Saturday, September 05, 2015

Solid Ground

Solid Ground
Psalm 15[1]
I think most of you know me well enough to know that I have been divorced twice in my life. What you may not know is that, both times it came to me as a shock, as a deep disappointment, as a crushing blow. In a very real sense, what I thought was my life came crashing down. Everything changed for me—my relationship with my children, my hopes for the future, my career path, even the details of my daily routine. It was as if the very ground beneath my feet had given way. Both times, I had to reinvent myself and re-build a life from the ground up. I was fortunate in that, in both cases, I had friends, my children, and church families who helped me get through that process. But I’d have to say that this kind of earth-shattering life change isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy.
I’m not the only one here who has experienced the way life can come crashing down. You build a life with a husband or wife and then one day the doctor says it’s cancer and you only have a short time. You pour your heart and soul into your children only to have one of them fall into addiction, or get in trouble with the law. Or even the unthinkable can happen—they can be taken away entirely. You invest your energy into a career only to find out that you’re pushing 50 and the company is about to “outsize” you. You save for a lifetime, investing the hard-earned fruits of your labor in the stock market. But then the bottom falls out of the market just as you retire, and a huge chunk of your nest egg seems to go “poof” in the night.
This tragic side of life is something we’d rather not talk about, but it is the reality that we will all inevitably face at one time or another.[2] We would like to believe that if we do the right things, live a right life, raise our kids in the right neighborhood, associate with the right people, then we can trust that God will keep those tragedies far from us. We cling to it so much that when tragedy strikes someone, while we may express our sympathy, sometimes the rest of us are afraid to get too close to those whose lives have come crashing down for fear that it might “rub off” on us.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today addresses the question of how to live a life that has a solid foundation. At first glance, it might seem to give a simplistic answer. It might seem to simply reinforce those assumptions we tend to have about life. If you do the right things, make the right choices, work hard and live an honest life, everything will work out just fine.  But we have to remember that the Psalms are not always prophetic words from “on high.” They are prayers of people who were very human. And they had all the same hopes and dreams for their lives as we do. But what this means is that we have to read each Psalm in the light of the Psalms as a whole. And the Psalms are very much aware that tragedy strikes everyone at some time in life.[3]
So how are we to take this particular Psalm which seems so definitive in its outlook on life? In the first place, we have to realize that this Psalm has nothing to do with being good enough to earn God’s love. The presupposition of this Psalm, like most declarations in Scripture about what God expects of those who claim to know and trust him, is that God loves us all and extends his grace to us unconditionally. So this Psalm then depicts the response of those who have truly encountered this unconditional love of God. That means that it has worked its way into how we live—even into the workings of our minds and hearts (Ps. 15:2).[4]
The point of this passage is not to give us conditions for being “worthy” of God’s love.[5] God loves us because he wants to have a relationship with us—one that starts with his grace and mercy and love, and results in our living our lives with that same grace and mercy and love. This is true of the Biblical teaching in general: we don’t obey God’s way in our lives so that we will earn some kind of reward, either here or in the hereafter.  Rather, we obey God because we have encountered God’s love and our lives have been changed as a result of that encounter. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that the way the Bible describes this kind of living sounds a lot like the way God is. The Bible, like our Psalm for today, insists that when we truly encounter God’s presence, when we truly encounter God’s love, it changes us so thoroughly and irrevocably that we will reflect God’s will and God’s ways in our lives.[6]
But there is a promise in this way of life. In our Scripture lesson, the promise is that those who encounter God in this way, those whose lives are thoroughly and completely oriented to God and his ways as outlined by this statement and many others in Scripture like it, “will never be moved” (Ps. 15:5).[7]  That doesn’t mean we will have some kind of magical protection against the tragedies of life that can devastate us. It doesn’t mean that we get an automatic pass on the hardships that are part and parcel of human existence. What it means is that through it all, we will find that God is present with us, sustaining us every step of the way. What it means is that, when everything that we thought was stable in our lives gives way, we will find ourselves held safely by the everlasting arms of God. Even when all that we may have built of our lives comes crashing down around us, even if the very ground gives way underneath us, we will be standing on the solid ground of God’s loving presence.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/30/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 124-25, where he insists that faith always takes place against the backdrop of the evil and suffering and tragedy in life. He says (p. 125), “Faith is faith that there is something that lifts us above the blind force of things, a mind in all this mindlessness. That there is … someone, …, who stands by us when we are up against the worst, who stands by others, by the least among us.”  In fact, he also insists that violent fundamentalism results from the repression of fear of the evil and suffering and tragedy in life (cf. also ibid., 107).
[3] Cf. Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 152, where he points out that in the Psalms, “the righteous very often were ‘shaken’ (cf. Ps 13:5) in a literal sense.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 85: “To be shaken or moved is a way of speaking about the unsettling undermining effect of the chaotic dimension of reality. God has overcome the cosmic chaos and founded the earth so that it cannot be shaken … . God’s presence keeps his holy dwelling Zion from being shaken by the chaotic powers of history… . And the righteous, whose life is based in the way of God, are secured against any ultimate undoing by the troubles that buffet life … .”
[4] In response to the phrase “speak the truth from their heart,” H. –J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 229, asks, “Are the innermost movements of thought and directions of the will ‘faithful’ and ‘reliable’? Are they emet (truth/faithful/reliable)? The penetration of the word to the innermost recesses of human existence is attested in Deut 6:4. Therefore, without reservations, the whole person is involved.”
[5] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:733: “God’s gracious acceptance of persons into the divine presence has an important implication for understanding the answers in vv. 2-5ab. These answers should not be understood as requirements; rather, they portray the character of persons whose lives have been shaped in conformity with God’s character.”  Cf. also Mays, Psalms, 86, where insists that this Psalm is not to be read legalistically as “some kind of judicial procedure to exclude the unqualified; rather it is the rehearsal of a purpose and a possibility. This kind of person, says the psalm, is what the Presence intends. This Presence, says the psalm, is the power that makes this kind of person possible. The Presence calls and commands, judges and redeems. To be in the place of the Presence means to be at the point where the purpose and power of God come to bear on a person’s identity and formation.” Therefore he concludes, “The psalm, then transcends the actual performance of the lives of those who come to the place of the Presence. But it does ask them whether this is what they want to be like and whether they are trying to be like this and whether they come to this place in the hope of being like this.”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 733: “Those who belong to God mirror God’s character. This is not to say that they are absolutely sinless … but that their lives are completely oriented to and dependent upon God.” Cf. ibid., 734: “The answers to the questions in v. 1, therefore, are not requirements or prescriptions. Rather, like the content of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7, vv. 2-5b portray what life is like when it is lived under God’s reign instead of in reliance upon oneself.”
[7] Cf. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 152: “From a human perspective, the psalmists were constantly shaken by their experience of human oppression and the vicissitudes of life, and so they issued their laments; but the only possibility of transforming lament into confidence or praise lay in the fact that there was an unshaken position transcending the vicissitudes of a shaken and uncertain life. That position was in the presence of God.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 732: “There is a revealing progression from Psalm 13 to Psalm 15. The movement is from the threat of being ‘shaken’ (13:6) to the affirmation that ‘God is with the company of the righteous’ (14:5) to the portrayal of the righteous dwelling with God, the result being that they ‘shall never be moved.’”

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