Sermon for July 31st, 2022
A Song of Ascents. 1 Often have they attacked me from my youth —let Israel now say— 2 often have they attacked me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me. 3 The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long. 4 The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked. 5 May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward. 6 Let them be like the grass on the housetops that withers before it grows up, 7 with which reapers do not fill their hands or binders of sheaves their arms, 8 while those who pass by do not say, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you! We bless you in the name of the Lord!”
Psummer of Psalms V: Psalm 129 (Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out)
One day a man discovers a magical lamp, and upon rubbing the lamp, a genie appears offering him three wishes. But there's a catch. Whatever the genie does for the man, he must do twice as much for the man's worst enemy. The man thinks about it for awhile, and (quickly forgetting the catch) wishes for a billion dollars. The genie grants his wish, and the man is now a billionaire. This makes him tremendously happy...until he discovers that his most hated enemy is now a multi-billionaire. Furious and green with envy, the man goes back to the genie, and this time he wishes for great fame. His wish is granted, and the man is happy...until his fame is eclipsed by his greatest enemy, who becomes twice as famous. Finally, he returns to the genie, who informs him that this is his final wish. The man looks the genie in the eye and says, "Genie, I wish to be beaten half to death."
In the gospels, Jesus famously said that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. But what does that look like? What exactly should we pray? Do we pray for our enemies' health and happiness and wellbeing? Do we pray for their success...in persecuting us? Or that they might somehow come to see the error of their ways and stop persecuting us?
Psalm 129--the last in our series this summer on the Psalms--is a case study in how to pray for your enemies, and those who persecute you. The NRSV subheading calls this a "Prayer for the Downfall of Israel's Enemies" and that's a pretty fitting title. The Psalm begins with a complaint: "Often have they attacked me from my youth" and then invites the whole nation of Israel into the story: "Let Israel now say, Often have they attacked me from my youth."
We don't really know who the "they" is, but if you read the Old Testament, there are plenty of candidates: The Egyptians, the Philistines, the Amalekites, Amorites, Hittites, Jebusites, Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians...take your pick. Israel had no shortage of enemies who (in the words of verse 3) plowed right through them and right over them.
Verse 4 is the turning point of the Psalm. Having laid out the problem, the Psalmist now reminds himself (and his audience) of the solution: "The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked."
He could have just ended things there: God is good, he'll take care of us. Amen, the end, roll the credits, and we live happily ever after. But then he keeps going. Then comes the prayer for his enemies. At a casual read-through, it sounds a little mean spirited--a prayer for revenge; God smite my enemies! which certainly doesn't meet the Jesus criteria for "loving" your enemies.
But if you look more closely, there's a method to this prayer, a steady de-escalation of the conflict and a reversal of the process of oppression. We could learn from this psalm not only how to pray for our enemies, but also what to do if we find ourselves on the other side of that equation--if we discover that we are the ones who have been in the wrong, who have been in opposition to God's plans or to God's people.
There are five parts to this prayer, five steps to take in order for healing and reconciliation to begin:
The first one has to do with shame. Verse 5: May all who hate Zion (and mount Zion is the metaphorical representation for God and God's people) be put to shame.
Shame is what you feel when you know you've done something wrong, and everyone else knows you did something wrong, and you know that they know (and they know that you know) that you did something wrong. In other words, everyone (including the wrongdoer) is on the same page about the fact that a wrong was done, and everyone is on the same page about who is responsible.
Step two (still in verse 5): May all who hate Zion be put to shame AND turned backward. To turn around (180 degrees), backwards, is the biblical concept of repentance. It's re-orienting yourself in a new direction, which both physically prevents you from doing what you were doing before, and also sets the stage for getting back on the right path. If you have been wronged, you can pray for these two things:
That the wrongdoer (and the community) all acknowledge the wrong, and that the wrongdoer has a change of heart, a change of mind, and a change of direction. It goes without saying that if you ARE the wrongdoer, these things are necessary pre-requisites to making things right, to being restored to the community and to right relationship with God.
But as necessary as steps one and two are, acknowledgment and repentance alone won't undo damage that has already been done by a wrong. Steps 3, 4, and 5 begin to address the wider issues of reconciliation, using the metaphor of grass growing on the housetops. Okay, show of hands--how many of you have grass growing on the roof of your house? I didn't think so. It's not really a thing here and now, but in ancient Israel, flat rooftops were often made of mud bricks, and with a little rain, grass or even wild corn might begin to grow on your roof. It wouldn't last long, though, in the hot middle-eastern sun.
The actions of the wrongdoer are like those seeds of grass--misplaced, but planted and sprouted nonetheless. You can't un-sprout them, you can't undo what was done. But you can pray that God will mitigate the effects of those seeds, of those wrongs--stopping them from growing and spreading.
In verse seven, the psalmist prays that these seeds of wrong will not be picked up by others--in other words that they will be seen as undesirable. In the final verse, verse eight, the psalmist prays that no one--not even those casually passing by on the road--will bless the dying weeds growing on the roof. Why would they? You might pass by a corn field or a wheat field and congratulate the farmer on a great crop. But you probably wouldn't go up to your neighbor and say, "Hey, those are some really nice half-dead roof weeds you got up there!"
Put these last three things together, and you have a prayer that whatever wrong has been done would not spread any further, that no one would want it, and no one would bless it. In other words, that the community would see the wrong for what it truly was, and not (as we so often do!) excuse it, accommodate it, or glorify it.
The first two parts of this prayer (acknowledgement and repentance) mostly involve the individual--the person who did something wrong. But the remaining three parts involve the community; setting standards, educating each other, and being vigilant, so that we don't promote things that work against our calling to honor God and each other.
Prayers for our enemies--like all good prayers--are directed primarily to God. But the best ones, the model ones, like Psalm 129, have a way of being collected, shared, and repeated. These prayers remind us that some of the work indeed belongs to God alone. But a lot of it belongs to us, working together, helping each other, and doing the best we can with the many resources God has given us.
The Irish have a similar prayer, one that has been collected, shared and repeated often. It goes like this:
May those who love us, love us. And those that don't love us, May God turn their hearts. And if He doesn't turn their hearts, May he turn their ankles, So we'll know them by their limping.
People of First Presbyterian Church--pray for your enemies. Pray for those whom you love. Pray for your city, your country, and your world. Pray for the lost, the hopeless, and the suffering... as well as for those who seem to have it all figured out. Pray for God's mercy and grace, and pray for God's justice. In all these things, may the Psalms be your example and guide; may God's Word give you the words to say, and may God's Spirit give you the courage to live those prayers, day after day, all the days of your life.