The Psalm appointed for today had me running for my Jewish Study Bible. The BCP version is quite different from the NRSV and the JSB is even different from that. Is this evidence of inconsistency in Scripture? Of course! Whenever words are translated from one language to another, it is doesn't quite have the same meaning. And when they are being translated not merely from one language to another but from one era to another the inconsistencies are even greater.
Psalm 52 is not a praise of God as is usual with other biblical psalms. It is a rant against the injustice of someone who is using his power to undo the works of God. And following the Amos reading for today it makes for a really heavy first bit to our readings.
I do love this psalm. It allows me to rant and rave about the injustices perpetrated by those who would subvert the Hesed—the Loving Kindness of God. It does seem a bit self-righteous in parts, but don’t we all do that at some point when trying to deal with people who are arrogant or unjust? But there is so much unvarnished truth in the psalm. “The righteous shall see and tremble, and they shall laugh at him saying, this is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.” In other words: “That rich guy over there who is being a jerk will get his because God says so.”
I can think of many people I would have liked to quote this psalm to in order to prove my righteousness. But I must admit that wouldn't get me very far and finally make me realize that I was being just as much a jerk as the rich guy. But that isn't the point of the psalm. The point of the psalm is that real motives will out. When we try to cover up our real motives with pontifications, and make excuses for ourselves, truth will out. Our motives are not only clear to God but they will eventually be apparent to those around us. The high and mighty one to whom this psalm is addressed who is the deceiver will be revealed as a purveyor of lies.
Paired with the Amos reading, which is an extension of last week’s prophecy of the plumb line, today’s reading reminds the captive people of Judah living in Babylon of what had happened to Israel. The Israelites were sold off and assimilated into other cultures of the Ancient Middle East. They forgot their allegiance to the God who had gathered them into a people after the Exodus. They failed to serve their communities by maintaining the Mosaic Law given them at Sinai and they were swallowed up by other cultures and Israel was no more.
Mosaic Law was initially based on maintaining tribal life or family communal life. Land was held in common and for the common good. Leaders originally were the heads of families but as agriculture replaced nomadic herd following, the life began to change. And the 8th century BCE was a time of economic change. Land that once belonged to the tribes began to be sold by the kings to people outside of the kingdom, and treaties were being made by the kings who paid no attention to the traditions of the people. Israel became a nation of traders with wealth becoming in the hands of the few rather than at the service of the tribes. It is this that Amos is railing about. It was a time of social upheaval and Israel had to pay the price of disintegration when the primary reason for the existence for the Chosen People of Israel, the Light to Lighten the Gentiles to love one God, had been lost.
Some 250 years later while the People of Judah are in captivity in Babylon, the leaders of their beleaguered tribes decided to gather the history and the literature of their people to keep their culture alive. They had seen what had happened to the 10 tribes of Jacob when dispersed by the Assyrians. They were determined live separate lives from the cultures around them and began to form themselves back in to the people of Judah. When they were allowed to return to Judah in the late 8th century BCE, they had already developed a new national character—a new cultural story from which they lived and understood their relationship with God. It was while they were in Babylon that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were gathered and written. When they returned to Jerusalem they already had all kinds of laws that would solidify their national character. But one thing was certain: They understood that it was the failure to follow God’s law that had been the reason that their nations had been overrun and they were determined not to allow it to happen again.
Prophets like Amos who had so poetically expressed God’s displeasure at Israel’s greediness were looked to as formulas for avoiding being captured by larger powers. And the passage we have for today sounds amazingly harsh when it is attributed to God. But when we understand that the prophecy rang true with the experience of those who had been carried off into captivity. Such traumatic memories never die in cultures. And we can see a similar thing in our own nation with the different cultural stories that are lived out in African-American and Anglo-American communities. The histories we live out in our lives have very different origins but have profound effects on our shared experiences.
Hebrew prophecy is never sooth saying. It is not telling the future. It is the warning of God that the state of the commonweal is being threatened by greed, mismanagement, false prophets or ‘whoring after other gods.’ And it is from these warnings that we often get the idea that God is an angry God or the Old Testament God is an angry God. Nothing can be farther than the truth. The prophets, especially the 8th century prophets, were those who could see what was coming because what the people were not meeting the needs of the society. When a society is out of balance, bad things happen.
I am not a financier and I don’t play the stock market, but even I could have told you that the financial meltdown of 2007 was going to happen because the watchmen who were supposed to be guarding the commonweal were asleep. We had no regulation which could prevent the greedy from robbing us all. And while we were not carried off into slavery, as were the Jews, I would suggest that the social disintegration has been just as severe. We had become as inured to the needs of the commonweal as were the Israelites.
We may be losing the foundations upon which our nation is founded too because we are allowing partisan politics to block any legislation that helps the commonweal. We are even hearing from some that perhaps democracy isn't the best form of government and yet we fight wars to make others free for democracy. What is that about???
We are seeing the social strides that were made by those who laid their lives on the line a generation ago being rolled back rather than tweaking them to make them flexible to meet new duties. We have prophets in our world today in our Churches too. We have become so convinced of our right to say and do things because of the privileges that we enjoy that we have forgotten what the Church is for.
In the Gospel we have for today we hear the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus does not tell us what the Church is for. He tells of what his followers are to
Martha symbolizes the work that becomes an obsession. It is when we in the Church are so caught up in doing the work of the Church that we have lost our reason for our being. We begin to complain about all those others who don’t do anything—who just come and go home and don’t contribute and don’t attend the potluck. But Mary is the one that Jesus says has the better part. She has stopped to hear the word of Christ. Mary is out of the ordinary—she isn't doing what women were supposed to do. She listened.
The Church—society as a whole, has become so ‘worried and distracted over so many things’ that we have lost the ability to just listen, to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen to one another, to appreciate God’s creation. We have lost the reason for our being so that we can be caught up in the pattern of greed that sells our inheritance—the inheritance of joy, balance, and peace that we are promised in God’s love.
We have created a privileged class of clergy who keep busy and keep us busy that we are becoming incapable of sitting at the feet of the Holy One. When was the last time we had silence as a part of the liturgy? When were we more worried about how we ‘did’ the Eucharist than how the Eucharist was done in us?
I daresay that this is not a sermon that ‘plays’ well in parishes because there is so much to do to keep the parish running. But it is that constant need to support the institution that keeps us as followers of Jesus from knowing him intimately. It also means that few really enter into that relationship with the Holy One and embrace the ‘thin place’ of the Incarnation where God and humanity come together. And until we are willing to not spend hours trying to address who is mowing the lawn, or how we are going to pay the air conditioning bill, and sit at the feet of Jesus just to listen, the Church will continue to be the ‘bared ruin choirs’ for future generations.
The Church’s purpose is to connect people to God. If we are unwilling to listen, we don’t deserve to exist. AMEN