Proper 25(A): The Road Less Traveled

Proper 25(A): The Road Less Traveled

Psalm 1 & Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

Maybe it’s just me, but when I first saw the pairing of readings from Leviticus and the Psalms, my first thought was that the organizers of the lectionary were worn out by the time they got to Proper 25 and they just stuck a couple of random texts together and trusted preachers to figure it out. Or to ignore it all together, which is what most preachers do with Leviticus anyway. To be fair, the alternative first Old Testament reading follows the complementary historical tradition of thematically pairing the Old Testament with the Gospel, so it isn’t really about the parallels between Leviticus and the Psalm, but still – they are paired readings. What is going on here?

As I have already alluded, Leviticus is challenging to preach from, for as theologian Samuel Balentine put it, “How does one “explain” and “apply” a book that devotes seven chapters to the bewildering, if not seemingly bizarre, requirements of ancient Israel’s sacrificial system and five chapters to details of ritual impurity, including such indelicate matters as menstrual blood and semen?”[1] It also can be described as dry in some parts. The Psalms are not always a cake walk to preach from either, especially for those who have a more a-theist theological perspective given its underlying assumption that life comes from the Creator, who also sets forth a moral order.

But as we look down from the metaphorical balcony at the arc of the biblical narrative, we can identify shared themes from the book of Leviticus and the Psalms, specifically the passages chosen as this Sunday’s lectionary suggestions.

Both center on what God expects of the righteous, what a faithful life looks like, and how to avoid the fate of the wicked. Psalm 1 offers a formula for a blessed life—a comforting thought for both ancient and modern communities. It also offers an explanation for why the wicked do not prosper, which serves as a warning useful to both ancient and modern communities who consider it Scripture. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 also lays out what God expects of the righteous and what faithful living looks like, only using more “on the ground” specifics than the metaphor-rich Psalm.

The message of these texts might speak to a modern community that also considers it scripture in some of the same ways it spoke to the ancient community that passed it on. First, it offers an alternative framework for living, which is to focus on God and righteousness. It is timeless advice, but seems particularly important to modern readers, specifically American Christians, who relish independence and self-direction. Instead, Psalm 1, “bears witness to the belief that the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction.”[2] The Leviticus text continually reminds the reader of their connectedness to others. Will the reader reject cultural norms of being “self-made” and instead root one’s life in study of the “law of the Lord” and flourishing of community? Like the ancient Israelites seeking identity apart from the surrounding culture, the texts provide a guide for those who live in a culture with values that might not align with those found in scripture.

This may be one of the most helpful ways to think about the lectionary texts this week – to help us consider and then enact an alternative framework for living as people who know that things are not as they should be, and who want to bring the world closer to God’s vision of justice and peace individually and communally. The history and context of ancient Israel played an important role in shaping the Book of Psalms into its current form and help to explain the role of Psalm 1. Postexilic Israel, working to find identity outside of a nation-state with a king of the Davidic line, “looked to their traditional and cultic literature for answers to the existential questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we to do?’ and then shaped the literature into a document that provided answers to the questions.”[3] It has provided comfort and challenge for people of faith ever since. This holds true, too, for Leviticus. We can imagine that the instructions included in chapter 19 are, in part, a response to the status quo injustice of the day, that the poor were ignored while “the great” given deference, and vengeance was regularly enacted instead of loving neighbor as one would love one’s self.

Preachers and congregations might find it helpful to put the readings in the context of something familiar, but outside of the canon: The Road Not Taken, in which Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Ultimately, the lectionary passages present our living as an intentional choice, particular actions taken in opposition to other options that should reflect faithfully on God and God’s beloved community.

[1] Balentine, Samuel E. Leviticus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2]  Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 64.

[3]  Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p 28–29.

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The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and recently completed her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

By: The Rev. David Clifford

In the Old Testament readings for this week’s lectionary, we are reminded of God’s holiness. Psalm 99 ends in verse 9 with, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (NIV). This “holy mountain” recalls the image of Moses standing on the rock as the glory of God passes by from the Exodus reading. The glory of God passes by, but Moses is warned that if he sees God’s face he will not live. God’s presence is always with us, just as it is with Moses.

For those preaching the lectionary this week, it may be difficult for us to convince both our congregations and ourselves that God’s presence is with us due to the division and conflict we find ourselves encountering in the world today. In fact, in the Gospel text, Jesus himself may have found himself struggling to experience God’s presence and glory.

In the scripture reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15 NIV). While we must be careful not to allow the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric to become anti-Semitism, we each probably have been in similar situations in which those against us attempt or even succeed in trapping us in a conversation. It seems to be the way politics are being played in our country today.

But Jesus knows of the evil plan, and has an answer to the question about paying the imperial tax (a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens). Jesus’ answer is to focus on the image of the coin. Verse 20 has Jesus asking, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV). When the crowd replies with “Caesar’s” Jesus shares the often-quoted passage: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).

The question Jesus poses is an interesting one the preacher for this week may wish to expand upon. “Whose image is this?” In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, it is mentioned that the Thessalonians “became imitators of [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The notion of imitating Christ is important to Paul’s theology. In many ways, the image the world should see when they look at the church and the Christian is Christ.

“Whose image is this?” If we are sincere in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the answer when we look in the mirror or when others look at us should be Jesus Christ. It may be interesting for the preacher to play with this notion about imitating the image of Christ. Of course, do not miss the fact that we are each made in the very image of God. This, of course connects us all to the glory of God as witnessed by Moses on the rock.

We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, meaning the coin on which Caesar’s image and inscription is carved. But we also give to God what is God’s: in this particular analogy, I would assume that to mean our very lives. God’s image and inscription is carved on our very souls and in our very breath since we are created with the very breath of God. Do not miss that Christ calls us to give up our very lives and follow his example of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Thus, our very lives belong to God and we are called to give them to God.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children. He enjoys riding his bicycle, reading, coaching a local archery team, and learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

 

 

Proper 17(A): Finding Hope for Our Time

Proper 17(A): Finding Hope for Our Time

Psalm 26:1-8

By: The Rev. Brandon Duke

At the date of this writing eleven weeks has passed since I have celebrated Holy Eucharist. Eleven weeks has passed since the congregation I serve have participated in any formal sacrament. Like the lamenting Magdalene who cried out twice, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” we call out to the authorities of the church as well as to God in our disorientation (Jn 20:2, 13). By now disorientation has slowly turned to disillusionment with the bishops of the church continuing to preach steadfastness while the resurrected Lord remains to reveal the world his wounds. St. Paul promises that our sufferings (disorientation & disillusionment?) grounded in a life of Christ “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 3b-4). The bishops are right in preaching steadfastness in the faith because it allows us the audacity to hope. But hope for what? Hope to regather and celebrate Communion? Yes. But that’s not all. If indeed, the resurrected Lord continues to reveal his wounds to the world, and our faith calls us to participate in Christ’s sufferings, then the sacramental life (right now) is revealed to us in our own brokenness. Like the Magdalene, we cry out, and God answers us by calling our name (Jn 20:16). Once Mary’s name was heard she “went and announced…“I have seen the Lord”” (Jn 20:18). Once we name our own laments, God calls us each by name to wake us up to the reality of resurrection still found in his wounds intimately joined to our own. This is the Body of Christ broken for you, and at once we are forgiven and free to proclaim hope within the sufferings of the world.

What does steadfastness tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like washing one’s hands (Ps 26:6a). Only when we (as the priesthood of all believers) wash our hands in innocence may we go in procession round the Lord’s altar (Ps 26:6). When we wash our hands we are at once acknowledging our past as well as preparing for the future. We do the hard work of self-examination (confession, forgiveness, discernment) in order to go around the altar of the world in a spirit of hope, praise, mercy, justice, and compassion.

What does a revealing of Christ’s wounds to the world tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like a house built upon a foundation of Love (Ps 26:8). In this house the “wonderful deeds” of God are the topics of conversation (Ps 26:7). We vulnerably admit that our hands have been dirty, and like Christ are invited to show the world their redeemed wounds. At once, the world sees its own past as well as a hopeful future where God, table, and house become the place “where [God’s] glory abides” (Ps 26:8).

Over the past several months, kitchen tables have replaced altars, and houses have become little churches. The sacraments have been administered, only this time in the form of kindness, patience, compassion, justice, and mercy. These are not easy times, but they are hopeful times. Like Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord,” in new and exciting ways. He is [still] Risen. He is Risen, indeed! Come, let us adore Him in our own brokenness alongside a broken and redeemed world.

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The Rev. Brandon Duke

The Rev. Brandon Duke serves St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Through the pandemic he has used technology to pray and teach Morning & Evening Prayer to his congregation. They have been praying together online twice every day since April. Brandon blogs at https://fatherbrandon.com/.

 

Proper 8(A): It’s All Held by God

Proper 8(A): It’s All Held By God

Psalm 13

By: Anne Moman Brock

I’m glad I’m not the only one asking the question “How long, LORD?” It’s a daily question for me, one that remains unanswered.

How long, LORD, until I can hug my family and friends again?

How long, LORD, until income is secure for all people?

How long, LORD, until we can trust those making decisions on our behalf?

How long, LORD, until health care is available to all?

How long, LORD?

 

David laments as I lament:

How long, LORD? Will you forget me

forever?

How long will you hide your face

from me?

How long must I wrestle with my

thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in

my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph

over me?

I don’t need to write pages and pages in my own journal, I can just let David do the writing for me! Is it comforting to know that humanity has faced this kind of discomfort from the beginning of time or is it depressing to know this is how it will always be? Yes.

I think we’ve all had a moment of lament like this (or several) over the last few months: God, where are you? Have you forgotten us? Have you given up on humanity? We need you — where are you??

And if that weren’t enough, we’re home day after day wrestling with our never-ending thoughts: When is it safe to go to the grocery? Why do we have to wear masks? Yes, I’ll wear a mask, but I won’t like it. How many more meals must I cook myself? I miss my friends.

And still more is piled on as I scroll through social media and see hatred continue to spread: Why are they behaving like this? When will truth be a given? Who is my enemy right now? I’m so confused. Who is the right person to listen to?

There’s a reason this psalm, along with all the other laments, are included in the Bible. They are valid. They are real. They are us. I have permission to voice all of my feelings, not just the ones that make others feel good. God gives us space to cry and be angry and moan and groan. Our feelings are valid. We can bring our whole selves before God without worry of rejection.

I appreciate that David laments and that he doesn’t end there. He allows himself the space for despair and desolation, but he keeps going through it to a place of consolation. He doesn’t let the lament have the last word. However, just before he turns to praise, he states his complaints and his worries. He acknowledges his fear and anxiety around failure. He puts it all out there, and then…

David ends with praise. Will I end my litany of fears, anxieties, and lament with praise too?

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the LORD’s praise,

for he has been good to me.

Every night as I lay my head on the pillow, I name at least three things from the day for which I give thanks. This daily practice has saved me for over three years now. There are some nights when I have to “stretch” to find something I’m grateful for (i.e. this pillow), but for the most part I can name way more than three. I’m glad to know David had a practice of gratitude as well.

Now, we don’t know how long it took David to write this psalm. We don’t know how long it was ruminating in his mind before he spoke it out loud. He may have been in that space of despair for quite some time before he moved into praise. Reading it in the Bible makes it look like everything happened at once… but we don’t know.

I know for myself that it might take days, weeks, months, even years, before I can find the heart space to praise God in the midst of a hard time. Praise doesn’t naturally come out of my mouth when I’m hurt and scared and uncertain. I have to be intentional about it, which is why I make myself practice gratitude every night, whether I feel like it or not.

If you’re not in the place of praise today, that’s okay. I’m not sure David was right away either. Whether you’re asking How long, LORD or singing God’s praise, it’s all held by God.

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Anne Moman Brock

After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

In his introduction to Genesis, Theodore Hiebert shares that the writer’s goal “was to make sense of the world [the Hebrews] knew by explaining how it came into being. They came to terms with who they were as a people by explaining their own origins in that world.” (The CEB Study Bible, 1 OT) Thus, Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins the Torah with a story detailing a very harmonious and beautifully-structured creation, not unlike the structure of Israel’s religious life, with a goal of articulating the climax of creation: the Sabbath (2:1-3). If a Hebrew child were to ask a question about the Sabbath, a teacher might have pointed to this very story and said, “It is at the foundation of who we are and who God is.”

Origin stories are important to us. Any K-12 education in the US comes with a history of how we became who we are with imagery of revolution, slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Popular culture is filled with origin stories. How many times has modern America witnessed Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? (I honestly don’t think we can take another one!) Sometimes, when an adopted child grows older, they have questions about their parentage, leading to a search for answers.

In all of these things, one idea comes to the surface: knowing more about the beginning may shed light on the present. And in that manner, Genesis 1:1-2:4a sheds light on the very beginning of the Sabbath, the imago Dei, and the responsibility and stewardship of humanity over creation, ideas that have ever-present meaning for the modern reader.

The Psalmist demonstrates the concern with origins in the first praise psalm, which is a celebration of God the creator. The psalm carries with it the origin-centric understanding of the imago Dei when it declares, “You’ve made [human beings] only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet” (8:5-6, CEB). It seems that the very beginning of humanity and scripture still plays an important role in Israel’s present at the time of Psalm 8, and in the Christian lectionary today. From the start, humanity has been created in the image of God, to partner with God in bringing order to the chaos of the world and to care for creation and creature alike in harmony.

The origin of the Jewish people plays a role in 2 Corinthians when Paul writes to the community, “Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.” (13:11, CEB) Why is this the call upon the life of the early Christian? It most certainly has some root in the creation story above. The harmony-bringing of God is still the call of humanity. The 2 Corinthians’ charge also has its beginnings in another origin story of sorts.

In Matthew 28:19-20, the resurrected Jesus gives a mandate to his disciples that is the origin of most church vision statements and the historical evangelism (good and bad) of the global church: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This disciple-making — rooted in obeying Jesus’ commands — is rooted in his summary of the law: love God and love neighbor. But the origin of this understanding comes from the Torah, from Genesis, and from creation, when from the natural outpouring of God (who IS love) came creation, humanity made in God’s image, the structure of religious life, and the task to bring harmony and care to creation and to one another. And all of that has great implications for who we are today. Our origins matter. And this is our ultimate origin story. So how will the knowledge of our beginning influence how you live right now?

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The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Andrew has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

Easter 4(A): Smelling Like Sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter(A): Smelling Like Sheep

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.[1]

Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:

The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.[2]

As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.

The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.

I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.[3] By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”[4]

In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:

When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”[5]

This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.

Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7.[6] It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!

[1] Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.

[2] Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.

[3] Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

Advent 4 (A): How Long, O Lord?

Advent 4 (A): How Long, O Lord?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

By the time the Fourth Sunday in Advent rolls around, if you have been able to resist the pressure to focus on baby Jesus lying in his manger, you’re a better pastor than me. Thankfully for those committed to the lectionary, by the fourth Sunday, we finally arrive at what everyone’s been waiting for in Matthew’s short description of how God entered the world as the Human One:

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matt. 1:24-25).

You can hear it now. Pastor, will you finally let us sing Christmas songs? The traditional emphasis on Advent as a penitential season of watching and waiting, anticipating the return of Christ Jesus’ coming, typically caves to the overwhelming attention paid to the Incarnation.

Many a local church pastor or priest must wrestle with this tension between tradition and culture; between an encouragement to deeper discipleship for more mature followers and an invitation to “come and see” for those unfamiliar with the Way. This balance is appropriate for the season of Advent since it is all about tension. This pressure has been known to invite creativity to worship planning such as moving Advent to the four Sundays in November as historian of Christian worship Lester Ruth once suggested.

But this essay is not intended to argue for a lectionary revision or even unpack the Matthew’s Good News. Rather, it seeks to explore how the oft overlooked psalm lection might enhance a preacher’s approach to the gospel. The 80th Psalm makes an appearance in every Advent season, no matter the liturgical year. The psalm follows the traditional lament form on behalf of the entire community, encompassing persistent and ongoing persecution and pain. This could be hard for some in the congregation to hear on a morning when most eyes are set on the Christmas tree and on children who can hardly sit still with anticipation about the forthcoming visit by St. Nick.

And yet, even among the sentimentality and romanticism, there is a place for someone to name the in-between time. Many members of your community will need to hear that it is okay to wonder, “is this really all that there is?” Part of the role of the Church is to teach the counter-cultural lesson that expectation is not simply wishing. When you are young, you often just don’t know the difference. The psalmist here is the master teacher. The psalms, along with the other lections in Advent, are meant to point the hearer toward the promise of God coming into the world to save. Psalm 80, paired with the Matthew text, offers a way to share the overarching narrative of God’s story intersecting with ours – one that bridges expectation with hope and promise.

Biblical scholar Gail O’Day once reminded a room of my classmates of what most expectant parents quickly come to realize, “you cannot prepare for what is coming in Advent.”[1] Neither can a local church pastor prepare for the coming brokenness found in the missional field in which they find themselves. The experienced pastor will season the Sundays of Advent with wisdom about the gray edges, the what ifs, doubts, regrets, and the sometimes anguish of the faith journey. Psalm 80 can help do the heavy lifting even if the congregation doesn’t realize they need to hear it.

Psalm 80 is a prayer for a hurting community. Consider your neighborhood over the course of the past year. Has the unemployment rate spiked once again because the local manufacturing plant has laid off hundreds just in time for Christmas? How many deaths due to opioid addiction have occurred in your county? Have you experienced a rash of suicides among young people and middle-age men? How many homeless people do you pass on your way to the office? How many mornings do you wake up to the headline of yet another young person’s death at the hands of gun violence?

Many communities have discovered that spiritual melancholia has come home to roost. While culture has been touting Christmas since the Halloween candy went on sale, many in your flock are wondering if they can get by without putting any decorations up. Tucked in between festive potlucks and caroling, pastors often find ample work in holding the hand of someone wondering if God is even listening. How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers (Ps. 80.4)? Psalm 80 offers a suggestion on how we might pray during lingering conflict, heartache and hopelessness.

If you serve a community that has been in crisis for some time, offering introductory words linking their hurt to the Psalmist’s context may help in peeling back the façade that everything is all right. Opening immediately with petitions, some in your congregation may sit a little straighter in their pews if the poetry is read with conviction. The Psalmist, on behalf of the people, expresses frustration with a God who has been deaf to their cries, “Wake up, Yahweh, and do something already” (v. 3)!

The people, feeling God is angry with them, have subsisted on a diet of tears. Eugene Petersen paraphrases the Hebrew poetry for contemporary ears:

You put us on a diet of tears,

bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.

You make us look ridiculous to our friends;

our enemies poke fun day after day (vv. 6-7).

Who, in the face of great grief, hasn’t wondered the same thing? For those of us watching with clinched hands and gritted teeth at the world on fire, we ask, “How long, O Lord? Pay attention to us!” To motivate God into action, the petitioner focuses on different aspects of the divine-human relationship: caring for the sheep (vv. 1-2), tending the vine (vv. 14-15) and the obligations of a sovereign toward a sworn allegiance (v. 17).

There is no mention of repentance in this psalm. As Nancy R. Bowen says in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, “it is a bold promise of obedience, but one that is conditional on survival.” The Psalmist may qualify his prayers but there is unreserved expectation that God can save God’s people. Like the shepherd that protects and the military leader who has the unlimited force, it is only through God’s power that the people will survive.

This saving action is why the psalm makes its appearance in the season of Advent. As God is born in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel (“God is with us”), the people, even a hurting and despondent people, need space within communal worship to remember this promise of salvation.

[1] Gail O’Day, “Advent Lectionary” Lecture, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 13 November 2009.

 

KimJenne_2017
The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries and Safe Sanctuaries. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.