August 18, 2013
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
As you already know, the psalm between the first and second readings is intended, by those who developed the lectionary, to serve as a response to the first reading, which is a reading from the Old Testament. The lectionary developers would likely be the first to admit that this admirable intent doesn't always work out, but they do try to make that connection in a concrete way whenever possible. It's for that reason that we speak of the "Responsorial Psalm" or the "Psalm Response" rather than simply "The Psalm".
Given that sense of response, I'd like to take some time with you to explore what the psalm today has to say to us.
Last week, in the reading from Isaiah, we heard very clearly that God isn't interested in our burnt offerings, our festivals, our solemn assemblies, even our prayers. They are all fine, and welcome, but only if they spring from the heart of a people who make themselves clean, who cease to do evil, who learn to do good; who seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphans, and plead for the widows. We were even told that if we refuse to be obedient to God, we shall be devoured by the sword. Those weren't easy words to hear back when these words were written. They are no easier words to hear and be attentive to today!
Today, again in Isaiah, we hear of a beautifully prepared vineyard which has gone horribly wrong. It simply does not produce good fruit. As a result, the one who owns the vineyard is going to destroy it, lay it waste. Again, not easy words to hear!
For the Jews, this was especially hard to hear. They recognized themselves as the vineyard being spoken about. They believed their existence was a wondrous sign of God's personal relationship with them. And they believed their suffering was the result, not of a capricious or vindictive God, nor of the sins of other people, but of their having gone astray, moved away from that relationship.
Now, the psalmist didn't deliberately write this psalm as a response to this passage from Isaiah, yet we can see why the producers of the lectionary would choose it as such a response. We hear in it echoes of the vineyard of Isaiah, and what happened to it. The psalmist tells us land was cleared for the vine, even to the point of casting out other nations to make room for it. The ground was prepared, it was planted, and its growth was great. And yet here Israel was, being destroyed, just like in the reading from Isaiah. This is powerful stuff, of the rise and fall, care and nurture, of an entire people, by one who is powerful enough to exercise that care and nurture, that building up and tearing down.
We may be tempted to think that the psalmist was like a poet sitting at his desk trying to come up with a set of phrases which would capture the imagination and paint a picture in the reader's or listener's mind. The reader or listener would be touched, and the writer could then sit down to a well-prepared meal, satisfied that he has done his job well. He's earned his keep.
The psalms are not like that.
There's some question as to the context in which this psalm was written. Some suggest it was written at the time of the destruction by Assyria in 722 B.C. Others suggest it was at the time of the Babylonian exile, which began about 597 B.C. under Nebuchadnezzar, and lasted until Babylon fell, in 538 B.C., to Cyrus the Great of Persia, who gave permission for the Jews to return home.
Regardless of the precise timing, one thing is clear: for the Jews, and for the writer, life was hell! Everything had been so positive, so good. They had their own land, their own way of life, their security a place where they could raise their families in peace and abundance. And now? Now nothing makes sense, nothing is clean and clear. There is no future. Instead, there is death and destruction all around.
The psalm isn't something created in the mind like a poem, to turn this way and that, look at it, tease it out before writing. This is flesh-and-blood reality, with the writer totally immersed in it. It's that context in which the psalmist prays and speaks, and about which he is totally honest.
There are two things in this psalm which I'd like to invite you to explore with me. One is in what we have read, the other is in the verses which the lectionary producers dropped from the psalm response, but which are worth looking at regardless. Mind you, I can cheat a bit, because while the words are first in the lines which have been dropped, they appear again in the last lines of the psalm as given to us today.
In the first lines, we hear God being described as the Shepherd of Israel, enthroned upon the cherubim, leading Joseph like a flock. But then we hear God being told "shine forth", "stir up your strength and come to help us". The words are a call for God's help, yes, but they are in the imperative form, a command.
Now, I don't know about you, but while I may ask God to do certain things for me, I don't normally think of telling the God who created the universe to get off his butt and do something! And yet this is what the psalmist does. He not only describes God's greatness, he then tells God to take decisive action.
This is something done between completely unequal parties only when there is a deep relationship of trust between them. You may have seen "The King's Speech", the movie about King George VI taking speech lessons from one of his subjects, in order to overcome his stuttering impediment. These were two completely unequal parties in authority and status, yet they developed a relationship of trust to the point of friendship. That's the kind of thing we're talking about, though far greater. That relationship enables the psalmist to trust not only that the all-powerful God will not be offended by being ordered about, but in fact will do what is ordered.
The other passages I want to invite you to look at with me are in either verse 3 and 7 or 4 and 8, depending on the way the translators chose to parse the sentences. And the words vary too, again depending on the translation. The New American Bible, for example, says in verse 4, "O Lord of hosts, restore us", while the Authorized King James version says in verse 3, "Turn us again, O God". Fortunately both carry the same sense, that of God causing a change in us, and we being willing to, taking responsibility for, entering into and participating in that change. To put it in different terms, this is not a case of saying "God, heal me", then sitting back and waiting for it to happen, but rather saying those words, then eating the right foods, doing the right exercises, taking the right medications in to set the context in which the healing can take place. It's fully participatory.
You'll recall that I spoke of the Jewish people being aware that, when things were going bad for them, it was they who were somehow responsible, they who had gone errant ways. In the skipped passages, God is allowing them to suffer the bitter consequences of their turning away from the path of righteousness and justice.
This is echoed in the Greek understanding of sinfulness and repentance. The Greeks spoke of this as hamartia and metanoia, a missing of the mark and a turning around to go in the other (and right) direction.
The psalmist is recognizing the part he and the Jewish people played in the vineyard no longer bearing fruit, and having to be torn up. But he doesn't despair. Instead, he recognizes it within a context of deep trust in God, so much so that he can tell God to rise up, take action, and restore them once again to the way they were. His admission of sinfulness, of having gone astray, is literally bracketed by his trust in God to make things right, and the psalmist's willingness to enter into that work of making things right.
Where does all this take us? I invite you to look at the psalms, and to read them, not merely as nice prayers, but as examples for us, encouragement for us, to enter into full, honest and deep relationship with God. When you come before God, be completely honest. Like the psalmist, recognize God for who God is, then tell God exactly what you are feeling about your present situation, be it joy or sorrow, anger or depression, or anything else that may be in your heart and mind at the time. Trust God to handle it, to not be offended. When you're in a negative situation, tell God to take action to rectify it, trusting that he will do so, even if you don't know what that action will be. And as you tell God to take action to restore you to wholeness, be willing to take on board whatever needs to be done by you as your part in that restoration.
We may well find that difficult at first, almost impossible to do. But like exercise, as we practice time after time, we will find ourselves growing in the capacity to speak to God openly and honestly, to trust in God's saving and restorative action, and to play our part in that restoration.
That's the example the psalms give. Pray them often, whatever your situation in life. Allow them to wash over you. And watch the vineyard of your trusting relationship of love with God grow and bear rich fruit.