Sermon for May 26th, 2019

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Psummer of Psalms II - Psalm 44

Today's scripture passage is Psalm 44. It's a bit of a long one, so instead of reading it all at once, I'm going to split it up in parts, interspersed throughout the sermon. I invite you to follow along in your pew Bibles. But first, a true story:

It was graduation day, and little Charlie was graduating from high school. I say "little" but Charlie had always been bigger than most of the kids his age, and he wasn't the most coordinated young man, either. So no one was too surprised when, crossing the stage to receive his diploma, Charlie stumbled and fell. But what happened next was a complete shock to everyone gathered on that momentous day: Charlie's sudden impact with the makeshift wooden stage knocked a large hole in the floor, and he fell through, disappearing completely. Charlie's mother, watching from the audience was mortified. But Charlie's father, seeing his wife's dismay, leaned over and tried to reassure her, saying, "Don't worry, dear. It's just a stage he's going through."

We all go through stages in life--sometimes you're on top of the world, and sometimes you find yourself crashing through the floor (literally). The Book of Psalms, more than any other book in the Bible, is a book of prayers for all of life's stages. This summer we're going to explore some of those prayers, and we begin today with Psalm 44.

Why Psalm 44? Simple. Tomorrow I will be 44 years old, and as some of you may remember from last summer, I like to begin each year of my life reading the Psalm that corresponds to my age, and making it my prayer for the year. It's a neat spiritual practice, although if you do this, I should warn you in advance not to take the prayers too literally, especially when you turn 137 years old and get to the Psalm about dashing your enemies' children against the rocks. Yes, there really is a psalm for every sentiment, including unreasonably over-the-top vindictive anger.

But today is Psalm 44, which is more of a "I just fell through the floor and everyone's laughing at me" kind of Psalm. So let's begin. Psalm 44 begins with an inscription. Three separate inscriptions, actually:

To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Maskil.

"To the leader" (Hebrew: נָצַח - natzach), a word that usually has the sense of "supervisor" or "overseer" and elsewhere in the Bible is often associated with musical instruments. So this Psalm is probably addressed to the music director, or the band leader (Dear Steven/Jessica). It's a reminder that many (perhaps most) of the Psalms were not private prayers, but intended to be used in the gathered community, in worship. I don't know this for sure, but I like to imagine that maybe if a member of the congregation had an idea for a great worship song, they would write it down and send it to the music director, making ancient Hebrew worship truly a collaborative, community effort.

"Of the Korahites." Literally in Hebrew this is B'ni Korah, the children or descendents of Korah. If the first inscription is the "to" (dear Steven/Jessica), this is the "from." From the Korah family. Who was the Korah family? Well, we really don't know--there's more than one Korah in the scriptures, and no clear connection in any case, but it's obviously a pretty musical family, since they managed to get 11 Psalms into the Book, more than anyone else with the exception of David and Asaph (who we'll hear more about later this summer).

Finally, "A Maskil." What's a maskil. Again, we don't really know, but judging by the context, it's probably a style or genre of music. The root of the word means something like skillful, cautious, or contemplative, so perhaps this was a song to be played slowly, with a laid back, chill kind of vibe, although judging from the words of the psalm, I'd say the emotion builds in intensity as it goes.

Not all Psalms have inscriptions, let alone three of them together. But when they do, it's good to notice them, to let them give context where they can, and also to remind us there's still so much we don't know, so much mystery, about these ancient worship songs.

1 We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us, 
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old: 
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; 
you afflicted the peoples,but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them.

Psalm 44 begins with some good old fashioned nostalgia. Back in the glory days, remember God? We've heard all the stories from our parents and grandparents, all the amazing things you did for them, back in the good old days. Also note the very first word in verse one: "We." This is a communal prayer; it has sometimes been referred to as a "national prayer." It describes the condition not just of one person (like many of the Psalms of David) but the experiences of all the people. These verses remind me of things I've heard from a lot of churches--remember back when the church had a lot of people? A lot of money? A lot of influence in the community? So you can imagine what's coming a little bit later in the Psalm. But not quite yet. First...

4 You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants.
6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah

There are several things going on here. First, we move into the present day--you were the God of our ancestors, and you are still our God today. Also, these verses move back and forth between "we" and "I" letting the voice of the author slip in, perhaps a leader in the community who speaks sometimes for himself, and sometimes for the people.

At the end of the verse, there's a word--Selah--and no one really knows what it means. It could be another musical instruction (like a key change or tempo change) or it could signal something the people are supposed to say or do, like a refrain. Or it could be a call for affirmation, like when the preacher says, "Can I get an amen?"

There is an implied violence to these verses that may be a bit surprising--through you we push down our foes, we tread down our assailants. It's good to remember that the Psalms reflect the intense desires and feelings of the people, not necessarily those of the God they are praying to. The author of this Psalm is trying to remind God of what the people think God's job is--you're supposed to smite our enemies, God, or at least grant us success when we try to do that. If we're completely honest with ourselves, we do exactly the same thing. We all have beliefs about what God is supposed to do for us--whether it's protecting our children, blessing and avancing our careers and our finances, or punishing people we think deserve to be punished. But God doesn't always adhere to the job description that we, in our infinite wisdom, write.

9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

In other words, we got our rear ends handed to us on a platter. We tripped, and fell right through the floor. And we're not very happy with you right now, God. You didn't do your job, the one we created for you.

The other thing I love about these verses (and we'll see this again in verse 22), is that it shows the other side of the famous sheep/shepherd metaphor. We love Psalm 23--the Lord is my shepherd, he takes care of me like a good shepherd should. We even sometimes extend that metaphor to our churches--the word pastor means "shepherd" and sometimes we call congregation members the "flock." But here's the problem with that beautiful, warm and fuzzy analogy: Why does a shepherd raise sheep? To be his cherished pets until they die of old age? Nope. Sheep are commodities. Sometimes the "good shepherd" saves you from the wolf, or finds you when you get lost; but sometimes he shaves off all your wool and sells it to feed his family. And sometimes, he sells you at the make a nice lambchop dinner for another family. Psalm 44 is a good reminder that the "good shepherd" coin has two sides. Sometimes God (or fate, or the universe) does things we like, and sometimes God does things we don't like.

13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16 at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger. we get to the heart of the matter. What's way worse than falling flat on your face? Doing it in front of a large audience. The kind that laughs at you, not with you. There's a reason we have to teach our children that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me." Because we know it's not true. Broken bones heal much faster and are fogotten far sooner than wounded pride, public shame, ridicule and embarassment, things that have the devastating potential to scar us for life.

17 All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way,
19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.

This is the climactic turning point in the Psalm--and in my opinion, the reason that the religious belief system of this tiny, Jewish nation went on to become a major world religion that still exists today, among the thousands of ancient belief systems from far greater civilizations (think Babylonian, Greek, and Roman, among others) that died out long ago. If you're thinking, "Wait a minute, what?? I didn't catch all that from those three verses" then let me explain:

Here's how most ancient bronze and iron age religions worked: You pray and make sacrifices to your local deity, your god, and then you march into battle against your neighbors, who also prayed and made sacrifices to their local deity. Your gods go with you into battle, and while you face off against each other, they do too. If you win the battle, it's because your god was stronger than their god; your god defeated their god. Their lands become yours, they become your servants, and their god (at best) becomes a servant to your god, a lesser or minor deity in your cosmology. At worst, their god is dead, and ceases to exist, ceases to be worshiped. And that means that if you lose the battle, your god has lost, and becomes irrelevant, or dead. At this point, you are supposed to embrace the stronger god. And this is precisely what the people of ancient Israel, alone among all the middle eastern peoples, refused to do. "All of this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way."

They would not abandon faith in their god, and yet they still had to acknowledge the reality of their defeat. So they did something else that was revolutionary for the time...they began to turn their questioning inward: If our God is not the one in the wrong, then maybe, just maybe, we are. Maybe we need to rethink our actions, our values, and the job description that we wrote for our God. This kind of thoughtful introspection, this focus on the inward condition of the heart, became characteristic of Judaism, and later, Christianity as well.

20 If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

When the psalmist said these last words, "because of you we are being killed all day" it probably meant something like, "God, you're killing us." But centuries later, when this Psalm is quoted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, he flips it around to mean "God, for your sake," or "because of our commitment to you" we are being killed, we are sacrificing our lives for the sake of your cause. Meanwhile, back in the time of the Psalms, the psalmist concludes with a passionate prayer:

23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

There is a boldness to this prayer--the audacity to accuse God of sleeping on the job. But that's something I love about the Psalms: They are honest, raw, and challenge the limits of what we think is acceptable to say to God in prayer. We would do well to make our prayers that honest, that bold.

And here at the end of the Psalm, there's also (finally) a sense of humility: We still acknowledge the reality of our condition (down in the dust), and we still acknowledge God's ability to help us. But the reason has changed--it's not for the sake of our reputation among all the other people. It's not even for the sake of our own goals or ambition. It's not about us. It's not about them. Redeem us, God, says the psalmist, for the sake of your steadfast love.

This is what the Psalms teach us: Prayer doesn't necessarily change our circumstances. When you fall down, eventually you still have to get up. Prayer doesn't necessarily change the people around us. Some days you still get laughed at. You might even get kicked while you're down. Prayer doesn't necessarily change God; it doesn't make God conform to our will, to our convictions about what God is supposed to be and do.

But honest, passionate, slightly irreverent prayers almost always have the ability to change the most important things, the only things we really have any control over in the end: Our heart. Our perspective. Our disposition toward God and each other. And when shared with each other in the context of worship, I believe that our prayers--spoken and sung--have the capacity to change our community, and ultimately, our world.