Have a Seat

Inspired by Psalm 113

Today we begin our four-week series in the Psalms! You might be thinking, only four weeks? I know, there are 150 Psalms in the Hebrew scriptures, how can we possibly cover all they have to offer in four weeks? Well, the short answer is, we can’t. But what we are going to do is get a taste of some of the main genres that are found within the Psalms. About a hundred years ago, a German theologian by the name of Hermann Gunkel divided up the Psalms into four major genres, which he then divided up into more specific categories.

The four main genres are: hymns of praise, psalms of lament, royal psalms, and psalms of thanksgiving. So, over these four weeks, we will be getting one Psalm from three of these four genres. The royal psalms is the group we will be skipping. By the end, you’ll get a taste of what this collection of writings that have become so meaningful for many has to offer.

Our Psalm for today comes from the hymns of praise. It’s a short psalm, we actually read the whole thing, but not only does it give us the quintessential example of one of these types of psalms, it is also packed with foundational teachings of our faith. And not just our faith, this psalm is particularly important in Judaism as well, as it is the first of six psalms, psalms 113 through 118, that our Jewish siblings call the Hallel psalms. Hallel is the Hebrew word for praise, which is where we get the word Alleluia from, and they recite those six psalms on all their major holidays, just to give you an idea of how core this psalm is to these hymns of praise found in the psalms.

Psalm 113 begins with a resounding Alleluia, which simply means “Praise God!” This is the beginning of a common formula found in many of these hymns of praise. The author will begin with a call to praise, then will state who is to be doing this praising, in this case, those who serve God. And then will end with how we are to do this praising. And in this case, it is to be done by name, as the author states at length. “Praise God’s name! Let God’s name be blessed from now until forever from now! From sunrise to sunset, let God’s name be praised!” Not only are we reminded of who we are praising, but the author also points out that it’s by name that we are to do so. I find that interesting. Especially in a day and age when being religious isn’t exactly looked upon with favor.

But for the author of this psalm, it’s important that others know precisely where our faith comes from when we are praising God, by name. This reminds me of my Grandma. Whenever something positive would happen, no matter how big or how small, she would always respond, out loud, with, “Thank you Jesus!” Not, thank heavens, and not even thank God. It was always by name, “Thank you Jesus!”

Now, don’t get me wrong, you know me, I would never tell someone of another faith that they were wrong or that their religion was not valid. I am very open to the many ways that people have expressed faith since humans began. But as for me, I follow Jesus for some very particular reasons, and those reasons are important, even if they don’t make me very popular. And the author of this Psalm urges us to not be shy about who we follow and why?

So let’s get into the why because that’s exactly where our author takes us next. But first, some Hebrew. I haven’t taught you any Hebrew in a while. The author uses the verb yashav three times in these final few verses of this already short psalm. Depending on the Bible version, it’s translated many different ways but essentially it’s the verb “to sit.” Now, I’m going to read those final verses again so you can listen for this verb. “God sits over all the nations; God’s glory is higher than the skies! Who could possibly compare with our God? God rules from on high; and has to come down to even see heaven and earth! God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile to seat them with leaders—with the leaders of God’s own people! God seats the once barren woman at home—now a joyful mother with children! Alleluia!”

So, the first time yashav is used, it is God who is sitting. And where is God sitting? Over all the nations, higher than the skies the author says! God is first placed in that traditional role of overseer, looking down on all that God has created, from high above the distant clouds. The author does this to orient us, to remind us of our place in the grand scheme of things. It’s the author’s way of saying, “God is God, and you are not.” Just in case we may ever be tempted to believe otherwise. It’s not meant to be condescending, any more than a parent reminding their child who’s in charge of the household. However, that is not where the author leaves God. As impressive as it sounds for God to be sitting up in the clouds and ruling from on high, that is not where God ends up doing God’s best work.

God comes down. The author continues, “God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile.” God is not content to sit above the distant clouds. God is not content ruling from afar. God is not even content overseeing from the top of the tallest high rise from the world’s biggest city! No, God comes down—all the way down—to the very dirt of the Earth. No, even lower still, into the garbage piles of our lives, the psalmist writes. And why would God do such a thing? Why would a god leave a heavenly throne for this? The psalmist says, to lift up the poor, to raise up those in need, to bring life—life as dramatic as a barren woman becoming a mother in her own home.

Now, I don’t know how much you remember about world religions from history class but this god that the psalmist describes isn’t like other gods. Other gods might come down off their high horse but not to lift the lowly, they’d come down to put you in your place face to face, and by put you in your place I don’t mean kindly, I mean, forcefully, and probably angrily because you’ve made them come off their comfy couch in the sky! But not this God, the psalmist says. Our God comes down to get dirty with us, to get smelly with us, as God lifts us, as God raises us, as God brings new life into this oft-dead world we live in. That is the kind of god that the psalmist asks us to praise, by name! Because the psalmist doesn’t want there to be a shred of doubt in the world’s mind of who this amazing God is!

This is the kind of God that we are called to follow, the kind of God that gives up God’s seat, there’s that Hebrew word that I said would be important, the kind of God that gives up God’s yashav, God’s seat in the heavens, to come down and do what? Give a seat to those who don’t have one, to those in the dirt of our world, to those in the garbage of our world, to those surrounded by death in our world. God gives up God’s seat, to give a seat, at the table of life, to those who don’t have one—and then calls us to join in that work down here on Earth.

This is the God that we were called to praise way back when the Psalms were written, long before Jesus was a twinkle in God’s eye. And so, of course, of course this is the god who brought Jesus into the world, into the dirt and garbage and death of the world, to bring hope, and promise, and life. Of course it is this God who sends the Holy Spirit to continue that work with us even after Jesus is no longer with us. Of course it is, for God has been at this work of coming down to us for a long time—and will never stop. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Future Hope & Present Sufferings

Inspired by Romans 8:14-39

So, we have finally come to the end of year one of our Narrative Lectionary readings, which we began at the beginning of the school year last Fall in the book of Genesis, and continued by reading some of the great stories of the Bible right on through to Paul’s letter to Rome. It’s a four-year cycle of readings and year two begins at the start of the next school year around Labor Day. That leaves us with an opportunity over the summer for some series on Bible books or topics that we wouldn’t normally get a chance to do. So, beginning next week we will start a series on the Psalms, followed by a series on the letter to the Hebrews, and ending the summer with a topical series on Sabbath. Should be fun! I’m looking forward to it, I hope you are too.

Today, our final reading in Romans comes from chapter eight, which is in the middle of the letter, and it’s arguably one of the most profound chapters in the entire letter, which is probably why they decided to end there. However, if you will make the time, I highly recommend you finish reading the rest of the letter, and if you have been following the daily readings that are found in your bulletin insert, you will read most of what we had to skip.

I’m not sure how many of you use that insert but I’d like to recommend it again if you don’t. If you’re looking for a way to enrich your faith life between Sundays, it’s a great resource, even if you only use it for the daily readings, it’s worth your time. As an additional resource for your personal devotional lives, you can find a website on the bottom right of the back of the insert, where you can find a thoughtfully written devotion on each day’s reading. Those are also posted each morning at 6am on our Facebook page for your convenience as well.

But let’s dive into this reading from Romans. The Paul that wrote this chapter I like to call the cosmic Paul, or since we are in California, calling him the hippy Paul also works. He goes from being Mr. Practical, Mr. Realist, with all his talk about sin and the law, into this chapter that ends with promise and life and hope and it just oozes with positivity. There’s a bit about suffering in there too which will be important in a minute but he ends on such a positive note that you wonder who this Paul really is.

When we started in Romans a few weeks ago, I joked about how infuriating Paul can be. But there is a depth to this guy that I’ll admit that people like me just don’t appreciate as much as we should. All that is to say, if you struggle with Paul like I do, don’t dismiss him too quickly. The ancients of our faith included his writings in the Bible for a lot of good reasons, and this chapter is evidence of that.

So, Cosmic Paul has his head in the clouds in this chapter. And what I mean by that is that this chapter is very future-oriented, and by future, I mean after the end of time, after the end of all things, after the end of our time here on Earth. Paul speaks of a future time when God’s glory is finally revealed to us, when suffering is no more, when true freedom becomes a reality.

And Paul is so hopeful about this future, and more than hopeful, he’s certain. His confidence that this future that he describes will come to fruition is contagious! It’s easy to get swept up with Paul in this amazing future that Paul says has been promised to us by God, referring to us as heirs with Christ. And then, you walk out those double doors and back into the world that we live in, down here under the clouds, where suffering, and heartache, and death, are alive and well and in your face.

If you’re anything like me, this is where you struggle. It’s difficult to be comforted by Cosmic Paul when we are stuck in the earthy world that we live in. It’s a struggle to reconcile this ultimate hope of Paul’s with these penultimate times that we live in. It’s kind of like when someone says to you, while you are going through a rough patch of life, “I’m sure everything will work out” or “God must have a plan”, two phrases that, as your pastor, you will never hear me say to you when you are going through something. Not because I don’t believe those statements, but because they are anything but helpful when you are in the muck and mire of life. My response to statements like that is, “Well, that’s great but how does that help me now!” That’s why I appreciate Paul’s words about suffering so much, from this same chapter no less!

Even Cosmic Paul knows that this hope of the future doesn’t lessen our sufferings in this life. His words on suffering are an acknowledgment of our struggles down here. And you know, sometimes that all we need, just some acknowledgment that what we go through down here is valid, legitimate, real, even when it isn’t always logical, and especially when it’s self-inflicted. We don’t always need someone to solve our problems for us, or give us advice, and we certainly don’t need any more judgment than we already give ourselves. But for our suffering, no matter the size, to just be acknowledged, to just be seen by someone else, can make all the difference in the world, and can in its own way provide a comfort that answers and solutions just can’t.

When I was going through the call process three years ago to find a new church, before I found you all, I went to many, many interviews. And after each failure, when either I decided it wasn’t a good match, or the congregation I interviewed with decided that for me, I’d get a call from the synod staff that I was working with to help find me a church, Pastor Nancy Nelson. And the first thing out of her mouth when she would call me after yet another failure was, “Well, this sucks.” I had expected words of comfort, or encouragement, or hope. But no, “This sucks” is how she would always start those conversations. The first time I heard that I was caught off-guard but then I thought, “You know what, yeah, this does suck.” And she would just let me sit in that muck for a minute. A gift that has had a lasting impact on me.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church year that we remember the Holy Spirit coming to those first disciples as recorded in the book of Acts that we read just after Easter. But more than that, it’s a celebration of God’s work in the world through the Holy Spirit, each and every day.

And as Paul highlights for us, that work includes the confident proclamation of hope and fulfilled promises that we can all look forward to, and it also includes the acknowledgment that those promises have not been fulfilled yet, not ultimately. This same Spirit, who provides an endless supply of hope whenever we need it, also knows when to just sit with us, in the muck and mire of our lives, and simply say, “This really sucks.” For me, that is a companion, a partner, a friend, like no other—and that’s worth celebrating on this day. Happy Pentecost my friends. Amen.


Our God-Given Weapons of War

Inspired by Romans 6:1-14

I don’t like guns. No, that’s putting it too lightly. Guns scare the you-know-what outta me! And I know where I get it from. I get that from my mom. She disliked guns so much, I wasn’t even allowed to make the shape of a gun with my hand! I’m feeling guilty just doing right now! Somewhere in northwestern Washington State, my mom’s spidey senses are tingling right now, and she’s probably thinking, “What is my son doing now!” Anyway, to this day I have the same distaste for firearms.

I have friends, who call themselves “gun enthusiasts.” I have a hard time just wrapping my head around that phrase. And they know about my aversion to guns so we just don’t talk about it. Because they know that I’m one of those people that if we woke up tomorrow and every gun in the world had just disappeared overnight, I’d be totally ok with that. But, I’m not a “gun enthusiast” so that’s easy for me to say.

By now, some of you are probably thinking, “Where in the world is pastor going with this! Did he hit the communion wine already?” No. It’s non-alcoholic wine anyway. In our reading today, Paul ends by talking about weapons and so that sent my mind in a whirlwind of ideas about weapons. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a fascinating letter. It doesn’t take you long to realize that there were some issues going on among those Christians.

And Paul was doing his best, from afar, to both encourage the good work they were doing, while also correcting some things that were tripping them up. And like humans of all times and places, they were struggling with the question of, who is in and who is out, who does God love and who does God not love? We’ve covered those questions over the last two Sundays, and now Paul is starting to get into more of the nuts and bolts of our faith.

Questions like, how are we supposed to treat other people now that we know God loves us, and now that we know that there’s nothing we can do to earn that love? And does knowing that change anything? Paul’s answer to that question is an emphatic, “Yes!” It most certainly changes things! It changes you! Or at least it’s supposed to! How can it not?

Have you ever known someone who, for no real reason at all, you just don’t like? They haven’t really done anything to you but they’re just someone you don’t really want to spend time with or maybe they just rub you the wrong way but again, they haven’t done anything negative to you? Please tell me I’m not alone in this! And then, this person pays you the nicest compliment that a person can give! And then you’re like, “Oh crap, now what?” It’s so disarming, isn’t it? All those thoughts and feeling that you had about that person just kinda melt away right before your eyes, or at the very least, they now seem so unimportant.

That’s the kind of change that Paul is trying to get at here. Even though God had been saying it for millennia, through Jesus God definitively communicated to the world, “I love you. All of you. Period.” And then the world let out a collective, “Oh crap, now what? I mean, thank you God for loving me but, you love him too? And her? Everyone? Well, now what am I supposed to do with all these thoughts and feelings I had about them?” That’s the kind of change that Paul is getting at here. I mean, if the knowledge that God loves even him, or her, whoever that may be for you, doesn’t change you, doesn’t change your behavior or thoughts or feelings, or anything, then, I don’t know, check your heart, make sure there’s a beat in there somewhere. Ok, that might have been a bit harsh, I may have crossed the line there.

Ok, let’s get back to guns, there’s a phrase you don’t hear in a sermon every Sunday. Weapons, Paul has weapons on his mind. Paul writes, “Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead, present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right.” Now, here’s the thing I want you to notice there. Paul doesn’t say to put your weapons away. Paul doesn’t say that weapons are bad. Paul isn’t my mom, right? No, Paul wants us to use our weapons wisely. Or, maybe a better way to put it would be, Paul wants us to use our weapons lovingly. But before we can get to that, what weapons do we use unwisely, or unlovingly?

Because if it hasn’t clicked by now, we’re not talking about those kinds of weapons are we? However, we are all carrying weapons though, aren’t we? We are always packing, everywhere we go. So, what kinds of weapons am I talking about? Well, we use words as weapons all the time, don’t we? Either in person, or behind others backs, or behind the safety, or should I say, behind the cowardice of our social media accounts. Ooooh, that one stings pastor! Stop! Hey, I’m guilty of it too! I’ve lost friends that way! What other weapons do have in our arsenal other than words? How about our silence. Maybe, not speaking up in the presence of some evil or injustice? What else? How about our wallets? How many people have you known who have decreased or stopped giving to an organization or church because they’re angry at something they did?

Ok, I’ll stop there. Point is, we have so many weapons at the ready and we use them quite often for not-so-good purposes. In our reading today, Paul urges us to flip the script, in regards to our weapons. Paul says, how about we try using them for good? How about we try using our words, for instance, for fighting injustices we encounter in the world? That could be going to a protest, or sharing something on social media, or as simple as treating a homeless person you come across like a human being and not a statistic.

And how about our silence? How can we use silence for good? Well, the easy answer to that is, knowing when to just shut up when we want to say something unkind! But it can be used in other ways too. Like having a moment of silence to remember victims of a natural disaster or mass-shooting like we too often do here. Or, using our silence to pray for our enemies. Or how about visiting someone you know is struggling and then just sitting with them to listen? Silence can be a powerful weapon of love to battle loneliness.

Ok, you don’t need some pastor telling you how to use all your God-given weapons to make this world a better place for others to endure. Be creative with these and the many other weapons of love that have been gifted to you. And the great thing is that you’re never too experienced or inexperienced to use them. Here’s the bottom line, according to Paul, Jesus died to show you how much God loves you, and Jesus rose from the dead to show you just how transforming God’s love can be for us. So transforming, that it can turn our weapons of war, into weapons of love and hope and life. Thanks be to God. Amen.