April 10, 2016
Third Sunday of Easter
Guest Preacher: Tom Ehrich
Twenty-three years ago, I came to the conclusion that there had to be more to faith than arguing about paint colors for the chancel wall, or debating which way choir chairs faced, or bickering over who was in charge, or how long sermons should be, or who would be allowed to serve at the altar, or whether we would worship in old English or new English. If faith was about nothing more consequential than that, what was the point?
So I began a quest to look for God in daily life, in the common stuff of daily living. If I stood beside the window at a truck stop in Pennsylvania and showed my newborn son Peterbilts and Kenworths, reefers and tankers, and the endless fascination of the road trip, what would I see of God?
I wanted to see the Jesus who actually was, not the distant figure whom we define in creed and reverence in liturgy and in whose name we allegedly beat up on. each other in church. I wanted to look at what Jesus actually said and did, and then to discern who was the God whom Jesus knew.
I spent the first twenty years examining life-stories and relating them to the Gospel readings. Each day I saw more in the Gospels, because I was seeing more in life. It never got old.
But three years ago, in a huge leap of faith, I switched my focus to readings from the Hebrew Bible. This was, after all, the Bible that Jesus knew. The Psalms were the songs he sang. The stories he knew were the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery and across the wilderness to a promised land.
His ethics came from the prophets and their hard, insistent demand for justice. When Jesus taught about wealth and power, he wasn’t teaching Economics 101 or defending free-market capitalism. He started in places like the prophecy of Amos: “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
This journey into the Hebrew Bible – hearing the songs Jesus sang, living inside the stories that he knew and the prophetic words that shaped his teaching – has changed everything for me. I don’t think I had realized how radical Jesus was. His ideas weren’t a mild updating of what people already believed. They were revolutionary, they called people to an entirely new way of living. Giving away their wealth, not just sharing crumbs from the table. Taking the side of the rejected, the oppressed, the outcasts. Standing for justice. Risking everything to stand with the least of these. Being radical in his tolerance. He formed people into circles of friends, not into institutions with hierarchies of power and rules and grand facilities. What we have done and fought over so bitterly is about us, not about Jesus.
Psalm 30 is an example of what fed Jesus’ radical understanding that it is wealth and power that corrupt our souls and make us easy marks for the evil one.
In one common eastern way of composing, the verses form a U, with parallel thoughts and images, leading to the center. In Psalm 23, for example, parallel verses – 1 to 6b, 2 to 6a, 3 to 5 — drive the reader’s attention to verse 4. That is the center of the psalm: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Psalm 23 isn’t a bucolic anthem to sweet shepherds. It was the basis for the one new commandment that Jesus gave: “Do not be afraid.”
Now look at Psalm 30. Look at its structure. Verses 1 and 12 are parallel: both concern praising God. Verses 2 and 11 are about God healing and turning mourning into dancing. Verses 3 and 10 are about God rescuing and helping. Verses 4 and 9 are about praising God. Verses 5 and 8 are about joy coming in the morning and our crying out to God. In each parallel pair, there is a subtle but important shift that happens. Verse 5, for example, says that God chooses to let his wrath cool and brings joy, and verse 8 answers the question, to what end? The joyful one cries out to God. God’s decision to bring joy is what enables us to ask for help.
The center, then, is verses 6 and 7, and here is where the deepest meaning lies. Verse 6 says, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” That sounds fine. People want prosperity, and they value being resolute. But verse 7 changes it. Verse 7 says that although God seemed to have established the psalmist as a “strong mountain,” in fact “You hid your face; I was dismayed.”
It seems prosperity was a snare and delusion. It led the psalmist to choose rigidity and never to yield. That is what prosperity does. People who gain wealth become obsessed about keeping it, preserving it, surrounding it with troops, building bigger barns and hiring more troops, even buying entire governments to keep what they have, no matter who gets hurt in the process.
What does God do? Does God smile on the fortunate, as the so-called prosperity gospel would have us believe? Is wealth a sign of divine favor? Should those who have wealth think themselves superior to those who have nothing? Verse 7 answers a resounding No! God hides his face from the wealthy. Just as the sinners Adam and Eve hid their faces from God in the garden, so now does God hide his face from the deceitful and grasping.
The wealthy end up looking at a world where everyone seems an enemy and no place is safe. They want to be admired. They want to be envied. They want to be considered better. They have bullied their own houses of worship to applaud them, not call them to accounts. But the last thing they want to do is give up their wealth. They will do whatever it takes, to the point of bankrupting an economy and undermining our great experiment in democracy, to keep every dime of what they have. That, says Psalm 30, is wrong, it is misguided, it is hurtful to others, and it is destructive to oneself.
The ethics of Jesus came from places like Psalm 30. That’s why he spoke so forcefully against wealth and urged the haves to seek God by sharing with the have-nots. From sources like Psalm 30, he knew that prosperity merely sent God into hiding. We must leave our gold and go in search of God.
That, I now realize, is what I was doing twenty-three years ago. I didn’t know it at the time. I was a child of prosperity serving people of prosperity. We were all prosperous together, some more than others, but not one of us suffering as most of God’s creation suffers. At some level I sensed that God’s face had turned away. That is why we were behaving so badly and doing so little for the world, so much less than the world needed. If God’s face had turned away, then I needed to go in search of it.
That journey has taken a long time to bear fruit, but it has changed everything for me.