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.
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. As we’ve said throughout this Season of Creation, 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. God must not be reduced to some kind of holy vending machine – although, that’s the typical language folks tend to hear about prayer. It’s very dramatic in movies and songs. In fact, there’s even a very popular country song right now that starts like this, “I only talk to God when I need a favour.” Oh, the singer doesn’t really expect one. But they do imply that if they’d just dust off their bible and go to church that God would grant the favour they want. That kind of transactional, vending machine theology has done so much damage. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express our needs to God. Of course we should. Those things may very well arise during prayer, but they’re not supposed to be 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.
Another challenge is that we here in the modern Western world view the world through a very different filter than ancient biblical folks did. Most of our problems are what we call ‘first world problems’. Oh, they’re troubling, and irksome, but they tend to sound foolish when compared to others. Like, last week our church sound board melted down and we had to scramble to jerry-rig something so we could hear during worship. That’s a big, first world problem. The psalmist, on the other hand, is worried about survival, and enslavement, and famine, and such. A laundry list of things that are personally troubling was not really on their minds. They thought much more of community-minded things, whereas we have the luxury of focusing on individualistic things. Landmine number one – the vending machine god!
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.
Again, it’s more communal than personal. And even if it is personal, apparently 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. A God who is pure Love could never choose to exclude. So is the verse wrong? Well, maybe! Here’s a shocker for you – it’s ok to disagree with parts of scripture. Not every word of every verse is going to be useful for you. Taken as a whole, scripture is beautiful, holy, helpful, and life-enhancing. And when you read the odd verse that’s clearly biased, or hopelessly outdated, or is just plain disagreeable, then go ahead and disagree with it. If I just leave out the words ‘you choose’ and say “What joy for those who draw near, those who live in your holy courts” then the landmine is defused.
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 just because a poet wrote that God chooses some and not others doesn’t make it true.
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!)
One last bit of word study.
Psalm 65:5 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance
That sentence is 8 words in English, but just 3 words in Hebrew. The first is about holy awe. The second is righteousness, holiness. And the third means to sing/shout/testify/announce. Notice the word ‘deeds’ as we understand it is not there. God doesn’t do ‘things’ for us. 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. Surely, God is in this place!
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. Creation overflows! Joyfulness abounds!
How shall we respond? Assuming we’ve noticed all this singing and overflowing – how shall we respond?
Gratitude. Sounds easy, right? Just be grateful. After all, it’s Thanksgiving this weekend here in Canada. For this weekend at least, all of Canada pauses and thinks at least a little bit about being grateful. Grateful. Full of ‘grate’? Full of g-r-e-a-t? No, actually it means to be full of g-r-a-t-e. It’s an obsolete Latin root that means ‘pleasing’, or ‘to be pleased’. To be grateful is to be full of things that please you. That sounds great to me! (lol)
But it isn’t called Gratitude Day, it’s called Thanksgiving. It quite literally means a time to ‘give’ thanks. To give suggests there is someone, or something receiving. Who are we giving our thanks to? That’s an obvious answer for us – God. Non-church folks also participate in thanksgiving, and many of them will express thankfulness, or gratitude – for the things that please them. Where do they send their gratitude? Some would say, “to the universe.” As I said in Noticings this week, I like that idea. We just give the universe a name – and know that it’s character is Love. But I’m equally fine with just that sense of mystery and wonder – that a person somehow feels moved to be thankful, or grateful, for the things that give life pleasure and meaning.
The expressing of gratitude can have a profoundly positive effect on your being, on your spirit. Meister Eckhart famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” How do you say ‘thank you’ to God? Maybe you do the ‘go around the table and say something you’re thankful for’ thing at Thanksgiving? Maybe you express your gratitude in actions and kindnesses? Some people keep a gratitude journal. This can be an amazing thing. Every day, pause for 5 minutes, and write down a few things you’re grateful for. Or put up a big piece of chart paper in your kitchen and add to it whenever you pass by!
If you’re not sure what to write, start by looking out the window, and write that down! As you breathe in and out be grateful for your breath, and write that down. As you connect with Faith United be grateful for your church community, and write that down. As you listen to music, or watch a video, or have a meaningful conversation with a friend, be grateful, and write that down. Be grateful always – not necessarily FOR everything (because some things in life are not ‘pleasing’ at all) – but you can be grateful IN everything – because whatever our circumstances the one overflowing truth and reality is that we are loved. You are loved! You are God’s beloved. You are loved by your kindred in Christ. It doesn’t mean everything works out, and it doesn’t mean our vending machine wishes get met – but it does mean that love is in us, between us, and among us, always. I think that’s great! For that, I am eternally grateful.