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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Who Is the Least?


Psalm 54.
I.
            Almost the entire Bible is written from the perspective of poor and oppressed people, and Psalm 54 is no exception.  So when a Psalm like this one talks about “enemies,” we have to understand that this likely refers to people who have power who are using it to harm someone who has less or even no power, who then writes a poem that gets included in the Psalter. 
            Enemies are not someone the Psalmist is attacking; they are those who are attacking the Psalmist.  The Bible’s point-of-view is nearly always that of the recipient of violence and the object of injustice.  Rarely if ever does the text see things from the perspective of one who has wealth and power.  Even when the speaker is the King, he is the King of a small and weak nation whose enemies are brutal empires.  The stipulated situation of the Psalm is that David wrote it when he was hiding in the wilderness while being pursued by King Saul, who considered him a treasonous bandit.
            This is a hymn for people who have no other recourse than God for their grievances.  The normal channels of justice have proven to be inadequate, perhaps even corrupt.  If the system in Israel was anything like that in most countries, it was stacked against poor people.  Judges and lawyers and politicians and the wealthy are all friends who play golf together at the same country club.  They have never been very likely to render a fair judgment in favor of someone far below their social circle, unless there was something in it for them.  This is still largely the case, by the way. 
            The Psalm describes the enemies as “insolent,” or proud. Some translations refer to strangers or foreigners (because of a textual discrepancy).  And they are “ruthless.”  They do not pay attention to God or God’s law.  God’s law, of course, is mostly about lifting up and giving justice to the lowly.
            And we, as Christians, should not forget that the Psalms were prayed by Jesus, and refer to Jesus.  In many cases we hear them as prayers of Jesus.  When a person is lamenting about enemies plotting and doing harm, we hear Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus identifies with us in our affliction.
            The fact that we have enemies, strong people trying to exploit or hurt us, and that we are angry about this, is not always something we are comfortable hearing from the Bible.  But this is part of our existence.  And the lower we stand on the social scale, the more a part of our existence it is.
            When you are hounded by creditors, or when they come to foreclose on your house, when you are sent to prison for 3 years and a well-connected person who commits a much more serious crime only gets probation, when you are used as a stepping stone for the boss’s dimwitted offspring who is being groomed for power, when a gang is extorting money from you, when they place arbitrary obstacles to your exercising your right to vote… all these and more are examples of the insolent and ruthless acting against God’s law to afflict the powerless.

II.
            It’s frustrating.  It makes you angry.  It makes you want to fight back with violence.  Maybe you harbor very satisfying retributive fantasies about this.  Maybe you even try to figure out ways to get back at the person.
            But God does not want you to do this.  God does not want us contributing to the cycle of violence that never ends.  Ask the people of the Middle East how well revenge is working for them.  “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”  In other words, vengeance is not your job.  Humans are too short-sighted, emotional, and supposedly smart to exercise vengeance in any fair way.  We always overdo it, or we show favoritism or bigotry. 
            When we exercise violence in revenge then we become the perpetrator, someone else’s enemy, just another insolent, ruthless, Godless abuser of power.  We allow someone else to sing this Psalm against us.  We separate ourselves from God’s Word, we reject the way of Jesus, which is always the way of non-violence.  We become as bad as the one who originally oppressed us, and we draw down upon ourselves the same consequences from God. 
            We have to identify with the sentiments and the emotion of the Psalm in which we put ourselves in God’s hands.  And we have to be careful that we are not recognizing ourselves in Scripture’s villains.  If the words that come out of your mouth and the actions of your hands look and sound more like those of Pharaoh, or Herod, or Pilate, or any of these “enemies,” then we are in trouble.  We will have become the enemies of God, the murderers of the Messiah.
            The Psalm says, “Surely, God is my helper; the Lord the upholder of my life.  He will repay my enemies for their evil.  In your faithfulness, put an end to them.”  It is God, not you, who repays.  It is God, not you, who administers the consequences of sinful behavior.  It is God, not you, who exacts punishment.  With God evil is not an unending cycle of viciousness.  God puts an end to it.  And God is trustworthy.
            And God does put an end to injustice and violence… just not always according to our timetable, and not always in a way that satisfies our lust for blood.  Much of the Bible is about God’s intervention in human history to put an end to the rule and oppression of the insolent and ruthless.  We continue to see it throughout subsequent history as well.   
            Injustice invites catastrophe like a lightning rod.  The disaster may be ecological or military or economic, but it always comes.  Systems based on injustice are not sustainable.  The insolent, the proud, the ruthless… they all fall.  As we read last week in Psalm 146: “When their breath departs they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

III.
            The sign of gratitude and faithfulness is the making of the prescribed freewill offering to God.  This is described in a couple of places in the book of Leviticus.  In addition to the offering of an animal, it also involved different kinds of bread.  It was not mandatory or regularly scheduled.  Rather, the freewill offering was an extra ceremony coming from a person’s heart.  It was not the fulfillment of a religious obligation.
            For us, it would almost be like saying: “When someone wrongs you, do not take vengeance.  Instead, leave it up to God, and take your family out to dinner to celebrate God’s faithfulness.”  Because that is what most sacrifices were: communal meals in which thanksgiving was ritually offered to God.
            In other words, don’t focus on your grievance.  Don’t dwell on the wrong that has been done to you.  Do not cherish your hurt and pain, your victimhood, and your loss.  Instead, turn your attention to the blessings you do have, and thank God for them.  Gather in gratitude and trust, celebrate life!  Share in the bounty of God!  Through your pain and grief, sing to God anyway.
            And our gratitude is not just for what we have received.  It is for God’s deliverance even in this situation of loss and pain.  We give thanks to God for the deliverance that we have not yet experienced, but know will come because we know that God is faithful.  Even in defeat – especially in defeat – we give thanks to God for victory.  Even when our enemies think they have won, and smirk about their winnings, even then we gather before God to look in triumph over them.  Because we know what their end will be.
            It reminds me of that wonderful scene near the end of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”  Remember how the Grinch, out of malice and envy, robs the whos of all their gifts and decorations?  And when they wake up the Grinch expects them to react in sadness?  Well, the whos do not react in sadness.  Neither do they turn to anger, resentment, revenge, or any of the emotions we might expect.  They gather in a circle and sing a song of thanksgiving anyway.  Their joy is not dependent on their stuff.  It is something they have that cannot be taken away by the insolent and ruthless. 
            We would say that their joy comes from God and is manifest in their communion with each other.  This is what the Psalm is also saying.  Even in your season of loss and pain, gather together, and freely celebrate the deliverance God has already placed in your heart.  This is your triumph over your enemies.  They can take your stuff; but they can’t take your joy.

IV.
            Jesus also continually asks us to put ourselves last and to bear the offenses of others rather than imagine we have to be like the insolent and ruthless and make ourselves the greatest by the world’s measurements.  He doesn’t just ask this of us, he does it himself.  He goes before us on the path of humility and loserdom.  He allows people to kill him, rather than stand his ground and become part of the problem.
            The disciples find it hard to figure this out.  Their minds are totally fogged by the standards and definitions of the world.  So much so that, right after he reminds them that on the agenda for their time in Jerusalem is his death (and resurrection), they start fantasizing about who is the greatest.
            So he has to sit them down and say: “Look, it’s not about greatness.  Being my disciple is not a race to the top.  It is a race to the bottom, in a sense, because it is about who can lose power, lose authority, lose wealth, lose popularity and all the other things society values.  Who can give these away?  You only truly have these qualities when you give them away?  See?  I wish you were arguing with yourselves about who is the least!”
            Somehow there is conveniently a child present.  Jesus calls her over, takes her in his arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  The way to God is not through greatness, which is always achieved by means of insolence and ruthlessness, you only become great by the world’s standards by rejecting God’s law.  God’s law says no one is going to be greater than anyone else; you are all one community.
            Jesus says a child-care provider, a babysitter, a nursemaid, a nanny… these are far more significant jobs in God’s eyes than, say, hedge-fund manager, CEO, or President of the United States.  The orderly who cleans the bed-pans is greater in God’s eyes than the Hospital Administrator.  The deacon working in the food bank is more admirable to God than the Senior Pastor, or Presbytery Executive, or (sorry, Neal) Moderator of the General Assembly.

V.
            Jesus comes into the world divesting himself of his divine attributes, to live among us unworthy slugs, and be our servant, for God’s sake.  In so doing he doesn’t get a job as spiritual advisor to the top slug.  He hangs around the sick and poor, the slugs of the slugs.  The ones whom the privileged slugs call lazy parasites.  “This is where my Father is most present,” he says.  “This is where you will find God.”
            So when you find yourself oppressed and victimized by the Man, that’s when you are blessed!  That’s when you should go make a special thank offering in the Temple!  Because that’s when you’re closest to Jesus!
            As for the persecutors: God will take care of them.  They are not your problem.  The bigger and higher they make themselves, the harder and farther they fall.  And they do fall.  And when they do, we are blessed to minister to them as to any who suffer.
            The thank offerings and offerings of well-being in Leviticus are not ceremonies we still celebrate.  Jesus himself fulfills them in his own blood, his own life poured out in sanctification of the whole world.  Now we celebrate this deliverance every time we gather to share in his Body and Blood.  When we come to the Table and commune together in these holy elements, we do say thank you to God.
            Like the whos in that remarkable story, it is not about what we’ve gained or lost.  It is about our joy that we are here at all, that we can gather together, that we are sent into the world with a message of peace, and that we have a love from God that nothing can take away from us.
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