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03 June 2015

As Sure As Day Follows Night / So sicher wie das Amen in der Kirche! (1.So.n.Trin. / Pentecost 2)

Psalm 138

It was a cool evening in ancient China. Chuang Tzu's friend went looking for him at the local inn. He found Chuang Tzu sitting at a table, sipping his drink in a contemplative mood.

"There you are!" Chuang Tzu's friend greeted him. "I thought by now you would be telling everybody another one of your stories. Why so quiet?"

"There is a question on my mind," said Chuang Tzu, "a question about existence."

"I see. Would you like me to leave you alone to your thoughts?"

"No, let me share it with you. Perhaps you can provide me with your perspective."

"My perspective is of little value, but I would be glad to listen." He pulled up a chair.

"I was out for a stroll late in the afternoon," said Chuang Tzu. "I went to one of my favorite spots under a tree. I sat there, thinking about the meaning of life. It was so warm and pleasant that I soon relaxed, dozed off, and drifted into a dream. In my dream, I found myself flying up above the field. I looked behind me and saw that I had wings. They were large and beautiful, and they fluttered rapidly. I had turned into a butterfly! It was such a feeling of freedom and joy, to be so carefree and fly around so lightly in any way I wished. Everything in this dream felt absolutely real in every way. Before long, I forgot that I was ever Chuang Tzu. I was simply the butterfly and nothing else."

"I've had dreams of flying myself, but never as a butterfly," Chuang Tzu's friend said. "This dream sounds like a wonderful experience."

"It was, but like all things, it had to end sooner or later. Gradually, I woke up and realized that I was Chuang Tzu after all. This is what puzzles me."

"What is so puzzling about it? You had a nice dream, that's all there is to it."

"What if I am dreaming right now? This conversation I am having with you seems real in every way, but so did my dream. I thought I was Chuang Tzu who had a dream of being a butterfly. What if I am a butterfly who, at this very moment, is dreaming of being Chuang Tzu?"

"Well, I can tell you that you are actually Chuang Tzu, not a butterfly."

Chuang Tzu smiled: "You may simply be part of my dream, no more or less real than anything else. Thus, there is nothing you can do to help me identify the distinction between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly. This, my friend, is the essential question about the transformation of existence."

Just like the butterfly in this classic Taoist story is flying free of the limitations imposed by gravity, we are invited to find joyous freedom: a liberating spiritual state in which we transcend our fears.

Psalm 138 describes the joyous freedom the People of God experience when they surrender their need to control, and put their trust in God.

In the presence of gods (VV. 1-3)
1 I give thanks to you with all my heart; / in the presence of the gods I make music to you. 2 I bow down toward the temple of your holiness, / and I give thanks to your name / because of your hesed and your faithfulness. / For you have made your name and your word great. 3 In the day that I cried out, you answered me; / you have made me courageous; / in my inmost being is strength.

In the presence of kings (VV. 4-6)
4 All the kings of the earth will give thanks to the Lord, / for they have heard the words of your mouth. 5 And they will sing in the paths of the Lord, / for great is the glory of the Lord. 6 Though the Lord is exalted, / the lowly he sees / and the haughty from a distance he knows.

In the presence of enemies (VV. 7-8)
7 If I walk in the midst of oppression, / you cause me to live in spite of the anger of my enemies. / You send forth your hand and your hand delivers me. 8 May the Lord do favorable things on my behalf. / O Lord, your hesed is for all time; / May the doings of your hands not come to an end. (NICOT)

Psalm 137, the psalm preceding this week's, expresses the bitterness of the captives in Babylon:

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Psalm 137: 1-3)

The implicit question is: "How could we sing our songs here? Won't we just set ourselves up for more scorn and ridicule?" Psalm 138 is often thought of as an answer to that question. Writes Nancy DeClaissé-Walford:

"In the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, the Israelites questioned their very identity and future as the people of God." She goes on to say that Psalm 138 and the psalms following it celebrate "a new realization by the people that they can continue to exist as a specially called people by acknowledging God as their sovereign and worshipping faithfully."

After she speaks of giving thanks and making music, the Psalmist continues:

V. 2
אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֨ה ֶ אֶל הֵיכַ֪ל קָדְשְׁךָ֡ 1
'eš·ta·ḥă·weh ’el- hê·kal qād·šə·kā
I bow down toward the temple of your holiness

וְא֘וֹדֶ֤ה אֶת שְׁמֶ֗ךָ 2
wə·’ō·w·deh ’et-šə·me·kā,
and I give thanks to your name

עַל חַסְדְּךָ֥ וְעַל אֲמִתֶּ֑ךָ 3
‘al- ḥas·də·kā wə·‘al- ă·mit·te·kā;
because of your hesed and your faithfulness.

Rolf Jacobson reminds us that the Hebrew word translated in line 2 as "and I give thanks", וְא֘וֹדֶ֤ה, is a form of יָדָה. (yadah, to know), and that the grammatical form it takes here means to "cause someone else to know."

While at least one commentary suggests to translate yadah in this context with "confess", I would suggest "testify" or (better yet), "bear witness".

Jacobson concludes that "... giving thanks Old Testament style has less to do with some internal feeling of gratitude and more about sending God a thank you note. And the thank you note that God desires is to tell others what God has done."

We are to be witnesses of the Good News not just to those in our congregations. As the Psalmist includes gods, kings and enemies, we are sent to testify in our neighborhoods, towns and countries, and ultimately in the whole world "what God has done", and what God can do.

But it is line 3 above that brings us to the center of what the Psalmist wants to communicate, in the hendiadys ("two for one") figure of speech formed by the words חָ֫סֶד (chesed) and אֱמֶת (emeth).

While חָ֫סֶד is often translated with kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, or steadfast love (see my post on February 4), אֱמֶת means truth, firmness, or faithfulness.  The word emeth is derived from the Hebrew word אָמַן (aman),  meaning to “be firm, reliable, permanent.” We use a participle of this verb after every prayer as we say אֹמֵן, Amen.

The Hebrew words chesed and emeth describe God's character as trustworthy.  This means, says Jacobson, "that the promises God makes can be trusted ... that the laws that God ordains are good ...  that the guidance and providence that the Lord offers are better for us in the long run than our own wills for our own lives."

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, 
thy compassions, they fail not;
as thou hast been thou forever will be.

When we surrender our need to control people, places and things, and trust our faithful God instead, we will experience joyous freedom.

God is faithful. This is "As Sure As Day Follows Night", or as Germans might say, "So sicher wie das Amen in der Kirche."

אֹמֵן -- Amen.


  1. what if the dream is dreaming us, upon the dreams of eagles

  2. What are the dreams of eagles like?