Sunday, June 16, 2024
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God: did you forget to be merciful?
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, June 16, 2024
Reading: Psalm 77

Somewhere along the way you can get the impression that if you are going to talk to God, you had better be polite. Say please and thank you. Don’t raise your voice. Sit up straight. Be good girls and boys, or God won’t answer. In other words, treat God like Santa Claus.

I don’t know where we get this impression, but I do know one place it does not come from: the Bible.

The psalms of David are Israel’s hymnal. They are 150 poems that celebrate. They complain. They bless. They curse. One thing they never are, is nice. If the psalms wrote out a Christmas list, they’d get back a lump of coal. If we’re going to speak to God the way the psalms do, we could be a little rude. Or a lot.

We’re in a series at our church called Rude Praise in which we’re paying attention to the psalms that misbehave. Something like one-third of the psalms are laments. If we pray to God the way the Bible prays to God, then one-third of our prayers will also be complaints. Hey, God, you’re doing a bad job of being God. Can I speak to the manager? Oh, there is no other manager, just you? Well, do better.

Saint Teresa of Avila in 16th century Spain was thrown from her carriage, landed in a ditch in the mud. She’d been praying when it happened. She shouted, “God if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” That’s the prayer of someone reading the Bible well.

Take our psalm for today. Look at the verbs: I cry aloud. I moan. My spirit faints. I cannot speak. God used to be good. But no more. This is not polite language. This is more like an athlete venting his spleen to the referee. Are you blind? Are you serious? But the psalmist is just getting warmed up.

Will the Lord spurn forever
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?

This is how you pray when you feel betrayed. The psalm takes some of the most cherished descriptions of God: that God is good, that God loves, that God keeps promises. And puts them all under suspicion. Really? Are you sure? Are you paying attention? Talk this way to your spouse and you’ll find yourself single. Talk this way to your father and find yourself somewhere else to go for Christmas. Happy fathers’ day, by the way.

What’s going on here? And what can we learn from it?

We call them the Psalms of David but most of them were only written down centuries later. David’s was a time of grandeur: defeating enemies, national pride, and prosperity. But by the time the psalms were written, those days were long gone. In fact, there was no king in Israel anymore. There was no Israel anymore—it was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Judah, the two southern tribes, were conquered in 586 BC by the Babylonians. God’s people were down to a rump of their old selves, just two tribes of the original twelve, and those carted off to exile far from home, no temple, no promised land, no king. So, the psalmist demands an explanation. You promised a king forever. A promised land forever. Freedom from slavery forever. But here we are no king no land no freedom—does that mean no God?

Can you see why the psalmist is being impolite?

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the main character Tevye complains about how God’s chosen people are always mistreated. ‘If this is how you treat your chosen, God, couldn’t you choose someone else? We’ve had enough.’ More seriously now, think of how our Jewish elder siblings prayed during the holocaust. ‘You call us your child, your bride, but our enemies burn us down to the nub.’ David Weiss Halivni was a rabbi who survived the holocaust. He opens his memoir with this story.

When the sound of the closing of the door, after the first child was shoved into the crematorium, reached heaven, Michael, the most beneficent of angels, could not contain himself and angrily approached God. Michael asked, “Do You now pour out Your wrath upon children?” ... God, piqued by Michael’s insolence, shouted back at him, “I am the Lord of the Universe. If you are displeased with the way I conduct the world, I will return it to void and null.” ... Michael went back to his place, ashen and dejected, but could not resist looking back sheepishly at God and saw a huge tear rolling down His face, destined for the legendary cup which collects tears, and which, when full, will bring the redemption of the world.

That’s a searing prayer. Way past impolite into another realm altogether.

Halfway through the psalm, there is a pivot. Maybe the cup of tears is full. And the psalmist has made a decision and is going another way.

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work
and muse on your mighty deeds.

Okay, God, you’re not keeping up your end of the bargain. You’re failing at being God. But I’m not going to fail as a disciple. I’m going to call to mind your deeds of old. Meditate on your work. I’m going to do my part, God. Maybe then you’ll remember to do yours. The psalmist is like the spouse who determines to stick in there even when the marriage partner doesn’t deserve it.

I used to tell this story to my preaching students in Vancouver: it’s of a sermon in a black church. Not a very good one. The preacher hadn’t taken the time to prepare, and knew the sermon was terrible. But one older member wasn’t having it. Amen! Preach! Praise the Lord! He limped to a merciful conclusion, and asked this elder sister on her way out, why were you carrying on like that? You and I both know that sermon wasn’t very good. Oh honey, she said. Just because you weren’t doing your job doesn’t mean I’m not going to do mine. That’s the psalmist to God: oh God, just because you’re not doing your job, doesn’t mean I’m not going to do mine.

It’s like the poet is reminding God how to be God. Maybe there’s some muscle memory in there for you, God. Maybe if I start the song, your confused brain will join in. Maybe if I lead the dance your feet will remember the steps and you’ll waltz along with me. Remember:

14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.    

Remember that God? That was cool. But you don’t do that sort of thing anymore now, do you? Could you again? I mean, if I praise you enough, maybe you’ll remember to be faithful? Just one more time, for old times’ sake?

This is the perfect word if you’re not sure where God is in your life. If you’re stuck. If God’s not answering your prayers. Remember God’s merciful deeds of old. Recount God’s works in the past. Hey, remember God? You used to help in times like this. You did this time, this time, this time. Could you do that again? Come on, put your hand here, your other hand here, now let’s move to the music, shall we? You’ll remember, won’t you God?

Fathers’ day is a good time to remember God’s deeds of old. Sigmund Freud said the most important day in a man’s life is the day his father dies. I don’t know what Freud meant. I would probably disapprove if I did. But I do know when people lose their fathers and I quote that, they nod. Whether theirs were good fathers or not, loving fathers or not, they were at least fathers. It was possible to appeal to them for help or complain if they didn’t. But with no father, it’s like we’re orphaned, however old we are. All the responsibility falls on us. There’s no one else around to be the grownup.

My dad is still living, but I think of things he did long ago. He taught me basketball. Whatever sense of humour I have. How to triage a crisis. But fatherhood is way more than biology. I’ve had so many amazing mentors. This one taught me how to listen. The other how to say I’m sorry. If your fathers or mentors are still living, call them up today and say thanks. And if not, if they live in God’s presence and not in ours, give God thanks for them. And if you lament not having that, if there’s a hole in your life where a good dad should have been, I’m so sorry. Ask God to be that Father for you, that Mother for you. And maybe even dare to ask God, hey, why didn’t you give me that? Would’ve been nice.

The poem continues:

16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters.

She’s remembering the Exodus. God: you used to make the weather fight against the Egyptians. Thunder and lightning and earthquakes. When we had no army, God, you were our army. Pharaoh and his slavers had no chance. Creation belongs to you God, and you made it fight against our enemies. They don’t teach this way of warfare in our military academies today I don’t think.

At Passover Seders, where Jews recount the Exodus, they enter the story. At a friend’s table, they go around and say when they’ve experienced Egypt that year. The word Egypt is synonymous with trouble, distress. Mitzrayim is how you say it in Hebrew, say that with me: mitzrayim, good, you know about trouble, don’t you? What’s been your mitzrayim this year? One nephew said he’d gotten divorced that year. A family cut in half. Mitzrayim. A granddaughter said she’d gone through puberty that year. Yep, that’s not easy, mitzrayim. Do you see what they’re doing? They’re remembering that God has led people out of Egypt before. And will do it again. We have been in trouble before and God, you delivered. You know what to do with Mitzrayim, don’t you God?

I was in the Netherlands last week for a conference. I noticed the city flag in Amsterdam. It looks like some sort of graphic on a video game show when the player fails. The three X’s are actually for three disasters. One for the plague in the Middle Ages. Two for a great fire that burned Amsterdam. And three for the invasion of Napoleon. Now, that’s a proper city symbol. We been burnt before. Drowned before. But we’re still here. If you ask someone about their tattoos, they’re often reminders of some tragedy. This is for someone I lost. Some disaster I overcame. Like X’s on the flag. I’ve found the worst moments in my life are also the seedbeds for the best. When I was 15 years old, I was cut from my school’s basketball team. Basketball was my whole identity. I cried for days. But the first Christian group I ever led met at the same time as basketball practice. I could never have attended if I were playing. The thing that I thought ended my life had sort of began it.

When Mount St. Helen’s erupted in Oregon in 1980, an entire region was devastated. Scientists said it would be ages before anything could grow there again. They were wrong. That ecological landscape is perfect for preserving seeds. So, when it burned those seeds bloomed. A preacher friend of mine in Holland pointed out, she got it from Debra Reinstra at Calvin College. Scientists call such places refugia—places of refuge: they protect seeds and release them only in catastrophe. The cross is bad. But there is no resurrection without it.

Now don’t let God off the hook for this. Here’s what I’m not saying. Frederich Nietzsche famously said, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” There’s a reason Nietzsche is our greatest atheist. Christian faith does not say grit your teeth, tough it out, and come out better for it. Here’s what the Bible is praying: God, are you listening? Because if you are, you’re doing a bad job at being God. Here, let me remind you. This is how it works. I praise you for your deeds of old. And you do a new thing now. Like those old deeds, remember? Like Exodus. Like resurrection. And do it, like, immediately, okay? We’re waiting God. It’s time for you to act. Amen.