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Three Little Words

Here a quick link to the Thyatira Psalter Project. We would love to have you participate!

Psalm 109
© Stacey Steck

O Psalm 109, O “song of hate,” O song of vengeance. Psalm 109, the infamous imprecatory Psalm, the Psalm whose superscription, it’s title, should be that old children’s taunt: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” You fans of the Big Bang Theory TV show may remember Sheldon’s version of this childhood comeback to insults: “I'm polymerized tree sap and you’re an inorganic adhesive, so whatever verbal projectile you launch in my direction is reflected off of me, returns on its original trajectory and adheres to you.” In Biblical terms, it is expressed as, “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life.” No matter how you say it, there’s some real animosity going on, and the Psalmist isn’t pulling any punches.

This is one of those brutally honest psalms, comparable perhaps to Psalm 137’s desire to take the children of the hated Babylonians and dash their heads against the rocks. The language is harsh, the accusations severe, the proposed remedy extreme, a sort of Old Testament version of “May he rot in hell.” May he be found guilty, may his days be few, may his wife become an early widow and may his children young orphans begging in the street. May he go bankrupt, be miserable, and wind up forgotten in the mists of time. Feel vindictive much there, Mr. Psalmist? There has obviously been a conflict. Wicked and deceitful mouths have slandered our hero, and a case is going to court to press charges. God is invoked to make sure justice is done against these treacherous conspirators. It’s all a big, angry mess.

Before I say more, let me tell you about the one great controversy about Psalm 109. In verse six, the text switches from the third person plural “they” to the third person singular, “he.” This has led some translators, including those who authorized the translation we use here in church, to put these super harsh words in somebody else’s mouth, namely, the people who are persecuting the writer. So, option A is the Psalmist talking about all his enemies as if they were one, and wishing terrible things on them, and option B is that these terrible things are being said about the Psalmist. Either way, it is verse 20 reveals that the truth and the heart of the matter, that the Psalmist desires for his enemies what either they have said about him, or what he says about them. “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life.” The desire for vengeance is undeniable.

Especially if this is written by David, it is not that the Psalmist cannot practice the vengeance that he expresses. David was the King, and a pretty powerful one, by all accounts, powerful enough to have Uriah killed to cover his tracks with Bathsheba. Tyrants stay in power by making sure their enemies meet the fate of Psalm 109. Think about the regular reports out of North Korea that detail the disappearance of supposedly disloyal members of Kim Jong Un’s own family. And the lack of power does not always prevent people from trying to take justice into their own hands when they feel aggrieved. Think of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, for example, a man with a laundry list of grievances, or the Unibomber and his manifesto against technology, both of whom ruined countless lives, running around with a version of Psalm 109 in their heads. In a sense, our whole nation, even before recent events, has something of a Psalm 109 mindset. You see it reflected in the embrace of the death penalty, and “three strikes and you’re out laws,” and “Stand your ground” laws, and just a general “eye for eye” mentality when it comes to what we think our enemies deserve. So maybe it’s just me, but the tone of Psalm 109 seems to strike a little too close to home in these polarized times, seems particularly raw and fresh in light of the social and political discourse we are subject to every day. It’s like a feud between Hatfields and McCoys, a political roll in the mud, Alexander Hamilton facing down Aaron Burr in a duel, or, dare I say, the 140 character Internet bickering that passes for political discourse these days. The psalm of hate reverberates through the centuries, down to our own days. Well, at least the first nineteen verses.

You see, it’s verse twenty that really must matter, verse 20 that is vitriol’s pause button, the moment you come to your senses and you don’t mail that hate-filled letter you wrote to your boss, but decide to sleep on it overnight and realize you will only be throwing gas on the fire. Verse 20 is that God-given moment where the Psalmist may indeed express that wish that all those terrible things happen, but also turns it all over to God to sort out. “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak against my life. But you, O Lord my God, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me.” The Psalmist steps back from the precipice of retribution, and lets God handle things. “Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love. Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it.” The words of the psalm seem to mirror our experience, don’t they? We get all angry at someone, want revenge, or at least what we think is justice, but then we recognize that discretion is the better part of valor, put our trust in God’s infinite wisdom and divine justice, and walk ourselves back from the edge of actions we would regret. Well, most of the time. And when we don’t follow that pattern, the results usually speak for themselves, and we get what we deserve more often than our enemies get what’s coming to them.

Look, it’s OK to express rage, and seek divine assistance, but it is not OK to act as judge, jury, and executioner. We sometimes are on the receiving end of injustice, subject to outcomes that outrage us, fed up with foolishness, stuck behind someone driving under the speed limit in the passing lane. But these circumstances do not give us license to take matters into our own hands to sort them out. If it sounds like I might be referring to last week’s events at the Capital, I am, but I am also referring to the daily aggravations and inconveniences that push our buttons, the ones that cause us to act towards our spouses and children in ways that only make it harder to find peace the next time. No matter what we may think about the outcome of the recent election, or any election, or any decision we don’t agree with, no matter what side of the debate we may be on, it is always dangerous to try to play God in response. It’s even a risk to simply ascribe God’s favor to our position. Let’s not delude ourselves. No political platform comes close to God’s, and none of us is righteous enough to claim to know the perfect will of God. So let us cling to the wise words of that old saying that advises us to make it our business to make sure we are on God’s side, rather than cling to the idea that God is on our side.

In our rage, it’s easy to become blind to what ultimately matters. Living through the events of the early years of World War 2, the Italian filmmaker Alberto Lattuada brought this harsh, but illuminating critique: “The absence of love brought many tragedies that might have been averted. Instead of the golden rain of love, a black cloak of indifference fell upon the people. And thus people have lost the eyes of love and can no longer see clearly…Here are the origins of the disintegration of all values and the destruction and sterilization of conscience.” How do we avoid finding ourselves with “the absence of love” which brings many tragedies? How do we shed the black cloak of indifference and enjoy the golden rain of love?

Let me suggest that a good place to begin is in reading the fine print of Scripture, like the three little words in verse 20 of Psalm 109 that matter the most: “from the Lord.” It’s easy to miss them after the nineteen and a half thunderous verses which precede them, and the “poor old me” expressions that follow them, but they are the theological heart of this honest expression of legitimate feelings. Sometimes you really have to read your Bible to know what’s in there. That’s why I am excited to invite you to participate in the Thyatira Psalter Project which allows you to really pay attention to every word on the page. Before I say more on that, let me tell you something about the way our Jewish brothers and sisters love their Scriptures.

In the more mystical parts of Judaism, the faithful believe that it is not just the words on the page that mean something, but where the words are located on the page, and how much space there is between the words, how thick the letters are written, and so on. To them, what’s on the page really, really matters. The Torah scrolls that are used in most synagogues for worship are actually handwritten in Israel, often on animal skin just like in the days before the invention or paper. That’s why the Rabbis don’t lick their fingers to turn the page. In fact, they never even touch to pages with the fingers because they are so valuable, so easy to damage, and so difficult to replace. Each scroll takes months to write. Instead they use a stick with a little wood or metal finger on the end to keep track of where they are reading. Now, you might say that these Jews have gone a little too far, that such reverence for the medium obscures the message. And maybe you’d be right. But you have to admire the love they have for the words of God, and the way they do not treat it casually, as if it were just another book, but reverently, as if God were speaking to them even in the spaces between the words.

To copy Scripture faithfully, even if you are typing it, but even more so if you are handwriting it, takes enormous concentration. Imagine if you were the one responsible for transmitting the word of God, for making sure that the three most important words of Psalm 109, “from the Lord,” were there for all to see, and that you lost your concentration for a moment, and you left them out. Where would the world be then? With “an absence of love,” that’s where. Wearing “a black cloak of indifference.” If we really want to be faithful to the God who can handle all this stuff we feel so passionately, we need to know what the Bible says about that God, in every word, every punctuation mark, every space. And the best way I know to get that familiar with the Bible is to write it down, line by line, letter by letter.

There are 150 psalms in the Bible, some angry ones like Psalm 109 and some lovely ones like 133. There are long ones like Psalm 119 and short ones like Psalm 117. There are famous ones like Psalm 23 and Psalm 51, and infamous ones like Psalm 137. There are memorable psalms and forgettable psalms, but they are all important psalms because they speak the truth about our human condition, and the relationship God has with this imperfect people. Each one of them has something to say to not only a world sometimes bent on vengeance, but also to you in whatever you are going through. There are 150 psalms in the Bible and 214 members of Thyatira. May each of us find the psalm to which God is calling us, seek out the words that really matter, and let them bring down the golden rain of love. Amen.

Baptized in Blood

Hebrews 9:1-28 and Matthew 14:1-12
© Stacey Steck

On this Sunday of the year, we are usually talking about water, especially the water of the Jordan River in which Jesus was baptized, and the water from a variety of sources in which each of us were baptized. Baptism of Jesus Sunday comes every year right after Epiphany and it gives us the opportunity to reconsider the call and claim God makes on each of us, including Jesus, when that water hits our heads. But this is the interesting Year D and the traditional water baptism texts have all been used up, and in their place we find what I am calling the baptism of blood texts, a red-tinged way of looking at the same call and claim God makes on each one of us. I, for one, am already feeling squeamish, because the sight of blood does that to me. Years ago, after I almost fainted when having blood drawn, a kindly nurse suggested I probably had what is called Vasovagal syncope, which means that your body overreacts to certain triggers, such as the sight of blood, and, in my case, the introduction of contact lenses for the first time. Now, that was a disorienting adventure, not unlike being plunged underwater during baptism. All of that is to inform you that should I pass out up here talking about blood, that’s all that’s wrong with me.

Yes, the sight, and sometimes even the thought, of blood makes people uncomfortable. That’s probably because blood, like pain and fever, is our bodies’ way of telling us something is wrong. We generally aren’t supposed to bleed, the monthly exception of fifty percent of the human race aside, and when we do, we usually need medical attention of some kind. Blood is usually the sign of disease, accident, or violence, none of which are on anyone’s bodily wish list. Blood, red and oozing, is the sign of death, and the last thing we want to see.

And yet it, in the Bible, blood is the sign of life, physically, spiritually, and metaphorically. The Bible doesn’t shy away from blood. The word blood is used some 378 times, and while some of those uses are related to the uncomfortable side of blood, the vast majority have something positive to say about our relationship with blood, even if it is animal blood. To begin with, the people of Israel, for what little knowledge of anatomy they possessed, correctly associated blood with life, and life force, of both humans and animals. Leviticus 17.14 says, “You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” Deuteronomy 12.23 says, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” And there were consequences for the taking of life and blood. In Genesis 9, God lays it out there: “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image, God made humankind.” Serious stuff. An eye for an eye, blood for blood.

And then there are the very explicit instruction in the Mosaic law about how to drain, use, and dispose of the blood of animals, whether for use at home or in the temple. Like life itself, God’s idea was that blood should not be treated casually. And once it was collected, there were meaningful uses for it, most notably in the various sacrifices offered in the temple, a pretty bloody spectacle all things considered. We’d be here all day if I shared with you all the ways blood was used in the Temple, so let me just offer a couple of choice morsels. Leviticus describes these rituals in quite a bit of detail, including this example: “If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” And, in addition to the dashing, or splashing of blood to be used in the sacrificial offerings, some of the same forms we use for baptism, like sprinkling and pouring, are indicated. It’s a messy business, worshiping God and dealing with all our sin.

And then there’s the part about how to use blood in ordination. Are you ready for this, all you new Deacons and Elders? When Aaron and his sons were to be ordained as priests, there was an elaborate ritual using a bull and two rams. After preparing the bull and the first ram for sacrifice in the way I just described, the instructions continue: “You shall take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, and you shall slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the lobes of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet, and dash the rest of the blood against all sides of the altar. Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar, and some of the anointing-oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his vestments and on his sons and his sons’ vestments with him; then he and his vestments shall be holy, as well as his sons and his sons’ vestments.” I hope you didn’t wear any clothes today that you’ll want to wear again, you new Deacons and Elders.

All of that is some of the backdrop to what we heard from the ninth chapter of Hebrews about Christ’s role as the great high priest who atones for all of our sins, not with the blood of animals all dashed and poured and sprinkled, but with his own blood shed willingly on the cross. And he only has to do it once, not every year. And he brings a new covenant that is better than the old one. And the maintenance costs of the Temple decrease because all that blood doesn’t have to get cleaned up all the time. Anything they can do, he can better. It’s all very neat and tidy, especially nice for those of us who are squeamish. Thanks be to God.

Jesus is no stranger to blood. At his birth, he emerged through his mother’s blood. During his infancy, the blood of the boys of Bethlehem was spilled out of Herod’s fear. He grew up hearing the story of the plague visited on the Egyptians when “all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt” and how blood was smeared on the doorposts on the night of the Passover to protect God’s people from the Angel of Death. He likely drew blood on more than one occasion working with sharp tools in his father’s carpentry shop. A woman with an uncontrollable menstrual flow touched his garment and was healed. As he sat with his disciples at the Last Supper, he famously said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” In the garden of Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” At his trial he was scourged, with blood running down from the wounds in his flesh. At his execution, not only did his hands and feet bleed where they were nailed to the cross, but water and blood poured out of his side when he was pierced by a soldier’s spear. No, Jesus was no stranger to blood. You could almost say he was baptized in it. “Indeed,” it says in Hebrews, “Indeed, under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” From the perspective of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, it is blood, not water, that brings us into communion with God.

For right or wrong, we tend to think of baptism as a kind of rite of passage, an initiation into the community of faith. If that’s true, the other story we heard about blood this morning is a helpful one for us as we prepare to ordain and install new officers in the church. No, I won’t be smearing blood on their ear lobes and big toes, but I am reminding them that faithful service can be costly, as John the Baptist found out the hard way. John’s story is a dramatic one, and one that could have turned out differently if a tyrant had any common sense. But as the story goes, John has preached an uncomfortable truth, and he pays for it with his life. The way of discipleship can be hard sometimes. As cleaned up as our atonement now is with Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice, it can be easy to forget that neither life, nor ministry, come with a guarantee against pain, suffering or even bloodshed. We may not be slinging blood up here every Sunday, but we are trying our best to live into the truth that Jesus “offered himself without blemish to God [to] purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God,” as Hebrews so vividly and forcefully reminds us. In Jesus, we go from dead works to worship of the living God. That’s a tall order, a big transformation, a reason for thanksgiving.

I said earlier that the Bible makes clear that God does not condone treating blood casually, as did Herod with John, and as Pilate did with Jesus. Violence is one of those “dead works” that Jesus has transformed in us, and it’s a dead work not because it sometimes ends up with people dying, but because it does not treat blood, and therefore life, with the respect it deserves. Worship of the living God, however, honors what God has created and seeks to make sure all of that creation receives the blessings of its Creator. The witness of Jesus that is lived out as member, Deacon, or Elder in the church of Jesus Christ is that if blood must ever to be shed, it must be our own blood in service of worship of the living God, and never someone else’s blood in service of dead works. If that makes you squeamish, that’s a good thing, because faith is an awesome responsibility not to be taken lightly. Herod was “grieved,” it says, when his rash and foolish oath was demanded of him and he had to spill John’s blood, and his conscience was not even bound by the new covenant that binds us. Let us rejoice that we are baptized in water, and make faithful and wise choices where life and blood are concerned. Amen.