Sunday, March 29, 2015

Long Awaited, Yet Unexpected (Holy Week I)

Long Awaited, Yet Unexpected from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Psalm 31:14-24
But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”
15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumfounded to Sheol.
18Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24be stong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, [Jesus] sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”

4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 

7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it.; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut int eh fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

A month and a half ago we followed Jesus out into the wilderness. We set out on forty days of Lenten Lament, reading the Psalms that plea with God to make things right again. We wrestled with grief, sin, injustice, and the harshness of being abandoned. Why would a father drive his beloved son out into the wilderness? Why would a loving God let us live in a world filled with lament?

Maybe the hardship of the wilderness, and learning to live with our discomfort, is an act of love. Perhaps the wilderness of our Lenten Lament prepares us to parade back into Jerusalem singing God’s praises. Perhaps there is holiness to be found as we return from wandering in temptation and take our place in God’s temple once again.

We followed Jesus into the wilderness this Lent. We sat in our lament for a whole season, taking on the struggles of this life as we look to the coming of God's kingdom. Now we grasp palm fronds in celebration that Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem has finally arrived! The long anticipated Messiah is at hand! "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

We begin in a town called Bethany, approaching Jerusalem. the disciples are full of energy, they can sense that something amazing is about to happen. Mark's gospel is full of the word "immediately." But here, outside the gates of Jerusalem, time slows down. Mark's "immediately" is set aside and it takes us four chapters to cover one week. It's as if the whole gospel were in a headlong rush to arrive at this point. We can see it begin to unfold at Bethphage, and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives.

The setting established, Jesus looks around and needs to make some last minute preparation for the days ahead. "He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” The gospel doesn't tell us if this is a pre-arranged code or an example of divine foreknowledge. It just tells us that the disciples are sent, and everything happens just as Jesus told them.

The colt is ambiguous. It could either be a horse or a donkey. If it’s a horse, it’s a regal symbol, the conquering king. The Roman Governor would have arrived on a horse, ready to oversee crowd control during the huge festival that celebrates Jewish liberation from worldly empires. He is the representative of Caesar, and brings the full authority of Rome with him. If Jesus arrives on a horse-colt, he is undermining that image. If, on the other hand, the colt is a donkey, it shows how Jesus of Nazareth will soon bear the burden of the world. A donkey is a beast of burden, with no overt nobility. It’s a work animal, not a regal one.

Perhaps the gospel writer is intentionally vague, our uncertainty about Mark's meaning connecting us with the disciples who don’t understand Jesus's teachings about himself. This long-anticipated king, who would restore Israel to the greatness it enjoyed under David, rides in on a colt, rather than a royal warhorse. “No reader should miss the implication: David’s great kingdom was built on bloodshed and military might. This new king, in contrast, enters humbly, on a colt, and will very soon shed no blood but his own.” The long-anticipated king is arriving, yet his manner will be quite unexpected.

With the colt acquired, Jesus heads down into the city, with his followers in front of and behind him. “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” Yet in spite of the way being prepared, the cheers are only coming from Jesus’s followers, those who went ahead and those who followed. Perhaps this is less a kingly triumphal entry than a rabbi and his obnoxious rabble.

Mark’s Jesus has spent the entire gospel telling folks to say nothing. Word has, predictably, not gotten around. Jesus enters the city in silence. He does not wave to adoring crowds, he does not bestow imperial favors. He rides in on a lowly colt. His silence rises above the noise of the disciples, and unsettles our expectant hearts. We have come together after following Jesus into the wilderness. We have gathered outside Jerusalem to join the procession as his parade brings and end to out lament.

Yet this long-anticipated king enters in an unexpected way to save us in an unexpected way. “Mark depicts an entry which is triumphal only for Jesus’s followers who have not yet understood his destiny as the Son of Man.” The disciples want the triumph of a conquering king, their expectation is that the occupation of Palestine would end. Jerusalem would be free, ruled by God’s anointed. Their expectation is that the temple will be rededicated and God’s people will once again be a nation!

Spoiler Alert: That’s not what happens. Jesus of Nazareth does not lead mighty armies, he does not lead the people in rebellion against Rome from the back of his colt. He does not carry the parade to the seat of Imperial Authority and declare himself God’s anointed King of Israel and Judah. Instead, Jesus enters the temple.

What do we expect of Jesus? Like the disciples, do we anticipate the arrival of Jesus to mean political upheaval until those who agree with us are back in power? Do we expect that the coming of the Messiah brings a return to the glory of former days? Do we anticipate that God’s anointed will bring us to new righteousness and justice?

Do we expect that the radical change will be centered in the church? After all, the parade is just the beginning. “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.” Perhaps the temple is the place for the grand gesture? Surely, with the High Priest present the temple will flourish again. The offering plates will the full and the temple will be seen as a truly holy place by all. We anticipate Jesus’s in breaking into our worship and spiritual practices to set our hearts aflame. We wait expectantly for his word, his action.

Then, unexpectedly, “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Seriously? After that big entrance you’re going to head back out of town to where you’re staying? Jesus looks around in the temple, then turns around and leaves. He goes back to Bethany each night until Passover begins! It’s like he’s teasing us out into the streets, standing apart from our expectations of him, standing in line with the will his Father has for him.

Jesus’s actions send a clear message; he’s not here to magically fix all our problems. He’s here to obey God. Jesus comes to Jerusalem to glorify God, not to make us feel better. No wonder our “Hosanna’s” turn so quickly into “Crucify him.” Our long anticipated, yet unexpected Savior is not focused on us, or the crowds, or the temple, or the Empire. Jesus of Nazareth remains focused on God.

Jesus is not who we want him to be. He is who he is, and no expectation on our part can substitute for his identity. “The figure of Jesus emerges more and more as one whose mission it is to enact and suffer his singular destiny, while the kingdom of God and the Son of Man who embodies it with its authority fade into the background.” We expected the triumphal entry to bring us joy, to carry us out of the lament that has left us weary after these forty days of lent, after a lifetime of wilderness. We yearn for the long-anticipated joy of God’s intervention in our world. But in our longing, we have forgotten: You’ve got to fill up the cross before you can empty the tomb.

Yet our longing persists! Why would a loving God bring us out of the wilderness only to leave Jerusalem and head back up to Bethany? Why would we have this huge to-do as the one we have called Messiah entered Jerusalem, only to have nothing change by the end of the day? Why would God bring us out of our lament only to leave us outside the Holy City filled with disappointment?

Oh God, you who have walked alongside us throughout our whole lives, throughout our whole history, can’t you see that the people are suffering under Roman rule? Can't you see that Palestine is occupied, and needs a liberator? Oh LORD, why do these injustices persist when you could right all things wrongs in a moment?

And yet, O God, you are holy. You have brought us from the shapeless void into your created order. You have molded us from a tribe into a people, from slaves into a nation, from exile into restoration. You have heard our lament, and we know the long-anticipated day of praise will come.

Yet in spite of our palm-waving, praise-filled parade, it is not this day. We are captives, O LORD, and yet you allow us to remain in bondage. We have followed you to the gates of Jerusalem, and beyond. We have followed you to the temple, because we remember the wonders you have done in our sight in the past.

We have seen the great things you have done, we have seen you act through Jesus of Nazareth, and through your church. For that reason we praise you, O God. We proceed before you and follow behind, holding a parade to celebrate that Truth of your intervention in this world.

Yet still we raise our lament, because our expectations do not match what we see around us. We see death, and captivity, and suffering, and injustice. Because you have not acted, we feel abandoned. Great God! Carry us through our lament, that we may know the joy of your promise.

Save us, O God, for the pomp of Palm Sunday still leaves us unfulfilled. Save us, O LORD, for you are our creator, redeemer, sustainer. You are our long-anticipated, yet unexpected, Savior and God. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

(Rhythm of) Forsaken and Rescued ( Psalm 22)

(Rhythm of) Forsaken and Rescued from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

John 12:20-33
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven. "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 30Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 22
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

3Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8"Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver - let him rescue the one in whom he delights!"

9Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
12Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13They open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water, and and my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
15My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
17I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
18They divide my clothing among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

19But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
21Save me from the mouth of the lion! 

From the horns of the wold oxen you have rescued me.
22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
28For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about The Lord,
31And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.In the rhythm of the church’s life, we are wandering in the wilderness of lent, and we are carrying our laments to the foot of the cross. It’s a rhythm that echoes the experience of God’s people throughout the centuries, moving from forsaken to rescued, exile to restoration, darkness to light. That rhythm carries us through our lives, and it carries us from lent into the parade of Palm Sunday, to the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, and the world-wrecking death of Good Friday, and into the joy of Easter.

We know the end of this story. We know the cry from the cross is answered with the call of the empty tomb. We know that "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?..." becomes "From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me." We know that the wilderness laments of our lenten journey lead us to us to the promised-land praise of our Easter destination. We also know that we can't skip to the end. Our feelings of forsakenness demand expression. The only one to whom we can express them is God, who has rescued us in the past. We cry out in faith that our redeemer hears us; and will rescue us again.

So we don't want to be still, though we know that I AM is God. We want to skip ahead to the end, the the feeling better. In lament we don't want want to be still because we are sitting in the midst of our trauma, unpacked and laid bare in the middle of the road, covered in embarrassment, our world is wrecked by tragedy.

It's obvious, in the rhythm of this psalm, that it wasn't written in one sitting. It loops around on itself, crying in agony, then asserting faith, then enduring mockery, then remembering God's providential claim on the psalmist's own life. Then midway, a herd of metaphors displaying every dangerous animal out to destroy and devour. The person who wrote this psalm, traditionally identified as David, seemingly came back to it again and again, adding a few lines at a time as the struggles of this world overwhelm his ability to cope.

Then, halfway through a verse, interrupted in the suddenness of a breath, the rhythm changes. The psalmist announces his rescue and reaches out in praise for the remaining third of the psalm. His praise is unequivocally pointed at God, his rescuer. His story has joined the throngs of others reaching back to before the foundation of the world of God's loving and mighty hand.

We are not in the throes of joyous praise yet. Our rhythm carries us towards it, but we can’t disrupt the rhythm by skipping ahead. To do so would leave our praises hollow, and our spirits just as empty.

As many of y'all know, before I was called here, I worked as a Chaplain at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. Chaplains are not the miracle workers that nurses are, neither are they medical experts like Doctors. We're a caring and guiding presence that helps people to stay whole, even as their lives and bodies are broken. I was privileged to walk alongside patients and families through some of the most difficult and holy moments in a human life. Some days, though, helping others to bear their burdens meant I took some of their struggle on myself.

We had just finished our morning staff meeting, and I volunteered to watch the pager until lunch. Around 10:00, it went off, calling me to visit with a family in the Neuro-ICU waiting area. I grabbed a bible and a notepad, straightened my tie, and walked upstairs to a room where families wait to see how severe their loved one's brain damage is.

The patient's brain damage was severe. Wife, teenaged son, younger daughter were in one corner of the waiting room. I introduced myself and sat with them, and asked them what happened.

Husband, father, son, hard worker, deacon in his congregation. He had gone outside during a storm after worship the previous Sunday to cover their lawnmower when he was struck by lightning. He wasn't going to get better. His brain had died, and the hospital was merely keeping his body functioning. The family was struggling with whether they should withdraw care, and let his body die too. Underneath that, though, the family was struggling with where God was in the midst of this world-wrecking tragedy. I had no words that would fix it for them. I had no technique to ease their pain.

In that waiting room, we didn't need words of praise or promise. We needed words of lament. The wife who became a widow, the mother who became a single parent, the daughter-in-law who became a reminder of a lost son needed the cry, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” The grieving widow needed the words of a lamenting psalmist who asked “ it was that God, who had always dealt mercifully with his people, should now, forgetting as it were his own nature, thus leave a miserable man without any...solace."

When we are walking through lament, joyous praises are projected on our imagination by Psalm 22. But if all we can reach out and touch is our own ensnaring mess, we are locked into lament, and cannot let go of our cries just to recite praises that feel empty. At some point in the rhythm of being God’s people, we will all need to cry out in desperation with the faith-shaped words of the psalmist.

I can't ignore the fact that our crucified Lord quotes this psalm just before he dies. In agony and abject abandonment, he reaches back into his tradition and finds words to express his pain, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."

Some folks argue that in calling out this first verse, Jesus is referencing the entire psalm, and that even though he has taken on our sins and abandonment for the moment, he knows that there is triumph and praise at the end.

The folks who make that claim are faithful, brilliant, and love Jesus. They've written books and articles and many of them have spent more time interpreting scripture than I have. But I disagree with them.

I think when Jesus quotes the opening lines of this psalm, he is in the middle of the cry of the abandoned one. If he was reaching for the assurance, he could have found his way to Psalm 22's more familiar neighbor, and murmured on the cross, "The LORD is my shepherd..."  I think Jesus's dying prayer was not meant to point us to praise, but to weep with abandon alongside every person who was afflicted. "Jesus is not questioning the existence of God or the power of God...he is questioning the silence of the one whom he calls 'My God.’" I think Jesus's use of this psalm gives it a special weight: in the depths of human suffering, in world-wrecking pain, in the corners of waiting rooms where the once tightly knit family feels traumatically cut off, Jesus is there with them, sharing their lament.

But from his perspective of praise, and from his memory of his own despair, the psalmist reaches out with hope, announcing that God did not disdain the affliction of the afflicted. The afflicted one is saved because God took notice of their struggle, of their pain, of their very real suffering. God takes notice when the psalmist cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." God takes notice when Christ cries with a loud voice on the cross, God takes notice when we cry out from the depths of our despair. "God must invariably be present in any of the hells that human beings can create on the earth.” Even in the rhythm which takes us out into the wilderness and brings us back, God is present. 

Verse 24 gives us a promise that even when we feel abandoned, God does not reject us, or even our pain. God hears our cries and promises that our forsaken laments will one day shift to rescued praise. But until they do, God can take on our lament, and does not hide his face from us. God does not abhor the rhythm that brings us to lament, but sends his son to join us in our affliction, and returns us home with Christ so that we may know that God rescues us, and "proclaim God's deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it."

Jesus uses this psalm of lament on the cross because he is in agony, and feels abandoned by his Father. So when, along our Lenten journey, we find our heads bowed in sorrow and our hearts are breaking, we're in good company. Jesus walks with us through the rhythm of our lament, all the way to the end. And even if all we can see is the shadow of the cross, we know the end is not death, it's resurrection.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Rise Up

Rise Up from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

John 2:13-22 (113)
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. he also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 12 (608)
To the leader: according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.
1Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
2They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts,
4those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own - who is our master?”
5”Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
6The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
7You, O LORD, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever.
8On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

For the past three weeks, we've been looking at the Psalms of Lament. We've seen the writers of scripture struggle with grief in Psalm 77, with their own sin in Psalm 25, and this week Psalm 12 looks out at a frightening world that is full of injustice.

On a Sunday where we have some new faces, it is perhaps a bit risky to grab hold of a text like this one. This is not the friendliest passage of scripture. I don’t know about y’all, but at first glance it doesn’t make me feel very good. I’d be a far sight happier with a friendly passage that gives me a pat on the back and tells me how wonderful and special I am.

But ignoring the messed up stuff going on around us doesn’t make it go away. There’s a time to read joy, there’s a time to read comfort, and there’s a time to read lament. We read this Psalm because it helps us to approach the darkness of the world. We read the darkness of the world through the lens of this Psalm because it gives us a promise that the darkness is not all there is, even when we’re caught up in the pain of living in a broken world. “Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind.”

I told a story not too long ago, at a meeting of our regional governing body, Presbytery. I told them about how once upon a time, when I was studying to be a minister, I would look at my classmates and rank them according to how "real" I thought their call was. I’d never say it to them, but I’d think it awfully hard. “Really, you think God called you to ministry? Wouldn’t you know it, the more folks had in common with me, the higher I would rank them?

I looked around at the state of the church, and of these future, and often current, leaders of the church, and I arrogantly put myself in a place to judge their worthiness. “Really, you think God called you to ministry?”

Then one day a thought occurred to me as clearly as if the Holy Spirit had whispered it in my ear. "You know some of them would say the same thing about you, right?" I had spent so much time in judgement over the flaws of my fellow travelers, I had totally overlooked my own flaws. Truth be told, I'm pretty confident I judged others to avoid looking at my own flaws. 

I was speaking with a double heart, with the flattering lips that the Psalmist describes in verse 2. I saw that the church was hurting, and I saw that the community at my seminary was strained, and instead of reaching out with compassion and healing, I sat in cynical and patronizing judgment over them. Preacher-type folks are just as stuck in the mess of the world, or at least this Preacher-type person is.

When verses three and four tell us “May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail; our lips are our own - who is our master?’” I can’t claim that I don’t fall under that category, I think all of us have fallen victim to our baser instincts from time to time, and have lied to ourselves and others.

In our tradition, there's an idea called the "Total Depravity of Man," which basically says that we are unable to save ourselves. Left to our own devices, we will chose selfishness and brokenness every time. We make messes we cannot clean up, and push others down so that we can feel as though we're higher than they are. Left to our own devices, humans are pretty terrible to one another. "Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly," includes us, when we’re left to our own devices.

But we are not left to our own devices. God intervenes in our lives and does good things through us. ”Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.” The lament over the sin-sick souls who people the world is real, but in the midst of the wickedness and vileness that cross our lives from time to time, this psalm reaches past the mess in front of it and grasps for God. God is acting, even though humans have a remarkable ability to make messes, God's power to redeem and protect us is far and away stronger than our ability to mess it up.

God protects the poor and the needy, God redeems his fallen people, God receives our lament, but does not abandon us to it. In the face of injustice, God acts. “”Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.” The LORD will rise up, and give the poor and the needy the protection, the safety, the justice for which they long.

In our tradition, there’s a concept called “Unconditional Election,” which means that God doesn’t save us because we deserve it, but because God wants us. God’s intervention is not an obligation, it’s a gesture of love that will not let us go. “‘I will now rise up,’ says the LORD,” not because we have earned it, but because we need it. God blazes a path through the wickedness and vileness in the world and establishes justice for all people. “You, O LORD, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever.” We’re not immune to the wickedness and vileness of the world, but we belong to the God who rescues us from it. Just because you notice that everything's not alright doesn't mean you're not part of the problem. When the LORD rises up on behalf of the poor and needy, maybe some of us need to sit down and get out of God's way. That way we can follow God rather than get run over. 

The route through which God is traveling, rising up on behalf of the poor and needy, doesn’t necessarily destroy the wicked, instead it destroys wickedness. That’s the power of the cross, towards which we are headed during this season of Lament. The cross doesn’t smite the wicked, it purifies them, it purifies us, according to the promises of the LORD. The writer of Psalm 12 looks out onto the world and laments that he sees “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind,” but he also sees that God is still out there, still headed toward the fulfillment of the promised justice.

God will rise up to protect the poor and needy, and to cleanse the wicked, and we are all of those. We are poor, we are needy, we are wicked, and we are claimed by God. Therefore let us rise up also, following in God’s path, though we may find reason to lament along the way to the cross, we will also find protection, and justice, and our redemption, on the other side of the cross.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Teaching Steadfast Love

Teaching Steadfast Love from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Mark 8:31-38
31Then he began to teach them that the son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”34He called the crowd with this disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes int he Glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 25
1Of David.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
3Do not let those who wait for you to be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 
5Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O LORD!
8Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
10All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
11For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
12Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.
13They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.
14The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.
15My eyes are ever toward the LORD for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
16Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
17Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
18Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.
19Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.
20O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
21May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
22Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

This Psalm is more confession than lament. At first glance, it seems to tilt more towards a statement of faith, or maybe a prayer of relief from enemies. David wrote a bunch of those. This Psalm, however doesn't quite fit those categories. 

Elements of psalms of lament are a little tough to find. I was expecting the kind of anguish we saw last week in Psalm 77, "My soul refuses to be comforted." Lament and grief, to me, are closely linked. Psalm 25 isn't dripping with dark emotions the way some of the more famous laments are. It's not filled with counter testimony. There's no challenge to the LORD, or a wrestling with deep troubles of the world. Except the personal ones.

At the core of Psalm 25, we find David's grieving his own sinfulness. "For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great." We hold David up as a hero of the faith, he's the anointed Shepherd boy, who defeated the Philistine Giant. He conquered neighboring tribes and expanded Israel's territory. In our search for a hero, we sometimes overlook his imperfections. 

Caught in adultery, David sent a Uriah the Hittite to his death so that David could marry Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. That's just the famous one though. We don't talk about it much, but what David allows to happen to his daughter Tamar is tragic and reprehensible. David was a good king and a mighty warrior, but he was as fallen a person as the rest of us. In Psalm 25, he laments his sinfulness.

Here in worship, we acknowledge every Sunday that we are sinners who need God's grace, echoing David's plea of "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O LORD!” Worship is one of the few places in our culture where it’s safe, even expected, to acknowledge our weaknesses, failures, mistakes. Imagine trying to make those claims in a job interview or on a college admissions application, or while you’re trying to get out of a traffic ticket, or while you’re ruling over the kingdom of Israel…

I wonder if perhaps David was stuck on his sinfulness. David returns again and again to his sinfulness, and he both praises and pleads with God. “[David] does pray for a change in circumstances, but also that God will act within, enabling patience and integrity.” Perhaps David is struggling to see God’s action, because all he can see is his failure as a king, as a father, as a servant of God. Perhaps the despair is behind this lament, instead of in the midst of it. 

Now we see the lament. David, despairing over his sin, takes up his lyre and writes a psalm, confessing both his sins and his faith through the poetry, trying to remind himself of the God who loves him even when he is overwhelmed and stuck in grief for his sin.

Getting stuck in that mindset happens to all of us, from time to time. I know I sometimes struggle with it. The “sins of my youth” to which David refers are not that long ago for me, and I think all of us sometimes look back on some of the dumb things we’ve done and overlook the grace we’ve been given.. I think we sometimes look at ourselves so long that all we see is the sinner in the mirror, rather than the image of our creator. I think David, in writing this psalm, has lost sight of what God is doing through him, and I think we sometimes find ourselves there too.

So David turns to the promise, I think to remind himself of the promise as much as to call for God’s intervention. Though we might sometimes get stuck in seeing only our own brokenness, David reminds us that we are not judged by our abilities, but by God’s steadfast love. “according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O LORD!”

The good news is that God loves us sinners, and wraps us up in the promise of love, and tells us the sacred stories that carry us through the times when all we see are darkness. Because those stories, of heroes who are also sinners, of slaves who become a nation, of crucifixion giving way to resurrection, remind us of the promise that God, who is involved in this world, loves us.

Even though sometimes we lose sight of the promise. In those moments we have to reach back to those shared stories, and express our lament in a sinful and unsettled world. Even so,“This, at least, we ought to regard as a fixed and settled point, that although the goodness of God may sometimes be hidden…it can never be extinguished.”

As David pleas with and praises God in Psalm 25, we see his view that “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way” God is teaching us what steadfast love looks like, so that we will not be slaves to our sin, but servants of Christ.

Doing those instructions is much more difficult that reading them in the Bible. David acknowledges the reality of our struggles, but also reminds us that God “will pluck my feet out of the net.”

For we will still get stuck in despair, we will still sin, we will still fail. That’s part of life, in this lenten wilderness. That’s part of life in this world that still has not fully realized its redemption. Sin is still our habit, and though its power to define us is already broken, the habit is not yet our of our system.

And so we return, with David, to Psalm 25, a confession of our sin and a praise to the God who rescues us. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”

Sometimes our loneliness is the hardest part, but Psalms like this one show us that we are not alone. Heroes of our faith, like David, have been stuck on their own sinfulness. Yet God holds us all together.

This is the good news, that God loves us sinners, and will not let us go.

Love holds us close, not our loneliness or sin. Our troubles and distress will fade, God’s love, on the other hand, is all-consuming, and judges us by God’s own steadfast love. We may be sinners, but we are redeemed anyway. We may get stuck, but God moves through us anyway. We may not be able to see what God is doing, but God is our refuge anyway.

“O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.” David’s plea follows his admission that it is only God’s forgiveness that can bring him through his struggles. “God’s uncanny forgiveness is what gives us a future in the midst of our jeopardy.” God is our refuge, and promised us a future that not even the cross could break.

Views may change, our own abilities may fail, but God’s integrity and uprightness do not, neither does God’s goodness and love shift away from us.

Even in our darkest moments, God loves us sinners, and teaches us how to respond. When we cannot respond, or see, or reach out, God is still holding us in a covenant of love and grace, and is bringing us out of the wilderness of sin and death into the promise of Easter.