April 3, 2016
Second Sunday of Easter
O dreaded Sunday after Easter! The strangers who showed up last week have returned to their dens, awaiting another Christmas or Easter on which to demonstrate their tenuous connection to the community of faith. The faithful have returned, as they always do, but even some of their colleagues have decided to sleep in. There is no choir, since they are sung out, what with the cantata and the multiple anthems and the trumpets now rendered silent, and all. The sanctuary seems somehow eerily quiet and dark and empty. The associate pastor preaches, or if there is no associate pastor, you pull out a sermon you have done some years before, with updated stories, of course, to disguise its previous service.
The task of preaching this Sunday is a hard one to be sure. And for those of us who love the Hebrew Bible and look forward to its riches, the lectionary folk wrench us off to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Hebrew Bible all the way until Pentecost, eight long weeks. So, in at least one previous year of these reflections, I did my best to explicate those texts from Acts. Make no mistake: they are wonderful texts, filled with no end of narrative joys and deep meanings for us moderns.
But this year I have decided to attend to the psalm chosen for the day. I have done Psalms before, but I am especially interested in these grand poems this year because the choir of which I am a member (too old bass that I am) is singing a selection of anthems based on the Psalms for a conference in a week or so. I have been asked to provide for the listeners a kind of very brief introduction to the Psalms to aid them in understanding what they will hear. This will be, due to the restraints of time, necessarily the tiniest of glimpses into the vast corpus. But I thought I would try a bit of that introduction out on you, using Psalm 118 as a parade example of some of what psalms were written to do.
The Psalms of the Hebrew Bible were composed throughout the history of Israel, from very earliest times (perhaps 1200 B.C.E.) down to the exile and after (6th-5th century B.C.E.). They were surely codified as a corpus of poems no later than the 4th century B.C.E., since the Septuagint, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made sometime after the death of Alexander the Great in the early 4th century, contains all of the Psalms plus one. The poems are both liturgical, that is employed for services of worship in temple and home, and individual, used by faithful ones in times of joy and pain. Some of the poems, in fact the largest number of them, express anger, frustration, fear, and horror at the dangers that the ancient world presented to any who lived in those days. None of the anthems that we will sing is based on psalms like those. Others enshrine notes of joy, happiness, praise of YHWH, hopes for the future. These psalms have often been the source of the skills of composers for centuries.
Psalm 118 is an example of that. Countless anthems have been written on this psalm, a poem that includes in its words any number of repeatable lines etched in deep faith and trust, along with some honest reflections on the dangers of life. It begins and ends with one of Israel's most beloved convictions, one that is found in all stages of the life of this people.
Give thanks to YHWH who is good whose unbreakable love is eternal! (Ps. 118: 1, 29)
I translate the Hebrew chesed "unbreakable love," as a way of suggesting something of the persistence and unchangeable nature of this special YHWH love for the people (the familiar "steadfast love" of the NRSV has begun to sound stodgy to me). The word is finally untranslatable, but its power remains even in its Hebrew guise. Chesed is the very essence of YHWH; it defines who YHWH is and what YHWH wishes for the world.
Then the poet offers a three-fold demand for the announcing of this love to the universe. First, Israel is to shout the truth of YHWH's chesed, then the "house of Aaron" (the priests), and finally "all who fear (that is, "honor" or "revere" or "worship") YHWH" (Ps. 118:2-4). In short, the chesed of YHWH is to be on the lips and in the hearts of all!
Verses 5-9 describes the initial distress of the psalmist, but end with the stark claim "it is better to find refuge in YHWH than in mortals, better to find refuge in YHWH than in princes" (Ps. 118:8-9). How true is that claim in our own time, when we are bombarded with the pathetic blathering of politicians out for power, willing to say anything to secure a vote, even to the point of lies and half-truths. Just how far these would-be leaders are from the chesed of YHWH is impossible to describe or measure!
I am especially struck today by the famous 118:22, a verse that has been employed for centuries as a reference to Jesus of Nazareth, that man rejected by many in his own day, but one who has become the cornerstone for many. I have no wish to argue the niceties of theology around that question, but am ready to examine its profound insight. The amazing love of YHWH serves as the foundation for a new way to see the world, a world that is finally not run by princes or mortals or even by priests and prophets, but only by YHWH alone. We are too often in the business of deciding just who should be the cornerstone of our own buildings, usually choosing the richest, the most powerful, the cleverest, the loudest. But here we are warned that it may well be the rejected stone, the poorest, the weakest, the one termed fool, the quieter one, who at the last becomes the chief corner of the world's truth.