July 3: “Two Ways to Preach a Psalm”

I was grateful for some appreciative comments on this sermon.  But I wasn’t terribly happy with it.  One thing I needed to do that I didn’t was to explain what the other way to preach a psalm is.  Ah–a complicated question that I would have to address without relying on namedropping “Gadamer” and the like. 

Psalm 30 ; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up.” Our psalm today is about God’s faithful power to pick us back up when we are down. When have you found yourself feeling like you were “down in the Pit,” as the Psalmist, presumably King David, says? The truth is that we all suffer, we all know sadness. David is such a compelling figure for us because he knew suffering, and his expressions of faith often grapple with his suffering. His suffering was of many kinds: he knew threat and danger, the loss of his own rebellious child, the feeling of abandonment by God; but his suffering also included the fruit of his own misdeeds, as when the first child, born of his murderous adultery with Bathsheeba bore, died.

Our Granby congregation has been hit with a lot of suffering recently. We’ve faced five deaths of people dear to this church in the last month. The Masons have lost three family members this year, the last being their daughter Janet. Dennis Doucette and others have lost dear ones to opioid overdose and related problems. King David knew all of this. He sat grieving as his own children died. He watched powerlessly as the corruption of his own household bore the wicked fruit of his son Amnon raping his half-sister Tamar. King David refused to punish Amnon because he loved him. But the result of his favor toward Amnon, and perhaps his disregard for his own daughter (who is given little voice in the story), led to a destructive rebellion by Tamar’s brother Absalom. David ends up losing both his dear sons.

When the Gospel stories about Jesus, like today’s reading from Luke, show us the commanding presence of a righteous one of God, the bringer of God’s kingdom, who on the cross is ironically proclaimed King of the Jews, they paint a portrait of righteousness and mercy that reveals God’s own character. But although Jesus knew suffering, his suffering is so patently the result of injustice. Jesus exposed the faithlessness of the powerful and the duplicity of the religious establishment, and he threatened Roman rule. Even though his own disciples failed him and one betrayed him, it was a coalition of the powerful that finally was the source of his suffering and death.

David’s suffering is much more tragic and down to earth. He knew a wide range of suffering, guilt, and sadness that more closely resembles our own experience, even if on a grander scale. And so we can relate to David directly; his songs connect readily with our own experience. David’s soul, like ours, has been down in the pit. But he meets his loss and suffering with faith in God. While David says that God hid his face from me—and who hasn’t felt that way?—he nonetheless holds tight to his sense of dependence and connection with God, in good times and bad. He doesn’t turn against God during the difficult times, but turns all the more to God: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help.” “To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication.”

And God delivered. The Psalm does not say how: “You brought my soul up from Sheol,” “restored me to life,” “You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” From the stories we have in Second Samuel, God did not restore to David his lost sons, the way Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. Nor did God restore the soul of Tamar as if the rape had never happened, which, as any rape victim will tell you, would be as miraculous as a resurrection from the dead. In the same way that David’s sufferings were much more down to earth than Jesus’, so God’s restoration of David was much less miraculous. But this allows David to speak for all who have known life arising from death, joy from mourning, courage from heartbreak. David’s faith gives him a deep and abiding belief that through God, new life is possible: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” That’s both a statement of faith in God and a universal expression of wisdom for those with a basic confidence in the abiding goodness of life.

And so he gives thanks to God that David has not been overwhelmed by sorrow, but has been delivered to joy, he has overcome his grief, he has even learned to dance again. When we say this Psalm, when we let these words enter our mouths, and when the Spirit chooses to be the air with which we speak them, we also can inhabit this same faith as David, and be delivered into joy.

That, at least is one way to preach the text. It is a right and good way to preach this psalm. I think it is a way that works for many of you, and it should be able to work for all of us. I call it a figural reading of the Psalm, because David and his words become a figure for us. That is, we identify directly and immediately with the words of David: we read this Psalm as if it were written for us.

For those of you who attended the Massachusetts Annual Meeting of the UCC, we were treated to a masterful and playful sermon by Otis Moss III, a figural reading of Acts 25. He took the odd story of Paul preaching in a warm, upper room; and there is a young man who fell asleep while Paul was preaching, fell out the window and broke his neck. Paul drapes his body over the young man and brings him back to life. Rev. Moss made that young man into a figure of young people in the church today, who feel left out, and so don’t have anywhere to sit, are bored, and inevitably fall out of the church. And it’s on us to take responsibility for their injuries and seek them, and seek their forgiveness. It was a rhetorically brilliant, fun, and lively, and spoke a very right and helpful message about being willing to leave behind old ways to reach young people.

The problem, of course, is that his sermon had literally nothing to do with Acts 25. And I am using “literally” in the most correct way here. The text doesn’t say that the young man was crowded out, or that he was bored by Paul’s old-fashioned preaching, or that the church (which, after all, was then very young) was stuck in its ways. Rev. Moss knew this, and he had a wonderful way of preaching in that figural style with a wink and a nod; he’s a very smart and educated man, and faithful above all.

I have, to repeat, nothing against that style of preaching. It works particularly well, in my experience, in African American churches, because of the deep roots of African American Christianity in slave religion. American slaves received the power to hold on to their humanity under utterly dehumanizing conditions because they made a deep figural connection with the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery by God. When they heard about God delivering the Israelites from slavery, they understood that God likewise would deliver them. That was a good figural reading, because it had justice on its side. Of course, some southerners read the same story as pertaining to their deliverance from Northern oppression. They never stopped to think of themselves as the Egyptians. Everyone always sees himself as the Israelite, the underdog, isn’t that so?

That’s a big problem with figural readings, with reading ourselves into the Bible stories. Are we really David in this Psalm? All of us can be at one time or another. We all know suffering. And so, like I said, the figural reading can work. But is it always so clear how we figure into the Bible stories? In the Gospels, are we Peter, the intrepid disciple? Are we James and John, vying for a place of distinction? Are we Mary, or Martha? I’ve heard several of you—it shouldn’t matter whether you are male or female—figure yourselves as either the devout Mary or the busy Martha. / When we read the gospels, do we think of ourselves as Jesus? No thanks. Or are we the Pharisees—the self-righteously pious? Are we Judas…God forbid. It’s not always clear how we should fit ourselves into the story.

Nor is it always so clear that the story is fitting for us. When we read figurally, when we read the story as directly about us, we often skip over what doesn’t fit. But that doesn’t make it go away. So when I interpreted Psalm 30, I skipped some weird verses. For instance, David says “God’s anger is but for a moment, but his favor is for a lifetime.” We like the second part of that, but we probably pay little attention to the first part. He is implying that the bad things that happened to David—the rejoicing of his foes, his soul being in the Pit—were the result of God’s anger. There’s a belief, woven through large parts of the Old Testament and small parts of the New, that the bad things that happen are caused by God’s anger at us. Now, I won’t say that nothing good ever came from that belief. It can lead to helpful repentance. But many of us refuse to believe or at least are very skeptical of this idea. Especially when it is caricatured by conservative televangelists who blame every natural disaster on God’s displeasure over homosexuality, or whatever. There are two many things wrong with that than we have time to unpack. But the kernel of their heinous pronouncements is found in the Bible. And so we are rightly troubled by these ideas in Scriptures.

We also skipped over the interesting lines in verses eight to ten. There, David seems to be trying to persuade God with a kind of bribery. “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you?” And concludes with: “O Lord, be my helper!” Doesn’t it seem unbecoming to try to sway God by pointing out that God stands to benefit by helping me? As if God is acting rashly and needs to be reminded of what is good for God? That is an appropriate way to reason with my four year old, Silas; but God?

So we can rightly chide David a bit, and even raise some potentially serious questions about the way he and others in the Bible understand God. We don’t always need to do so. But when so many of our fellow Christians assume that the Bible is as perfect as God is, that it cannot be questioned but must be accepted whole cloth, not just in prayerful texts like the Psalm, but in texts prescribing moral rules, and that especially there it is inerrant—we do well to read the Bible differently, as inspired but always human. I suspect many of you are familiar with what I’m talking about. UCC churches for decades have been saying that the Bible needs to be interpreted or updated to speak to modern people.

If only it were that simple! Preaching would then be a little more complicated than just reading the Bible figurally, or directly, but still manageable; we would just have to go farther and question the Bible. But I don’t think we are responsibly interpreting the Bible unless it questions us. That is, just as we are entitled to, and even have a duty to question the particular claims the Bible makes, we also have a duty to hold ourselves up to critical scrutiny in light of the Bible texts. Now, we are individually children of God, accepted by God through baptism into a confessing faith in God’s grace. And we are God’s people, identifying as the living body of Christ that extends across all of humanity. But because we are loved by God, because we are God’s own (remember that from last week?), we submit ourselves to God’s refining love. And the Bible help us see where we stand in need God’s refining. We can hear the Gospel reading telling us that, indeed, we are being sent out by Jesus, for the harvest in plentiful but the laborers are few. But when he sends out his seventy (or 50-odd people we have here), he pares them down, strips them of what they don’t need: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” And he tells them to be serious and focused: “Greet no one on the road.” He refines them for God’s purposes. Likewise God, claiming us as God’s own, tells us what we don’t need, what will interfere with our being agents of the gospel. (For those keeping track, that was a little bit of figural reading; Jesus isn’t literally talking about God refining you and me; but I threw that in for some color. ) So we need more than one way to interpret the Bible. What I do when I preach might confuse some of you; and it might just be because I’m not being very clear—shame on me. But it might be because God’s way is not our way; because our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. And the way back to God is going to be confusing and disorienting.

When we first interpreted Psalm 30, we identified directly with David, with his plight, and with the faithfulness that saw him through that plight. But should we assume that we are like David? David is a rare species in the Bible: deeply faithful to God, possessing a familial closeness to God, but also a mighty person, entrusted with ruling a kingdom. Are we faithful like David? //We already confessed that we are not mighty like David. We are struggling churches, always tempted to look back on our glorious past, when we were more like David, more like kings in our towns. When our church buildings were like the temple in our little Jerusalems of Granby and South Hadley. But not even David was always true and holy. Were we better than David back then? Were our churches really like Jerusalem temples?

Regardless, we are no longer that. We should strive to imitate David’s faithfulness. But we can no longer strive to be kings. We are much more like the confused Israelites in exile, who preserved those psalms of David as hints of what God’s future for them might look like. And they watched for that new son of David to come along. And their hope and waiting became the womb from which our savior was born. Let us also pray, Come Lord Jesus, Son of David.

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