Monday, December 19, 2011

A Psalm Searching for God's Faithfulness

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Your love, O Lord, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.

For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.

“I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:

‘I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.’”

You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: *
“I have set the crown upon a warrior and have exalted one chosen out of the people.

I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.

My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.

No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.

I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.

My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.

I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.
He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation.’

Perhaps you have heard that Time Magazine has named the Protestor as the Person of the Year. Around the world and in our own country, this has been twelve months unlike any other. Disenfranchised people taking advantage of new social media have gathered in ways never before seen to demand a better, more just world; one where each individual’s voice matters. Change has come; sometimes slowly and other times with breath-taking speed.

Here in America, citizens are exercising their constitutional right to gather and to speak out. Folks in other countries, who do not have these rights, risk injury and death to affect change. Listen to one account of a Christian minister who felt called to participate in a protest:

Utterly terrified, I made my way to the line between the [protestors] and the police, held my arms out, and began shouting to my… brothers and sisters: “Peaceful Protest Everyone,” “Keep the Peace,” “Do not respond with violence.” My brothers and sisters on the police force began advancing behind a wall of horses and heavy bicycles. I linked arms with a young man in dark clothing on my left and a gnarled grandfather on my right. We stood still until the officers approached us and began throwing their bikes into our bodies, shoving us toward the sidewalk. I stared into the eyes of the most aggressive officer, who was seething, and shouted above the noise, “Why are you causing violence to peaceful people? Think about your actions! Think about your humanity!” With an open hand he rammed my throat. The old man to my left was attacked similarly and reached back with a cocked fist, but I yanked him back.

A minute later, an officer threw me to the ground and punched me numerous times. With hands cuffed behind my back, I was led into a police van and caged alone for a half hour. In the dim light and cramped space, I sang “This Little Light of Mine” and recited Psalm 23 to stave off a gnawing fear. Eventually, a few more [protestors] joined me and we were transported to a holding facility where they split us into pairs and left us in tiny concrete rooms for several hours.

The rooms were voids in every way: windowless, empty (no facilities, no benches), lit with glaring fluorescent bulbs, gray and white. My void-mate was a terrified kid who had gotten in over his head. He gave me heart by singing protest songs while I shared some meditation techniques for maintaining self-possession in trying moments.

Eventually we were hauled off to the [local] jail and had our handcuffs removed after four long hours of immobility. As I walked through the metal detector at the jail, a fellow [protestor] I hadn’t spoken with yet looked at me in my collar and said, “You’ve just been baptized.” They outfitted us in thin cotton jail uniforms, and proceeded to move us from cell to freezing cold cell for the next eight hours without any clear purpose or explanation.

During that time, the adrenaline wore off and my bruises and lacerations began aching intensely. I asked officers and staff at least six times to see a nurse and was consistently denied that, as well as water and food. During the final hour a nurse took pity on me and found an ice pack for my face. Not all the staff, it seemed, had contempt for their charges. Finally, at 5:00am we were released to the street after obligating ourselves to appear before a judge at a future date.

This treatment could describe an incident in Athens, Cairo, Damascus, or any other number of hotspots around the world where basic human rights and basic human dignity are not afforded to average citizens. Amazingly, the event described took place in Seattle, Washington where the Occupy Movement was trying to win certain rights for truckers who drive shipping containers in and out of the port. What kind of rights? Well, one demand is that the truckers be allowed to use restrooms at the port facility; something so basic it is hard to imagine they don’t have it already.

This morning we recited portions of the 89th Psalm, the fourth and final psalm we encounter in Advent. It begins by proclaiming the magnitude of God’s love and faithfulness, then describes one manifestation of it – the reestablishment of David’s throne. The poem was written by a person who scholars call a ‘monarchist’ – a person who believes God rules the world through the actions of the king. It is an assumption challenged by others in scripture and it became a problematic viewpoint as time went on and no one of royal linage was raised up to take the throne.

Eventually the psalm came to speak of a messianic hope; describing a historical figure sent from God to embody God’s love and God’s faithfulness. We Christians proclaim Jesus to be this person and from his life we know that the messiah will not be a ruling power who achieves military victories and never knows defeat. We know that his kingdom will not be of this world and yet this world can and should look like his kingdom. His enemies will not be people, but attitudes and behaviors: violence, injustice, and hatred. He will succumb to each before rising from the dead. And now, reigning in glory, it is Jesus who leads us – his devoted followers – to be incarnations of his faithfulness and love in the world.

The yearning for a monarchy established by God is still strong in some. Most of us, however, become suspicious when a political figure tries to ram down our throats a specific version Christianity, as Rick Perry did in his recent ad called “Strong” – the most disliked video ever on YouTube. We do not want one person in power attempting to use that power to force one brand of religion on all people. At the other end of the spectrum, there is something unnerving about a minister standing in solidarity with protestors and getting arrested. It is unnerving to me because it clearly demonstrates a person living out his faith to a degree that I am not. I suspect that he embodies the image of the 89th Psalm in a way I do not.

As I said at the beginning of the sermon, we only read a portion of the psalm, which is fifty-two verses long. In its entirety, it fondly remembers God’s promise to reign through David’s line forever and it describes David’s rule in glowing terms. But the setting in which the psalm was written was a time after the fall of the kingdom, which resulted in the end of the royal line. For the poet, all the ills of society can be attributed directly to the lack of a king. The final verses of the poem interrogate God; asking why previous promises have not been kept. One commentary gives the following title to the psalm: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old?”

For Christians, the answer to this question is right here living within each one of us. God’s love and God’s faithful are proclaimed and lived out through our attitudes and our actions. They are known when we stand up to and against violence, injustice, and hatred. They are known as we offer peace, reconciliation, and blessing to all. In a world so hostile to God’s love and faithfulness, it is no wonder Jesus described our call as picking up a cross every day and following him. He, who brought God’s hope to the world, now gives hope through your life and through mine as we allow Christ to reign in our hearts and in our lives.