Pharaoh.

“He made it a decree in Joseph,
   when he went out over the land of Egypt. 

I hear a voice I had not known: 
‘I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
   your hands were freed from the basket. 
In distress you called, and I rescued you;
   I answered you in the secret place of thunder…”
[Psalm 81:5-7]

We’ve been through rough places and bad times and it’s good to express relief, even joy, in what God has done.  It’s part of being thankful. 

            How rarely we express joy at church, though.  I count myself in on this criticism, mind you.  I have been known to scream, “Yes!  Alright!  Way to go!” at a triple in the eighth inning.  I have never done that in church.  Honestly, I’m not about to start it, either.  An occasional “Amen” or “Hallelujah” is okay, and even a “Thank you, Jesus!” is in line when it is not forced or artificial.  The problem is that for a lot of us, it would take years before a lifetime of decorum would wear that thin.

            There are other ways, though, of expressing joy.  A friend of mine told me once about a woman he knew who always clapped when she got up from the communion rail.  Sometimes the joy that music expresses is irrepressible.  There are also such things as tears of joy.  There is even quiet laughter.

            But if a tambourine and a trumpet are your thing, go for it!  Joy finds a way of breaking through the clouds one way or another.  The Rev. Dr. Horace Allen was born in Sharon Hill and grew up as a devout Presbyterian, a branch of the Christian Church sometimes called “God’s Frozen Chosen”.  Eventually be became Professor of Worship at Boston University’s School of Theology, where he tried to find ways to express joy in the Lord, sometimes extreme ways.  A story I heard (and I don’t know how true it is) says that one Christmas Eve he had his clerical stole decked out with lights.  (I find myself imagining how he handled the extension cord.) Another story is that once he used champagne as the communion wine at Easter and timed it so that the sound of the cork popping could be heard at just the right moment:

                        “Lift up your hearts!
                        We lift them up to the Lord! [Pop!]
                        Let us give thanks to the Lord!
                        It is right to give our thanks and praise. [Fizz, fizz, fizz…]”

Again, we probably aren’t going to be doing that for several reasons.  All the same, there is something wonderful when we can be free to express the joy that is there in that expression about lifting up our hearts.

            I am not going to tell you exactly how you should express your joy any more than I am going to tell you when you should feel it.  I will, however, say that not only is there nothing wrong with being joyful, it’s something that happens when the Spirit of God catches up to you and says, “Knock, knock.  I’m here.”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

“God Is Our Refuge” - August 21, 2016

Psalm 71

            A fascinating aspect of the Psalms is that they show up time and time again in the oddest places.

            A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Orange Is the New Black, which is hardly the most religiously attuned series.  It deals with life inside a prison and the lives of the women who have been sentenced, some of them for life.  At times it does flashbacks to how they ended up there.  One character is a Dominican woman who has two sons, an abusive boyfriend, and a protective aunt.  There’s a scene where she and the aunt are sitting on a park bench while the sons play.  The mother has a black eye and the aunt is telling her to get away before the boyfriend starts beating the children, too.  That’s when the boyfriend shows up and calls to the mother, expressing his remorse and wanting to get back together.  Despite the aunt’s wisdom, the woman walks over to talk to the boyfriend.  The aunt gathers the children to her side and begins to recite Psalm 71 in Spanish,

"En ti, Señor, me refugio ;
   No sea yo avergonzado…”                                    

“In you, O Lord, I take refuge;
   let me never be put to shame. 
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
   incline your ear to me and save me. 
Be to me a rock of refuge,
   a strong fortress, to save me,
   for you are my rock and my fortress. 

Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,
   from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. 
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
   my trust, O Lord, from my youth.”
                                                [Psalm 71:1-5]

“Who are you praying for, Tia?” asks one child.  “For your mother,” she answers, as she watches her niece making a very bad decision.  And you just know she is praying with her whole heart for all of them at once, speaking words known and spoken by thousands upon thousands of others in terrible situations throughout the centuries and around the world.

            The Psalms echo time and time again with that prayer, because all too often people face situations where their only help is God and where their hope is for something beyond this world, which is a fallen one where there is not always a happy ending and where the hero doesn’t always win and where the innocent do get hurt.  The Psalms – the Bible as a whole – is not at all naïve about there being evil in the world.  The good news is that God, in Christ, conquers evil, not that there is no struggle. 

While we are in the midst of life, we often need protection and there are cases where it comes in the next life.  That’s a fact that can be twisted and misused.  Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin did that, sadly, following the example of those who had used bad theology for their own ends or to justify their own greed, saying, “Just put up with injustice now.  You’ll get your reward later.”  That is definitely not what the Christian faith teaches, any more than any of the Old Testament prophets had taught.  Lenin said,

“Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labor of others are taught by religion to practice charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people.”[1]

 He said that, and he was describing a warped version of religion that, may God forgive us, we have allowed some people to get away with.  The consequences have been tragic.  Even so, we cannot stop proclaiming the full message that our refuge is not in any source other than God, and that what we are given is full and sufficient.

            What Lenin and Marx and their followers missed was the awareness that along with endurance under oppression comes the promise of deliverance, as when the Hebrew slaves in Egypt labored under the Pharaoh’s whips, and their cries rose to God, and God heard them.

            What they missed was the awareness that for real and lasting change to take place, those who labor and are heaven laden need to know that at any moment, not just when their burdens are lifted by death, they can turn to the Lord, and find rest.

            What they missed was the degree to which hope itself is the gift of God, and part of what keeps people going is the knowledge and prayer that says,

“This is my Father’s world;
O, let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.”

People who have been down and out can hold onto that, and find the strength to rise above whatever they face, not through their own power, but through the assurance that comes from the Spirit of God.

            Remember that “down and out” doesn’t always mean that you’re on the street, either.  Everybody, if they are honest, will face situations where they are powerless against trouble.  You may find yourself looking on as a sister or brother or child or friend gets swallowed up by addiction and there’s not a thing you can do about it but suffer along in your own way.  Yet do not ever rule out the ways that God will find to break through.  Even in the worst case scenario, who is to say that someone’s remorse with their last breath will not be looked at by the Lord with infinite mercy? 

To take refuge in the Lord is to trust in life and in death, sometimes not knowing which you face, but trusting all the same.

I knew a mother whose daughter developed anorexia and who did not know what to do, until finally she would sit across the table from the girl and would eat only as much as she did, matching her forkful-by-forkful and bite-by-bite until the daughter saw her mother’s emaciation beginning to mirror her own and came to understand that if she wanted her mother to survive, she would have to return to a healthy weight.  While that went on, the mother took refuge in a hope that was desperate but real, and which won through, all by the power of love, the power of God.

            May God keep us from the time of trial, but when it comes, we know enough to take refuge in God through faith in his love and his care both in this world and in the world to come, a love that we have seen confirmed in Jesus.  And so, says the psalmist, and so, say we:

“I will hope continually,
   and will praise you yet more and more. 
My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
   of your deeds of salvation all day long,
   though their number is past my knowledge. 
I will come praising the mighty deeds of the Lord God,
   I will praise your righteousness, yours alone.
                                                                                    [Psalm 71:14-16]

[1]  Novaya Zhizn No. 28, December 3, 1905.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

“Acceptable Worship” - August 7, 2016

Psalm 50

The heading on Psalm 50 ascribes it to Asaph.  More than one Asaph shows up in the Bible, but I Chronicles 15 mentions one who would be the logical source.  He was a Levite, one of the professionals who, though not a priest, led worship.  We hear of him being one of the people who carried the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem before the Temple was even built and the other thing we’re told is that he was a musician who specialized in playing the cymbals.

As such, he would have had a first-hand view of much that went on in worship and would have been exposed to the details of ritual and liturgy in the most extended way, year after year.  The priests were responsible for performing the sacrifices (which meant slaughtering animals and burning the appropriate cuts of meat on the altar with the proper prayers and gestures).  They had to know their job.  The Levites were responsible for set-up, for providing music while the sacrifices were being offered, and for cleaning up the mess when it was all over, so they had their own awareness of the detail work involved.  They had to care about the little things, because those are what will trip you up.

Here’s a modern example.  It’s one thing to write a sermon.  It could be the best sermon since Paul preached in Corinth.  If nobody had turned on the sound system early this morning, however, chances are that only the first few pews of people would hear clearly and – if you haven’t noticed – the bulk of people are not sitting in front.  Levites had to make sure there was enough wood to keep the altar fire burning, that the basins to catch blood from the sacrifices were in place, that there was water to clean the priests’ hands, and that the songs being sung fit the occasion. 

Trust me – you don’t want details to slip past you.  There’s a story about an old-time temperance preacher who gave a fiery sermon about the evils of alcohol who finished with a call to take every barrel of whiskey that he knew to be hidden away in cellars all over town and to smash them open until the streets ran with a river of the unholy brew.  He mopped his brow as he started to pray, and the pianist began to play softly underneath his words, “Shall We Gather at the River”.

A Levite like Asaph would be tuned in to the importance of liturgy and the performance aspects of worship – and I say “performance” in a good way, because we are called to present our best for the Lord and the awareness of God’s creativity awakens the highest creativity in those who are made in God’s image.  There are good reasons that our most beautiful buildings are those we design to lift our eyes and our hearts and to make us think of eternity.  Our most accomplished composers, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Duke Ellington to Andrew Lloyd Weber, wrote music for worship.

A Levite like Asaph would also be in a position to know that attention to detail can go wrong when the act of worship becomes an end in itself.  Watching the worshipers, day by day and week by week and year by year, he must have seen a lot that was good but also observed a lot that troubled him as an expert in the field. 

There is always the danger that instead of being a way of acknowledging God, worship itself can be turned into an idol, and “performance” becomes something bad, where if you perform the right actions and speak the right words, you think that things will magically (and I use that word “magically” as a conscious choice) go your way, that you will somehow impress or influence the Lord of heaven and earth, Maker of all things, Judge of all people, to give you good weather for your picnic on Friday evening or to defeat your enemy in battle.  Pushing it even further, it wouldn’t matter how you live beyond the place of worship and long as you use the act of worship to pacify or placate the Almighty.

It doesn’t work like that.  Psalm 50 puts it back into perspective.  Worship matters, but your life should live up to your prayers.  God is not contained by the place we address him nor the time we set aside for prayer.  God’s claim is over all of life and faith is far more than religiosity.
The mighty one, God the Lord,
   speaks and summons the earth
   from the rising of the sun to its setting. 
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
   God shines forth. 
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
   before him is a devouring fire,
   and a mighty tempest all around him. 
He calls to the heavens above
   and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 
‘Gather to me my faithful ones,
   who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!’ 
The heavens declare his righteousness,
   for God himself is judge.
‘Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
   O Israel, I will testify against you.
   I am God, your God. 
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
   your burnt-offerings are continually before me. 
I will not accept a bull from your house,
   or goats from your folds. 
For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
   the cattle on a thousand hills. 
I know all the birds of the air,
   and all that moves in the field is mine. 
‘If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
   for the world and all that is in it is mine. 
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
   or drink the blood of goats? 
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
   and pay your vows to the Most High. 
Call on me in the day of trouble;
   I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.’ 
But to the wicked God says:
   ‘What right have you to recite my statutes,
   or take my covenant on your lips? 
For you hate discipline,
   and you cast my words behind you. 
You make friends with a thief when you see one,
   and you keep company with adulterers. 
‘You give your mouth free rein for evil,
   and your tongue frames deceit. 
You sit and speak against your kin;
   you slander your own mother’s child. 
These things you have done and I have been silent;
   you thought that I was one just like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you. 
‘Mark this, then, you who forget God,
   or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver. 
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
   to those who go the right way
   I will show the salvation of God.’

            Thank you, Asaph, for the reminder.