Monday, August 13, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: The King's Justice

Preached on Sunday, August 12, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 9:1-20; Psalm 10:1-11; Luke 6:20-23

An elderly lady was driving a big, expensive car, and she went to back into a parallel parking space. Before she could do it, a young man in a small sports car whipped into her spot.

Seagull on Santa Monica Pier
She was so mad that she actually got out of her car and demanded to know why he had done this when it was clear that she was in the process of parking there. He said, “Because I am young and quick.”

He went in to do his shopping and came out to find the older woman using her big car as a battering ram on his car. He yelled, “Why are you doing this?” And the lady said, “Because I am old and rich!” (No source available; “Parables, Etc., Apr ’84)

The news is full of stories of people who do outrageous and horrible things because they can. The Bible is also full of such stories. The people in them are like this. Here is how they think: ‘He says to himself, “Nothing will shake me; I will always be happy and never have trouble.”’ (Psalm 10:6) It’s the justification (or the illusion) of the invulnerable (or of those who think they are invulnerable).

There are stories like this in families, and in big and little towns. There are stories like this in business, and politics, and religion. There are stories like this in every social class; and on the level of governments and nations. The motivation is this: “I will do it because I want to; and because I can; and because I think I can get away with it.” This is how injustice happens, person against person, group against group.

Santa Monica Pier, southern California

It makes me want to shout. It makes me want to weep. Then I ask myself this question: “Have I ever done something I am ashamed of because I wanted to, and because I could, and because I though I could get away with it?” A further question is: “Have I ever been caught? And, has justice been dealt out to me?”

My answer to the first question is: “Yes.” At first thought, my answer to this last question is, “Sometimes.” The real answer is, “Always.” If I haven’t been dealt justice yet, it is still a work in process. I am still waiting for that letter, that phone call, or that knock on the door: you know; about that library book, or some other issue.

A century and more ago, parents were known to hang a certain picture in their children’s room. It was a picture of an eye. It was the eye of God. And it had a verse from the book of Genesis that says, “Thou, God, seest me.” “God, you see me.” (Genesis 16:13)

It comes from the story of Hagar and her child Ishmael, after they were driven away from their home, and God brought water to them in the desert. It is a verse about God seeing in order to take care of us.

But, if you are a child, the idea of God watching you when you think you are alone (or not under your parents’ supervision) in your room would be a scary thing. What if God saw what I said to my sister, or my cousin, or my friend?

View north from Santa Monica Pier.
But the question of what God sees goes far beyond the issues of kids’ stuff. It becomes a much bigger question in the world of adults. There are people who have a good reason to fear what God sees in our world of adults. This is about betrayal, and deception. This is about injury, abuse, and injustice. There are people who don’t want to be seen

We have an even greater reason to want God to see. We agonize (in hope and in prayer) that God will indeed see: see and respond. If only God would see and respond to human acts of injustice; person against person, group against group.

The writer of Psalms nine and ten looks at his nation and the need for God to see what goes on there and respond. There are individuals, and groups, and whole patterns and systems that steal, or trick, or lie, in order to victimize the innocent.

They do this because they want to, and because they can, and because they think that they can get away with it. Isn’t it the purpose of the news to tell us about this every day, and make sure we don’t forget it, and never give us a moment’s peace?

The writer of these psalms looks beyond his own nation. He sees such patterns among the nations of the world, as far as he can see. Does God see?
Tanker off the coast at Santa Monica

The psalms teach us to pray our way through this question. Psalm Nine and Psalm Ten help us pray our way through both sides of this question.

In some ancient manuscripts these two psalms are written as one. That is a story in itself (and it is a story that goes back two or three centuries before the time of Christ), and that is one of the reasons why the two psalms are written as one in Catholic Bibles, though not in ours.

The Psalms state a principle of one of the things we believe by faith. Psalm Nine says, “The Lord is known by his justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.” (Psalm 9:16) This is the message of faith. But the word of God, the way we find it in the Book of Psalms, teaches us to work through this message the long way, from doubt to faith.

Driving up the California Coast toward Malibu
So Psalm Ten starts by saying, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) It takes its time to look at the horrible thought in some detail. And then it says, “But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you…” (Psalm 10:14)

Jesus grew up singing all these verses as hymns of worship, with his family, and friends, and neighbors, in the synagogue. And, as Jesus sang, somehow his heart told him that this message was all about him. It was truly his job to see trouble and grief. It was his job to consider it, and to take it in hand: like the psalms said.

Jesus grew to see the sort of self deceit with which humans cover themselves; the self deceit that makes the injustice in these psalms possible. He saw that it was like a disease that filled the world with hurt. It needed to be dealt with. It needed to be taken in hand. It needed healing.

The Psalms cried for God to reach out to a hurting world: “Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death.” (Psalm 10:13) So Jesus grew up and found his heart telling him to reach out in mercy and lift us up from the gates of death.

Jesus did this in a way that is totally different from the ways of this world, where authorities and agencies reach in to bring a solution from the outside. Jesus dealt with the injustice of this world from the inside; from inside the world of the human heart and mind.

Jesus traveled to the gates of death to lift us out of there. Jesus took the injustices of the world into his nail-pierced hands on cross. From the cross, he came very near to saying what the Psalm says, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” He came close to this though the words of another psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46)

Driving up the California Coast toward Malibu
He came very close to saying, with the psalm, “The victim commits himself to you.” He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) These psalms told Jesus who he was, and how he would lift us from the gates of death.

Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; made human. (John 1:1-18) In the song book that Jesus knew so well, the written Word of God told Jesus, the living Word of God, all about himself: who he was when he came down from heaven to Bethlehem; who he was as he grew up in the village of Nazareth. The Word of God told the Word of God what he had come to do for us; to lift us from the gates of death.

On the cross, Jesus takes a world of hurt and injustice in hand. He brings together a heart wracked with questions, and pain, and injustice and, at the same time, a heart full of trust that knows how to be at rest.

He came to take upon himself the poverty of the cross. He took upon himself the poverty of a world of injustice. And he could tell us to believe that we could trust him and what he had come to do for us: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It takes faith to say this with integrity.

Jesus could say, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Luke 6:20-23) He could say this because he knew it, and because it was his work to make it possible. He told us to live in trust and hope, believing in the power of what he would do for the world through his cross and his resurrection.
Backward glance of the ocean, Decker Canyon, CA

If you have ever been the object of injustice, if you have ever been innocent and found yourself attacked, or victimized, or betrayed, then you know how deadly the affect of this is on your heart, and mind; upon your whole life. The Psalms tells us that it is as deadly for those who do the injustice as it is for those on the receiving end of injustice.

It is not the cross alone that saves us. It is the power of the resurrection, along with the cross, that saves us, and sets us free, and makes us new. The power of Jesus, in his resurrection from the dead, lifts us “up from the gates of death.”

Psalm Ten, which begins with agony, tells us about a kind of faith we can have when the justice of God; even when that justice is still unseen and unfelt. It says, “The victim commits himself to you.”

You don’t yet see how the Lord will take the injustice in hand, but you can see yourself in his hands. You can put yourself there. You can leave yourself there. And then you are able to go forth and leave that darkness and deadliness of spirit behind you.

Maybe you could get a sense of this by using the kind of prayer that puts you on your knees, or even face down on the floor or the ground. Pray, and give up to God everything that agonizes you. Give it to God.
View in Decker Canyon

Imagine it as a kind of residue, or a grease stain, that you leave behind you (there on the floor, there on the ground) when you get up and go forth from your prayer. Look behind you and see that you have left it there. I was about twenty years old when I first leaned to do this. I have to do it again and again.

The Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller, in his book “The Reason for God”, quotes the old Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote about the effects of the work of God to lift us up into a life of hope: “I believe, like a child, that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small…mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they have shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.” (“The Brothers Karamazov”; Chapter 34; or Part 5, Chapter 3, Ivan speaking to Alyosha)
View of Decker Canyon, CA

That is what these psalms tell us. It is what they know by faith. They do not explain how it happens, but they put it into words that are like music for the heart.

They tell us that, if only we will listen, and pray through it the long way, from doubt to trust, we will learn the faith of these psalms. We will learn to say, as they say: “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.” (Psalm 9:1-2) These psalms sing this way about the hurt and injustice of the world because they know the truth that, “You, O God do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.”

Jesus came, in his own way, to take it all in hand. In faith, we commit ourselves to him.

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