Proper 7A

June 16, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 10:24-39

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 21:8-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Psalm 86 presents a challenge to 21st century North American and other western preachers and teachers: many worshipers don’t know what to do with such psalms of lament.  Their tone sometimes makes us uncomfortable.  Affluent, comfortable worshipers also find psalms of lament’s sentiments hard to relate to.  If you wonder about the truth of that, ask yourself, “When’s the last time our worship planners deliberately chose a psalm of lament as a song or used it in a prayer?”

    Of course, we might argue Psalm 86 is relatively “preachable” or teachable in part because its tone is gentler than some other psalms of lament.  It alternates between expressions of urgent pleas for and confidence in God’s salvation.  The poor and needy poet begs God to hear and answer his prayers, even as he reaffirms their long-term relationship through several doxologies (vv. 5, 10, 15).

    Yet even if some worshipers aren’t particularly comfortable with psalms of lament, God’s people have much to learn from such psalms.  Among other things, they serve as an excellent model for our own prayers.  Psalm 86 expresses, after all, both the poet’s complete dependence on God and God’s great dependability.

    Those who want to preach and teach this psalm might prepare to do so by asking questions like, “What’s the tone of this psalm?  What does it say about people?  About God?  How might God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters appropriate such a psalm for our individual and corporate use?”

    Like many of our prayers, Psalm 86 begins with a cry for help.  Old Testament scholar James Mays calls it the cry of a servant to his or her lord or master.  Israelite servants belonged and lived in service to their human lords.  They, in turn, expect their lords to support and protect them.

    The psalmist expresses her complete dependence on a different “master,” the Lord her God.  The intensity of the psalmist’s pleas for God’s help emphasize that dependence.  Yet those pleas for God to “hear,” “answer,” “guard,” “save,” “have mercy,” “bring joy,” “hear” and “listen” have a kind of demanding tone we may not ordinarily expect from servants.  We might even think of those demands as brash.

    Perhaps, however, that brashness arises from the desperation of the psalmist’s plight.  He implies, after all, that while God is capable of doing everything he needs God to do and more, God is currently unresponsive.  The “day of trouble” (7) seems to have shaken the psalmist’s confidence not only in God and God’s ability to save, but also in the health of their relationship.

    This offers opportunity for reflection on the relationship between worshipers’ sense of well-being and their relationship with God.  It’s tempting, after all, to infer from personal or shared misery that God has turned God’s back on God’s children and, as a result, question God’s relationship with the sufferer.  However, it’s also tempting to infer from a sense of well-being that God is smiling on those who flourish.  Those who lead worshipers through this psalm might consider pointing to the dangers of such assumptions.

    Yet even in the dark valley through which she walks, the psalmist professes her trust in the Lord her God.  She explicitly confesses that trust in verses 5 and 7.  Yet we also see her trust reflected in her willingness to beg God for help.  She’s neither too proud nor too rattled to plead for God to help her.  The poet clearly hasn’t yet lost faith in either God or their relationship.

    So the psalmist is able to express a deep confidence in God’s gracious intervention in his life.  He knows God as a Lord who answers when God’s servants call on the Lord.  That confidence is based, in part, on what God has done for God’s people in the past.  In fact, verses 5 and 15 reflect Exodus 34:6’s old liturgical profession of faith.

    So does Psalm 86 present a kind of template for those who doubt God’s goodness?  After all, the psalmist’s antidote for uncertainty about God’s active involvement in his life is to remember what God has done in the past.  Might that serve as a kind of guide for those who beg for God’s help even as they wonder if God is still interested in them?

    Yet the beating heart of Psalm 86 is the poet’s description of God’s uniqueness.  Even though the psalmist knows her obedience is less than complete, she professes there is no god like the living God (8).  Although the poet’s heart may be “divided,” God alone is great and does marvelous things.  God alone is God (10).

    Perhaps because he has remembered that God is so great and unique, the psalmist feels he can take up his pleas for help again near the end of the psalm.  His enemies are relentless in their assaults on the poet.  So the poet is almost relentless in commanding God to intervene.  “Turn,” the poet begs God.  “Have mercy.”  “Grant strength.”  “Save.”  “Give a sign.”

    God’s “yes!” to the poet’s prayers would, after all, bless both the psalmist’s enemies and him.  It would strengthen the psalmist and confront his enemies with their wrongdoing.  It even hints at a fulfillment of the poet’s profession in verse 9 that all the nations God has made will come and worship before the Lord.

    Yet Psalm 86 doesn’t end with an offering of praise, as even so many other psalms of lament do.  Its ending is, instead, in a sense, “open-ended.”  The psalmist doesn’t close with an explicit profession that God will say “yes!” to his prayers.  The psalm doesn’t even end with a report of a positive outcome.  It ends, instead, more like worshipers’ own prayers that don’t always express deep confidence in God’s yes’s.  Psalm 86’s prayer ends with yet another plea: “Give me a sign of your goodness” (17).

    That makes Psalm 86 a very honest one.  It also helps it to resonate with worshipers, even if they don’t recognize it or can’t admit it.  Life on this side of the new creation is, after all, a bit like that.  God’s “yes’s” aren’t yet always as complete as we’d prefer.  We suffer and may even die pleading with God, “Give me a sign of your goodness.”  Thankfully, then, God’s goodness to God’s children doesn’t depend on our worthiness or even complete confidence in God.  It’s based on the goodness of the God who helps and comforts.

    The God whom we worship and to whom Psalm 86 is addressed is a God who hears.  That ties its theme and tone to the Old Testament lesson appointed for this Sunday: the story of the exiled Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness.  Out of water, parched Hagar leaves her son under a bush because she’s unable to watch him die.  Yet God responds to their voices, just as God responds to all of God’s children’s voices and pleas.

    Illustration Idea

    Those who preach this psalm might relate to and relate their similar story to worshipers: during a recent Sunday evening worship service we gave worshipers opportunities to select songs they wanted us to sing together.  Most of the songs were familiar old classics.

    One worshiper, however, chose “Come Quickly, Lord, to Rescue Me,” a psalm based on Psalm 70’s prayer of lament.  Our gifted accompanist was unfamiliar with the tune that featured four flats, but valiantly led us through it.  But worshipers and even my own discomfort not just with tune but also with its message were almost palpable.

    It’s perhaps telling that the person who chose this song is a recent refugee from a country where Christians are being intensely persecuted.  It reminds us that even if we think we have little personal reason to lament, we have every reason to sing with beleaguered Christians their laments.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 6:1b-11

    Author: Stan Mast