Sunday, June 23, 2024
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio

“You Can’t Out-Curse the Bible”
By Rev. Dr.  Jason Byassee
Sunday, June 23, 2024
Reading: Psalm 109:6-19 & 26-31


When I pastored in North Carolina I had a lot of former Baptists. The South is where there are more Baptists than people, so if someone new joined us they likely had been Baptists at some point. I never liked taking members from some other church, just moving sheep around. It’s one reason I moved to Canada: there are no Baptists left to steal here. Anyway, they brought a phrase with them from Baptist-land. They would say “you can’t out-give God.” However, much money you give to the church, God will give you more back. In one way I agree: generosity begets generosity. I ran the phrase by a financial planner, and he said they’re probably right. If you give more to the church, you’ll have to take better care of the rest, and you’ll grow it. In another way I’d disagree. To say “You can’t out-give God” sounds like however much you give, God will give you more back. That’s no sacrifice. It’s an investment strategy. So, I’m still wrestling with this phrase, but I think there’s insight here: you can’t out-give God.

This morning’s sermon is called “You can’t out curse the Bible,” we might as well call it “You can’t out curse God.” When most people think of cursing and the church, they think we’re against it. Naughty words from the bathroom or the bedroom. Who cares? That’s not the sort of curse we’re talking about. Here’s the sort of curse we’re against. I was skiing in BC and there was a skier even less adept than me, new to the sport, she looked Asian. She got in someone’s way, and the someone assumed the Asian person didn’t speak English. She shouted: I hope you fall down, hit your head, and die. That’s a curse. Some cultures know better than to say such things out loud. Words have power. They can affect what they say. And not necessarily for their intended target—they can boomerang back around and land on the curser. Jesus commands us not to speak hateful things or even to hate another person at all. Good luck with that. Even when someone curses, he commands, you bless them in return.

Well, Psalm 109 is a curse to end all curses. It would make a sailor blush, and a standup comedian cover their ears. Marilyn Manson is a sort of shock artist, went on stage at the MTV music awards and did some sort of satanic homage. I knew a producer at MTV who said that wasn’t on the agenda and they were horrified backstage. Chris Rock was emcee, and like much of the black community had spent some time in church. He went to the mic and told the audience of millions Get yourself to church y’all. It was funny and it defused the tension. And there was truth in it. A blaspheme had been committed. Go get clean. MTV’s producers thanked him. We had no idea what to say. Chris Rock and other comedians like Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Colbert met Pope Francis last week in the Vatican to talk about humour, isn’t that great?

Psalm 109 is a curse against a person—a man in this case. Let him be accused and found guilty. Let his days be short. His children orphans, his wife a widow, his family beggars, his property stolen, his parents unforgiven. Let him be an object of horror and blot out mercy not just for him but for the generation that birthed him and the one that follows him. Now that is a proper curse. Not just that the skier would fall down and die, but that her children would, her parents would. And it’s in the Bible. This is all the more confusing since Jesus commands us not to curse. His words:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Other parts of the New Testament say the same. Irascible old St. Paul agrees: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” St. Peter piles on “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” Do you see the pattern? God is not concerned with what you say when you miss a shot on the golf course. God is concerned with what you do when someone wrongs you. When someone properly curses you. When Christ is on his cross, he absorbs humanity’s curses and doles out grace undeserved. We’re far past the bedroom or the bathroom here.

When I was a kid on my street there was a word salad of cuss words that the other kids on my block taught. I still remember it. But one kid said never to say it. “That means ‘God go to hell’.” It’s the worst thing you can say. He understood words have power. In the South we’ll say to someone “well bless your heart.” That’s a way of suffocating someone with sugar.

More seriously now, Psalm 109 has been used in US political discourse. For years some would “joke” that it was a prayer they could actually pray for President Obama. That his parents be cursed—you know, his African ancestry. Let his children be cursed. This is the worst of religion—using faith to gain power and cloak racism in respectability. It’s idolatry, and it’s disgusting, and it’s getting worse. The real fruit is it’ll keep turning people away from genuine faith. One of you told me this week to stop using the word “evangelical.” It just means political opportunists, election deniers, those who delegitimize courts and denigrate immigrants. I still love the word. Evangelical means gospel people, good news people. And I want our word back. But maybe you’re right. I’ve seen it misused with this psalm. Now, opprobrium is not new in politics. And if you look at how folks spoke of their rivals in the 1800s it would be worse. It’s just we thought our age had improved. That we’d moved past racist attacks and denigrating whole swaths of people. Clearly, we have not. We human beings are as rotten as ever. Who will save us from ourselves?

A teacher of mine, not a Christian, a lit professor, saw the whole gospel once... in the graffiti on a bathroom stall. It used some genuine curses I won’t repeat here. It cursed black people—different verb, different noun. It cursed white people in return. There you see our culture: 500 years of Europeans abusing minorities, a few decades of minorities standing up for themselves. Over both slurs, a third person had written “Jesus saves.” That’s who Jesus saves. The ugliest of us. Who curse the worst in the most unclean ways and deserve saving the least. Jesus doesn’t save the deserving, no, they don’t need it. Jesus saves the undeserving. Now that’s a dangerous truth.

We’re in a series this summer at church called Rude Praise, about psalms that misbehave. Psalm 109 might be one of the most misbehaving. I’m almost hesitant to tell you it’s in the Bible. But there’s a lot of scripture that curses. And as your preacher I owe you an explanation. Because even if I don’t tell you such passages are in the Bible, you’ll find them. Or politicians will use them, and you won’t know how to respond. So, Psalm 109. What’s this curse of all curses doing in our Bible?

I taught a class of Jews and Christians with a rabbi colleague in Vancouver. We visited shul together and church together. And wouldn’t you know it, in church there was a passage about “the Jews” plotting against Jesus. I’m sitting there with Jewish friends including a holocaust survivor. She was scared. She leaned over to me, “Jason, there are little kids in here.” Afterwards we had a discussion and she said, you guys can’t read passages like that anymore, it’s dangerous. And a fellow Jewish student said, “well hold on a minute. In our Bible we also have curses. And we also have no way to take passages out. Every passage has been used for harm.” My rabbi colleague said ‘you know right after the Exodus, when God destroys slavery, there are laws about how to treat slaves. I would never want a guest to think we Jews support slavery, but it’s there.’ I told her later wow, Rabbi, you really saved my bacon, thank you. She said, ‘don’t ever say that to a Jewish person again, okay?’

Well, why is Psalm 109 cursing this poor man? What did he ever do?

16 He did not remember to show kindness
but pursued the poor and needy
17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him.

He mistreated the poor and he cursed others. In a way, this is a prayer for karma. Let what goes around, come around. If someone is bad to the poor and curses others let that boomerang back around on them. If there’s a central claim about God in the Bible, it’s this: God loves the poor. Loves them. If you ever, like me, find yourself tempted to curse the poor, man, ‘get a job. Get your act together. I’m not giving to you—you’ll just drink the money.’ Think again. Words have power. And curses can boomerang. Instead, say a word of blessing.

A friend of mine likes to wander around cemeteries. I do too. They’re fascinating. We both have shrinks working overtime. He found a rough stone once from a previous century that said this: “She had her faults, but she was good to the poor.” Who felt the need to put the first part?! “She had her faults.” But the second part: “she was good to the poor,” that’s worth being buried under, isn’t it?

But surely being bad to the poor is not enough to be cursed for generations—someone’s children, someone’s parents. Something more is going on here. The psalmist is in real trouble.

26 Help me, O Lord my God!
Let my assailants be put to shame,
29 May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.

This is mortal danger. Trapped with no way out. God, what they mean for me, do that to them and more. You’ve heard of the Old Testament command: “an eye for an eye.” Sounds harsh. Gandhi famously said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But the command is actually there to limit violence. If someone does harm to you, you can only do the same amount of harm back, no more. If someone takes your eye you can’t take both of theirs. It’s actually the beginning of a system of laws instead of mob justice. The one praying is in trouble and doesn’t deserve it—let that same trouble be doled out to those who make it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazis, says there are some psalms only Jesus can pray. Psalms that say, “I am entirely innocent.” That’s true of Jesus Christ alone, none of the rest of us. Psalms that say, “Everyone is against me.” We may feel that way sometimes. But Jesus Christ is the true man of sorrows, the one all humanity lines up against and curses.

If I had a giant red button with which to blow up the world, I’d use it several times a day. I don’t know how presidents do it with that nuclear football following them at all times. But of course, they’d blow themselves up too if they used it, and everyone they love. The only one righteous enough to condemn all others is Jesus Christ. And what does he do? Saves others. We who condemned him, and deserve only condemnation.

What if Jesus is the cursed man in this psalm? He’s the one we rise up against in accusation. There is an accuser on his right—the other crucified man. He is tried and found guilty. His days are few. He has no wife or children, no human father either, in fact. He has no property. Crucifixion is how Romans erased human beings. Tens of thousands of slaves they crucified, and we know the name of one. Jesus of Nazareth. Purported king of the Jews. The rest are accursed from history and blotted out from the record. We human beings curse God in the flesh and crucify Jesus. We say God go to hell. And you know what? He does. And saves everybody in the place. There he is lifting out Adam and Eve. We have no curse he can’t turn around for blessing.

All our curses fall on the man on the cross. And what does he give us back? Mercy. He forgives his executioners, his betraying friends, his weak fellow human beings. He comes back not with vengeance but with restoration, here, see my wounds, this blood means life forever, drink up. And this is key: he enables us to do as he does. To receive curses and give back nothing but blessings. St. Paul puts it this way: “Christ redeemed us... by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles.” Christ becomes a curse, to leach all of humanity’s poison out of us, and transfigure us all into blessing.

So, friends please never think the church is there to make us avoid using naughty words. Such a small prize, not worth the effort. Here’s what the church is there for. To gather all of us who curse God. And say this God whom you curse, he is risen from the grave we put him in, and all he does is bless you, and everyone else—especially the others you’d rather curse. Thanks be to God. Amen.