Yr C ~ Pentecost 15 ~ Psalm 81
Psalms are really interesting pieces of writing. They speak passionately of our relationship with God, usually expressing praise, but often expressing the real struggle of faith with all its ups and downs. Psalms can be joyous and uplifting one moment and downright nasty and uncomfortable the next. They are certainly not for the faint of heart. And they’re constantly changing “voice” from the psalmist speaking to God speaking to someone else speaking, and often with no warning or indication so you have to kind of figure it out yourself.
Ultimately, the voice of the psalmist is the voice of the preacher, the prophet, the historian, the liturgist, the disciple, and the Lord all rolled into one. This week and next we’re going to look at a couple of psalms. Next week’s is very well known. This one, not so much. But after today I hope you’ll know it better. It’s Psalm 81.
1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
2 Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.
3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.
4 For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
5a He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt.
First, I’ll remind you that the literal meaning of worship is “to ascribe worth” or in other words it’s “worth-ship.” Worship, worth-ship, is not grovelling, it’s acknowledging high value. And this worship is our obligation/commandment – a decree. Does that make you feel coerced? It shouldn’t.
Think of it in the same ways that you are obligated or decreed to love your partner, or to love a friend. An obligation to love isn’t a burden, it’s a life-giving gift.
So yes, we are obliged to worship, to declare our highest value, to love God. Here’s why…
(the psalmist says) 5b I hear a voice I had not known:
(then God’s voice) 6 “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.
7 In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. (Selah)
This is the core Exodus narrative of the people of Israel. The not-so-long-ago-and-never-to-be-forgotten story that was still supposed to be ringing in the ears and stirring the hearts of the Jews. But they were starting to relax in their (relative) comfort and let things slide. So the psalmist gives voice to the heart of God and helps them remember why they’re called to worship. God’s Presence relieved, freed, rescued, and answered the people. And the psalmist pokes them with the “Meribah incident” in which the people complained to Moses and Moses gave them water from the rock. They lost faith and didn’t trust that God would provide when in fact God did. It was a test the people failed. So yes, it’s a little jab.
8 Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
Doesn’t this sound like an anguished parent who is heartsick because their child has made some poor choices? The word admonish here means to bear witness, to testify with an eye to correcting something that should already be known. So we’re not being scolded, we’re being reminded.
And then God pleads with us: O [my people], if you would but listen to me!
If God had hair it would be coming out by the handful.
God’s lament continues:
9 There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
(And, by the way, that doesn’t just mean religious gods but also idols like materialism, ambition, power, greed – these are the real “strange gods” among us that we worship!)
10 I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.
Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.
Isn’t that a fascinating image?! What do you think it means?
On the one hand it makes me think of a bird feeding their chick.
But what I think the psalmist actually meant is if we open our mouths in an action of praise and worship that God will fill us with the sounds of gratitude, wonder, and prayer. It’s an invitation to worship, to love.
And then the sadness.
11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.
It isn’t that the people wouldn’t “submit” per se but that they wouldn’t allow God to fill their mouths with praise. They wouldn’t open their hand and receive.
What do you do when your children don’t listen?
What does God do? It’s quite remarkable.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.
What else can God do? God does not coerce – God invites, God blesses, God loves. So if God’s people refuse to love God the only thing God can do is let them. “Think you know better? Have at it.” That’s free will.
But it has a cost.
The cost is that it hurts God, because God is love and love not returned breaks the harmony.
Broken harmony hurts!
Again, you can hear the pain and disappointment and bewilderment in God’s voice:
13 O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!
It breaks God’s heart that God’s people turn away. “If only they’d walk in my ways” says God. What would happen then? The psalmist puts it this way:
14 Then I [God] would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes.
15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.
16 [But for you, my people, my beloved,] I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Ever had honey from a rock? That’s how wondrous God’s blessings will seem – like even the rocks will give honey, not just water like Moses, but honey! – if we would receive.
Yes, it’s hyperbole. Yes, it’s worship language. Yes, it’s faith language.
Yes, it’s the psalmist putting words in God’s mouth.
But that’s the point of theological reflection – to be inspired by the Spirit of God and to communicate with the people of God how you perceive the situation, and to try to inspire them to open their hand and receive the love and blessings God wants to pour out and pour in to us. The psalmist wants us to know that God longs and yearns for us to love God back! And if we do, even more blessings will flow – not because we’ll have earned them, but because we’ll have opened our hands and received them. If only we’d listen.
I’ve called this message “Longing for Listening.” And if nothing else I hope this will give you a deeper sense of the heart of God and how it yearns for us to listen.
Verse 8 – O [my people,] if you would but listen to me!
Verse 10 – For I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Verse 11 – But my people did not listen to my voice.
And verse 13 – O that my people would listen to me.
Such yearning. Such heartbreak. This is not a cold, distant, clock-maker god that sets us in motion and leaves us on our own. This is our God of Infinite Love, Present right here and now, longing for us to simply pay attention, to simply listen.
O that you would listen…
I have to tell you, I think the ability to listen is getting worse and not better in our culture. Conversation has devolved into “me talking and then zoning out until I get to talk again.” Actually listening is very different than that. Listening requires something very hard from us. In order for me to listen I have to stop talking! And more than that I have to stop spending my non-talking time thinking about what I’m going to say next.
Have you ever done that? – Found yourself in a conversation and realized that you actually haven’t heard a word the other person said because you were so busily crafting your next brilliant argument or idea that you were about to say? I certainly have!
Listening, real listening, requires us to stop and focus our attention on the other. – To let go of our agenda for a moment and be open, absolutely open, to what the other person is offering. I can’t listen to you while I’m planning my next words, or my dinner menu, or my vacation.
Listening demands presence.
Listening demands openness.
Listening demands humility.
Listening demands selflessness.
Listening demands vulnerability.
Let’s face it – we don’t much like any of those things because they leave us, well, open, humble, selfless, and vulnerable!
You’d think listening would be an easy and natural thing for us because we spend so much time in conversation with other people but the truth is we are generally very bad at.
We have to work at it.
We have to practice it.
But it’s hard.
And the really perplexing thing is that we all really yearn and long to be listened to! It is a beautiful and wondrous gift to have someone really listen to you. When I do spiritual direction work that is the thing that I think people value the most – just really being heard.
I get together with three minister friends every month and we just take the time to very intentionally listen to one another. We share our lives. We share ourselves. It is deeply intimate and deeply moving – and makes you super-vulnerable. But what a gift! Deep listening is an expression of love.
I bet you long to be really listened to.
I bet you yearn to have your beloved partner or your beloved friends press pause on whatever they’re doing from time to time and really, really fully listen to you.
And I bet your love would pour out for them even more as you are heard and valued and loved.
So maybe the voice of the psalmist is also your voice about your own life?
O my family and friends (my “people”), if you would but listen to me!
For I am your loved one, who loves you and shares your life.
But “my people” did not listen to my voice.
O that “my people” would listen to me.
In our human interactions we feel just like God does with us.
Take a moment and let that sink in.
So what can we do? Two things. And they’re both pretty obvious, and both pretty hard.
First, we can learn to listen to one another by practicing really listening to one another.
Look the person in the eye.
Give them your presence.
Drink in what they are offering.
You don’t have to necessarily agree with everything you hear but you do need to receive it openly, without making faces of judgement, and without planning responses, or giving advice.
Learn to leave spaces.
Learn to appreciate the silence between sentences and don’t feel the need to fill them up with chatter.
People are yearning for it.
They are longing for listening.
And second, find someone who will really listen deeply to you. Perhaps you could do so for each other. Maybe your partner is too close in some ways, but that’s up to you.
Celtic Christians had a name for two people who covenanted to listen deeply to one another. Their word was anam cara – it means “soul friend.”
And maybe if we got a little better at listening to each other we might find ourselves more able to listen for God’s voice, or nudge, or Presence. The skills are the same.
You can’t look God in the eye but you can close your own eyes to limit distractions.
You can give God your whole presence.
You can drink in everything God is offering, even if you don’t really understand it or know what to do with it.
You can receive God’s Presence openly, without making faces, or judgements, or defending, or planning responses.
You can leave spaces and not fill them in with chatter.
God is yearning for it. God is longing for listening.
And the best part of this is that God just happens to be the world’s greatest listener too.
You can say anything to God – and God will drink it in, without judgement, or making faces, or planning responses.
And God is very good at leaving the spaces because, as Father Tom Keating says, “Silence is God’s primary language – everything else is a poor translation.”
And as you sit in the silence with God, communicating, communing, you will realize that you are actually both listening to one another’s very being – deeply, intently, intimately, passionately, lovingly.
This is what we long for.