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28 July 2015

„Barmherzigkeit: Wenn der der uns rettet unser Feind ist”

Predigt über Lukas 10, 25-37
gehalten von Fritz Wendt am
8. Sonntag nach Trinitatis, 26. Juli 2015, in der Deutschen St. Paulskirche, New York City*




Gnade sei mit euch und Frieden, von Gott unserm Vater und dem Herrn Jesus Christus.

Lassen Sie uns beten ...


Liebe Gemeinde!

Charlie Brown kommt eines Tages zu Lucy Van Pelt und sagt ihr er hätte etwas zu beichten. Als sie ermunternd nickt, sagt er, „Ich hab etwas Dummes getan, und nun hasse ich mich selbst”.

Als Lucy nachfragt, sagt Charlie leise, „Ich saß auf dem Fussboden und war in ein Puzzle vertieft.  Da kam meine kleine Schwester; sie kroch auf allen Vieren, und sie kroch genau auf mich zu und dann passierte es: Sie zerstörte das Puzzle an dem ich so lange gearbeitet hatte – und da schrie ich sie an.  Dann fing sie an zu weinen, und nun hasse ich mich selbst.”

Charlie Brown seufzt und sagt, „Ich hätte sie nicht anschreien dürfen. Sie ist doch nur ein kleines Kind!  In meinen Augen bin ich ein Schurke!”

Da kommt Lucy auf Charlie zu und sagt mit sehr viel Wärme in Ihrer Stimme, „Ach, Charlie Brown, du Armer, ich weiss doch genau wie das ist. Wie du weißt habe ich auch so ein Geschwisterchen: meinen Bruder Linus. Ich hatte genau dasselbe Problem wie du.”

Charlie Brown freut sich dass ihn wenigstens einer versteht. „Da bin ich aber froh, nur was hast du gemacht als dein Bruder dir auf die Nerven ging?” Lucy sagt, „Ich habe mein Problem gelöst.”

„Aber wie?” fragt Charlie Brown, und in demselben Moment kommt Linus vorbei, vertieft in ein Komik-Heft. Obwohl ihre Stimme noch vor einem Moment warm und freundlich war ist Lucy plötzlich laut und fordernd: „Junger Mann, liest du zufällig ein Heft das mir gehört, deiner großen Schwester?” Linus scheint nur langsam zu verstehen dass sie ihn ausschimpft.

Sie gibt ihm keine Gelegenheit zu antworte;. „Wieviele Male muss ich es dir sagen: Lass meine Sachen in Frieden!” Nun sieht es aus als wurde Linus anfangen zu weinen.

Da fängt Lucy erst richtig an auf ihn einzuschreien: „Wenn das noch einmal passiert, dann passiert dir was, Bürschchen!  Ich werde dich wegjagen, nicht nur aus dieser Stadt sondern aus dem ganzen Land.  Ist das klar? Nun verzieh dich!”

Als der kleine Linus sich langsam entfernt, und beide ihn weinen hören, dreht sich Lucy wieder Charlie Brown zu, der das ganze Spektakel mit Widerwillen beobachtet hat.

Wie auf Knopfdruck erscheint Lucys Lächeln wieder und sie spricht mit so viel Süße das einer davon zuckerkrank werden könnte: „Wie gesagt, ich habe mein Problem gelöst. Mit meinem Bruder Linus böse sein – das ist überhaupt kein Thema mehr.”

Die kleine Szene von den „Peanuts" zeigt dass über Liebe zu reden nicht dasselbe ist wie aus Liebe zu handeln. Und darum geht es in meinem Predigttext aus Lukas 10.

Da trifft Jesus einen Mann der auf Griechisch „nomikos" heisst, was so viel meint wie „Schriftgelehrter”.  Er gehört somit in die Gruppe die oft gegen Jesus und sein Lehren standen: die Schriftgelehrten und Pharisäer.

Dieser Schriftgelehrte baut sich vor Jesus auf.  Um Jesus in Verlegenheit zu bringen hat er sich eine schlaue Frage ausgedacht: „Rabbi“, sagt er, „was muss ich tun, dass ich das ewige Leben ererbe?" Jesu Antwort ist einfach: „Was steht im Gesetz geschrieben? Was liest du?“

Weil es das Handwerk eines Schriftgelehrten ist so etwas zu wissen, kommt seine Antwort ohne Zögern, und vielleicht sogar mit ein bißchen Ungeduld: »Du sollst den Herrn, deinen Gott, lieben von ganzem Herzen, von ganzer Seele, von allen Kräften und von ganzem Gemüte, und deinen Nächsten wie dich selbst«

Und wieder ist Jesu Antwort kurz und bündig: „Du hast recht geantwortet; tu das, so wirst du leben.“

Da ist der Schriftgelehrte ärgerlich, denn er war darauf aus sich mit Jesus öffentlich zu streiten. So stellt er eine Frage die jeden Rechtsanwalt stolz machen würde: „Wer ist denn mein Nächster?“  Du sagst ich soll meinen Nächsten lieben, Rabbi, aber wer ist denn damit überhaupt gemeint?

Jesu Antwort auf diese Frage ist eine Geschichte so bekannt und berühmt dass wir oft der Versuchung verfallen nicht mehr zuzuhören.

30 Es war ein Mensch, der ging von Jerusalem hinab nach Jericho und fiel unter die Räuber; die zogen ihn aus und schlugen ihn und machten sich davon und ließen ihn halb tot liegen. 31 Es traf sich aber, dass ein Priester dieselbe Straße hinabzog; und als er ihn sah, ging er vorüber. 32 Desgleichen auch ein Levit ...

Die Leute die dieser Geschichte Jesu zum ersten Mal zuhörten müssen ziemlich perplex gewesen sein. Sie mochten sich nicht identifizieren mit dem Priester oder dem Leviten, denn diesen beiden war Sicherheit wichtiger als Mitgefühl.  Da blieb noch eine andere Möglichkeit der Identifizierung: sich in die Schuhe des Mannes zu versetzen der hier das Opfer ist: es ist wahrscheinlich ein jüdischer Mann der da blutet und hilflos im Dreck liegt, von Fliegen umschwärmt und von der Sonne gestochen. Aber ... wer will denn schon ein Opfer sein?

Als Jesus fortfährt mit seiner Geschichte, da wird der Schrecken der Zuhörer sogar noch größer:

33 Ein Samariter aber, der auf der Reise war, kam dahin; und als er ihn sah, jammerte er ihn;  34 und er ging zu ihm, goss Öl und Wein auf seine Wunden und verband sie ihm, hob ihn auf sein Tier und brachte ihn in eine Herberge und pflegte ihn. 35 Am nächsten Tag zog er zwei Silbergroschen heraus, gab sie dem Wirt und sprach: Pflege ihn; und wenn du mehr ausgibst, will ich dir's bezahlen, wenn ich wiederkomme.

Der Held in Jesu Geschichte ist nicht ein angesehener Jude, sondern ein Feind der Juden: ein Samariter.  Die Feindschaft mit Samaritern bestand schon seit hunderten von Jahren.

Die Zuhörer sind ratlos.  Natürlich sind sie unwillig sich mit dem Priester und dem Leviten zu identifizieren, aber sie sind auch nicht sehr willig sich in der Rolle des blutigen Opfers zu sehen – deshalb haben sie inständig gehofft dass der Retter des beraubten Mannes vielleicht ein Jude ist.

Aber zu ihrem Schrecken ist der ein Samariter. Also nein, mit einem Samariter kann man sich nicht identifizieren. Das geht nicht!

So ist wirklich nur eine Möglichkeit übrig: die Zuhörer müssen sich hineinversetzen in den blutigen Mann … und dann, wenn sie sich überlegen dass der Retter ihr Feind ist, da wissen sie gar nicht mehr wo sie hingucken sollen.

Das Gleichnis vom Barmherzigen Samariter ist keine Moralgeschichte. Uns wird nicht gesagt wir alle sollten nun Samariter werden; obwohl das die einfachste Lesart ist, geht sie doch vorbei an der wirklichen Geschichte.  Wir müssen uns vergegenwärtigen wie schockierend diese Geschichte gewesen sein muss fuer Jüdisch-Palästinensische Ohren im 1. Jahrhundert.

Wie wir überall im Evangelium sehen, benutzt Jesus seine Gleichnisse um uns das Reich Gottes nahezubringen, in einer Sprache die leicht zu verstehen ist, aber doch immer in einer Überraschung endet. Immer wenn wir gerade denken dass wir wissen wovon er spricht zieht Jesus plötzlich den Teppich unter unseren Füßen weg.

Wenn Jesus ein Gleichnis erzählt müssen wir bereit sein unsere vorgefassten Meinungen und Ideen aufzugeben. Wenn immer er sich neue Geschichten ausdenkt, müssen wir uns vorbereiten auf Dinge die wir noch nicht einmal denken können, und auch darauf: dass unsere Ideen von gut und böse revisionsbedürftig sind.

Und wir hier in der Kirche heute morgen?

Jesus zwingt uns, uns mit dem Opfer zu identifizieren. Er will dass wir hineinschluepfen in die Haut von halbtoten, bettelarmen und verzweifelten Menschen.

Gottes Gegenwart in der Welt mit so einem Gleichnis darzustellen, das mag schon den einen oder anderen von Ihnen skeptisch blicken lassen. Sie mögen ja jetzt sogar ein bißchen pikiert sein (denn es ist ja schließlich Sonntag und man will sich doch nicht dreckig machen mit solchen Gedanken!), aber seien Sie mal ehrlich. ...

Es ist doch wahr dass Sie und ich unsere eigenen Reisen zwischen Jerusalem und Jericho erlebt haben: jene gottverlassenen Momente in denen wir uns halbtot und bettelarm und verzweifelt gefühlt haben.

In einer seiner Predigten schreibt Martin Luther in seinem typischen groben Stil: „Der Mann der da am Boden liegt, verwundet and nackend, das ist Adam und die ganze Menchheit ... Das Leben bringt viele Plagen mit sich, aber hier liegen Mann und Pferd, und wir können uns nicht selbst wieder auf die Füße helfen. Wenn wir nun ohne Hilfe blieben, dann wurden wir vor Hunger und Furcht sterben; die Maden wurden in unsere Wunden kriechen, und dann würde unsere Not kein Ende haben.“

Hilflos den Maden ausgeliefert – da ist wo Jesus Sie und mich plaziert in diesem Gleichnis.  Das Gleichnis vom Barmherzigen Samariter will uns lehren dass Güte und Freundlichkeit von unserem Nächsten kommen – ohne dass es eine Rolle spielt ob dieser Nächste nun so aussieht oder glaubt oder denkt wie wir es gerne hätten oder nicht.  Jeder von uns hat sich das Leben so zurechtgebaut dass wir bestimmte Leute außen vor lassen, Leute mit denen wir nichts zu tun haben wollen.

Ja, es wäre so viel einfacher wenn Jesus uns sagen wollte: findet die Stärke und Freundlichkeit eurem Feind zu helfen; aber darum geht es ihm nicht.

Wir sollen uns hineinversetzen in die Hilflosigkeit des überfallenen Opfers: unseren Stolz zu überwinden und darauf zu hoffen, ja: uns darauf zu verlassen! gerettet zu werden von ebenjenen Leuten die wir nicht ausstehen können.

Das griechische Wort für „barmherzig sein” bedeutet buchstäblich „es geht einem durch und durch”**. Die splanchna sind die inneren Organe des Bauches. Der Feind, der Samariter, war durchgeschüttelt  mit Mitgefühl und wusste dass er handeln musste.  In dem Moment wusste er was wir oft noch lernen müssen: dass die ganze Idee von „den anderen” eine Illusion ist.  Keiner von uns ist separat – wir gehören alle zusammen, ob wir das nun mögen oder nicht.

Barmherzigkeit ist was uns widerfährt wenn es einem Mitmenschen durch und durch geht ob unseres Anblickes, und der dann so durchgeschüttelt ist dass er einfach helfen muss.

Barmherzigkeit ist etwas das uns widerfährt ... und Barmherzigkeit ist eben dann auch das was wir tun sollen. So endet Jesus seine Geschichte:

36 Wer von diesen dreien, meinst du, ist der Nächste gewesen dem, der unter die Räuber gefallen war? 37 Er sprach: Der die Barmherzigkeit an ihm tat. Da sprach Jesus zu ihm: So geh hin und tu desgleichen!

Barmherzigkeit soll ein Reflex werden, etwas das wir wie selbstverständlich tun, ohne viel darüber nachzudenken.

Stellen Sie sich für einen Moment vor dass Sie jetzt einen Juckreiz in ihrem rechten Arm verspüren. Ohne dass Sie jemals darüber nachdenken wird Ihre linke Hand sich auf den rechten Arm zubewegen sodass die Finger der linken Hand Ihren rechten Arm kratzen können.

Wenn der Juckreiz dann weniger schlimm ist, wird Ihre linke Hand automatisch an ihren gewohnten Platz zurückkehren – und all dies wird geschehen ohne dass Sie je einen Gedanken darüber verschwenden.

Indem er uns zwingt Barmherzigkeit als Reflex anzusehen stellt Jesus unsere Grenzen in Frage.  Er sagt dass jeder andere Mensch uns ein Nächster ist.  Er sagt dass alle anderen Menschen für mich verantwortlich sind, und dass ich verantwortlich bin für das Wohlergehen jedes anderen Menschen.  Er sagt dass das Universum eins ist, und dass alles in diesem Universum eins sein soll.

Wir sollen uns nicht benehmen wie der Priester und der Levit; sie hörten auf ihr Ego und das sagt ihnen, „Wenn ich jetzt helfe, könnte ich dabei nicht selber in Gefahr kommen?” Auf der anderen Seite wurde der Samariter seines Egos Herr; er fragte sich nicht wie es ihm dabei gehen würde, sondern wie es dem Überfallenen gehen würde ohne seine Hilfe.

Jeder unserer Mitmenschen ist unser Nächster. Für die Pharisäer damals und heute ist das ein Schlag ins Gesicht.  Es ist doch so viel einfacher wenn man alles gut abgeriegelt hat mit Grenzen und Warnschildern – dann braucht man sich mit gewissen Leuten eben nicht abzugeben.

Ab und an trifft man auch einen Pharisäer in der Kirche – eine Person die allen Ernstes sagt, „Herr Pastor, diese Dame gehört hier nicht her; sie ist einfach nicht wie wir; sie ist hier fehl am Platz; wir mochten dass sie uns verlässt.”

Martin Luther spricht von den „verdrießlichen Heiligen” die meinen sich in ihrer Heiligkeit ausruhen zu können, and daher sich von allem Leid abwenden. Luther sagt diese Leute sind überzeugt dass Gott ihnen etwas schuldet, und dass sie Gott nichts schulden weil sie doch sooo gut sind.  Luther sagt von diesen verdrießlichen Heiligen dass Gott sich um sie sorgt weil sie so verblendet sind.

Und so ist das Gleichnis vom Barmherzigen Samariter nicht nur eine Geschichte über das Erbarmen sondern auch eine Geschichte über unsere Angewohnheit über andere zu Gericht zu sitzen. Es gibt überall Leute denen unser Gleichnis auf die Nerven geht, so wie jenem Schriftgelehrten der versuchte Streit mit Jesus anzufangen.

Bibeltreue Leute, professionelle Gläubige gehen vorbei an dem Opfer – vielleicht denken Sie gerade heute morgen: nun ja, der Priester und der Levit, die mögen gute Gründe haben sich nicht einzumischen!

Aber dann, … dann wird das Opfer gerettet von einem Feind. Und wir sollen uns ein Beispiel an diesem Mann nehmen! Da hört sich doch wohl alles auf!

Indem die professionellen Gläubigen einen Bogen um den Überfallenen machen und nur der verachtete Samariter das richtige tut, kommt das Gericht zu uns: da fängt Gott an über uns Gericht zu halten.

Wir sind heute morgen zur Kirche gekommen um Gott näher zu sein. Aber nun kommt er so nah dass es manchem unheimlich wird.

Wie geht es Ihnen mit diesem Gott der Ihnen so nahekommt dass er über Sie zu Gericht sitzt und Ihnen sagt, „Ich erwarte mehr von dir"?

Mit seinem Samaritergleichnis hat Jesus hat uns alle überführt.

Wir die wir heute morgen hier versammelt sind, wir  sind eine Schar von Pharisäern und Schriftgelehrten, voll von Selbstgerechtigkeit und Selbstzu-friedenheit.

Es ist nicht einfach diese Nähe Gottes auszuhalten -- und doch dürfen wir uns geliebt und angenommen fühlen, denn wir sollen ja lernen von dieser Erfahrung: lernen barmherzig zu sein, durchgeschüttelt zu sein wenn wir Leiden und Verzweiflung und Unrecht sehen, so sehr durchgeschüttelt zu sein dass wir nicht anders können als zu handeln.

Von Liebe reden kann jeder, aber Liebe zu tun das ist eine Aufgabe.

Gottes Liebe kommt zu uns heute morgen in Gericht und Herausforderung. Gottes Liebe kommt zu uns in der Aufforderung uns helfen zu lassen von unseren Mitmenschen, und wirklich da zu sein für die die uns brauchen.  Aber unten drunter ist es alles Liebe.

Eins der Probleme mit unserer Geschichte ist dass wir keine Samariter in unserer Gesellschaft haben; das Gleichnis hatte mehr Stoßkraft fuer Jesu Zeitgenossen weil sie Samariter vor Augen hatten, Menschen die gehasst und verabscheut wurden.

In einem mittelalterlichen Bild wird der Levit zum Mönch, und der Samariter zum Türken; weil die Zeitgenossen des Malers vor den Türken Angst hatten, war die Stoßkraft des Gleichnisses wiederhergestellt.

Denken Sie an die Kontroverse um Franklin Graham, von der man sogar in deutschen Zeitungen lessen konnte.  Als der Sohn von Billy Graham neulich vorschlug die Einwanderung von Muslimen in die USA völlig zu stoppen sagte er wörtlich dies sollte geschehen „bis die Bedrohung durch den Islam sich beruhigt hat”.  Da haben wir’s.  

Die Stoßkraft des Gleichnisses ist sofort wiederhergestellt ... wenn wir uns einen Barmherzigen Muslim vorstellen. Sie und ich am Wegrande, nahe am Verbluten ... und dann die Rettung, durch einen barmherzigen Muslim!

Wenn wir jeden Menschen als unseren Nächsten ansehen, dann lieben wir so wie Gott liebt. Gottes Liebe ist unbedingt, also ohne Bedingungen. „Gottes Liebe ist wie die Sonne", sangen wir in der Jungschar, „sie ist immer und überall da" ...

Wir sind eingeladen uns einzulassen auf die ganze Menschheit – damit andere an uns Gutes tun können wenn wir in Not sind, und damit wir anderen Gutes tun wenn sie uns brauchen.

Das Universum ist eins, und wir sind Teil von diesem wunderschönen Ganzen.  Die ganze Schöpfung ist ein lebendiges Ding.  Die Ethik die von dieser Einsicht springt ist Nächstenliebe.

So jemand spricht: Ich liebe Gott! 
Und haßt doch seine Brüder,
Der treibt mit Gottes Wahrheit Spott,
Und reißt sie ganz darnieder.
Gott ist die Lieb, und will, daß ich 
Den Nächsten liebe, gleich als mich.

Und der Friede Gottes,
der höher ist als alle Vernunft,
der bewahre eure Herzen und Sinne
in Christus Jesus. Amen.

...
* An English version of this sermon will appear in a few days in a new post.
**Das griechische Wort ist σπλαγχνίζομαι („splanchnizomai").

23 July 2015

8.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 9

Psalm 145



Saint Francis of Assisi lay on his deathbed. He was singing, and singing so loudly that the whole neighborhood heard about it.

Brother Elias, a pompous but prominent member of the Franciscan order, came close to Saint Francis and said, ‘Father, there are people standing in the street outside your window.’ Fearing that the last moment of Francis’ life had come, many who loved him had gathered together around the house.

Said Brother Elias, “I am afraid nothing we might do could prevent them from hearing you singing. The lack of restraint at so grave an hour might embarrass the order, Father. It might lower the esteem in which you yourself are so justly held. Perhaps in your extremity you have lost sight of your obligation to the many who have come to regard you as a saint. Would it not be more edifying for them if you would, er, die with more Christian dignity?”

Brother Elias was worried. But not about Saint Francis. He worried about lack of decorum.  He worried about himself and the order. We can almost guess his thoughts: “It will be very embarrassing for us later on. How are we going to respond when the crowds demand to know what happened in the saint's last moments?”

Brother Elias was concerned with public opinion. He wanted to prove his master to be the greatest master, to be the greatest of saints, and he knew only one way to prove it — that he should be dignified in his death. Singing in his mind was as frivolous, as ordinary, as dancing.

But Francis had different priorities. He was a man of the people.  Like it always has been with God's mystics, Francis had conquered his ego; once the ego is disempowered, there are no more dualisms.  For Francis there was no distinction between "dignified" and "ordinary".  As he had been "melting into God" for many years (Sr. Joan Chittister has used that phrase to describe mystics), he had no use for silly quibblers like Brother Elias.

So, Saint Francis said, “Please excuse me, Brother,” “but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can’t help myself. I must sing!”

And he died singing. There can be no better death. If you can die singing, that proves that you lived singing, that your life was a joy, and that death was the crescendo of it, the culmination.


The voice of the individual psalmist (VV. 1-2)
Āleph 1 I will exalt you, my God the king, / and I will bless your name for all time and beyond. Bêt 2 Every day I will bless you, / and I will praise your name for all time and beyond.

Declarative statements 
by the individual psalmist (VV. 3-9)
Gîmel 3 Great is the Lord and exceedingly praiseworthy; / for his greatness there is no searching out. Dālet 4 Generation to generation will glorify your doings, / and your mighty works they will make known. Hê 5 On the splendor of the glory of your majesty, / and on the words of your wondrous works I will meditate. Wāw 6 And the might of your awesome deeds they will tell, / and your greatness I will recount. Zayin 7 The memory of your great goodness they will utter forth, / and of your righteousness they will sing aloud.  Ḥêt 8 Showing favor and compassionate is the Lord / slow to anger and great of hesed. Têt 9 Good is the Lord to all, / and his compassions are over all his works.

The voices of the individual 
psalmist and the hesed ones (V. 10)
Yôd 10 All of your works will give thanks to you, O Lord, / and your hesed ones will bless you.

Interlude: God’s kingdom 
is for all time (VV. 11-13)
Kāp 11 The glory of your kingdom they will tell, / and of your mighty works they will speak, Lāmed 12 in order to make known to the children of humanity his mighty work / and the glory and the splendor of his kingdom. Mêm 13 Your kingdom is a kingdom for all times, / and your dominion is for all generations.

Descriptive statements 
by the individual psalmist 
and the hesed ones (VV. 14-20)
Sāmek 14 The Lord supports all who are falling / and lifts up all who are bent down. Ayin 15 The eyes of all look to you, / and you give them their food in its time, Pê 16 opening your hand / and satisfying for every living thing its desire. Ṣādê 17 Righteous is the Lord in all his ways / and hesed in all his doings. Qôp 18 Near is the Lord to all who cry out to him, / to all who cry out to him in truth. Rêš 19 The desire of the ones who reverence him he fulfills, / and their cry for help he hears and helps them. Šîn 20 The Lord watches over all who love him, / but all the wicked he will destroy.

The voices of the individual 
psalmist, the hesed ones, and all flesh (V. 21)
Tāw 21 The praise of the Lord my mouth will speak, / and all flesh will bless his holy name for all time and beyond (NICOT).


Psalm 145 ... Testing formatting ... Testing

To be continued.

15 July 2015

Being Honest with God (7.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 8)

Psalm 89


There once was a King who lived in the far east. He was growing old and it was time for him to choose a successor. He had no children and he did not like his senior officials, so he decided to do something different. He called for all the youths in the land to gather outside the palace on a certain day.

When that day came, all the young girls and boys gathered outside the palace and the King came out and said, “I have decided to choose one of you to be my successor.” The children were all shocked. “I am going to give each of you a seed. You will take this seed home with you, plant it, water it and care for it and in one year from this day bring the plants back here. I will then look at all the plants and choose one of you to rule the kingdom.”

One boy named Ling received a seed from the King, like everyone else. Ling ran home and told his mother. She helped him get a pot and some soil, and they planted the seed. Ling watered the seed carefully and waited for a plant to grow.

After three weeks of watering and caring for the seed, nothing yet had grown out of Ling's pot. Yet, other children were all talking about the shoots that had sprout already in theirs. After four and five weeks the other children were talking about how tall their plants were and yet Ling’s pot still showed not even one sprout. After six months Ling was sure he had killed his seed while the others bragged about having tall trees and plants.

The year quickly passed and the day came for all the children to bring their plants before the King. Ling was saddened and decided he was not going to go at all.

Ling's mother said that he should go before the King and be honest with him. What if the King become angry because Ling didn’t show up, it could be very disrespectful. So Ling sighed and said he would take his empty pot to the King.  He went to the palace with his head hung low.

Upon arriving, Ling saw how all the children had plants, trees, bushes and flowers in their pots. Ling hid behind the tallest person he could find so as to not be noticed. Just then the King came out and everyone clapped. The King walked around and looked at all the plants, smiling. “My, what lovely trees, flowers and plants there are here today.”

Just then the King saw Ling and his empty pot. The king ordered his guards to bring Ling to the front. Ling was terrified.

When Ling got to the King, the King asked him his name and he replied, “Ling.” All the others were laughing and heckling with whispers and chatter.

The King ordered everyone to be quiet. The crowd got quiet. The King then spoke, “Behold your new emperor.” Ling was stunned. He said to himself, "How could I rule a kingdom when I can't even grow a plant?

“One year ago today,” the King began. “I gave you all seeds and asked you to go home and plant that seed and water it and bring it back in one year.

I gave you all boiled seeds, which cannot grow. All of you brought me plants and flowers that you got from another seed because the first seed did not grow.

Only Ling here came forth with the exact seed that I gave him a year ago. Ling was the only one who came here with honesty, and the courage to be honest with his King. Welcome Ling. He is your new King.”

The story about Ling, the new king, is a good introduction to the theme of Psalm 89: Being Honest with One's King.


The relationship of old (VV. 1–4)
1 Of the hesed of the Lord forever I will sing; / generation to generation I will make known your faithfulness with my mouth; 2 for I will declare, “Your hesed is built to last; / the heavens, your faithfulness is established in them.” 3 “I cut a covenant with my chosen; / I have sworn to David, my servant. 4 I will establish your descendants forever; / and build your throne for generations.” Selah

Hymns to the Lord (VV. 5–12)
5 The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, / also your faithfulness in the assembly of holy ones; 6 for who in the clouds can be compared with the Lord? / Who is like the Lord among the divine beings? 7 God is feared in the council of the holy ones, / great and fierce above all surrounding him. 8 O Lord, God of hosts, who is like you? / O Mighty Lord, your faithfulness surrounds you. 9 You rule over the surging sea; / when its waves rise, you still them. 10 YOU crushed Rahab like a corpse; / with your mighty arm, you scattered your enemies. 11 The heavens are yours and so is the earth; / the world and all that is in it, you founded them. 12 North and south YOU created them; / Tabor and Hermon joyfully praise your name.

The relationship of the recent past (VV. 13–18)
13 You have a mighty arm; / your hand is strong, your right hand is lifted. 14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; / hesed and faithfulness go before you. 15 Happy are the people knowing the festal shout, O Lord; / in the light of your face they walk. 16 In your name, they rejoice all day; / in your righteousness, they are raised up, 17 for the glory of their strength is you, / and by your favor our horn is exalted; 18 for our shield belongs to the Lord / and to the Holy One of Israel, our king.

God’s covenant with Israel (VV. 19–37)
19 Then you spoke in a vision to your beloved ones and you said: / “I have given help unto a warrior.
I have raised up a chosen one from the people. 20 I found David, my servant; / with my holy oil I anointed him, 21 whom my hand will sustain continually; / also my arm will strengthen him. 22 An enemy will not mistreat him, / nor a child of unrighteousness humble him. 23 I will crush his foes in front of his face; / I will strike down those hating him. 24 My faithfulness and hesed are with him, / and in my name his horn is exalted. 25 I will set his hand on the sea / and on the rivers, his right hand. 26 He will declare of me, / ‘You are my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’ 27 Also I will make him the firstborn, / most high of the kings of the earth. 28 Forever, I will keep my hesed for him; /my covenant will stand firm with him. 29 I will establish his offspring forever; / his throne will be like the days of the heavens. 30 If his children forsake my torah / and do not walk with my justice, 31 if my statutes they profane / and my commandments they do not keep, 32 I will punish their transgressions with a rod / and their iniquities with plagues. 33 My hesed I will not remove from him, / nor will I betray my faithfulness. 34 I will not defile my covenant / nor alter the words from my lips. 35 Once and for all, I have sworn by my holiness; / I will not lie to David. 36 His descendants will continue forever / and his throne as the sun before me. 37 Like the moon, it will be established forever, / and as a witness in the clouds it is established.” Selah

The current situation 
and God’s reversal (VV. 38–45)
38 But [now] you have rejected, refused, / and become very angry with your anointed. 39 You have renounced your covenant with your servant; / you have defiled his crown in the land. 40 You have broken through all his walls; / you have  made his strongholds ruins.
41 All those passing by plunder him;
/ he has become a revulsion to his neighbors. 42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; / you have caused his enemies to rejoice. 43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword; / you did not support him in battle. 44 You have put an end to his splendor; / you have thrown down his crown on the ground. 45 You have cut short the days of his youth; / you have wrapped him in shame. Selah

Seeking relationship with God (VV. 46–51)
46 How long, O Lord? / Will you hide forever? / Will your anger burn forever? 47 Remember how brief my time is; / for what futility have you created humans? 48 What human can live and not see death? / Who can escape from the hand of Sheol? Selah 49 Where is your hesed of old, O Lord, / which by your faithfulness you swore to David? 50 Remember, O Lord, the reproach of your servant, / which I am carrying in my bosom, from all the many peoples, 51 with which your enemies reproach, O Lord, / with which they taunt every step of your anointed.

Editorial addition (V. 52)
52 Blessed be the Lord forever. /
Amen and Amen.  (NICOT)


There is a stretch of almost forty verses that, if reading Psalm 89 were a ride in a car, could be passed through rather pleasantly, with many familiar sights (themes and words) to be admired along the way.

Summarizes Beth Tanner: "The first thirty-seven verses ... offer praise to God for God's steadfast love"; she goes on to say that the psalm's themes "of control of the universe and creation are common in texts that proclaim God's kingship".

But just as we as passengers are tempted to fall asleep, V. 38 makes for a rude awakening.  The car crashes.  As we emerge, bruised and disoriented, we find that the real message of Psalm 89 is announced with an angry "but":

38 But you have rejected, refused, / and become very angry with your anointed. 39 You have renounced your covenant with your servant; / you have defiled his crown in the land. ... 44 You have put an end to his splendor; / you have thrown down his crown on the ground. 45 You have cut short the days of his youth; / you have wrapped him in shame. 

The people around the Psalmist are wondering just how much longer God will be angry.  They feel as though God has abandoned them and withdrawn his promises:

V. 49
אַיֵּ֤ה חֲסָדֶ֖יךָ הָרִאשֹׁנִ֥ים אֲדֹנָ֑י
ay·yêh ḥă·sā·de·kā hā·ri·šō·nîm ’ă·dō·nāy;
Where is your hesed of old, O Lord,

נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתָ ּ לְ֝דָוִ֗ד בֶּאֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ
niš·ba‘·tā  lə·dā·wid be·’ĕ·mū·nā·te·kā
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

The verses leading up to V. 49, in the paraphrase by Eugene Peterson, give us a good idea of the passion with which the Psalmist hurls her words at God:

"How long do we put up with this, God? Are you gone for good? Will you hold this grudge forever? Remember my sorrow and how short life is. Did you create men and women for nothing but this? We'll see death soon enough. Everyone does. And there's no back door out of hell. (VV. 46-48)

As Beth Tanner puts it, the words of the Psalmist are directed not just TO God, but also, pointedly, AGAINST God.

Things are tough; the Psalmist has decided to stop being nice; her words are bold, harsh and abrasive. She holds God accountable! She is honest with God. Radically Honest.

Continues Tanner: "This psalm speaks of powerful faith, faith that is strong enough to demand that God hear our pain ... that we can accuse God of not living up to God's promises when that is the way we truly feel ... It shatters the way we often 'do' church and says that pain and disillusionment are part of our lives and also a part of our relationship with God".

As you let that sink in for a minute, you know that this is a chance to review your own relationship with God!

Because it stops right before V. 38, the section assigned for this Sunday completely misses the point of Psalm 89. That is unfortunate, as the church is in dire need of Biblical laments, which are, as Walter Brueggemann said in a recent interview, "... an insistence that things cannot remain this way and they must be changed".

He continues, "Such prayers are partly an address to God, but they are also a communal resolve to hang in and take transformative action. Unless that kind of grief and rage and anger is put to speech, it can never become energy".

Biblical laments are leading the way to being honest with God.  As Brueggemann says, when grief and rage and anger are not spoken, when we are afraid of being honest with God, then their power is lost ... to ourselves, and to our relationship with God.

In the field of mental health we know that when grief and anger are not spoken, they will find another way to express themselves, often in medical problems.

Perhaps the modern church, by having become so "nice", is on the way to get sick.

We need to lament more.  We need to be more honest with God.

Think of Ferguson, think of Staten Island, think of Charleston.

We need to lament. We need to learn to take God seriously and to remind God of God's promises.  With great honesty (once we take that risk!) comes the gift of closeness, of intimacy, of a real relationship.

Just like Psalm 88, Psalm 89 provides no answers, but both psalms model how to stay in relationship with God no matter how rough it gets in our lives.

Beth Tanner cites Elie Wiesel who said this when asked whether he ever lost his faith:

“I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith not outside of it.”

08 July 2015

Dreaming of Perfect Balance (6.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 7)

Psalm 85



Zankei, the son of a samurai, journeyed to Edo and there became the retainer of a high official. He fell in love with the official’s wife and was discovered. In self-defense, he slew the official. Then he ran away with the wife.

Both of them later became thieves. But the woman was so greedy that Zenkai grew disgusted. Finally, leaving her, he journeyed far away to the province of Buzen, where he became a wandering mendicant.

To atone for his past, Zenkai resolved to accomplish some good deed in his lifetime. Knowing of a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused the death and injury of many persons, he resolved to cut a tunnel through the mountain there.

Begging food in the daytime, Zenkai worked at night digging his tunnel. When thirty years had gone by, the tunnel was 2,280 feet long, 20 feet high, and 30 feet wide.

Two years before the work was completed, the son of the official he had slain, who was a skillful swordsman, found Zenkai out and came to kill him in revenge.

“I will give you my life willingly,” said Zenkai. “Only let me finish this work. On the day it is completed, you may kill me.”

So the son awaited the day. Several months passed and Zenkai kept on digging. The son grew tired of doing nothing and began to help with the digging. After he had helped for more than a year, he came to admire Zenkai’s strong will and character.

At last the tunnel was completed and the people could use it and travel in safety.

“Now cut off my head,” said Zenkai. “My work is done.”

“How can I cut off my own teacher’s head?” asked the younger man with tears in his eyes.

Forgiveness is one of the main themes of Psalm 85.


Orientation: Past Forgiveness (VV. 1-3)
1 Lord, you favored your land; / you truly turned  toward Jacob*. 2 You lifted the iniquity of your people; / you covered all their sin. Selah 3 You withdrew all your fury; / you turned back from your fierce anger.

Disorientation: Asking Forgiveness (VV. 4-7)
4 Restore us, O God of our salvation! / Break off your anger toward us! 5 Will you be angry with us forever? / Will you stretch your anger from generation to generation? 6 Will you not turn and give us life, / so your people will rejoice in you? 7 Show us your hesed, O Lord! / Give us your salvation!

Reorientation: Restored Vision (VV. 8-13)
8 May I hear God the Lord speak, /
for he speaks peace unto his people, unto his faithful ones; / but let them not return to stupidity. 9 Truly, his salvation is near to those fearing him, / for glory is dwelling in our land. 10 Hesed and faithfulness will meet; / righteousness and peace will kiss. 11 Faithfulness will sprout up from the earth, / and righteousness will look down from heaven. 12 Indeed, the Lord will give what is good, / and our land will give its produce. 13 Righteousness will go before him / and prepare a way for his steps. (NICOT)


Psalm 85 is one of the Korah Psalms (42–49; 84–85; 87) which are "assumed to have emerged from and been used at the ancient sanctuary at Dan in the north of Israel" (Craigie).

Orientation, disorientation and re-orientation -- all three of the categories introduced into psalm scholarship by Walter Brueggemann can be found in Psalm 85 (see outline above).


The first half of the psalm is characterized by a word play on the Hebrew word שׁוּב (shub; turn).

V. 1
רָצִ֣יתָ יְהוָ֣ה אַרְצֶ֑ךָ
rā·ṣî·tā  Yah·weh ’ar·ṣe·kā;
Lord, you favored your land;

שַׁ֝֗בְתָ ּ שְׁבוּת  יַעֲקֹב
šūbə·tā  šə·būt Yaaqob
you truly turned toward Jacob.*

The word שׁוּב basically means to return to a point or area where one has been before.  In V. 1, the Psalmist uses a cognate accusative to intensify the meaning of shub; literally she says, “you turned with a turning [toward] Jacob.”

When שׁוּב  came up in Seminary for the first time, we learned to translate it as "repent" and while that is one of its meanings, שׁוּב has many more uses throughout the Old Testament.  Our psalm shows off a few of them:

V. 3
You withdrew all your fury; you turned back (שׁוּב) from your fierce anger.

V. 4
Restore us (שׁוּב), O God of our salvation! Break off your anger toward us!

V. 6
Will you not turn (שׁוּב) and give us life,  so your people will rejoice in you?

V. 8
May I hear God the Lord speak, for he speaks peace unto his people, unto his faithful ones; but let them not return (שׁוּב) to stupidity.

The order in which the various shades of shub show up is important as it shows the theological "flow" the Psalmist is pursuing: "It is the ‘turning, repentance’ of Yahweh that enables the future to become the present" (Howard Wallace).

Put another way, the Psalmist looks back on the history of salvation (VV. 1-3) in order to show what is now needed (VV. 4-7): "The people’s only hope is that God will turn around ... and restore the people ... There is no explanation offered or reasons for God to turn, except God’s own history of doing so. The words are direct. The only way back to a relationship is for God to forgive." (Beth Tanner).



In the third section (beginning with V. 8), the Psalmist changes her tone. Whereas in VV. 4-7 she has pleaded with God based on the past, in VV. 8-13 she develops a grand vision of the future.  She introduces her bold dream by speaking of God's שָׁלוֹם (shalom; wholeness, V. 8), יֵ֫שַׁע  (yesha; salvation, V. 9) and  כָּבוֹד (kabowd; glory, V. 9).

V. 10
חֶֽסֶד  וֶאֱמֶ֥ת  נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ
he·sed we·’ĕ·met nip·gā·šū;
Hesed and faithfulness will meet; 

צֶ֖דֶק  וְשָׁל֣וֹם  נָשָֽׁקוּ
ṣe·deq wə·šā·lō·wm nā·šā·qū
righteousness and peace will kiss.

And the vision continues:  

Faithfulness (אֱמֶת) will sprout up from the earth, / and righteousness (צֶ֫דֶק) will look down from heaven (V. 11).

Says Walter Brueggemann: "The use of the familiar covenantal vocabulary of steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace, however, does not remain focused simply on the relationship, but turns promptly to matters of produce, blessing, and fertility ... The practice of justice bespeaks the full restoration of the generosity of creation".

Indeed, the Lord will give what is good (טוֹב) / and our land will give its produce. Righteousness (צֶ֫דֶק) will go before him / and prepare a way for his steps. (V. 12-13).

When heaven and earth are in perfect balance, that is truly שָׁלוֹם, shalom, wholeness.

This is Matthias Jorissen's summary of the third part; the English translation in blank verse is my own.

Die Güte wird der Treu entgegengehn, 
Gerechtigkeit und Friede küssen sich. 
Du, Erde, wirst die Treue blühen sehn, 
vom Himmel schaut Gerechtigkeit auf dich. 
Gott ist uns gut und gießt Gedeihen aus, 
das Erdreich bringt den Segen uns ins Haus. 
Seht, vor ihm her geht die Gerechtigkeit, 
die unser Land mit jedem Schritt erfreut.

So goodness and truth will go to be together,
and justice draws peacefulness into a beautiful kiss. 
Then faithfulness springs from the earth with sprouts and blooms, 
while justice from heaven looks down and watches the earth.
The goodness of God will abundantly pour out his blessings,
so that our land with its produce might feed us all.
Then justice will walk before the Lord our God,
and bless our land with every step it makes.

...
* The translation of V. 1b is my own.



01 July 2015

Desiring God As Much As Air (5.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 6)

Psalm 123


A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. "Master, I wish to become your disciple," said the man. "Why?" replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. "Because I want to find God."

The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water.  As he was kicking and struggling to free himself, the master held him there for a minute (or three).  Then he pulled him up out of the river.

The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. "Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water."

"Air!" answered the man. "Very well," said the master. "Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air."

Just as in the story, the theme of Psalm 123 is Desiring God.



1 To you I lift up my eyes, / O the one who dwells in the heavens. 
2 Behold, as the eyes of the 
servants (look) to the hand 
of their lord, / As the eyes of the 
maid servants (look) to the hand
of her mistress, / Thus our eyes 
(look) to the Lord our God, / 
until he shows favor to us.

3 Show favor to us, O Lord, / 
show favor to us, / for we are 
overwhelmed with contempt. 
4 Our inmost being is 
overwhelmed with the mockery 
of the ones who are at ease, / 
the contempt of the proud. (NICOT)



Beginning with Charles Spurgeon commentators have noted a common theme linking psalms 120 through 123: whereas in Psalm 120, the psalmist looks up from despair, in Psalm 121, she looks up to the hills. Then, in Psalm 122, she looks up to the Temple. Finally, in Psalm 123 she looks up to God.

Samuel Cox admires our psalm for its "charm of unity".  "It limits itself to one thought, or rather it expresses a single mood of the soul -- the upward glance of a patient and hopeful faith."

The pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem (Psalm 123 is one of the Songs of Ascent) compare their trust in God to the relationship of trust between servants and their masters and mistresses.

Behold, as the eyes of the servants look to the hand of their lord, as the eyes of the maid servants look to the hand of her mistress, thus our eyes look to the Lord our God, ... until he shows favor to us (V. 2).

Just like obedient servants look up to their masters and mistresses for nurture and protection, masters and mistresses "show favor" to them.

The word translated here as "show favor", שֶׁיְּחָנֵּֽנוּ, comes from the Hebrew verbal root חָנַן (ḥānan; mercy, graciousness).

Matthias Jorissen's Metric Psalter* aptly summarizes V. 1-2:

Zu dir im Himmel, HERR, zu deinem Licht 
erheb ich mein Gesicht. 
Wie auf die Hand des Herrn die Knechte schauen 
und seiner Güte trauen, 
wie sich die Augen einer Magd nicht wenden 
von ihrer Herrin Händen, 
so sehen wir in unsers Lebens Not 
allein auf dich, o Gott.

To you in heaven, Lord, up to your light
I lift my countenance.
As servants firmly look to their lord's hand
and trust his charity,
and as a maiden sees her mistress' hands
in patience and in hope,
we look to you in our own distress,
to you alone, oh God.


The second half of the psalm (V. 3-4) repeats the phrase "show favor", but now in a much more urgent tone:

V. 3
חָנֵּ֣נוּ יְהוָ֣ה חָנֵּ֑נוּ
ḥān·nê·nū Yah·weh ḥān·nê·nū;
Show favor to us, O Lord, /
show favor to us,

כִּֽי  רַ֝֗ב שָׂבַ֥עְנוּ בֽוּז
kî-rab  śā·ba‘·nū  buz
for we are overwhelmed with contempt.

The word שָׂבַ֥עְנוּ in Line 2 is from the Hebrew root שָׂבַע (saba; become satisfied, being satisfied, drink their fill, have in plenty; have it in excess, become weary).

Even though the word is usually used with food, here what the singer and her contemporaries are fed excessively is בּוּז (buz; contempt, that which makes people despised or a laughingstock).

In using "satisfaction" in such unusual way, the Psalmist employs hypocatastasis, an elegant figure of speech that "declares or implies a resemblance, representation or comparison" and "has more force than a metaphor or simile, and expresses ... a superlative degree of resemblance" (Wikipedia).

As contempt is being pushed down the throats of the Psalmist and her contemporaries, they simply cannot "stomach it" any more.

In V. 4, the hypocatastasis figure of speech is repeated: Our inmost being is overwhelmed (literally: satisfied) with the mockery of the ones who are at ease. In addition, בּוּז (buz) is used with the article ha to paint the character of the contemptuous people around the Psalmist: the proud.

This is how Jorissen* renders the second half of our psalm:

Erbarm dich, HERR, wie du es stets getan, 
und sieh uns gnädig an. 
Wir mußten ja seit ungezählten Tagen 
der Menschen Wut ertragen. 
Wie wurden wir mit Spott und Hohn betrachtet, 
entwürdigt und verachtet! 
Zu lange schon erleiden wir den Tod. 
Erbarm dich unser, Gott!

Be gracious, Lord, as you have always been,
show mercy to us now.
For endless days we suffered constantly,
endured the people's rage.
How we were treated with immense contempt,
dishonored and despised!
Too long already we have suffered death.
Be gracious to us, Lord.

"Come back when you want God as much as you want air" -- the hermit's advice points the way for all of us servants of God:

"Lifting our eyes to God" is more than just good advice for days when we are in trouble. As Clifford  (as referenced by Nancy deClaissé-Walford) reminds us, such looking up is an act of defiance, in that we defy all the other "gods" around us that lay claim to our lives.

...
* The translations in blank verse are my own.

24 June 2015

A Wondrous Imbalance (4.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 5)

Psalm 130


Les Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 
Folio 70r - De Profundis.
 (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)


In the 17th century there was a Zen monk named Master Hakuin who was well respected for his work among the people.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Hakuin. One day, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Master Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the child needed.

A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: "Is that so?"


Not unlike those of a certain Rabbi Jesus, Master Hakuin's actions fly in the face of all common sense. His curt response “Is that so?” seems to turn upside down every sense of justice:

When he is accused of being responsible for the girl's pregnancy, he gives what amounts to a verbal shrug. And as he is vindicated, and the mortified parents come to apologize and to take back their grandchild, his reaction is the same: “Is that so?”

You may not think so from the story, but Master Hakuin was a wise man. His paradoxical refusal to get angry or to seek justice opens up new ways of thinking about forgiveness.

What enables Hakuin to remain so even-tempered in the face of great injustice is his unconditional regard for others and himself.

The theme of Psalm 130 is forgiveness.


Crying Out to The Lord.
1 From the depths I cry to you, O Lord. / Lord, listen to my voice. 2 Let your ears be attentive / to the voice of my entreaties.

Trusting in The Lord.
If iniquities you keep account of, O Lord, / Lord, who could stand?  4 But there is with you forgiveness / so that you may be revered.

Waiting for The Lord.
5 I am confident in the Lord, my inmost being is confident, / and for his word I wait expectantly. 6 My inmost being (waits expectantly) for the Lord, / more than those watching for the morning, / those watching for the morning.

Call to Trust The Lord.
7 Wait expectantly, O Israel, for the Lord, / for with the Lord is hesed, / and abundantly with him is deliverance. 8 And he will deliver Israel / from all of its iniquities.  (NICOT)


My most recent memory connected with Psalm 130 goes a few years back: singing Cantata 131 by a famous contemporary of Hakuin, J.S. Bach, with the Cornerstone Chorale under its Music Director Richard Stout. 

Even though this work is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (he composed it as 22 year old organist) and even though it doesn’t have all the formal elements his later cantatas do, I think it’s hauntingly beautiful.  

I distinctly remember being annoyed with the quirky habit of pronouncing “Aus der Tiefe” as “Aus der Tiefe-e”. Yet it seems as though choirs all over the world do it that way, and at least one scholar claims that this pronunciation adds to the “haunting” quality of the “depths” the psalm's first word denotes.

V. 1
מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהֹוָה
mim·ma·‘ă·maq·qîm qə·rā·tî·kā Yah·weh
From the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

אֲדֹנָי֮ שִׁמְעָ֪ה בְק֫וֹלִ֥י
’ă·dō·nāy  šim·‘āh  bə·qō·w·lî
Lord, listen to my voice.

The first word in Psalm 130 is מַעֲמַקִּים (maamaqqim) with the preposition "mim" (from) added in front. The word is a plural form of עָמַק (amaq) and means "depths".

The second word, קְרָאתִ֣יךָ, is from the Hebrew root קָרָא (qara; cry, call, shout).

The third word is יְהֹוָה (Yahweh), one of the two words for God used in our psalm. (The other is אֲדֹנָי֮, Adonai, see Line 2).

As you can see above by counting the words, a powerful statement like Line 1 can be done in three words in Hebrew -- the English translation needs nine.

But what are those depths the Psalmist speaks of?

Most commentaries agree that the Psalmist employs here an ancient metaphor for chaos well-known to her contemporaries: the depths of the sea.

She cries "from the depths of the sea" because someone or something makes her feel alienated. As she cries out to Yahweh, we feel her anguish, her sense of abandonment, her sense of deep sadness.

The Message Bible renders V. 1, "Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cry for help!"

Walter Brueggemann muses about the tone of the Psalmist, reflecting on the fact that in the Songs of Ascents (of which our psalm is part) God is addressed as King:

"From where should the ruler of reality be addressed? One might think it should be from a posture of obedience, or at least from a situation of prosperity and success, indicating conformity to the blessed order of creation. One ought to address the king suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a disciplined, well-modulated voice. But this psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere."

He then reminds us of Exodus Chapter 2, the beginning of Israel's liberation story:

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Ex 2:23b-24)

If you and I heard V. 2 for the first time, this might very well the point where we would worry about our audacious Psalmist: Let your ears be attentive / to the voice of my entreaties

But ... apparently she is not smashed to smithereens, as she presses on in V. 3 with a rhetorical question: If iniquities you keep account of, O Lord, / Lord, who could stand? 

Then we get to the theological center of Psalm 130:

V. 4
כִּֽי  עִמְּךָ֥  הַסְּלִיחָ֑ה
kî-  im·məkā  has·sə·lî·ḥāh;
But there is with you forgiveness,
Denn bei dir ist die Vergebung,

לְ֝מַ֗עַן תִּוָּרֵֽא
lə·ma·‘an  tiw·wā·rê
so that you may be revered.
daß man dich fürchte.

The Hebrew word translated with "forgiveness" is סְלִיחָה (selichah), a seldom-used noun derived from the verb סָלַח (salach; to forgive, pardon, spare).

But there is with you forgiveness so that you may be revered.

Notice the odd pairing of forgiveness with fear/reverence.

Björn Schwenger suggests that we let V. 4 sit on our tongue so we can taste its sweetness.  He then spells out what a lot of people might expect the Psalmist to have said instead: "With you there is judgment and punishment, so that people fear you."

This is a stunning revelation about God: that forgiveness is there before anything else ("ex nihilo" as Brueggemann puts it), and that reverence follows from it.

It can be said, then, that reverence is born in the marvelous experience of God's forgiveness.

A phrase often used by German theologians comes to mind: "die vorauslaufende Gnade Gottes" -- literally "the Grace of God that runs ahead of us". It's God's version of unconditional regard; his love wins out no matter how badly we mess up. What wondrous imbalance indeed.

In his hymn "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir" (Out of the depths I cry to Thee) Martin Luther perfectly matches the "wondrous  imbalance" proclaimed by the Psalmist:

Ob bei uns ist der Sünden viel,
Bei Gott ist viel mehr Gnade.
[Although our sins are manifold,
God’s mercy is more powerful.]*



...

*the translation in blank verse is my own.

15 June 2015

"Don't Get Old. It's a Bad Idea!" (3.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 4)

Psalm 103

For material on Psalm 107, parts of which are assigned for June 21 in the RCL, see my post dated 3/11/15. This post is on Psalm 103, assigned for this Sunday in the German lectionary; in the RCL, portions of this psalm are assigned to Epiphany 8B.


“There is not enough room,” the people were crying. “There is not enough room.” It was true.

The plants of the plain grew so high and thick and close that no hook or knife was able to clear a path through them. Thick hedges of weed and bramble threatened to choke the trees that towered over them and locked them in an eternal shade of leaves.

Food was scarce for there were few places to grow it. But that was only a part of the problem. A far greater threat hung over the people. Death had never yet visited the world. So everything lived and multiplied, growing bigger and bigger, never growing old, threatening to crush the earth itself under the weight of all that teeming life.  The cries of the people grew louder and louder. “There’s not enough room. We need more room,” they pleaded.

High on her mountain-top, Kali, the goddess of death, sensed the cries of the people and stirred in her sleep. The pleading was insistent and demanded a response. It wakened Kali, angered that she had been disturbed. She rushed from her bed, throwing a robe around her shoulders, and flung open the bedroom window.

The sight that met her eyes softened even her hard heart and soothed away her anger. Piled below her were crowds of people, their arms a forest reaching out to the sky. They were hemmed in by a thick avenue of trees, so tall that they blotted out the sky. Birds filled their branches, singing shrilly. Animals of every kind threaded their way warily through the throng. The stench of sweat and the shrill, panicky pleading were everywhere.

Kali gazed at the misery, pondering what to do. Then she turned from the window and called urgently for her servant Time. “The conditions below must not continue for a day longer. Bring me my cloak,” she ordered. “Then harness the horses and hitch up the chariot. You and I are going on a long journey.”

So Kali wrapped herself in her long, red garment. Then with long fingers she eased the key of her treasure chest into its lock and, when the lid was opened, pulled parcel after parcel from its dark interior until the whole of the room, from floor to ceiling, was piled high with them, each gleaming in the gold wrapping that covered them.

When Time brought the chariot to the door, Kali ordered that he fill it with her gifts. All the time, her seven black stallions pawed the ground, nervous, excited, eager to move. At last, all was ready and Kali mounted the chariot where Time was waiting. He handed her the reins.

A single crack of the whip and the horses raced across the face of the sky, carrying them ever downwards to the earth and all its misery.

Kali made sure she didn't miss anyone. She visited every house, every town and village. At each stop she ordered Time from the carriage, his arms full of gifts for all who lived or grew there.

Eagerly, the gold wrapping was torn apart to reveal Kali’s gifts. But there was no excited response. For them, Kali brought decay, mold, dust, rust, dry, withered shells, wrinkles, coldness, ageing.

For the first time that day, leaves changed their color and began to fall. The stems of plants grew dry and cracked and turned back downwards to the earth.

On that day too, the people knew first the mark of wrinkles on faces, a stiffness of limbs and joints and eyes that no longer saw clearly. Soon, too, they discovered death and its pain of loss, at first amongst the animals and then amongst the people themselves. The elders were leaving, moving aside to make space for the children.

Kali returned from earth, exhausted from her long journey. Since then, she returns often to greet each one who moves aside to make space for others. But now she sends Time ahead of her to warn that Kali is on her way and present his own special gift. For Time brings the gift of white hair and he covers it in the golden wrapping of wisdom.

Kali, the Hindu goddess, is meant to symbolize the wholeness of life: life and death, beauty and ugliness, motherliness and destructiveness. In the story above she introduces humanity to death and decay, in order to restore balance.  Psalm 103 covers almost every topic the People of God discuss; one of those topics is death and decay ...


Call to praise (VV. 1–2)
1 Praise the Lord, O my soul! / All that I am—praise his holy name! 2 Praise the Lord, O my soul! / Do not forget all of his benefits!

Stanza 1: The Individual's Perspective (VV. 3–8)
3 The one who forgives all your sins, / who heals all your diseases, 4 Who redeems your life from the pit, / who crowns you with hesed and mercy, 5 Who satisfies your life with good, / so that your youth is renewed like an eagle. 6 The Lord accomplishes vindication / and justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, / his deeds to the children of Israel. 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, / slow of anger, but abounding in hesed.

Stanza 2: The Community's Perspective (VV. 9–16)
9 He does not always accuse; / he does not maintain his grievance forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins / he does not repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, / so great is his hesed toward those who fear him — 12 As distant as the rising is from the setting,  / so has he distanced our sins from us. 13 As a father has mercy upon children, / the Lord has mercy on those who fear him— 14 For he knows how we were formed; / he remembers that we are dust.   15 
A human being—like grass are its days, / like a wildflower, so it flowers. 16 But a wind blows against it and it is no more, / and its place acknowledges it no longer.

Stanza 3:  Humanity's Perspective (VV. 17–19)
17 But the hesed of the Lord — / it is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, / and his righteousness is for the children’s children, 18 To those who keep his covenant, / to those who remember to do his commandments. 19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens; / his kingdom rules over all.

Call to praise (VV. 20–22)
20 Praise the Lord, O his angels, / O mighty ones who do his bidding, / who obey the sound of his word!  21 Praise the Lord, all his hosts, / his ministers who do his will! 22 Praise the Lord, all his works, in all the places of his dominion! / Praise the Lord, O my soul! (NICOT)



The lyrics of two musical versions of our psalm don't just show the variety of styles; they also show a discrepancy in the translation of the first word:


Bless the Lord, my soul,  
and bless his holy name,
bless the Lord, my soul, 
he rescues me from death.
(Taizé)

Lobsinge Gott, erwecke deine Kräfte, 
mein Geist, sein Lob sei immer dein Geschäfte. 
O bet ihn an, sein Nam ist Majestät. 
Lobsing dem HERRN, erheb ihn, meine Seele! 
Er sorget treu, daß dir kein gutes fehle. 
Vergiß den nicht, der dich durch Huld erhöht.
(Matthias Jorissen, Metric Psalter)


The phrasing of the Taizé chant ("bless the Lord") follows the majority of English Bible translations, while the Jorissen Psalter follows Martin Luther's translation by using "lobsinge Gott" (praise the Lord).

Here's the Hebrew original:

V. 1
בָּרֲכִ֣י נַ֭פְשִׁי אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה
bā·ră·kî nap̄·šî ’et-Yah·weh;
Praise the Lord, O my soul!

וְכָל־קְ֝רָבַ֗י אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם קָדְשֽׁוֹ 
wə·kāl qə·rā·bay, ’et-šêm qodhsho.
All that I am — praise his holy name!

The question is how the first Hebrew word of the psalm, בָּרַך  (barak), should be translated.  It is true that the word's chief meaning is "to bless", but standard dictionaries offer as a secondary definition "to bless God as an act of adoration: to praise".

The translation I use (from the NICOT commentary, written by Rolf Jacobson) renders בָּרַך as "praise". Jacobson explains that the word in this context carries "the sense of declaring God to be the source of blessing, and thus should be translated as praise or perhaps 'worship'."

The combination of נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh, soul, living being, life, self, person) and קֶ֫רֶב (qereb, inward part, midst, here translated as "all that I am") suggests that the Psalmist begins the psalm with a self-exhortation: She instructs her soul, her inner being, to praise Yahweh. By extension, we are instructed to enter into a similar dialogue with our own inner beings.

Though Psalm 103 covers many topics, the key to the entire psalm is God's חָ֫סֶד (chesed)*: "The message of the psalm is that if one wants to know God’s heart, the very center of the Lord’s character, one needs to wrap one’s mind around the concept of hesed." (Rolf Jacobson)

As if moving in concentric circles, the Psalmist praises God's chesed from an individual's, a community's and finally humanity's perspective.

In the first stanza, she praises Yahweh for forgiveness, health, rescue, honor, satisfaction, renewal, vindication and justice; in the second she is grateful for Yahweh's patience, mercy and forgiveness, culminating in a beautiful metaphor about God's grace: "As distant as the rising is from the setting,  so has he distanced our sins from us" (V. 12). So great is God's chesed that he has decided that our sins are taken to the direction exactly opposite from where we are.

Amanda K. Gott talks about the power and passion contained in Yahweh's chesed: "The God that embraces us lovingly, holding us tenderly like a parent or a lover, is also indomitable. God’s chesed involves pillars of smoke and fire and whole new lives being brought up out of dust, ashes and ruins. ... It is a loyalty so un-breakable that it defies human reason and human ways. Merciful, yes, but also very mighty, very powerful, with a grip that holds us relentlessly."

I am especially intrigued by the section at the end of the second stanza, which indeed speaks of death and decay: "As a father has mercy upon children, the Lord has mercy on those who fear him —  For he knows how we were formed; he remembers that we are dust. A human being—like grass are its days, like a wildflower, so it flowers. But a wind blows against it and it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer." (VV. 13-16)

Human life, reminds us the Psalmist, is short. And then one day, nobody will remember us.

When I was a young pastor, one of my elderly parishioners told me, "I tell you, Pastor, don't get old; it's a bad idea."

Some twenty years later I am starting to see what she meant. When I visit my family these days, I find myself pointing at teenagers I cannot recall seeing before. They are the kids of my many cousins, almost all of whom I remember only as little kids.

"A human being — like grass are its days," says the Psalmist. And,  "A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last", says the Book of Job.

I know this to be true.

I know it deep down in my bones:  I am more forgetful.  I need more sleep.  My joints ache sometimes. Gone are the days when I could go through a day of work after two or three hours of sleep.

And when I try to read the small print on medication bottles, my eyes remind me that I am getting old.

"A human being — like grass are its days" -- what does this mean?

Of the two possible answers, the first one is from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Our lives flee like a shadow.
Or like an hour on a stage. 
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: It is a tale told
by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

An idiot ... signifying nothing. The first answer leaves no hope. It is awful and depressing.

The second answer comes from our psalm:

A human being — like grass are its days, like a wildflower, so it flowers. But a wind blows against it and it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the hesed of the Lord -- it is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness is for the children’s children. (VV. 15-17)

Even though the first half of that section almost sounds like Shakespeare's somber and depressing words, the second half turns it all around: "But the hesed of the Lord".

In other words, human lives are meaning-filled because of God's grace: because God wants them to have meaning. Our lives have meaning because our heavenly parent has given so much chesed, so much love, ever since he called us each by our names (Isaiah 43:1) all the way to where we are today.

One day he will come for each of us, as the one who planted his trees many years ago and who has decided it's time to transplant us to a place where our leaves cannot wither any more.
   
The people who know us might not know you or me one day, but God in his chesed won't forget any of us. The quote above comes to mind, that we find ourselves in a "grip that holds us relentlessly."

Because of God's love, we shall live.

Another illustration of that "grip" of God is a well-known statement from the Song of Salomon: "For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave". (8:6b)


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*The translation above leaves the word untranslated (see VV. 4, 8, 11, 17), taking into account that scholars think no single English word can capture the spectrum of meanings it encompasses.