Monday, August 27, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: A Righteous Vanishing Act

Preached on Sunday, August 26, 2012
The Jesus Song-Book: A Righteous Vanishing Act”

Scripture readings: Psalm 12:1-8; Matthew 6:19-24

Years ago, when the school day always began with the pledge of allegiance to the flag, it was the first day of kindergarten, and the teacher began by teaching her class how they would begin every day. She said, “Now, boys and girls, put your hand on your heart and repeat these words after me.”

A mantis in prayer at the church door
One little boy put his hand on his bottom. The other kids laughed, and the teacher saw what was going on. She said, “Johnny! that is not your heart.” And Johnny said, “It is too my heart! When my grandma sees me, she picks me up and pats my bottom and she says, ‘Bless your little heart’ and my grandma would never lie.”

Psalm number twelve is about hearts and about truth. David felt as if he were the only one left in the world with a heart that truly loved the truth.

The psalm, by itself, doesn’t give us any clues about the events behind it. We are told that David wrote it. It could come from the time of a great and terrible change in his life.

When David was loved by King Saul, and married to the king’s daughter, everyone he knew seemed to be his friend. Everyone seemed to care about whatever it was that David cared about.

When the king turned against him, this changed. All those friends disappeared. Perhaps they didn’t disappear instantly. Perhaps they stayed just long enough to come to David privately, and say something kind and supportive. Then they disappeared. Most of the people on whom David depended did a vanishing act, and they were gone.

A view of the cemetery
On the hill high above Washtucna WA
It was this great disappearance that inspired the cry for help at the beginning of this psalm. David was mourning the loss of his friends. They were not lost in death. They were lost through their unfaithfulness. They were lost because their friendship had turned out to be a lie. Their friendship had been nothing more than the flattery that people pay to the popular; but only for as long as that person remains popular.

So David sang this song to the Lord, “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception.” (Psalm 1:1-2)

If David’s false friends had heard his new song and realized that it was all about them, they would have objected. They would have insisted that David was going too hard on them. David was being unfair.

Didn’t he know first hand what was happening to the King and the kingdom? The King was insane. The King was demented. The King was dangerous. There was no telling what he might do next. Wasn’t one of David’s most important jobs singing and playing the harp to calm the King when he fell into one of his black moods?

If David had to run for his life, at least (if he could get far enough away) he would be safe. But what about them! Poor them! They had to stay with the King and see to the business of the kingdom. They had to stay and risk those famous black moods. They had to hope they could escape the royal spear in the chest that the King nearly gave to David. David owed them pity, not blame. Poor them!
On my walk, looking back to church and school in Washtucna

The irony is that the loyalty of these false friends to the King was just as much a lie as their friendship to David had been. The irony is that David was always a better friend to the king than they were. David was marked by the King for death, but he went on protecting the frontiers and, whenever the King came within David’s reach, within his grasp, David always protected him and gave him another chance.

What David gave the King was what he had also given to these friends of his, until he saw them for what they were. What David gave the King was true loyalty and true friendship, even when the King marked him as his enemy. What David gave so truly, was what he looked for in others.

The “godly” and the “faithful” did their vanishing act right before David’s eyes. They were not what they had seemed to be. David had been deceived and he did not think himself wrong to blame them for it.

Do you know that we are supposed to be the godly and the faithful for each other? We need this from others and they need if from us: or, if not from us, then from whom?

This is what we were created for. This is our calling and our job. Godly and faithful are qualities that have their root in God. They represent, in human form, what God is. They are the qualities that belong to us as creations of God; created “in his image”.

Mr. and Mrs. Grasshopper and Grasshopper Jr.
The word translated as “godly” almost defies definition. When you say that a person moves “slowly”, you describe them as tending toward “slowness”. When you say that a person is “godly”, you describe them as tending toward God. That is the way that English grammar works

Godliness describes a person moving in the direction of God. But the direction of this godliness has a special quality about it. Godly, here, translates a word that describes the steadfast love of God for those to whom he commits himself. It is a love that is unalterable and unchanging. Godliness means moving in the direction of giving to God and to your fellow humans the steadfast love of God.

Those who are godly embody this love. Their actions and their words are one with, and inseparable from, this steadfast love.

Some of the grain elevators at Washtucna WA
Faithful is the quality of trustworthiness. It is what you can absolutely rely on. It is the essence of motherhood and fatherhood at their best. Parenthood is what God is, and it is what we are supposed to be; as creatures who are made in his image. We are created to be caregivers and nurturers for our world and for our fellow creatures, including human beings.

Steadfast love and faithfulness are the qualities that are abundant in God. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, this is what he saw. The Lord came to Moses and declared what he called his name, or his nature. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness….” (Exodus 34:5-7)

David’s false friends used their talk to portray themselves as “godly and faithful” when they were not. Maybe this is being too hard on them. Maybe they really wanted to be David’s friends, but they also wanted to live with the King, and eat his food, and have all the nice things that went along with this, no matter how unstable and dangerous the King might be.

They wanted too many things and, as they say, “You can’t have everything.” It was a matter of the heart. Their heart was in the right place, but it was also trying to be in too many other places at the same time. There was no reliable way to tell where they really stood. It made them into liars.

A dog on the road to the cemetery above Washtucna WA
In the Bible the heart is not the center of  the emotions. The heart is the center of the will. The heart is what makes the crucial choice. It is the center of your desire. It is the part of you that considers everything and then it says, “This is what I want. This is how I will think. This is what I will do. This is what I will be. This is where I will stand.”

What David says about these false friends is that they have double hearts. The New International Version says, “Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak deception.” It should say, “They speak with flattering lips and double hearts.” That would be a more literal translation. “They speak with flattering lips and double hearts.”

Their hearts were divided. They wanted things that couldn’t exist together. It would be like wanting your chocolate milk hot and cold at the same time and in the same cup.

Some things are really hard to keep together. It would be like wanting to be an honest person, and also wanting to run for high public office at the same time.  It would be like wanting to be popular and wanting to have integrity at the same time. It would be like wanting to be unselfish and also wanting to get your own way at the same time. It is dangerous work to be double hearted.

A crow on the gate above the cemetery at Washtucna WA
There can be a real difference between wanting people to like you and wanting people to love and trust you. There can be a difference between being cool, and being good parents; unless you can prove that the real definition of the coolness of a parent is being a good parent.

There can be a difference between being smart and being wise. Wisdom often deals with knowing what it is that you don’t know. And being smart or being wise can both get you into a lot of trouble; only they get you into completely different kinds of trouble.

If you are double hearted, then you have at least twice as many hearts as you can keep track of, and you cannot know yourself. You will have no idea of who you really are. Others will have to learn from experience (perhaps the hard way) what it is that your two hearts really want, and which of your two hearts is the stronger one, and how to deal with you accordingly, or how to let you alone.

The psalm tells us that double hearted people are what most of us are, or what we are without God. Double hearted is what even the godly and the faithful become when they forget God. The psalm tells us about what God thinks about all this.

God speaks up in this psalm and makes a promise. “Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise”, says the Lord, “I will protect them from those who malign them.” (Psalm 12:5)

Remember that this is God’s answer to David. In David’s life the godly and the faithful had ceased to exist. They were exposed as liars. Between their two hearts, their life was an emptiness and a lie.
As the crow flies...

David was impoverished by this. He was maligned by them as if they had slapped him in the face. When you think you know where you stand with people who seem to treat you kindly, and seem to be people you can trust, waking up to reality is horrible. It makes you sick. You feel weak. You feel like you have been robbed. Your soul groans.

The Lord says, “I will now arise.” This is what the Lord has done in Jesus. In a world where love is often not steadfast, where the faithful are unfaithful, God comes, in Jesus, to embody steadfast love and faithfulness.

He comes in Jesus to be this for us, when steadfast love and faithfulness seem to have disappeared. He comes in Jesus so that we can become for others what Jesus is for us.

God came in Jesus and grew up singing this song about the lives that are injured by the vanishing act of those who are supposed to be godly and faithful. God came in Jesus and grew up singing this song about keeping his promise to arise, and to help us in our great need. He sang this song about his promise to bring steadfast love and faithfulness back to the world, and back to the human hearts that have grown tired of their double lives.

That is who we are. When we see God as he truly is, in Jesus, we see the emptiness of our double hearts, and we want a new heart. God came in Jesus to make us single hearted, through the work of his love for us and for this world that he created.

God came in Jesus to suffer the penalty of our double heartedness on the cross, and he defeated the power of that double heartedness through his resurrection.

This is how he makes us whole. Through Jesus, and his cross, and his resurrection, we see the beauty of the single hearted love of God, and we receive the power of God to have one single heart, like his heart, beating within us.

His power makes us able to give that heart back to him. Then we are able to give ourselves to others who need us to be godly and faithful, and we will not do a vanishing act in the end.

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