Text: Psalm 19
What can we say at a moment like this? As if Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria weren’t enough. As if devastating earthquakes in Mexico weren’t enough. As if all of the conflict over health care and gerrymandering and how one should take a stand (or a knee) for equality weren’t enough. In the midst of so much loss and discord, we have the worst mass shooting in modern history accomplished for some perverted purpose we will never fully discern much less understand. In today’s text, the psalmist says it for us: “There is no speech, nor are there words…” The writer was referring to the non-verbal ways creation declares God’s glory, but the sentiment also applies at this moment in history. “There are no words…”
You should know that given the tragedy of last Sunday – or tragedies I should say because each life touched by the shooter is its own tragedy… Given what happened in Las Vegas a week ago, Larry and I discussed whether the choir should sing their joyous anthem “Jubilate Deo” this morning. Would it be too exuberant following the grim events of this week? Would you experience its joy as inappropriate? After some discussion and reflection, we decided that he should not find another, more somber composition for the choir to sing today. This is in part because of the message of the anthem: “May the music bring us together, may our song bring peace evermore…let all nations hear us.” This is a message we need to hear today.
Another reason I wanted to keep this anthem in today’s worship is because although jubilate deo is often translated “praise to God,” it can also mean “shout to God.” How many of us have wanted to shout to God this week? I know I wanted to shout something like the words of Tom Troeger’s hymn:
How long, O God, how long? The ancient cry is ours.
We wait in grief and ask how long before we feel your powers.
And why, O God, and why? We ask with every age
And throw against your distant sky the force of grief and rage.
The mass shooting last Sunday happened in the context of a history of massacres in our nation and around the world. If you define a mass shooting as killing more than 4 people, there’s one every day in America and some days more than one. I was listening to an NPR segment about Las Vegas early this week when they interviewed a woman from New Zealand who was walking along the strip. In her decidedly not-American accent she said, “This country has quite a lot of guns. We’ve seen many people carrying them as we’ve walked around the city. In New Zealand our police officers don’t even carry guns.” This horrible event happened in the context of our American culture, including our fascination with guns and violence and “freedom” – and that last word is in quotes. We did not personally cause this tragedy, but we are products and, in many cases, beneficiaries of a violent America. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “…in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We are not guilty of this particular atrocity, but we are responsible.
What do we do with our responsibility? What do we do with the anxiety we feel in these days? How do we discern where and how we are being called to bear our responsibility for creating a just world? I’m not one of those people who believes guilt is always a bad thing. If you feel guilty because you need to call your mother or you ought to take time to ask a co-worker how his troubled child is doing or you really do need to get around to writing that check for hurricane relief, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But in my experience, guilt doesn’t often produce long-term transformation. I can’t guilt you into a change of heart. But our culture needs a change of heart, so we need to figure out our role in this transformation. We need to discern how to inspire changes of heart. Guilting people or ourselves won’t get us where we need to go.
Our text for today is Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God…” C.S. Lewis considered it to be “the greatest poem in the psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” According to Clinton McCann, a Hebrew Bible scholar, for the writer of this psalm “…love is the basic reality…God is love, and love is the force that drives the cosmos.” This psalm is about a joyful creation, described here as the heavens, and torah, or God’s instructions. God’s sovereignty is proclaimed by creation and God addresses a personal word to humankind in the torah. We Christians tend to understand torah as “law” and progressive Christians aren’t wild about strict laws, at least not in the context of faith. But that definition misses the depth and richness of the term, which is better represented by English words like “instruction” or “teaching.” As McCann explains, “God’s torah does not represent a mechanistic system of reward and punishment, but a dynamic, living relationship between God and humanity.” Torah teaches humanity how to live a life with God and in harmony with all creation. Today the havoc generated across the planet is a sign that we humans have left torah far behind in our quest for power and wealth. Our text references God’s laws, statutes, precepts, commands, and ordinances as if the psalmist had a thesaurus handy to avoid duplication of terms in each verse. But these words all refer to God’s teaching about how God intends for us to live in the world.
The psalmist understands that we never do this perfectly. Unfortunately, God’s instruction can’t ensure human behavior that is always in harmony with God. Instead, the poet prays for protection from private faults and from the “insolent” – that is, protection from personal shortcomings and from those of others as well. Then, the psalmist declares, we will be blameless. This is not the same as “perfect,” but rather it means “dependent on God.” It is this dependence that makes the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts “acceptable” – not some arbitrary list of what is right and what is wrong. The entire psalm calls us to join with the all of creation in living God’s way. That way is a life-long search for wisdom and for joy. Joy sustains our lives and wisdom builds a life worth sustaining.
Wisdom and joy are nice words and even nicer ideals. But we live in a society where both seem to be in short supply. We know a lot and we have a lot of fun. We can access an abundance of information in an instant and we are incredibly creative in devising ways to entertain ourselves. But that’s not the same thing as gaining wisdom and experiencing joy. Miriam Webster describes wisdom as “the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; insight; judgment or good sense.” Perhaps it’s because the internet acquaints us with all kinds of people and their behavior in a way that was not true 25 years ago. But it seems to me that these days I have become aware of way too many people who just don’t have good sense. At a deeper level, wisdom is about the ability to discern inner value. Oh, that our leaders possessed this gift. Instead they are the insolent from whom we need to be protected! Despite arguments to the contrary, information and opinions are not wisdom. There have been many times in my life when I was pretty sure I knew what needed to happen – and I was wrong. If you’ve lived long enough or if you’re young but you pay attention to what life is trying to teach you or to the wisdom of others, you’ve probably experienced this, too. The older I get, the better I understand just how much I don’t know. God is trying to teach us how to live God’s way, the psalmist says. It takes wisdom to discern how I can do this in my life and circumstances. You may have an opinion about what I should do, but you can’t do it for me. If I accept that I am responsible for a tiny part of the world’s transformation, I have to do it myself. I have to work at gaining wisdom. I have to listen to torah.
God’s way is also one of joy, or at least it’s supposed to be. We can shout to God our grief and our anger. But like the heavens that declare God’s glory, we can also shout our praise and thanksgiving. And we can’t let go of joy even in times of deepest grief. Humans can’t survive as healthy people if we allow ourselves to be so overwhelmed by the anxiety and pain in our lives and in our world that we can’t find joy somehow somewhere. Whether it’s in work or hobbies; in children or pets; in the beauty of a cool October evening or a good meal around a loving table of family or friends, we humans have a deep need to find joy. Fun is good if it’s safe, but joy is life-sustaining.
These are hard days in general. But there are a number of families in our church who are in the midst of great challenges – they seem to be double-dipping in hard things and certainly not by choice. Many in this sacred space this morning are in difficult places even if they hide it well. They are facing parents in declining health and struggling children; the illness of one family member and the death of another; tension at work and caregiving responsibilities that couldn’t be avoided if they wanted to – and they don’t want to. So if your life is going smoothly right now, please be joyful about that. Then pray that your fellow Pullenites can find joy as they try to the hard, but right thing.
And if you are one of those who just can’t get a break in your personal life AND find yourself anxious about the state of the world, please look for joy where you can. Life is probably giving you more wisdom than you ever wanted right now. As one singer put it, you learn the most in places you did not want to go. So find joy if you can and reach out to fellow Pullenites or others if you need help. It’s hard to transform the world if your heart is breaking or your personal life is falling apart.
We had a discussion in lectionary this week about what generates the desire to live God’s way. What compels some people to pursue justice-love or Beloved Community or the kingdom of God? You can pick whatever descriptor you like. This is a question worth pondering in these days and the answer is intricately related to why you are here in this sanctuary this morning. Why are you here? Why do you seek to be part of what God is doing in the world even for one hour? You can be a nice person without showing up here at Pullen or at a march downtown or at the bedside of someone who is seriously ill. The answer feels important because this is an area where we need to be evangelistic – and I’m not talking about personal salvation. Our tragic times require more people who are listening to torah – to what God is telling us about how to live. We need to recruit others who want to embody God’s laws, statutes, precepts, commands, and ordinances. The salvation of humanity and the planet depends on our capacity to invite others to join in this work. In these times, being “nice” is definitely not enough.
One of my valued wisdom stories tells of a 6 year-old child who was watching television while his parents prepared dinner. The news was on and as usual, it was full of bad news. The commentator described shootings and thefts and other crimes. One after another, he heard stories of people being mean to each other. After a while, the little boy looked up at his mother and said, “Mommy, why can’t we make a world where it’s easier to be good?”
The reality of our time is that in our country, it’s often not easy to be “good.” We reward self-interest and put obstacles in the way of people who already have challenging lives. Our task today and every day is to discern how to live God’s way and to encourage others to do the same. Our task is to make it easier to be good. This takes wisdom and it requires joy. Few people will find our anger inviting, but they will be attracted to our joy. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t get angry at injustice. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shout to God when violence unfolds in our midst. But the truth is that we are more likely to attract companions on the journey to justice-love when we seek holy wisdom everywhere we go. We are more likely to draw fellow travelers if our jubilate deo is a shout of thanksgiving. The heavens declare the glory of God. May we join them in singing, “Let all nations hear us…may our song bring peace evermore!”
If we truly believe with the psalmist that love is the force that drives the cosmos, let’s shout it wherever we go.