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02 April 2015

Gratitude, Grief and Grace (Ostern / Resurrection of Our Lord)

Psalm 118*

"There once was a sage named Fa-Yung who lived in a lonely temple high in the mountains. He was visited one day by a wandering monk, T'ao Hsin, the Fourth Patriarch. As the two were talking a wild animal roared close by, T'ao Hsin, a fully enlightened monk, jumped. 'I see it is still with you,' said the Fa-Yung, referring, of course, to the instinctive emotion of fear.

Shortly afterwards, while he was unobserved for a moment, T'ao Hsin inscribed the Chinese character for the Buddha on the rock on which Fa-Yung was accustomed to sit. When the sage returned to sit down he saw the sacred name and hesitated to sit. 'I see,' said T'ao Hsin, 'it is still with you!'"

In this old Zen story we witness a conversation between two sages, one a fully enlightened patriarch of Zen, the other a deeply spiritual person on the cusp of awakening; yet both, not unlike nearly all of us, find that "it" (that is, fear) "is still with you!"

The four basic emotions -- mad, sad, glad and afraid -- will always be around where there are human beings, and in Scripture we encounter those basic emotions most fully in the psalms.

Our lectionary tends to assign only portions of a given psalm, as on Easter Sunday only VV 1-2 and 14-24 are presented of Psalm 118. While it is understandable in practical terms, this procedure deprives the reader and hearer of the psalm's full impact and, as one commentary puts it, can "take the teeth out of it" to the point of making the Sunday psalm feel innocuous.

1 [O give thanks to the Lor]d, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 [Let Is]rael [now say], “His steadfast love endures forever.” 3 [Let the house of Aaron now say, “His steadfast love] endures [fore]ver.” 4 Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” 

5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. 6 [The L]ord is with me; [I will] not [be afraid. Wh]at can mortals do to me? 7 The Lord is on my side among those who help me; I will look in triumph on those who hate me. 8 It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in hu[mans]. 9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in [princes]. 10 All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lo[rd I cut them off]. 11 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 12 They surrounded me like bees, (but) they burned out like a fire of thorns; for in the na[me of the Lord] I cut them off!  13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me. 14 The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;  16 [“The right hand of the Lord is lifted high.” 17 I will not die, but live, and I will recount the deeds of the Lord]. 18 The Lord has punished me severely, but he has [not] given me over to death. 

19 Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter them and give thanks to the Lord. 20 [This is the gate] of [the Lord, through which the righteous will enter]. 21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23 [This i]s the [L]ord’s doing; [it is marvelous in our eyes]. 24 This is [the day that] the [L]ord [has made]; let us rejoice [and be glad in it. 25 Please] save (us) now, [O Lord]! O Lord, please give us now success! 26 [Bl]essed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you by (your) name from the house of the Lord. 27 The Lord is God, and he has given us light. The cords of the festal procession are with branches [up to the hor]ns of the altar. 28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will exalt you. 

29 [O give thanks] to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

The picture above shows a sculpture of Martin Luther located at Coburg Fortress (Veste Coburg) in Germany, where in 1530 Luther lived for five and half months under the protection of Elector John the Steadfast. He stayed for the duration of the Diet of Augsburg, which he could not attend as an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire. As Philip Melanchthon attended in Luther's place, making history with the drawing up of the Augsburg Confession, Luther wrote and wrote.

Twenty years later Mathaeus Ratzeberger, Luther’s physician, visited Coburg Fortress. He made a point of inspecting the room Luther had used as a study and meticulously noted down the verses which Luther had written on the wall.

One of those verses was Psalm 118:17, Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera domini ("I shall not die, but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord" in the Vulgata); that verse is also displayed underneath the sculpture pictured above.

On his wall, Luther had added to V 17 musical notes for singing. Other sources report that during one of his periods of Schwermut (depression) Luther had received a composition by Ludwig Senfl on just this verse, and that spending time with the verse had made his Schwermut leave him.

Psalm 118 was thus Martin Luther’s favorite -- “My own beloved psalm,” as he put it. Luther considered verse 17 to be “a masterpiece,” and he asserted that “all the saints have sung this verse and will continue to sing it to the end.”

לֹֽא אָמ֥וּת כִּי אֶֽחְיֶ֑ה
וַ֝אֲסַפֵּ֗ר מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥י יָֽהּ׃
I will not die, but live,
and I will recount the deeds of the Lord.

The word אֶֽחְיֶ֑ה is derived from the verb חָיָה, which means to live, have life, remain alive, sustain life, live prosperously, live for ever, be quickened, be alive, or be restored to life or health.  Most of us know the toast used in drinking to a person's health or well-being used by our Jewish sisters and brothers, L'Chaim ("to life"); the noun chaim is directly related to our verb חָיָה.

"I will not die, but live, and I will recount the deeds of the Lord". Luther’s “masterpiece” is a good place to start in appreciating the message of Psalm 118.  V 17 can serve as a summary of the Psalmist’s account.  

Framed inside repeated calls for thanksgiving there is one part (VV 5-18) that portrays the Psalmist's troubles and God's acts of deliverance, and another part (VV 19-28) that commemorates  her victory in an elaborate liturgy.  The themes of gratitude, grief and grace weave in and out of Psalm 118, much as they do so in each of our lives.

The title of one of  Anne Lamott's books comes to mind: "Help, Thanks, Wow: The three essential prayers".  So.  When you are full of gratitude, let your prayer be THANKS. When you are overcome by trouble and everyone gives you grief, let your prayer be HELP.  And when you can't help but marvel at God's grace and love, let your prayer be WOW.

*Translation from The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (Abegg et al., 1999). Square brackets in the text indicate parts of text that have been lost.  Also, since eight full verses of our psalm (4-5, 11, 13-15 and 21-22) have fallen victim "to cave worms or the ravages of time" (and are therefore missing in the DSSB), I have added those verses from the NRSV.

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