Monday, December 16, 2013

Psalm 80 and Restoration

Psalm 80

Read this week's psalm here.

It is very hard to believe that we are here at the fourth week of Advent.  Psalm 80 is one of those psalms that remind us of what Advent is all about--Jesus, and the restoration that comes from Jesus.  Remember, Martin Luther says that at the heart of every psalm is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Looking at it from an historical perspective, that is sometimes difficult to see, but with psalm 80, I think we can see Jesus clearly.

If you haven't had the chance, read it by clicking the link above.

What pops out to you?

How do you see the coming Messiah in this text?

Psalm 80 speaks with sharp clarity about desolation.  It looks for  restoration, and specifically those who first sang this psalm looked for restoration in the coming of the Messiah.  Imagine for yourself the vine that is discussed in verses 8-13.  This vine is the people of God.  It begins recounting the positive nature of their exodus from Egypt, their growth as a people and then it implies their separation in the diaspora and exile.  When will we be the people we once were?  When will we be built as a city unified in itself?  Verse 14 implores God to have regard for this once thriving vine.  This vine (again, the people of God) has been through "the ringer" of destruction and desolation.  But God has anointed one to bring consolation to his people.  He will not feed them the bread of tears forever.  This is the promise of verse 17.  Through the ambiguous shades of imagery, we see Jesus peering at us joyfully bringing hope to a hopeless world.

Then what?  Verse 18, we will never turn away from God... But won't we?  Yes, we will.  But look at the second part of the verse 18 prayer, "give us life, and we will call on your name."  This is the prayer of the Church that turns away from God.  This is the prayer of we who are momentarily distracted and turn our face to another god.

The Psalter as an anthology (all 150 psalms) is useful to every incarnation of the people of God in every time.  As the people of Israel remember and recount God's work in psalm 80, so too can we remember and recount God's work in the church.  So too can we call, and should we call on God to restore us to him in his grace through Jesus.  Psalm 80 is about restoration, returning and reclaiming of our hope in God through Jesus.  "Give us life, and we will call on your name."  May that be the prayer of our hearts as we close in on our Advent journey and celebrate the hope of Jesus, God's anointed, God made flesh and dwelling among us.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Psalm 146, Praise the Lord

Click Here to Read Psalm 146

Praise the Lord!

Psalm 146 begins the last five chapters of the psalter anthology.  The last five chapters serve as a large doxology, or "hymn of praise."  Unlike last week's psalm with a slightly curious text, this psalm is in itself a hymn of praise to God with exhortation for those who sing its words.  Let's take a deeper look at these words.

The first two verses of the psalm are explicit words of praise on the part of the singer.  It isn't enough that one just sings "praise the Lord," but that it be a posture that reaches to the depths of the soul and that it be a pervasive theme in the life of the believer, the whole life.  "Praise the Lord" is also not simply the words of the singer to God, ascribing praise to the Lord, but also exhortation to those around him to join the song of praise.  This exhortation beckons the humanity that surrounds us, a humanity to which we are deeply obligated to be engaged with, to join our song.  But what are we singing about?  Let me say, that it is enough that we as the created praise our Creator.  The fact that we have life to live out praise is enough to praise God, but we lift up what he does and our limitations.  More on this in a bit, but let's look further.

"Do not put your trust in..." fill in the blank.  If it isn't God, don't put your trust in it.  We are given wonderful companions with which to work to live to love, but they will always fail us.  We are called to forgive and to love, but failure is inevitable.  "Do not put your trust in.." calls us to put our trust in God who never fails, in whom we have our help.  I think the final phrase of verse four is interesting "...on that very day their plans parish."  How many of us have lost loved ones, or even people that we know suddenly?  How much has that changed the perspective of our plans and projects?  On that very day, everything is different.  When we are reminded of the reality of "that very day," should our perspective change?  How do we live in light of the fragility of that or those in which we are told not to put our trust?

The fragility that surrounds us, the dubious nature of those we are tempted to put our faith in is magnificently juxtaposed in this psalm by the accounting of God's works in verses five through nine.  I am pleased that my writing of this blog happens to be on the day that the pope called for a worldwide wave of prayer for justice and hunger.  Our help is in the Lord who "executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry."  The pope and the presiding bishop of the ELCA who encouraged her flock to pray with the rest of the world for those who hunger speak to the kingdom of God in which the hungry are fed and the blind see.  Look at last week's psalm for more discussion on this kingdom.  The first psalm (146) of the five chapter doxology wastes no time in praising God, and calling for praise of God's provisions for those who need it.  If we take a critical look at these verses, as well as the rest of scripture, our worldview has to be shaped with the poor, both in body and spirit, in mind.  It is to them that God brings good news--not that this news is limited to the poor, but that they have fewer "things" separating them from this good news.  We have to ask ourselves tough questions about our priorities if we are to read scripture with any kind of gravity.  Where is our mission?  Where is our ministry?  What is the make up of our church and how do we extend ourselves naturally to the community as agents of grace calling for praise of God for his wonderful works of filling the hungry other than by indeed filling the hungry with "good things"?  (Starting with food.)

The LORD will reign forever indeed.  Something about verses five through nine remind me of John the Baptist's questioning of Jesus being the chosen one or messiah.  "Are you the one, or are we to look for another?" John asks (through his disciples), to paraphrase, Jesus says, "just look around, things are happening."  These things are recounted in verses five through nine of our psalm for this third Sunday of Advent.  Read them over and over again and look for them in your community.  Look for justice for the oppressed.  Look for the filling of the hungry and for the freedom of prisoners in the prison of sin and death.  Look for eyes that are opening to the good news of Jesus, alive and well, and active.  Once you've seen it, join in and start talking about it and encourage others to join the song of "Praise the LORD, O my soul."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Psalm 72 and Dreaming Big

Click Here to Read Psalm 72

I would encourage you to read the psalm before reading the rest of this blog.

This is quite a lofty psalm with a lot of images.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

What images stick out to you?
Why do they pop out?
How does this imagery make you feel?

Think about these things and then let's discuss, as much as we can discuss by me writing and you reading.

Like I said, this is a lofty psalm.  The first thing that pops out to me is the imagery of the king.  Now, it's easy to brush this off and say that this is a coronation psalm for an ancient monarchy (in our case, for the Israelite people).  But, we are singing this psalm this Sunday, Advent II, why would we be singing it if its context is so specific?

Something else that pops out to me is the image of prosperity.  This prosperity doesn't come without a cost.  Notice the position of the poor and those without help.  They are receiving what they need.  In righteousness, as the psalmist puts it, does the king look to the needs of the poor.  If this was the coronation psalm scholars believe it to be, what kind of king is being lifted up, and furthermore, what kind of kingdom?  Does this kingdom have implications today?  You're right.  It does!

Luther would have us to understand that every psalm is about Jesus, and if not explicitly, then we must consider that the psalm would have been prayed and sung by our Lord.  Luther also says that this IS about Jesus.  This leaps off the page to me, but admittedly a little too easily.  Why not just say it's about Jesus and move on?  With the context of this week's readings, including John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Messiah, it's easy to draw the conclusion without working out its implications.  I think that more than just lifting up the reign of Jesus, we have to consider what kind of kingdom is being established in this psalm.  Historically, this was likely a psalm for the coronation of Solomon--but that isn't terribly important at this point.  Let's look at liturgical evidence-- this psalm from the very beginning (as in the early church) was used for the Epiphany (January 6) celebrating God becoming human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

"May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun.  May all nations be blessed in him..."  Doesn't this lift up the Christ as we have come to think of him?  Doesn't this highlight the Genesis 12 notion of being blessed that all nations may be blessed?  In him is our salvation, but for what purpose?  So that we may be saved and that's it?  No, certainly not.  It is in him that we are a people for good works, to usher in the kingdom as Psalm 72 describes it.  A kingdom of justice.  A kingdom in which the poor are not forgotten.  A kingdom in which the poor are looked in the eye and spoken to and listened to.  A kingdom that sanctifies creation as something good "like rain on the freshly mown field."  A kingdom in which the righteous flourish, and there is peace, wholeness, understanding, abounding love forevermore.  Forevermore.  Let that sink in for a minute.

This is the kingdom in which you are an active participant.  This is the kingdom in which you have been called to be at work, in the field heralding love to the loveless, hope to the lonely, comfort to those afraid, peace to the nervous, food to the hungry, and an ear to those who go unheard.  Psalm 72 confirms that our work is indeed holy and necessary.  Singing psalm 72 this week reminds us that the King in whose name all nations are blessed has called us to join him in the work of blessing.  You are called to bless.

This Advent season, I encourage you not only to claim the blessing of expectation and hope in Jesus, but share the blessing of a kingdom in which love abounds and peace is forevermore.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Psalm 122 and Vocation

I am writing for several reasons:

The Psalms are losing ground in protestant worship.  As a church musician, I am working in my congregation to raise awareness of the psalms and their vital necessity in worship.  We have a group at the church where I serve that meets every six or so weeks to talk about the psalms and they have decided to continue to meet now with the purpose of discovery and conversation about the lectionary psalms.
Additionally, the psalms are to be sung in community.  When we explore them in community, we arrive at different conclusions.  Our interpretations are as varied as the emotions that the psalter captures.
This blog will summarize our thoughts, but will also provide focus to at least one (if not maybe more) psalm a week, why it may be used in worship and particular themes that can be drawn from it.  Maybe it could work out that we can include what saints before us thought of particular psalms.

This Sunday is the first week of Advent in year A.  For Lutherans, the prescribed psalm for worship is 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
    the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
    and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.
When thinking about this psalm I have remember and consider where it is placed in the lectionary.  It is the first psalm of the first Sunday of the first year of a three year cycle of readings.  Maybe it is arbitrary, but I don't think that it is.
What themes pop out at the reader of singer of this psalm?  Well, when consider time and space that is the context of the psalm a lot can pop out at us.  For instance, this is the first of the "Songs of Ascents" or simply the psalms sung in pilgrimage to Jerusalem by post-exilic Jews (or those folks from after the Babylonian captivity but before Jesus).
What is Jerusalem to the Israelites?  I think we have a few answers given to us in the words of this psalm.  It is the place where God dwells (i.e., the temple), it is the place where they give thanks, it is the place of judgment and justice. 
Verse four: do you notice how the tribes of the LORD is mentioned twice and then "was decreed for Israel" and then what?  To give thanks to the name of the LORD.  If this is a "Song of Ascent" or a pilgrimage psalm sung on the way to Jerusalem, what is their purpose for going?  "To give thanks unto the name of the LORD."  Here, I believe that we see vocation lined out for the people of Israel--worship, praise and thanksgiving.
But, that's not the end of the story.  What does it go on to say?  An affirmation of justice (hold on to that word--justice) and a prayer for peace.  And then, "For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, 'Peace be within you.'  For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good."  So if worship is their focus, seeking the good of their neighbor "fills out" their vocation. 
Here we have it.  The first psalm of Advent, the first psalm of the first cycle of readings for the church year having to do with worship as our focus and from that, and only from that, do we seek the good of our neighbor as God has designed.
The same is true to day.  What centers us as a community is worship.  What focuses us a people in our baptism is worship.  We are called together to "go up to the house of the LORD" and to give thanks, to worship, to praise and thus we are sent to seek the good of our neighbor.  This inaugural psalm defined the Jewish people and defines us today in terms of vocation.  Whether we serve in a local parish or a community organization, our work is centered in giving thanks unto the name of the LORD.
Thanks be to God!
This is from a Sunday morning in the church that I serve.  Sunday morning can be a very powerful time of the week that will send you out to do some crazy things to make the world a better place.