The Cry of the Community
Sermon August 9, 2020
By Dr. Terry Swicegood
We’ve been looking at the Book of Psalms over the past several Sundays. There are 150 Psalms all in all. The Psalms were written across a long period of time from the era of Moses around 1445 B.C. (Psalm 90), to the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon in 536 B.C. (Psalm 126). Many of the Psalms were written during the time of King David around the years 1020-971 B.C. although some of the Psalms are attributed to David, his authorship is questioned by most scholars.
What is a Psalm? A Psalm is a conversation with God, thanking God, questioning God, accusing God. Psalms were used as songs in temple worship, very much like our hymns in Sunday worship.
The OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has developed a most helpful way of categorizing the Psalms. He says that the content of the Psalms mirror where we find ourselves at any given time. There are times when everything is going great guns, when life is full of rainbows and roses. Brueggemann calls this blessed time in our lives “a place of orientation.”
Then there are times of disorientation when things are just rotten. At those times life is unpredictable and chaotic. We’re in the middle of that time now as the pandemic rages.
And third there are time when we discover that God has been with us all along, that God has picked us up off the mat when we were sure we were down or the count. Brueggemann calls this a place of reorientation, a place when we feel God’s presence more palpably than ever before.
Orientation, Disorientation, Re-Orientation.
The Psalms of disorientation fall into two categories. Individual laments and community laments. A quick word about laments. Laments are painful cries of the heart, an expression of deep sorrow and regret.
Last week we looked at some Psalms of individual lament. Today, we will look at Psalms of community lament.
For most of recorded history, the people of Israel have been vulnerable. In ancient times and in modern, Israel has been situated at the crossroads of the Middle East, sandwiched between hostile neighbors on the north, south and east.
And so, it was Israel found itself at war with voracious Babylon in the 6th century B.C. Read about it in II Kings 25. The Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem until its walls were breached in the summer of 587 BC. The prominent citizens of Jerusalem were taken captive and carted off to Babylon, where they lived out their lives in exile
But the worse part of it all was that the magnificent temple of Solomon, the symbol of Jewish identity and faith was torched and burned to the ground.
It would be like an enemy of our country razing the capitol building in Washington. The capitol, just like the Temple of Jerusalem, is not just a structure. It’s a symbol of everything we hold dear as a people.
Here’s how the Psalmist describes it: (Psalm 74).
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.
Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”;
they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
The whole community was devastated by this loss and destruction.
Psalm 74, although written by an individual, expressed the distress of the whole nation. We are to look at this Psalm as the combined voice of thousands of people.
As you look at the mind-set of the ancient Israelites, you see something quite remarkable. As Americans we are rugged individualists. We think, first of all, about how something affects us; or how we affect something. We are a “Me First” people.
The Israelites, in contrast, viewed themselves first and foremost as part of the community of faith; their identity was defined by the community.
Let me give you two contemporary examples. One Sunday, a woman in my church accosted me after worship complaining about the prayer of confession. The words of the prayer of confession that day went something like this:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is nothing good in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore those who are penitent; according to Your promises declared unto men in Christ Jesus our Lord. Grant that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life; to the glory of His name. Amen
She particularly objected to the “miserable offenders” part. She didn’t think of herself as “miserable offender.”
I offered her a quick church history lesson. I told her that this was a prayer which first appeared as the General Prayer of Confession in the Anglican prayer book of 1552. I went on to say that not every word of every prayer we pray in worship is meant to point to us as individuals but rather is a communal prayer, aimed at whole community; it’s the community of faith that falls short; it’s the community of faith that disobeys God’s commandments, it’s the community of faith who are the “miserable offenders.”
As you might imagine, I didn’t convince her one whit. She was an American, and her attitudes and actions were influenced by her own her own inviolable ego.
A second example. I have a wonderful colleague with whom I served at Pinnacle Presbyterian In Scottsdale. The Rev. Kelsy Brown has recently gotten a new call as pastor of Mission Del Sol Presbyterian in Temple. She had just begun her ministry there in March when the pandemic closed the church down.
An 85 year old woman came to her and told her that she wanted the church to open back up. She told Kelsy, “I’m now 85 years old. I don’t have much longer to live. Attending worship is one of the most joyful and meaningful parts of my life.”
Kelsy responded kindly and gently: “I understand, and I miss worship, too. But closing down the church demonstrates our regard for the whole community. It is entirely possible that one of your fellow members, even without symptoms, can transmit the virus to many others.”
And so it is that we wear masks, that we don’t smoke in public, that we don’t drive 20 mph over the speed limit, not just to protect ourselves but to protect others. It’s all about the community.
We have never been more aware than we are today that we are all individual threads sewn into the fabric of humanity. What affects one affects all.
And so it is out of consideration for our brothers and sisters everywhere that we wash our hands, we stay six feet apart, and wear our masks.
One final note: Every Psalm of lament except for Psalm 88 concludes with an affirmation that God is with us, that no matter how bad it is, God will infuse us with his peace, power and poise. Here’s how Psalm 85 puts it:
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
so that your people may rejoice in you
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
For the Lord for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.