Sunday, August 31, 2008

Knowing and Being Known

Knowing and Being Known
Third in a Series of Sermons on the Psalms

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time: August 31, 2008

Psalm 139

We are known. There is no doubt that the poet who wrote the words of Psalm 139 believed that he was known. Philosophers may use words such as “omniscience” when speaking of the knowledge of God. And while there can be no question that the psalmist would readily have agreed that God is omniscient in that he knows his creation as a painter knows his canvas, his poem comes at the question from a different perspective. The psalmist realizes not only that God knows but that he knows about him. And even that does not put it clearly enough, since it is evident that the psalmist is possessed of a sense that he is known more than that he is known about. He is known “through and through,” from beginning to end. God not only knows about him. God knows what it is like to be him.

In the face of this knowledge that reaches even into the depths of the womb, we may feel exposed, as though we were part of a divine “peep show.” We want to draw the blinds. Who is prepared for such intimacy? What business is it of God what went on between my mother and me in the womb? Is God also the Divine Voyeur?

It is just this reluctance to be known that is revealed in the Genesis account of the walk in the garden. We want to know, to have knowledge such as God has. If there are any peep shows going on, we want to do the peeping. We want to be God. We want to be able to reveal only so much of ourselves to this Other as we desire, and we want to have the power and privilege of choosing just who it is to whom we make these partial self-revelations.

This is the declaration of the psalm that we may find disturbing if we really give it some thought. No room is left there for us to have any choice in the matter. We are known, known at every level of our being, probably known even at levels of which we are not aware. And we are known by this Other whether or not we choose to be known. The roles we would have chosen - if we could have chosen - are reversed. We might choose to know others, or even to know God, the Other, but to limit the knowledge they have about us, because knowledge represents power. To know someone is to have a measure of power over them. When we know another person or a bit of fresh gossip about them, we can make predictions, forecast their behavior, and we can use that knowledge to suit our purposes.

We are understandably reluctant to hand over such power to someone else. But the psalmist is aware that he is known, was known, and will be known by this Other so completely that he has given up trying to understand it:

“God, how hard it is to grasp your thoughts!
How impossible to count them!”1

The roles we would choose are reversed. We are known, like it or not. The very idea can be threatening. To what use might the power of such knowledge be put? Is the purpose behind such knowing malevolent or benevolent, evil or kind?

“My Father,” Jesus said, “if this cup cannot pass by without my drinking it, your will be done!”2

Christian believers answer the question of the intention behind God’s intimate knowledge by pointing to Jesus. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the attitude that Jesus expressed toward God in the midst of it all that convinces Christians that God’s intentions toward us are benevolent, are filled with loving purpose for the world he has created.

We are not only known, we are loved. God has demonstrated, through Jesus, that God’s love for us is as direct, complete, even embarrassing, as God’s knowledge of us. God comes close to us, it might even occur to us that God comes too close for comfort. Again, we may be struck by an impulse to protect ourselves from the ultraviolet rays of such penetrating love. We want to choose our loves. We don’t necessarily want to be chosen. But if we are known so intimately, loved so completely and with such familiarity that we can call the maker of all that exists our “Father,” our “Abba,” our “Daddy,” then we must also be claimed by God, no matter what we do. Paul wrote,

“Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ... For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.”3

As we gather in the church or a nondescript chapel in the funeral home, trying nervously not to think too hard about what has happened to old uncle Stan, the preacher stands behind the pulpit and declares to us that there is nothing that can come between God and Stan, especially not now: no disease, no eight months in a coma, no cerebral hemorrhage, no coffin, no grave, nothing at all. God claims us. God’s knowledge of us goes beyond a detached interest, God’s love for us goes beyond a momentary infatuation, God’s intimacy with us lays claim to us. “I know my own and my own know me...”4 It is not the knowing that matters as much as knowing we are God’s own. It is not a knowing that is the result of some objective, scientific scrutiny, but a knowing that issues from personal contact and interest and desire for relationship.

God lays claim to us. God’s knowledge, love, and call to be God’s chosen ones all lay claim to us. But like a kind lover, God does not force the advantage. There is always an escape clause, the possibility of refusal. God’s love is such that inasmuch as it is freely given, God desires that it be freely returned.

We live in a time in which our own culture places obstacles in our way as God seeks to establish an intimate relationship with us. Once, a football coach was being honored at halftime. One of his former players, now a portly businessman, read over the loudspeaker the words that were engraved on the plaque:

“He never did anything that he would have to apologize to God for.”

There was thunderous applause (In spite of the fact that the statement on the plaque ended a sentence with a preposition). The coach humbly received his award and returned to his seat. Such is the view of God in our culture of non-intimacy. God is the keeper of the score card. God’s interest in us is seemingly limited to the role of police officer, enforcer.

Our culture of non-intimacy simply does not foster a sense of being known through and through by a loving, benevolent God. Its sense of God is more likely to be one which - if it views God at all - views him as adversary, as the keeper of the heavenly gate, stickler for the heavenly rules, frowning down upon us from his distant, high heaven. How far removed this is from the God who watched the psalmist’s bones being knitted in the womb!

Small wonder that when I have sometimes read Psalm 139 at funerals, I am often asked if it really comes from the Bible. It is so foreign to what so many think and feel about God from day to day.

The first cultural obstacle to modern day relationship with the God of intimacy is a popular view of God as One who knows but who does not necessarily love.

A second obstacle is even more ingrained. Our age has long since embarked upon a course of seeking the good through the assertion of individualism. When we are not healthy or in good mental balance, we are encouraged to “find ourselves,” to dig into the resources that are within us, to live up to our own individual potentials, to fulfill ourselves. When we are in conflict with others, we are encouraged to let others “own” their own problems; seldom are we encouraged to bear each other’s burdens. When friendships are not fulfilling, there is little encouragement to remain friends with another person for the sake of the relationship itself. We are told, in many ways, that the answers to all our troubles lie within ourselves, and that we are not responsible for the troubles of others. I recently saw a rewording of the old aphorism, “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” The new translation goes, “to err is dysfunctional, to forgive, co-dependent.”

“The trouble with the consciousness movement is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out of a pervasive dissatisfaction with the quality of personal relations, it advises people not to make too large an investment in love and friendship, to avoid excessive dependency on others, and to live for the moment - the very conditions that created the crisis of personal relations in the first place.”5

The recognition of God’s intimate and loving knowledge of us from birth, through and beyond death, calls the myth of self-reliance into question. If we affirm, with the psalmist, that God’s deep knowledge of us is accompanied by his loving care and concern, then cause for relationship with God is established.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In the end, the psalm concludes where every true disciple must: that a God who so demonstrably knows and loves us is worthy to see even the wickedness within us, so that it may be purged away. The psalmist throws himself on the mercy of the court, for that mercy has been tried and found sufficient.

Sufficient then, sufficient now. Sufficient for you and sufficient for me. Praise God.

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Psalm 139:17, Jerusalem Version
2 Matthew 26:42
3 Romans 8:35-39
4 John 10:14
5 Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Norton, 1979.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mountain Maker

Mountain Maker

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
21st Sunday in Ordinary time, August 24, 2008

Psalm 121

I look up to the mountains;
does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God,
who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.1

This is Eugene Peterson’s interesting and informative version of the first two verses of our passage in his translation of the Bible called The Message.

Think of the number of “Where were you when” stories we have in our lives. The older we are, the more we are likely to have. “Where were you when you heard the news...” about Pearl Harbor — about Sputnik — about the assassination of JFK — about the moon landing — about the collapse of the Berlin Wall — about the airplanes ramming the World Trade Center buildings? But there is a special variety of these “where were you when...” questions that have to do with natural, rather than human-caused, events. Where were you when you heard the news about... the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi in Minnesota or the collapse of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco?

After earthquakes and eruptions anywhere in the world, we can count on the news outlets to run another set of stories interviewing seismologists about the prospects for “the Big One,” along the San Andreas fault or in the Pacific Northwest. It’s enough to make you want to stay home... as long as you don’t live on or near a hillside or by the ocean. Or anywhere, really. Folks in the plains states are terrorized by prospects of tornados, along the Mississippi it’s flooding, and on the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, hurricanes are the chief threat, and don’t forget tsunamis on the Pacific.

Then we come across this psalm with its affirmation that the one who grants strength is the same one who made heaven and earth — and continental shelves and fault lines and rivers and mountains. Remember the scene from The Sound of Music, where the family is escaping the pursuing Nazis who want to press Baron Von Trap into service in the navy of the Third Reich. It seems they are trapped and have hit a dead end until Maria exclaims “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help!” and of course they make their escape by way of those famous hills, the Swiss Alps. And a million misunderstandings of an otherwise straightforward scripture passage were thus launched.

Any pastor I know can tell stories of families who have come to them with this familiar and beloved old misreading of Psalm 121 for use at funerals. People often quote the verse from memory in the King James Version, as Maria did in the movie: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” And the reason they love this psalm turns out to be a somewhat misguided reason, that their loved one really enjoyed the mountains or the outdoors, so this has become a sort of culturally accepted psalm in praise of the beauties of the mountains. Problem is, that is not at all what this psalm is about, a realization that comes immediately to us if we read the punctuation of that first verse that more modern scholars have provided, as well as the words themselves. It is clearly a question, not a sentimental statement: “I lift up my eyes to the hills — From where will my help come?”

Seeing the hills, the psalmist doesn’t suddenly recognize the source of his help, but by this view of them was given to wonder what the real source of help truly is.

On January 31, 1940, Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont received the first Social Security check ever issued, in the amount of $22.54.2 Ms. Fuller, a legal secretary, had worked for just three years under the Social Security program before retiring. She had paid in a total of $24.75 in Social Security taxes – an amount that was nearly exhausted by that first check she received. Ms. Fuller wasn’t sure at first whether it was worth applying for this new government benefit. While running an errand, she dropped by the Rutland, Vermont Social Security office to ask what, if anything, she was entitled to receive. Years later she said: “It wasn’t that I expected anything, mind you, but I knew I’d been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it.” Stopping by the Social Security office that day turned out to be a very good move. Ms. Fuller started collecting benefits in January, 1940 at age 65. She lived to be 100 years old, and died in 1975. During her lifetime she collected a total of $22,888.92 in Social Security benefits — more than 1,000 times the amount she had paid into the system. Her story was common, among her generation of Social Security recipients. That’s the way the system had been designed. President Roosevelt and his advisers set up the system so that benefits of the first Social Security recipients would be paid for by the taxes contributed by their younger fellow-workers. When those workers retired, in turn, their benefits would be paid for by even younger workers, and so on it was to go. Many retirees, tearing open their monthly Social Security envelopes, continue to think the government is simply returning funds to them that have been held on deposit. In fact, if retirees live long enough, they too will reach the point Ida May Fuller reached just two months after her retirement — benefitting from the contributions of others. It was a way of everyone taking care of everyone and not just saying it was a matter of “every man for himself.”3

As the horde of baby-boomers — my generation — begins to stampede the Social Security system, we hear a lot about that system being in crisis. Mention it in conversation and you can almost feel the anxiety level begin to rise. I lift up mine eyes to the mountain of Social Security, from where does my help come...? Where can we turn for help? So many of the institutions of our lives, once considered inviolate, seem fragile, vulnerable. What is there to count on?

Just over 200 years ago, while crossing the Bitterroot Mountain Range in September of 1805, admittedly lost by his own account, facing the extra threats of early snow falling and a rapidly diminishing food supply as they struggled up trackless mountains strewn with fallen logs, their horses continually slipping and falling, William Clark wrote in his journal. “I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life. Indeed I was at one time fearful my feet would freeze in the thin Mockirsons (sic.) which I wore.” I wonder if, nearing the ends of their lives, either Lewis or Clark asked to have the 121st Psalm read to them or over them, in order to be reminded that the source of their help and strength came from mountains. I doubt it. On the contrary, I suspect they forever after saw mountains as barriers to be gotten over before their strength was fully used up.

It is interesting to me that after the 2nd verse of the psalm, the word “help” disappears, the driving question of where help comes from is replaced by who is the person of the helper, and the word help is replaced by the word keep. In fact, the concept of being kept by God is so important, that the term is used in one form or another 6 times in this short psalm. To be kept in the loving embrace of God is, in so many ways, so much more suggestive of the nature of God than looking only for help from God.

Because of that first verse, we may think of the psalm as a comment about where we may often turn to find help: in mountains/nature, in economic security, in our families. It turns out, though, that God is not so much our helper but our keeper, and that the important question is not where help is, but who is the helper who keeps us in view, keeps us from stumbling, keeps us in our going out and coming in from this time into forever.

The people of the Old Testament made pilgrimages up to Jerusalem for festival days like Passover, and I can tell you, they harbored no romantic notions about the hills or mountains being any kind of help to them at all in their lives or in their journeying. In fact, the most dangerous part of their pilgrimage was the trek through the dry mountainous terrain until Mount Zion with its Temple came into view. In the mountains, robbers lurked, unpredictable storms lashed them, wild animals waited for the cover of darkness to steal their provisions or their children. They made their way through the same hills about which Jesus spoke when he told the story of the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was set upon by robbers who came out of those dangerous hills, took his belongings, and beat him, leaving him for dead until that now-famous good Samaritan came along to provide unexpected help.

No, the psalm the pilgrims sang as they made their way up to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount was a song of fright and even of terror. “I lift up my eyes to the hills, the perilous, daunting, terrifying hills with their thousand dangers, and as I do I wonder where help might be if I needed it.” The answer to their question comes to them as they come in sight of the Temple: “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth (and even the mountains themselves!).”

Have you ever found yourself in a place in your life where you wondered where your help was going to come from? The mute earth and sea that have swallowed millions of lives before you came along provide no answer, no response. And then you hear a sound. What is it? It is the sound of the arrival of those who have given their lives to God, who pursue their profession of helping the helpless out of a sense of calling from the God who keeps us, our going out and our coming in. It is the sound of ships and airplanes and helicopters and buses with Presbyterian missionary personnel, Red Cross professionals and volunteers, volunteer medical team personnel, and a thousand other organizations. I lift my eyes to the ocean that sent a tsunami and where is my help? My help comes not from the ocean, not from the land, not from the sky above or the earth beneath but from the Lord who provides, the Lord in whose name there are thousands setting aside and risking their own lives so that others may live.

A contemporary of mine shared a confessional prayer called “Confession of Who We Are,” apparently with the psalm in mind, which I want to share today in closing this sermon:

“Lord, we know help comes:
from care givers and counselors, treatments and prescriptions,
emergency squads and security officers,
nine-one-one, and self-help groups and social service safety nets,
planners and courts, diets and doctors,
congregations and families and friends.
Forgive when we forget, or never learn:
help comes in you, maker of heaven and earth; and of other helpers too;
and forgiveness comes in Jesus Christ our Lord.”4


Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Eugene Peterson, The Message, © Eugene Peterson, NavPress Publishing Group, Colorado Springs.
2 Source: Social Security Administration,
3 Thanks to Carlos Wilton in The Immediate Word, for February 20, 2005.
4 J. Barrie Shepherd, Praying the Psalms, Westminster Press, 1987.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shepherd of the Sheep

Shepherd of the Sheep

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 17, 2008

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want...

This psalm is probably more well-known than any other passage from the Old Testament, and possibly at least as well-known and well-loved as any passage in either the Old or New Testaments. Familiarity is a great thing, but it can have its downside too. Phrases we know as well as we know our own names can take on a host of misunderstandings and misplacements which are hard to dislodge from our brains.

“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want...” for instance. Read without the comma, the Lord becomes the one shepherd which a sheep doesn’t want.

I remember a wonderful woman in one of my Texas congregations, Judy Murphy, and the fact that when I listened to one of the 3rd grade youngsters reciting the 23rd Psalm, I heard him saying, “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life...”

There are dozens of these, made possible by solipsisms, missing punctuation, and plain old misunderstanding:

“He makes me lie ..... down in green pastures he restores my soul.”
“Shirley Goodness ... and Mercy [the Goodness sisters] shall follow me...”

On the other hand this psalm has inspired deep and lovely reflections on its meaning. Years ago, I ran across an affirmation about Psalm 23 whose author is unknown, at least to me. I thought it was so lovely that I have read this as an introduction to the psalm at dozens of funerals and memorial services since then:

“This psalm has flown like a bird up and down the earth singing the sweetest song ever heard. It has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It will go on singing to your children, and to their children, ’til the end of time. And when its work is done, it will fly back to the bosom of God, fold its wings, and sing on forever in the happy chorus of those it helped to bring there.”

A pastor I know, a college chaplain,1 bumped into one of his students who was to graduate in a week, and absent-mindedly he said, “Good luck.” He pondered that simple farewell and wondered why he’d said it, since, as he reflected later, “I didn’t believe a word of it.” It wasn’t because his student was so bright and blessed that he’d never need any help outside himself to make it in the world. It was just that the help that student, that any of us needs outside ourselves, has nothing to do with luck.

At the end of the book of Genesis, we find the concluding stories about Joseph son of Jacob, who had been his father’s favorite, and therefor his brothers’ least favorite, to the degree that they had determined one day to kill him but instead simply sold him off into slavery (and you think your family was dysfunctional!). Once he landed in Egypt, though, this bright youngster caught the eye of Pharaoh, who promoted him to chief of all things related to food in the kingdom. Meantime, his brothers had suffered a famine in their homeland and had come begging to Egypt, hoping for a handout. When they realized that the one they had come to ask for help was the very same brother they had treated so hatefully all those years ago, they were terrified at what he might do to them. But Joseph had grown far beyond thoughts of revenge, and told them not to be afraid: “You meant it for evil,” he said, “but God meant it for good.”

So there.

During the time that his brothers thought they were initiating evil, it so happens they weren’t the only characters doing things. God, it turns out, has the capacity to turn even evil works into good, and is at work behind what is behind the scenes. Ironically, their barbaric, murderous act turned out to be the very thing that saved the family from starvation.

“He leads me to water, he brings me to green pastures, he restores me...”

Any time I read the 23rd Psalm, so many images come to my mind, but one which comes back to me again and again is this one...

In his beautiful book, This House of Sky,2 Ivan Doig wrote about his experiences growing up as the only child of a widowed Montana sheep ranch foreman. In one portion of his story he recalled a time when an unseasonably cold July rainstorm threatened to wipe out his father’s entire flock of newly shorn sheep out on the summer range. In frantic desperation, Ivan, his father, the sheep dogs, even Ivan’s grandmother, alternately beat, cajoled, frightened, forced, and intimidated the sheep into the relative safety of a coulee by the river. Here is how he described it:

“As soon as the crew finished shearing the sheep the first few days of July ... the weather had an unaccountable chill ... and with our shorn ewes we had on our hands a double thousand of the world’s most undressed creatures ... these first days they stood naked, helpless to a storm ...

... The nightmare prospect was that the band could panic in the corral and crush onto one another in suicidal piles. For certain, in a cold, driving rain hundreds of trapped ewes would destroy themselves and their lambs that way. But the second worst threat was for a storm to maul into sheep loose for stampede on this unsheltered range...

... The first blast of wind swayed the trailer. We piled out the doorway into the longest day of our lives.

... Before we could reach the corral, a sharp rain began to sting down ... a wind steadily sharpening the storm’s attack ... The gate bowed, snapped apart against the tonnage of the hundreds of struggling bodies.

The pale shapes of the ewes rivered past us ... I ran the first sprint of endless running, crying Hyaw! Hyaw! as I tried to head the leaders. I heard the jeep gunning as Dad set out after another runaway group.

What we faced, if we could not bring the band under control, was a rapid steady push toward the steady devastation of our sheep ... they were aimed like an avalanche to the cliffs ... One way alone offered any chance ... try to funnel them along the bottom of the single big coulee ... to do it we would have to fight the sheep ... sideways along the punishing storm.

And so we fought, running, raging, hurling the dogs and ourselves at the waves of sheep, flogging with the gunny sacks, shaking the wire rings of cans ... we were like skirmishers against a running army.”

Psalm 23 has an inevitably pastoral sense to it, and for the most part we probably think of it as having to do mostly with still water by which the Lord, the Shepherd, is said to lead us. Yet when we leave it at that, we forget about another side of this psalm, the side which declares God’s presence when we go through the “valley of the shadow of death.” What is it that comforts us in such a time? Well for the psalmist, it was a rod and a staff, perhaps akin to a waving gunny sack and wire rings of cans. Perhaps there are times when God’s will for us can only be brought out in us as he skirmishes against the running army of our intransigent willfulness. Imagining us as a runaway band of senseless sheep — “the world’s most undressed creatures ... helpless to a storm” aren’t bad ways to think of it. Then imagine God as the One who, though we can’t understand it, can’t perceive it, knows what is best for us. Imagine God running alongside us, yelling “Hyaw!” and trying to move us to a safety we haven’t begun to comprehend.

It’s not just God’s amazing provision for our safety and well-being that we contemplate in the psalm. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me...” One of the features of the Ark of the Covenant that accompanied Israel as it wandered in the wilderness was the “mercy seat,” a plate of refined gold that sat atop the Ark. If the Ark was the traveling luggage of the God who journeyed with the people, the mercy seat was the most sacred part of it. In Exodus 25, God promises, “I will meet you there.” One preacher3 wondered, “Why mercy seat? Why not judgment seat? Or anger seat? Or jealousy seat? Or power seat? Why mercy — when so many often say mercy, compassion, and kindness were not attributes [associated with the God of the Old Testament]?”

What was going on is what we celebrate most about the 23rd Psalm, the reason we love it so much. Humanity was beginning to recognize that the God who created the heavens and the earth, was characterized, more than by any other quality, by mercy. Above and beyond anything else we believe or people tell us to believe about God is this elegant truth: God is merciful.

And God’s mercy was made manifest in human form in Jesus Christ, so that we may ever after have an example of the possibility that we, too, may live lives characterized by mercy.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,
all the days of my life.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 William Willimon, who shared this story in his sermon, “Good Luck?” preached at Duke University, April 25, 1999.
2 This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, by Ivan Doig, 1978: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, p. 217 ff.
3 John M. Buchanan, in his sermon “And Mercy Shall Follow Me” in Sermons for the City, 1996: Providence House Publishers, p. 89.