Sunday, March 28, 2010

April Fool

April Fool

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Passion/Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.

The LORD is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar. NRSV

Palm Sunday always provides a head-scratching opportunity for preachers. Easter is still a week off, and with it the celebration of the triumph of the resurrection. Today, Palm Sunday, we generally take part in a sort of mini-celebration, which, by the end of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, turns toward the dark days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So what is the point of Palm Sunday, really? Is it a sort of April Fools joke on folks who thought they had the right take on the sort of power possessed by Jesus, only to discover they were in error? Clearly, the disciples were taken entirely by surprise by the way the week turned out. They dozed instead of praying, they ran in fear, they were clueless about Jesus’ last dinner meeting with them and its meaning, they fought, they quarreled, they angled for position ... a lot like Christians today!

Today I have chosen to set to one side the well-worn gospel accounts of the Palm Sunday processional in Jerusalem in order to look at Psalm 118, from which the gospel writers later saw many clues as to the divine purpose behind Jesus’ unusual entry into Jerusalem.

So often we approach the Psalms as a sort of collection or book of quotations containing proverbial wisdom. But they are not just bits of piety and poetry and inspiration designed for captions on the inside of greeting cards. The Psalms are real expressions, real reflections on experiences of real life. They emerge from “confrontations with real evil, real dangers, real fears, real anxieties, real frustrations, and really nasty people.”[1] They speak to experiences common to all humanity because they emerge straight from the human condition. One of the most basic human conditions many Psalms address is fear: the visceral, fundamental, disabling anxiety common to all humanity. We all have experienced it, some may be struggling with it at this very moment as we sit in this sanctuary.

Psalm 118 might seem an odd text for Palm Sunday, though it does contain phrases reminiscent of the events of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The psalm reminds us that the context of praise with which it begins exists inside a larger environment of fear, sadness, anxiety, sorrow, disappointment, even terror. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ time, an environment of fear was the context in which joy was found by the psalmist, just as the context of life is death, the context of light is darkness, the context of sound is silence. The context of the psalm’s praise is the story of the whisker’s width escape from death by the young David, pretender to the throne, as he fled from Saul, the king of record, who was determined to destroy his would-be successor.

Without going into excessive detail, Saul had sent out armed forces, hit men, and schemers to defeat the young David. “David (was) a man with a contract on his head. The world (was) out to get him. He (was) not just imagining it. It (was) not just a bit of paranoia. He (was) not just mildly confused or bewildered. He (was) in mortal danger. His friends (were) not to be relied upon in the treacherous geopolitical world of his age. And the skills that had served him before, the talents, the abilities, all of the things that people had praised in him before, now got him nothing at all. He has been pursued. He has been persecuted. He has been slandered and much maligned, chased all over the land. As the spiritual says, ‘He has been buked and scorned.’ But in the end, by his perseverance, by the grace of God, and over enormous odds,”[2] his kingship was realized, and his ultimate triumph was made all the sweeter for the narrowness of the margin by which it was achieved.

Reflecting on David’s experience, the psalmist declares, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord, and he answered me and set me in a broad (meaning, ‘free’) place.”

David’s enemies were real. He wasn’t merely possessed of a need to employ self-improvement slogans like “mind over matter.” At verse 10 his enemies surrounded him on all sides. At verse 12 he describes them as surrounding him like a bunch of killer bees. At verse 13 he declared, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.”

It doesn’t require a military background to understand this sense of siege, of attack, of conflict and frustration. I have seen it in my friends. I see it in some of you from time to time. I see it in myself. It is part of the human condition, like breathing and eating and sleeping. Fear, conflict, and anxiety come with the task of being human. Most people I talk with don’t name some single gigantic evil enemy or force that is out to get them. Most people, most of my friends, and I, most of the time, don’t feel that there is a single pursuer after us. But we know the feeling sometimes of being surrounded by swarming bees coming from every direction, defying the meager protection of our hapless arm waving. They are little anxieties, small burdens and complaints. It would be better to have one big, clear, visible enemy with whom we could contend once and for all. But life rarely works that way. Insidious little claims on our spirits wear us down in our inability to isolate them and fight each one off.

The kind of fear of which this text is speaking is not the fear of death. It is the fear of life: fear of living, fear of the consequences of the next breath, the next hour, the next hour’s encounter. What will be the next impossible demand placed upon us? Will it be before sunset tonight that somebody will ask of us what we cannot possibly do? Tomorrow will someone say something we would rather not hear? Will the mail bring not tidings of great joy, but the dreadful news that the IRS is interested in us? It is fear of life and its consequences that puts us into a state of paralysis.

The fear of life means that most people dare not live fully or freely, but rather live what Henry David Thoreau called, “... lives of quiet desperation, (going) to the grave with the song still in them,”[3] lives in which we exist perennially on the defensive, anticipating a life in which, as an old proverb says, sorrows never come singly and joys never come in pairs.

In the services during the coming week we will be given reason to remember why fear entered into the hearts of the disciples following the hurrahs of Palm Sunday. On Thursday, we will celebrate the supper which Jesus instituted with his closest disciples, only to be reminded the next night that it took so little to cause them to flee in fear. And it is fear of life that drives so many of us into the darkest recesses of our own private anxieties and fears, showing all the signs of life lived in the shadows out of a fear of life itself: Depression, gloom, stress, morbidity, all the things the psalmist also marked elsewhere as signs of life lived in the valley of the shadow of death. In Jesus’ ministry prior to his resurrection, the disciples were almost uniformly weak-kneed, frightened of their own shadows, and rarely ever understood Jesus’ ministry or his words except on levels closest to the surface. That describes pre-Easter people pretty well.

I recall a David Frost interview with Nelson Mandela that was broadcast several years ago. Mandela was asked about the key to his success in helping a thoroughly racist South Africa move, mostly peacefully, from segregation and apartheid to peace and cooperation among the races. What, the interviewer wanted to know, was his formula for such peace? Mandela replied that it would not be diplomacy, or military might, or economic power that would guarantee peace and a shot at prosperity for his troubled country. It would be “the death of fear, the fear of oneself, the fear of the other, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the everyday circumstances of one’s life: white, colored, and black. The death of fear would be the beginning of new life.”[4]

As much as we look toward the resurrection of Jesus on the Sunday after today, we also look in his raised life for the death of fear and the renewal of hope and possibility for ourselves, and for our world.

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

[1] My thanks to Peter Gomes, whose Harvard chapel sermon, “The Death of Fear,” (Pulpit Digest, March/April 1995) has had a great impact on my thoughts about, and my work on, this psalm.
[2] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., Gomes sermon.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Paths to Happiness

Paths to Happiness

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2010

Psalm 32

Happy are those
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered. NRSV

Psalm 32 begins with a beatitude, as does the most famous teaching in the New Testament, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful...”[1] The heading the translators picked for this psalm in my deskside Bible is “The Joy of Forgiveness.” “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven...” It’s important to realize that this joy comes not from being the one to offer forgiveness, but the one on the receiving end. It’s a hard truth for most self-made, I-did-it-my-way, never-complain-never-explain people in the world.

Psalm 32 is a perfect spiritual accompaniment for our Lenten pilgrimage toward the prize of Easter, inasmuch as it begins not with groveling, guilt, and gloom, but begins with a conclusion toward which the rest of the psalm moves:
  • It begins, in a way, with the triumphant result to come, and then explains how we get there.
  • It begins at the end, with a beatitude, with the consequence of confession and forgiveness, in the same way we begin almost every service of worship, with a prayer of confession, then a word of pardon, before we get to the business of celebrating how we got there by means of the gospel.
  • It begins in assurance, so we need not fear the journey through recognition of our sin, our need to confess it, and the release from bondage that is provided in forgiveness. The prize is ever before us, as it were.

I love the fact that the psalm begins, not with a rehearsal of human failures and shortcomings, but with assurance, with a promise of better things to come than what we may have known. Those with overblown confidence in their own moral rectitude, who do not realize from the outset that we all stand in need of the prevenient grace of God to make our paths straight, those who believe against all the human evidence to the contrary that by sheer force of moral will we can be self-perfecting, are invariably on a collision course with the reality that it simply isn’t so. We cannot save ourselves from our own immersion in human failing, no matter how hard we endeavor to rise above. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we wander among the trees, hiding from God, hoping God won’t notice.

In Leonard Bernstein’s quixotic 1970s theater rendition of the Catholic Mass, the confession contains this exceptionally accurate portrayal of the human predicament of sin:

If I could I’d confess
Good and loud, nice and slow
Get this load off my chest
Yes, but how, Lord — I don’t know.
What I say I don’t feel
What I feel I don’t show
What I show isn’t real
What is real, Lord, I don’t know
No, no, no — I don’t know....[2]

Yet in the face of this, Psalm 32 opens with this primary assurance; before the psalmist can even move to confession comes the assurance of God’s grace to come:

Happy are those
to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit. NRSV

Isn’t this the central theme of Lent? Often we see it as a season of penitence, of “giving things up,” of dust and ashes. We are tempted to think of confession and penitence as a way we can earn our way back into God’s favor. Yet in reality, God stands by, ready to impute no iniquity, to relieve us of the move to deceit to cover ourselves. Lent is, in reality, the season of God’s making possible the steadfast, surrounding love that we cannot create for ourselves.

Psalm 32 makes three central claims about what is true in human life.

Sin is real. Make no mistake, the Bible never suggests that sin does not exist. It is entirely aware of the reality of sin, and of every human being’s participation in it. We may try to scapegoat, to cast the real blame for sin somewhere outside ourselves, outside our group, our country, our faith. But the reality that confronts us is that sin is real, and we are up to our necks in it, and that is just how it is. Sin is real.

And if sin is real, confession of sin is necessary. “While I kept silence,” the psalmist declared, “my body wasted away... then I acknowledged my sin to you ... I did not hide my iniquity.” No matter that God’s desire to forgive and make whole is prevenient, stands outside our own willingness to ask, still the asking is necessary. This is as true in human relations as it is in our relationship to God. I recall in my seminary days, being asked by an intelligent and well-spoken woman in a church I served, why we needed a prayer of confession every Sunday, “after all,” she said, “I don’t feel I have done anything wrong.” To this, the psalmist would reply “While I kept silence ... your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up.” I simply replied to this well-meaning but self-deceived person, “If you don’t think you have done anything wrong in the past week, you probably need to think some more.”

We all know the special misery of an offense against someone else that goes unconfessed: the burden of broken friendship, alienation, the estrangement which takes so much energy to remember. It takes a lot of work. We avoid eye-contact. We have to remember not to find ourselves in the company of that person. We have to remember and rehearse over and over again the source and cause of our estrangement, our non-reconciliation, non-confession, which takes a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Confession can erase the need for this complicated dance of avoidance and pain. Confession allows us to put a name on the problem, making healing and recovery possible.

And if confession is necessary, the psalmist makes clear that forgiveness of sin is not only also real, but also it is a source of surpassing joy. And here is a way to look at it that I had not thought of before reading it in an article by Peter Gomes, chaplain at Harvard University, who said “It is the Christian’s duty, as well as privilege, to be joyful.”[3]

Joy is not an option of the faith. It is a requirement. And we arrive at joy, according to the wisdom of the psalm, by way of acknowledging the reality of sin, confessing our own part in it, and receiving what God is already so prepared to give, the blessing of forgiveness which grants us a joy beyond measure. The psalmist, after declaring the assurance of God’s forgiveness, throws in that exclamatory word that often appears in the psalms: “Selah!” which means something like “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Amen!” all rolled into one.

About the sheer necessity of joy for Christian life, Dr. Gomes also declared to his Harvard congregation one Sunday, “Now you would not know that to look at the faces of most Christians. You don’t have the benefit as I do of the view from up here.”[4] Psalm 32 functions as a reminder that the joy of life in God is real, is imminently and presently available to us. While sin is real and confession is necessary, forgiveness and the joy it brings is also real.

It is said that St. Augustine was so convinced of this that he had Psalm 32 in its entirety written above his head as he lay on his deathbed, so that its message would be the very last conscious thought he would carry with him from this world into the next. Martin Luther regarded Psalm 32 as among the passages of the Old Testament closest to the very essence of the gospel.

Temptation and failure, of course, return to us again and again. Even so, we are never left alone in the wilderness of our struggles. Before there is failure, before there is shortcoming, before Cain even thought of laying a knife to Abel’s throat, there was the covering willingness and desire of God to forgive, to move toward error-prone humanity with the sweet song of forgiveness. God sends angels to us, heavenly messengers — sometimes in clothes of flesh and blood — who bring sustenance and restore strength. They will come to us suddenly, when we are exhausted and vulnerable. When we most need them, they will come and lift us up. In the second century, a desert father wrote: “The devil cannot lord it over those who serve God with their whole heart and who put their hope in him. The devil can wrestle with them, but cannot overcome them.”[5]

Notorious sin, public and private, can be forgiven. So can the sins that are so pedestrian, so everyday that we hardly recognize them even as we are committing them, sins of daily, clumsy, character assassination, gossip, self-excusing. In our commitment to the service of God, we do not languish forever in a place of condemnation. From the soot of Ash Wednesday we move forward into a Christ-saved world, toward Galilee, toward Jerusalem, toward our neighbor, toward our enemy, toward both the ends of the earth and deepest recesses of our hearts.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Matthew 5:3 ff.
[2] "Trope: I Don't Know," Mass, Leonard Bernstein.
[3] “Confessions and Consequences,” by Peter Gomes, Pulpit Digest, January-February 1994, pp. 23-29. I am indebted to Dr. Gomes in this sermon for his threefold interpretation of the psalm.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Referenced in “Bedrock Truths,” by Patricia Farris, Christian Century, 2/17/02, p. 18

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Tragedy of Unoffered Prayer

The Tragedy of Unoffered Prayer

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder
Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010

Psalm 63:1-8

I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name. NRSV

A lot of conversation about prayer suggests that it amounts to petitioning God for stuff we want. It reminds me of a story about the great Arnold Palmer, who once played a series of exhibition golf matches in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king was more than a little impressed by Palmer’s skill, and so he expressed a desire to give him a gift. Palmer demurred, citing the honor he felt simply to have been invited. But once he realized the king would be upset if he failed to accept a gift, he thought for a moment and said, “Alright, Your Highness, a golf club would be a lovely memento of my visit to your country.” The next day, an envelope was delivered to Palmer’s hotel containing the title to a golf club, thousands of acres complete with trees, sand traps, water hazards, fairways, greens, and a clubhouse.

Sometimes I suspect we think this way about prayer, that it is a matter of receiving stuff for our prayer efforts.

I also remember a story I heard about one of baseball’s legendary players, Yogi Berra, who played catcher for the Yankees. During one game, in the bottom of the 9th, the score was tied and there were two outs. The next batter from the opposing team stepped into the batter’s box, and casually reached over with his bat and made the sign of the cross on home plate. Yogi Berra thought to himself, “Hey, I’m Catholic, too!” So he reached out, wiped off the plate with his glove, and said to the pious batter, “Why don’t we just let God
watch the game?”

This is pretty good theology if we’re thinking about baseball games and their outcomes, but it’s really lousy theology if we attempt to apply it to our lives and to our faith. A philosophy that says “Why don’t we just let God watch?” runs against 20 centuries of church teaching about the necessity of prayer.

“Oh, easy for you to say,” you might be thinking, “you’re a pastor, you know all about prayer, you’ve studied up on it.” Well, of course that thinking ignores the facts that, first, prayer isn’t so much a matter of study as it is a matter of practice, and secondly, that effectiveness in prayer is never measured by skill, always by repetition. Repetition. That almost seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If I say a prayer once, doesn’t God hear it, why does he need to hear it repeatedly? But any golfer will tell you that you can read all the books on golf you can find, you can watch golf on the Golf channel from morning to night, even attend PGA tournaments in person and watch the best golfers in the world and collect their autographs, but none of that will improve your game at all. The only way to improve your game is to get out on the course and
play golf!

John Calvin, great-granddaddy of all Presbyterians, once said that the Lord’s Prayer is there to help us when our own ideas run out.” This is true, but it is also true that the Lord’s Prayer can serve simply to get our prayer life moving when it is stuck.

The Rev. F.B. Meyer was born in London, England in 1847, began pastoring churches there and writing books – lots of books – in 1872. He lived through the turn of the twentieth century. While some may recall the names of evangelists such as Spurgeon, Moody, Graham, and Bryan, Meyer was well-known in his day, but not so much today. This is so even though he wrote over 40 published books. Still, if he hadn’t written another word, it is worth remembering him for a single sentence he did write, and for which his name is still recalled at least by some. Once I began looking for it, particularly on the Internet, I discovered his name is referenced in literally hundreds of thousands places out there in cyberspace. All this about a man who died back in 1929! Though Meyer was well known in his day, hardly at all in our own, here is a cryptic sentence, which he wrote about prayer, and which appeared just a few years ago in a new book, and by which he has been referenced in hundreds of books and untold numbers of sermons:

“The greatest tragedy in life is not un
answered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” [1]

I think, hearing that sentence, we can see why it is captivating. It takes one of the commonest things we hear and say about prayer – that it sometimes goes unanswered – and turns it on its head. By far, I suspect, there are more prayers that go unoffered than go unanswered. That isn’t to say there is nothing to the idea of unanswered prayer, but Meyer’s comment reminds us that often, suspecting there will be no answer, or perhaps not the answer we desire, we leave prayers unoffered, turning a deaf ear to what the Spirit might say to us if only we had been listening.

When, in the first verse of the psalm, the psalmist says, “O God ... I seek you...” Are we to take this to suggest that God is hiding, that God must be sought out, that God is generally unwilling to hear from us? I don’t think so. Wasn’t the scene of Adam and Eve in the garden the quintessential example that it is we who hide from God? American philosopher William James, best remembered for writing The Varieties of Religious Experience, once responded to a question about whether or not he prayed, saying, “I can’t possibly pray. I feel foolish and artificial.” Yet he wrote in his famous book that prayer is “the very soul and essence of religion.” One observer, considering her own inept attempts at prayer while contemplating her Catholic rosary, said, “I wonder if it ever occurred to William James that feeling foolish and artificial is as good a starting point as any for prayer. Prayer is like courtship; of course it feels foolish and artificial. It’s not something you can work at inwardly and then execute outwardly.”

“Oh God,” said the psalmist, “you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.” While the poetry of the psalms is impressive, this is not the sort of language that is impossible for any of us. A contemporary translation of this first verse of the psalm was rendered this way, making it sound even more contemporary:

God – you’re my God!
I can’t get enough of you!
I’ve worked up such hunger and thirst for God
traveling across dry and weary deserts. [3]

Are you, like so many of us, afraid to go to God with your tiny requests and petty concerns, someone who needs courage and grace to come boldly to God? Then make sufficient courage and grace the first thing you ask for. That’s basically what the psalmist began by doing in Psalm 63.

I remember well the day following the incredible news that those misbegotten terrorists had attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center towers by flying airplanes full of innocent passengers and highly combustible fuel into the buildings. It was horrific, as you all surely remember. That day we opened the doors to the sanctuary of the church I was serving at the time, across from the capitol in Salem, and placed a sign on the sidewalk out in front to inform passersby that the church was open for prayer. And people came in, in ones and twos and threes. Three of us – two pastors and a musician – stayed up in the chancel for a while grabbing bits of scripture signaling one another, “Now you pray, now you lead a hymn, how about this one? Now you read some scripture, now you pray again....” It was chaotic, but I have to say, I have seldom felt so useful in all my ministry. And after we ran out of words and hymns to offer, we simply set the doors open and left people to their prayers. And they came. They prayed. I don’t know what they prayed, or even to whom, but I do know this: If we were to place signs out in front of that building tomorrow morning and leave the doors open all day, I’d be surprised if half a dozen people came in out of any greater motivation than curiosity. The same would likely be true here.

It shouldn’t require a national tragedy or disaster to get people praying; though, sadly, it often does. But in the meantime, in all the times between or before disasters, why fail to pray, why perpetuate the tragedy of unoffered prayer?

It is Lent, of course. There is no better time or season to sit in a quiet place on a daily basis, and simply open our hearts to whatever God may be ready to offer us in prayer. If we need a model, how about this simple ancient Celtic prayer:

God with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without God,
Nor one ray without God.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
Forever and forevermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Quoted in: Prayer: Does It Makes Any Difference?, Zondervan, 2006, by Philip Yancey, p. 283.
[2] “Foolish Prayer,” by Carol Zaleski, Christian Century, 2-23-03, p. 48.
[3] The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson, © 2003, p. 977.