Sunday, June 29, 2014

Festal Shout

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite
1I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever;
With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
3You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
4'I will establish your descendants forever,
And build your throne for all generations.''" Selah
15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
Who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;
16They exult in your name all day long,
And extol your righteousness.
17For you are the glory of their strength;
By your favor our horn is exalted.
18For our shield belongs to the LORD,
Our king to the Holy One of Israel.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

It's been a long week at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell. Last Sunday, volunteers waited for a throng of children to come join us for the Workshop of Wonders Bible School, we threw open our doors at five ready to begin the events that had been in motion for weeks and months before, as we prepared a place for the children who will lead worship for us during the offertory later today.

The parents and grandparents dropped their kids off with us, trusting us to provide a safe environment to entertain their children, and perhaps teach them something important about life in the process. Vacation Bible School isn't just children's ministry, it's also ministry to the adults who care for them. Some of the parents took the opportunity to go out on a date together, tending to their relationships while we tended to their children. Others had a quiet night at home, enjoying the opportunity to be still, an opportunity that young children make rare. I'm sure a few also had details, either at work or at home, that they had shelved in order to spend time with their families, and were able to take them back up knowing that we were taking up their children.

But the volunteers who worked at our Vacation Bible School weren't just free childcare, giving the adults the chance to do grown-up work in the grown-up world. We learned from those children, from their wonder at the amazing Bible stories, and the way they got into the narrative the youth enacted before them. We learned from their excitement as the science experiments showed the wonders of God's created order. We learned from their laughter and playfulness at the recreation station, showcasing the joy that is a sacred part of childhood. We learned from their creativity as they made crafts together, artistically expressing their thoughts and emotions, both simple and profound. We learned from their silliness and rapt attention at the opening and closing assemblies each evening, as they joined with James and Rivet, Marie and Mimi, in exploring the themes of the night through skits and music.

Even as our Volunteers sought to share God with the children, so too the children shared God with us, each generation proclaiming God's love to every other.

"I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever. With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations."

The church is one of the few places in our culture where we can interact with people across generations. That's a huge strength. It gives us the perspective to see beyond the anxieties of our own lives. We can look with a child's wonder and discern with an elder's wisdom on the same action.

Crossing generations gives us the vision to reach beyond our own experience and testify to how God has acted throughout our history and into our future. We can say together that Our God is the one who works wonders. We can tell the stories of faith together, reading from a script passed down to us through the generations, yet bringing our own interpretation as we enact the stories for one another, telling and retelling the same ancient truths in new ways. God's truths are eternal, and we share them through our stories about God's steadfast love. This shifting world cannot move us out of the reach of God's loving kindness.

"I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens."

Our Psalm reading this morning comes from a specific context, and is littered with references to the world in which its writer lived. It emerged as a response to crisis within the people of God, when they were losing sight of who they were and whose they were.

Ethan the Ezrahite, to whom this Psalm is attributed, had probably seen the Babylonian exile, when the Jewish people who had been deported after Babylon conquered Judah were finally able to come home again. It gave the people a chance to rebuild their lives and their culture, which had been utterly shattered when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies. We simply don't have an analogue for what that would be like in our own history. The heartbreak in the stories written during that time is simply inaccessible to most of us. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote this psalm as the people were finally allowed to return home.

This Psalm also references the line of King David. Just about everyone with any contact with Judeo-Christian culture recognizes that reference. He's the one who killed Goliath,  became king after Saul, and had the affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

This Psalm, by invoking that dynastic imagery, by remembering God's covenant with king David, is reestablishing the commitment to living by God's promise. The promise is not a political reality, but a liturgical, visionary, ideological hope which continued to shape the life and imagination of Israel.

God promised David that his kingdom would not end. That's part of what made the babylonian captivity so difficult for those who endured it. It wasn't just a national tragedy, it was a religious one as well. David's dynasty had failed, and with it God's promise seemed to evaporate. Without the promise of God, nothing about the Israelite national identity made sense anymore.

"You said, 'I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:'"

And yet in spite of the missing king from David's line, the tone of this psalm is still joyful. Perhaps the vanity of a powerful empire is lost, but our ability to praise our God is not. Because we live in a quickly changing world and there's certainly a lot for us to fear. But we have the truth of the gospel to support us, and the testimony of innumerable generation of our spiritual ancestors to hold us up.

The truth is that God is active in the world, God intervenes in our lives, even when we cannot see it. Sometimes we will see God's action only in hindsight, when we reflect on our lives and look for God's hands amid our history. Other times we will never know what it is God has done for us, because how can we know everything. Our lives are full of overlooked blessings and turns that could have gone wrong, we could not possibly keep track of all of them. But the covenant, though it may change forms as it did for the Israelites and God's covenant with David, is still strong. When God made a promise the people of God knew that they could count on God to keep it, even if they didn't understand how it would take place. God is faithful even when we don't see it. God's people are ensured a future even while exiled in Babylon.

"'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.' Selah"

As American Christians, we've got plenty of reasons to worry about the future. American culture has shifted away from the church, and we can no longer enjoy the privilege of social dominance like we once did. As a result, membership is declining across our denomination, youth are aging out of the programs we designed for them and they aren't coming back the way their parents did. People generally don't take the time to memorize scripture or the catechism anymore. Religiously affiliated schools and charities are shifting their identity to one that is more easily marketable so that they can continue the work that is important to them. Our confidence in the economy has been shaken and still has not recovered. Many of our political leaders seem more interested in gathering their own power than serving the people. One can understand how the American Church might be having a bit of an identity crisis as we try to grab any program or idea that we can rely on.

Israel, likewise, was having an identity crisis. The threefold destruction of their monarchy, their temple, and their city left a nationwide case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in its wake. They had to learn how to function when their homes had been destroyed with no chance to rebuild, much less the decline of their holy city. They had to learn how to be a people of God when temple worship was no longer even possible, much less the center of their culture. They had to learn how to affirm that God was their sovereign when their ruler was an occupying foreign power, much less of the house and lineage of David. Their whole identity as a covenant people was at stake, and the people of Judah were struggling to hold on to who they were and whose they were.

But none of those problems were enough to stifle Ethan the Ezrahite's Festal Shout. This long psalm walks through much of the pain of the Babylonian Exile in its later verses, giving language to the experience of an Israel that still didn't understand what God was doing in the world. But it begins with a celebrate of God's greatness, reminding them and us of what God had promised, and that those promises were trustworthy, even if we couldn't understand how they could possibly still be true. Those who read this Psalm have seen God's face in the promises he made to their ancestors. God's promises brought a little light to the darkness of their exile.

"Happy are the people who know the festal shout. Who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance."

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, plenty of reasons to be proud of our church family. We just finished a successful week of Bible school. Our average weekly worship attendance is up. We are struggling through complex issues together instead of cutting one another off when we disagree. Our choir is faithful, talented, and hard-working, so is our staff. Our church feeds the hungry through our Chicken Pot Pie sales, and we provide funds so that others outside our community can be fed by participating in and financially supporting the mission work of the Presbytery.

Even though we have much to celebrate here at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, even though we have reasons to be pleased with ourselves, none of those are why we show up for worship each week. None of those raise a Festal Shout. All the little markers of our growth and health bring on a grateful smile, but songs of praise are more deeply rooted.

For shout's of praise, we have God's promises, just as Ethan the Ezrahite and the Judeans returning from exile had. Those promises are real even when we cannot see them. We join the people who sing to God from a ruined temple in a city with half-built walls. We praise God with the Israelites who remember being forced from the homes and resettling in a foreign land. They can praise God because they know that God is active, and that God's promises are sure. So even while we struggle, we are filled with the richness of God's grace.

"They exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness."

Israel's monarchy had been crushed by the Babylonian empire, yet they still hoped for a king like David, who would restore Israel to its former glory. But God, in my experience, is not as concerned with the preservation of national interests. God is interested in creating relationships out of steadfast love and faithfulness with God's people. So the king who is a descendant of David is not a political leader who re-establishes the monarchy. He's the son of a carpenter who restores all of humanity to its former relationship with God. Because our exile was not at the hands of a conquering nation, it's of our own making as we bear the consequences of our limited humanity.

But even in our brokenness, we know the Festal Shout, Jesus is Lord. We know that God is our protector, and even though that does not guarantee wealth or power, or the other ways we measure success in this world, we know that we are cared for. God is faithful even when we don't see it. Our testimony is not based on our own abilities or talents, our talents and abilities testify to the strength of our God.

"For you are the glory of their strength; By your favor our horn is exalted."

It's been a long history for the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, for we have inherited the stories of the Israelites and Judeans. We have just finished a week of Bible School, where we shared the stories of our faith with one another, that our God is the one who works wonders. We know that God is faithful, even when we don't see it.  For we know the Festal Shout that Jesus Christ is the King of Heaven. We know that in life and in death we belong to God. Even when we think we are losing ourselves, God is still our defender and the one whom we serve.

"For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel."

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