A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Thanksgiving ~ Psalm 65
This is going to be one of those sermons where I just use the scripture as a jumping off point to talk about what I really want to talk about. But first I need to address a couple of glaring theological landmines in the first few verses of Psalm 65, and then, with verse 5 especially reframed, we’ll dive into my theme for today.
Right off the top I need to say that this is a psalm – which means it’s poetry – which means it’s all about imagery, and emotions, and deep meanings rather than facts, and figures, and historical detail. In fact, the Book of Psalms is really a hymn book – it’s music and lyrics, except we’ve lost the music. Songs are all about exaggeration for effect, and painting word pictures designed to inspire, and challenge, and make us think. No, that’s not exactly right – not to make us think – to move us to feel, to worship, to pray.
You should read psalms with the words “not literally” in your mind. That doesn’t mean they don’t speak deep and profound truths – it’s just that poetry is not meant to be taken literally. The problem is that over time much of our Christian biblical interpretation lost that nuance, and instead of taking poetry as poetry we’ve taken it ‘literally’, and our theology has been affected, and not for the better.
For example, Psalm 65:1-2 says, “(Oh God,) we will fulfill our vows to you, for you answer our prayers.”
And immediately we have a landmine.
Does God answer prayer? How? All prayers, or just some? And what is prayer anyway?
Aha! Now we’re getting to the problem.
Prayer is not a wish list for alleviating my personal challenges or meeting my desires. Those things may arise during prayer, but they’re not the point.
Prayer is about a relationship, an opening of one’s heart to the Presence of God, a joining of sacredness and spirit, union, oneness, love.
The problem, as usual, is one of translation. When I say ‘answer’ you probably think ‘respond’. But that’s not the Hebrew word here. The word ‘answer’ here means ‘to hear’. Hearing you is not the same as responding to you. This verse should say, “We will fulfill our vows to you, for you hear us, you are Present with us, you embrace our prayerfulness and meet us in our openness.” That’s very different from answering a wish list.
Psalm 65:3 offers another landmine. Though we are overwhelmed by our sins, you forgive them all.
Sin means to fall short of God’s ideal, God’s holiness, God’s spiritual perfection. Well, of course we fall short! But that’s because we aim so high! Again, sin isn’t a laundry list of things you think you did wrong. Sin is a state of being – the state of knowing that you are aiming for God’s awesome, sacred, holiness and you fall short. Listen to that verse again:
Though we are overwhelmed by our sins, you forgive them all.
The only person keeping score in this game is you. Not God.
Landmine number 3.
Verse 4 says, “What joy for those you choose to bring near, those who live in your holy courts.”
On the surface that makes me wince, because it seems to suggest that God picks and chooses who gets to draw near. That fundamentally goes against my core theological understanding that God is love, and God can only love, therefore God could never choose to exclude.
So is the verse wrong? No, it’s poetry! It simply means they’re joyful that they feel included in God’s love. Reading it as excluding others is our mistake, not theirs.
So, prayers are about being heard, not necessarily ‘answered’.
Sin is something that befuddles us but God shrugs off – not ignores, not that aiming for sacredness doesn’t matter, just that not always attaining it doesn’t accumulate on a report card!
And God’s choosing ‘us’ doesn’t preclude God choosing ‘them’ too.
That’s a lot of theology in 3 short verses – and that’s not even what I want to talk about today. I just can’t let those misleading interpretations go without comment.
(By the way, that’s why we usually only have one scripture reading each week – doing others without the benefit of diving in can cause all kinds of trouble!)
Now to our focus verse – Psalm 65:5
You faithfully answer our prayers with awesome deeds, O God our savior.
There’s that problematic ‘answer our prayers’ again.
Only guess what? It’s a different word again – and neither one of them really mean ‘answer’ in the way we understand the word ‘answer’!
In verse 2 the Hebrew word meant ‘hear our prayers’ – in verse 5 the Hebrew word actually means ‘to respond’, but more specifically it means to sing, to shout, to testify, to announce.
My wife teaches math. On a test she wants answers. Singing, shouting, testifying, and announcing ain’t gonna cut it.
But singing, shouting, testifying, and announcing God’s response to our prayerfulness (not our wish list, our openness) is exactly how God responds!
You faithfully answer our prayers with awesome deeds.
That sentence is just 3 Hebrew words.
The first is about holy awe.
The second is righteousness, holiness.
And the third is sing/shout/testify/announce.
Notice the word ‘deeds’ as we understand it is not there.
You righteously sing, shout, and testify with awesome deeds.
The ‘deed’ God does is to emanate, enthuse, and exude awesomeness, sacredness, and holiness.
Prayer is so much more than a wish list. It’s our soul longing for union with God’s Presence. Well, what better answer could there be for such a profound spiritual longing than to know that God is righteously singing, and shouting, and testifying God’s awesomeness, and sacredness, and holiness. Everywhere and always. Right here, right now. Beyond, around, and within us.
It’s no wonder the two most prevalent words in this psalm are ‘you’ and ‘joy’.
The psalmist is basically saying, over and over again – “You – joy! You – joy! You – joy!”
The rest of the psalm is all beautiful imagery of how the whole of creation experiences God’s Presence and sings out in joy in awareness and response. There’s plenty of water, a bountiful harvest, soft earth, abundant crops, lush pastures, hillsides blossoming with joy, meadows clothed in sheep, valleys carpeted with grain – and all of it shouts and sings for joy!
Creation is singing with joy. God is singing with holiness, infusing everything and everyone with sacredness. Joyfulness abounds!
How shall we respond?
Assuming we’ve noticed all this singing – how shall we respond?
Sounds easy, right? Just be grateful. After all, it’s Thanksgiving this weekend here in Canada. Should be easy to be grateful this weekend, right?
Except, chances are you won’t be able to gather with your friends or family like you probably would most years. It’s just not safe to have multiple households together indoors. It might be warm enough to gather outside, but even then, in close quarters, with family, how hard will it be to resist giving a hug!
Will Covid spoil your Thanksgiving? I hope not! But aside from Easter (and back then we were just getting started in all this) – this is the first major holiday that has been seriously curtailed by Covid.
I don’t even want to think about Christmas!
So – Thanksgiving. Are you grateful?
Are you finding it hard to be grateful or joyful in Covid season?
The hillsides are blossoming in joyful colours, the harvest is bountiful (well, except for tomatoes! – ours were awful this year), the whole of creation is shouting and singing for joy!
Can you hear it?
Are you grateful?
Or has it blurred into the background of the hassles of trying to navigate life without touching anyone or anything, and disinfecting everything, and staying home, and wearing masks, and not coming to church, and, and, and…
It’s easy to be grumpy, and it can be hard to be grateful when there is challenge, and frustration, and fear all around. It can become hard to hear the singing.
But let’s try.
Let’s lean into this and find the gratitude.
First things first: No one should ever ask you to be thankful FOR Covid. Coronavirus is a nasty and potentially deadly disease. I am not in the least bit thankful FOR this horrible infection and all the misery it has wrought.
However, and this is a hard theological concept, while I can’t be grateful FOR Covid, I hope we can find ways to be thankful IN Covid.
There are all kinds of blessings in this season of struggle – some we may never have noticed if the world hadn’t……paused. We’ve been forced to slow down the pace of life a bit.
Maybe you can be grateful that you rediscovered a hobby or a pastime?
Grateful for more time to read.
Grateful for the glory of a refreshing walk around your neighbourhood when you’re feeling housebound.
Grateful for noticing that, generally speaking, people are pulling together, being kinder to one another. Sure, there are always those who go against the flow, but the overwhelming flow is to respect the science and wear our masks and do what’s needed to protect one another and love one another. I’m absolutely grateful for that!
Our churches have been forced to imagine life beyond the bricks and mortar, and not rely on the church building to represent our ministry.
We’ve had to become the ministry ourselves. Become the church ourselves.
I have always had a dark wish – it’s a kidding/not kidding kind of thing. My fondest desire is that one day I’ll wake up and every single church building in the country has been mysteriously reduced to rubble. (And I pray the authorities won’t find the panel van with my fingerprints on it!)
I don’t say this cavalierly. If one church is burned down or destroyed it is a true tragedy. I don’t make light of that at all.
I want them all gone. Yes, even this one.
Because then we’d be forced to start again, and we would not start by rebuilding them all.
We’d talk about mission and ministry and where God’s people need gathering places.
This pandemic has, in a non-destructive way – accomplished my fondest desire. (See, God answers prayer! – he says, undermining his whole sermon.)
The entire Christian enterprise has had to re-evaluate its identity in this season.
If we can’t be in the building, how are we church?
I LOVE THAT QUESTION!
I am indescribably grateful for the need to wrestle with it.
So what have we done at Faith United? How are we church now?
Well, I’m grateful for the gardening group that grew to be a gathering group.
I’m grateful for the food drive Tuesdays that drew-in attention and participation from our neighbourhood.
I’m grateful for the landscaping and maintenance opportunities, and the time that folks had to focus on those things.
I’m grateful for the need for intentional phone calls and driveway visits among you all when a simple wave across the room at coffee hour may have sufficed before.
I’m grateful for technology that has allowed us to continue to gather for worship in what I trust is a meaningful and rich way, even though we’d rather be together.
I’m grateful for the group that’s currently working on making this worship experience richer through some additional tech capabilities.
I’m grateful for our weekly Wednesday email blast called Noticings where I can make a connection with people mid-week, and also share some announcements about church life.
Heck, I’m even grateful for Zoom.
That ubiquitous online meeting software that if you sit in front of it for hour upon hour each day – and there have been weeks when I have – that it feels like it’s sucking your soul out of your body.
And yet – and yet I’m so grateful that we have it.
Zoom has allowed us to have Council meetings safely.
Zoom has allowed us to have committee meetings, and UCW meetings, and weekly coffee hour social times safely.
Zoom made it possible to have birthday parties, and anniversary parties, and all sorts of family gatherings when a worldwide pandemic required us all to stay home. I’m so grateful that we were, and are, still able to be connected. Had this happened even 5 years ago we didn’t have this technology.
What a blessing this is!
You might even say that Zoom is a Godsend.
This year it’s not Thanksgiving – it’s become ThanksZooming!
And I’m grateful.
And with all that gratitude flowing I can hear God singing God’s righteousness and awesomeness into creation, into this church, and into me. And that makes me grateful beyond measure – even in the midst of Covid.
No, we would never have chosen this.
No, it’s not fun.
No, I don’t like it very much.
And yet –
I’m grateful for all the blessings that have emerged during this season.
God is indeed singing, shouting, testifying, announcing God’s awesome righteousness, holiness, sacredness, and Presence.
It’s all around and everywhere – waiting to be noticed.
Our true, deep prayerfulness being heard and ‘answered’.
I wish we were together today – and we are.
And I’m grateful.
I wish you a happy Thanksgiving – and, more than likely, a happy ThanksZooming too.