Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wait. What?

Psalm 8 (CEB) 

8 Lord, our Lord, how majestic
    is your name throughout the earth!
    You made your glory higher than heaven!
2 From the mouths of nursing babies
    you have laid a strong foundation
    because of your foes,
    in order to stop vengeful enemies.
3 When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
4         what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?
5 You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
    crowning them with glory and grandeur.
6 You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
    putting everything under their feet—
7         all sheep and all cattle,
        the wild animals too,
8         the birds in the sky,
        the fish of the ocean,
        everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
9 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!


Every week I get to choose between four or more passages of scripture to preach from.  Some weeks it’s easy to choose one.  Some weeks I really hate all of them.  And some weeks they are all so good I am at a loss for which to choose.  This week I chose two.  The psalm which has already been read and sung.  And this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. 

Romans 5:1-5 Common English Bible (CEB)
5 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Psalm 8 speaks to my soul, always.  When I start reading it I usually sing along, using Michael W Smith’s tune.  How could I not preach on the majesty of God, and the pride of place God has given humans at the top of the food chain, the great responsibility God has given us for the care of the earth?  Then I read Romans, however, and I got to the part that says “we take pride in our problems” I immediately stopped and said “Say what?”   And I knew that this would preach.  But which to choose? 
Sometimes I just have to use both.   
And sometimes I have to wonder why there seems to be contradiction, not just between passages but even within them.

Notice in Psalm 8 that the Psalmist makes it clear that in the grand scheme of things humans are nothing, really, but God has placed them just below divinity, has given them the responsibility for all of the earth and all of the creatures of the earth.  Why put the least of your beings in charge?  Why elevate the most fallible, mistake prone, least predictable creatures of all to a position of near divinity? After all, you can pretty much predict what wolves and cats and elephants and mice are going to do in any given situation.  But you never know what a human is going to decide is a good idea.  So, what was God thinking?

And in Romans, Paul says that, as followers of Jesus, we take pride in our problems . . . Wait.  What?  He says we have peace, faith, grace, and hope.  And then we’re supposed to brag about our problems?  What?  Go around singing “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.  Nobody knows but Jesus.”  or “It takes a troubled man to sing a troubled song.”   Is that what this says?

And just to complicate matters further, today is celebrated throughout the Church as Trinity Sunday, one of the trickiest pieces of theology ever devised.  Christians believe in a triune God; God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Christians believe that somehow, Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.  All this week preachers everywhere have been struggling and wrestling with that concept and trying to work out how to present it to congregations in a form that can be understood.  While in seminary I served for a year as Student Chaplain at a retirement community in Indianapolis. One day a member of the housekeeping staff asked me to join her for her coffee break, as she had a very important question to ask me.  Preening myself a bit, I went to meet her, expecting to be asked about some life issue that was troubling her.  When she asked her question, however, I was totally not prepared.  She wanted me to explain the Holy Trinity to her - on her coffee break.  Theologians have been wrestling with and arguing over that question for roughly 1600 years, ever since the concept was accepted as Church Doctrine.  There was no way I was going to be able to explain it in 10 minutes - or in a 20 minute sermon, for that matter.    A suggestion was made on Facebook that, in order to avoid preaching heresy today, preachers simply give up on trying to explain the Trinity and show pictures of kittens instead.  Since every explanation of the Trinity proposed in the last 1,600 years is considered heresy by one group of Christians or another, that meme makes pretty good sense.  I won’t go so far as to show pictures of kittens, but I will note that some things are meant to be a mystery and the Trinity is one of those things.  

Back to the Psalm and Romans.   What I did in the first bit was look at the one line in each of these readings that seems not to fit, that seems to make a point contrary to what we think we know.  I lifted those lines out of context, highlighted them, and made them my focus.  It’s a natural tendency in humans. An instinct, really.  We notice the thing that doesn’t belong and investigate it.  In our daily life it helps us spot dangerous situations - a car driving the wrong way on the freeway, or an open door that you know you locked when you left.  That instinct also helps us find the things we need to find - the gas station sign sticking up in the distance, the chewing sound coming from under the bed when the puppy is out of sight.  

The practice of lifting words out of context can be a serious problem, as I’m sure all of you know.  There’s the story of the man who, faced with a difficult decision, decided to use the time honored tradition of following the direction he found in the Bible.  So he closed his eyes, opened the Bible to a random page, pointed to a line on that page and, opening his eyes, read the words he found there in Matthew, chapter 27, verse 5.  “and he went and hanged himself.”   He decided to try again.  This time his finger landed on Luke, chapter 10, verse 37.  “Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.”     There are other dangers to this practice, but I think we will save that conversation for another day.  

Lifting lines out of context can also be a good thing, however.  There is a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina - Divine Reading - that uses our natural instinct to notice things that don’t fit and use it to improve our contact with the Divine, to help deepen our understanding of Scripture, and also to help us better understand ourselves in our relationship with God.

As I read through the psalm that phrase, “What are humans that you pay attention to them?” spoke to me.  The psalmist says, When I compare humanity to the stars and planets and all that you have done, what are we, really?  What are humans that you pay attention to them?  Nothing much.  But you, the Lord our God, have placed us above all the other living creatures on the earth.   You are truly worthy of all our praise!   

And because that one line sticks out to me, I say to myself, “Who am I that you should care, that you should love me, that you should give me the great gift of being your servant, caring for your people here in this place?  I know what I have done and been.  I was told all my life that I was not smart enough, not good enough, not worthy of good things.  But you, God, you see me differently.  You see the good in me.  You see my gifts and talents, and you help me to see them, too.  You make me see the blessings that surround me”.   Taking notice of that one line that doesn’t seem to fit, pulling it out of context to examine in this way helps me see more clearly what the psalmist was saying about the relationship between God and humanity.  But even more importantly, it helps me see myself differently. It helps me to understand that even though I am just one person and a not terribly important person in the grand scheme of things, still, in God’s eyes, I am someone. I am worthy. I am loved.  

When I turn to Romans, I find much the same thing.  The line begins by saying, “We take pride in our problems,” but continues on to say, “we know that trouble produces endurance,  endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”   It really isn’t suggesting that we go out and brag out the troubles we are having in our lives, to make ourselves martyrs, as it were.  It even isn’t suggesting that these are tests sent by God we must endure, or attacks by the devil that we must repel, although I know quite a few people who read it in one of those three ways. But when I read that line on its own, “We take pride in our problems” and consider it as it relates to my own life, I realize that I can, in fact, take pride in knowing that today, with God’s help, I can face problems and walk through them. I no longer want to run away from my troubles, or drown them in a bottle of scotch, or find someone else to deal with them for me. although that was the way I lived for many years.  I know that today I can get through whatever trouble faces me, with God’s help.   And yes, it is true that facing troubles helps to develop character - it helps develop patience and tolerance, strength and endurance, hope for the future.  Dealing with life’s difficulties instead of running from them is like physical exercise.  If I give up as soon as it gets a little difficult there will be no results, no improvement in my health and well being, no hope that anything will ever change.   And knowing this, I give thanks and praise to the Lord, my God, with gratitude even for the troubles I experience, because they help me grow in faith and understanding, they help me become a better person, the person that God wants me to be.  

The practice of Lectio Divina is a simple way of reading scripture prayerfully that takes no real training, just a willingness to allow the Word of God to speak to us in a different way, a more personal way, than we might have experienced before.   I’d be happy to spend time with anyone who might want to learn more about this way of prayerful reading.  

Obviously, there is much more to be found in both of these passages than just the few lines I pulled out to consider this morning.  But the essence in both is this: In all things, in all situations, in good times and bad, we praise our God, who is worthy of all glory and honor and praise.  We give thanks to God for blessings and troubles. In our celebrations, we praise God with humility and gratitude for the gifts we have received.  In times of trials, we approach God with hope for the future, and with confidence that the strength we need to continue will be provided.  The Message Version says, “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles”    

So, let’s do that. No matter what is going on in our lives, let’s shout of God’s love from the mountaintops.  Let’s speak it to all we meet.  Going out from this place, let’s glorify and magnify the Lord our God, every where we go, in every situation, in everything we do.  In the name of his Son, the Risen Christ.  

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