Sunday, July 2, 2017
40"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
1A maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.
I will sing of the LORD's loyal love forever. I will proclaim your faithfulness with my own mouth from one generation to the next.
2That's why I say, "Your loyal love is rightly built--forever! You establish your faithfulness in heaven."
3You said, "I made a covenant with my chosen one; I promised my servant David:
4'I will establish your offspring forever; I will build up your throne from one generation to the next.'"Selah
15The people who know the celebratory shout are truly happy! They walk in the light of your presence, LORD!
16They rejoice in your name all day long and are uplifted by your righteousness
17Because you are the splendor of their strength. By your favor you make us strong
18Because our shield is the LORD's own; our king belongs to the holy one of Israel!
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
I generally take Thursday and Friday as my “off days,” and in ministry, “days off” always have really big quotation marks around them. The discipleship that I am called to model commands rest and renewal, but it does not stop.
This Thursday and Friday, I spent that rest and renewal time painting my living room and master bedroom. Y’all it looks good, but anyone who has painted rooms of that size knows that the “rest” part goes right out the window. Especially with an energetic, curious, eleven-and-a-half-month-old running around the house, excited to play with anything he can reach.
Thankfully, God provided helpers. On Friday, a church member joined us, an expert in painting. William was certainly much more eager to help than he was able to help. Leah was able to take an extra day off, and her parents also came over. Three generations of Boshells, a member of our church family, and I, all gathered in my house to paint together. We laid drop cloths together, we primed and painted together, we lamented out-of-date wallpaper together, and we wrangled the young ‘un together. Each generation proclaiming God's love to every other.
"I will sing of the LORD's loyal love forever. I will proclaim your faithfulness with my own mouth from one generation to the next."
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, proclaiming God’s faithfulness with our own mouth from one generation to the next. We bring our own interpretations 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 loyal love.
"That's why I say, ‘Your loyal love is rightly built--forever! You establish your faithfulness in heaven.’"
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 cultural memory. The heartbreak in the stories written during that time is simply inaccessible to most of us. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote this psalm as God’s people were finally allowed to return home from their heart-wrenching exile.
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, invokes the dynastic imagery of Israel’s “golden age.” It remembers God's covenant with king David in order to reestablish 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.” This Psalm challenges us to watch God’s creation through covenant-colored glasses.
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 made a covenant with my chosen one; I promised my servant David:"
And yet in spite of the missing king from David's line, the tone of this psalm is still joyful. The promise of God is still there, taking new form as the covenant community grows. The vanity of a powerful empire evaporates, but our ability to praise our God condenses. Because we live in a quickly changing world and there's certainly a lot for us to fear. We have the truth of the gospel to support us. We have the testimony of innumerable generation of our spiritual ancestors lifts us up. The Davidic Kingship is mist, but we find our praise in the waters of baptism.
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 offspring forever; I will build up your throne from one generation to the next.'"Selah"
We didn’t come to the United States by being carried off into exile. We’re not under threat of persecution. Those are parts of the ancient Israelite experience that are different than ours.
But the landscape has changed around us.
Our ministry in centered around Lowell, that patriotic city. When our parent congregations were founded, the plan was that Lowell, NC would be a textile hub like Lowell, Massachusetts. All over Gaston county, mill villages popped up, and the wealthy mill owners became benefactors of the congregations in their towns. “Raise what you can, I’ll take care of the rest,” became the refrain of their generosity.
Now that industry is no longer dominant. Those wealthy benefactors are less present than they used to be. And yet our communities are growing as we shift from mill villages to bedroom communities for large cities on the horizon. The landscape has changed, and the way we adapt to that change will shape our ministry for generations to come.
Israel, likewise, was facing a new landscape. They had returned home, so the mountains and rivers were familiar, but the social structures would never be the same. 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. They had to learn how to be a people of God when temple worship was no longer even possible. They had to learn how to affirm that God was their sovereign when their ruler was an occupying foreign power. 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 in a landscape that they recognized, but was irreversibly changed.
But none of those problems were enough to stifle Ethan the Ezrahite's Celebratory 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 first, it celebrates God's greatness. This Psalm reminds them and us of what God promises. Those promises are trustworthy, even if we can’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.
"The people who know the celebratory shout are truly happy! They walk in the light of your presence, LORD!"
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, plenty of reasons to be proud of our church family. 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. 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 Celebratory 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 rejoice in your name all day long and are uplifted by 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 loyal 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.
Even in our brokenness, we know the Celebratory 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.
"Because you are the splendor of their strength. By your favor you make us strong"
It's been a long history for the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, for we have inherited the stories of the Israelites and Judeans. 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. "Because our shield is the LORD's own; our king belongs to the holy one of Israel!"