February 24, 2013
Second Sunday in Lent
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
There are many ways to read scripture. Reading for Bible study is different from reading for devotionals is different from sermon preparation is different from liturgical reading in worship. And there are different ways of approaching how we read. One way is to ask ourselves three questions: how the first readers or speakers might have read it or heard it, how the community of faith has read it or heard it over time, and how we personally hear it or read it.
History, archeology, anthropology and sociology can all give us insight into what it may have meant for its first audience. But these hints must then be filled in by imagination, because we just don’t know enough to get inside the heads or the hearts of people centuries ago.
So on the one hand it is good to ground these stories and poems and songs and laws in their original contexts, but we must confess that there is always a measure of projection, of trying to put our own assumptions onto a world both similar to and far removed from our own.
How the community of faith has read certain scriptures over time can also be illuminating. We discover that some entire scrolls (we now call them books) were read at certain festivals in the Jewish year. We discover that some things, like social justice or care for the poor, extend all the way back to when these writings were first collected, while other things, like the claims about the Rapture, are only a few hundred years old.
Finally we might ask “what does this mean to me?” Some times a particular passage doesn’t mean all that much, depending on where we are in our lives. And some times other passages that we have heard over and over again and just gone on autopilot whenever they start, now carry a life-giving word.
We could well imagine David writing Psalm 27. It is a psalm filled with the threats of politics and war, adversaries who use words and a host, an army, who use swords and spears.
It also gives us insight into the conversation of prayer with God.
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
Thou hast said, “Seek ye my face.”
My heart says to thee,
“Thy face, LORD, do I seek.”
Hide not thy face from me.
Perhaps we too know the pain of one who is doing as best they can what they think God is calling them to do, and yet the answer seems far off. “I am seeking your face, Lord. Please don’t hide.”
In one Jewish tradition, this psalm is recited twice a day during a period of repentance. Repetition of a passage of scripture at first may seem like a strange thing to do. We worry it will become rote, that we will just mouth the words, that we won’t really mean them. But there is something powerful in the repetition of a prayer or a passage. There is something that is learned not from the understanding of the words, but from the practice of their recital. Protestants have usually avoided such things as being anti-intellectual or, if they really wanted to avoid it, by calling it “a little too Catholic…”
But what about us? What about where we are in life? This is a psalm of struggle. There are enemies. There are difficulties. There is God’s apparent absence. There is an expectation that God will help, that God will provide, that God will shelter, but the psalm seems to dance around the question, “how long, O Lord, how long?”
In our Statement of Faith as the United Church of Christ, we testify to God’s deeds, one of which we proclaim to be:
You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
That is what this psalm is about: courage in the struggle. Maybe our struggle is for justice and peace. Maybe our struggle is to make it through the day. Maybe our struggle is to find the words to tell our story, to let our truth be known. For some, perhaps the struggle is to pick up the hammer, the pencil, the laptop, and get to work on what needs doing. For some, perhaps the struggle is to put these things down.
Ozora Stearns Davis, president of Chicago Theological Seminary a century ago, would tell students: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
And so we come to Jesus, in Jerusalem. You know it is getting bad because even the Pharisees are coming to him warning him of what is to come. Where before Jesus has gone up to Galilee until the threat subsides, now he faces it and says what he is about.
First, he will face this threat without giving up who he is and what he is about: preaching and healing. Second, he laments the ways of the world, how even in Jerusalem one who brings the word of God is under threat by the powers of empire. And in the midst of this, we find compassion amid the struggle:
How often would I have gathered your children together as
a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
Perhaps this is for our courage as well. If we allow, the Lord will gather us, shelter us, protect us, like a mother hen gathering her brood under her arms.
Thanks be to God.