Psalm 99 October 19, 2014
God, father and mother of us all, your love never ends.
You speak to us in the quiet of the spring, and in the clamor of the city.
As we worship together on this Bible Sunday may we seek how your scriptures will share a message of hope with us, with the world, and the universe.
May we find our connection with you, with all people and with all creation.
In the name Christ who dwells in us.
Psalm 99 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Praise to God for His Holiness
1 The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
2 The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
3 Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is he!
4 Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
5 Extol the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool.
Holy is he!
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud;
they kept his decrees,
and the statutes that he gave them.
8 O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
9 Extol the Lord our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the Lord our God is holy.
When I hear this scripture it leaves me wondering many times, “Is that really in there?” This scripture doesn’t describe the God I have experienced. For myself and for many in our congregation God is generally described as a gentle, but firm presence. We describe God as a force of peace in our lives that finds us in moments of turmoil. Rarely in our context do I hear people describe God as a mighty king or sitting on “Cherubim.”
In our culture today the prevailing perception of Christianity is that everything written in the Bible describes the doctrines and rules of our faith. This notion comes primarily from the movement in American Christianity that believes the Bible is the inherent word of God. These are the people who refer to the Bible in the way the following acronym describes.
In this mindset the Bible becomes an exact description of the universe and how it functions. Drawing rules for how to live now and in this life and the next. The challenge comes in that there are sections of the Bible that disagree. When the rules in one section do not match another then we are left in a debate about our eternal salvation, and forget the reason of our faith is to love one another. When in Leviticus it reminds us we are not to wear cloth made of two different fibers, are we to stop worship and check everyone who came in. Or instead do we listen to Christ who says love God and love your neighbor.
There are other Christians that treat the Bible like the old “Magic 8 Ball.” I am sure many of us remember the “Magic 8 Ball” that can be found in the toy aisle. On one side is the circular piece of plastic and behind it the mysterious blue liquid. Inside was a 20-sided dice with 20 different answers. You would shake the ball and turn it over and see what answer rose to the glass. You ask a question like, “Should I plan to look for a new job?” And an answer like “Signs point to yes” would rise to the glass. The Bible has been treated the same way, shake it, open it, and take the answer.
United Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton writes about both of these uses of the scriptures in his book “Making Sense of the Bible.” These are the two things he describes that the Bible is not for United Methodists. It is not an exact rulebook and it is not a “Magic 8 Ball” for finding personal prosperity. Both of these uses of the Bible lead to a nightmare in which God gave us a text to tie us either into an eternal game of who is in or who is out, or to play roulette with our lives. I don’t believe either of these uses of the Bible helps to deliver the dream we learn about in Christ, the dream shared of a relationship with all creation.
The Bible is filled with ancient stories that describe the intimate relationship with God and God’s people. At first God’s people is a select group and then later God’s encounter expanding to all people, specifically those encountering Christ. The stories that make up our scriptures are an invitation for us to study the power of faith through part of human history. More specifically for us to experience Christ, Jesus spiritual background in Judaism, and to learn how God can be in our lives to invite us to a life of love, hope, peace and justice.
Our scriptures are for our study to engage the living Christ and study how to live the way of Christ on this earth.
In my preparation for today I found Psalm 99 is read often in correlation with celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Movement. In verse 4 you hear, “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice.”
We trust that God is on all sides of history, but the struggle for Civil Rights in this country called on people to overcome great fear. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders had to inspire people who had been oppressed, and even killed to engage in non-violent protests. When your life is on the line the knowledge that God is just and brings equity gives you courage to stand when violence is turned on you.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not cite Jesus consistently in his speeches, but Isaiah, Amos and Exodus. All of these texts were deeply rooted in a God that worked to bring justice amidst violence and oppression. These stories gave people hope they could overcome the worst and that God would be alongside of them. It gave them Hope and it gives us hope that the mystery of God can turn the pride of humanity from dwelling in the shame of slavery, and direct us then and now to continue the work of dismantling the awful work of racial prejudice.
As we can see the Bible can be used to create grand dreams as with Martin Luther King Jr. or personal nightmares of prosperity roulette and eternal insider and outsider club. Our role in studying the Bible in sharing the scripture is to seek to find God’s hope for us, and how we live that hope out.
Last summer I shared with many of you, that I had the opportunity to gather with young people from the global United Methodist Church, Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe. One of the pivotal moments for me was that as an ordained clergy in our church I got to share Communion with our group. I shared the story of Christ’s last night with the disciples and it was translated into 3 or 4 other languages. In each of those languages the words mean a slightly different thing. When I said, “this is the cup of the new covenant.” I wonder what different connotations that phrase had in Portuguese. Perhaps in one of the other languages it meant significantly more that God is intimately connected and offering hope to us all.
As I watched each of my friends being served communion, I could see hope in their eyes. Some of them were going back to areas where Christians aren’t welcome, others to places stricken with poverty, some even to where Ebola now rages, and others to middle class comfort. The power of this story sharing is that I trust my friends can go back with the story of Christ and his disciples, or read Psalm 99 or study the scriptures to see where God is calling them to hope, justice, peace and love. I pray they find dreams instead of nightmares, and God’s hope every time.
The Bible is counter-cultural because despite our disagreements we are all called back to the text. We are called back to study the scripture to encounter the stories and to see where God is calling us to seek a common story with our brothers and sisters. By digging into these stories we can find ways to oppress, and degrade. Or we can find ways to build up and support life. No matter what stories we use we are capable of either. As Christians we share stories in the book called the Bible at it is our responsibility as Christian people to own these stories and learn where they come from and how they can shape our experiences of God.
Perhaps we might be surprised when we open ourselves to the scriptures with an attitude of hope that God really does change the world through a gentle and firm presence in us, we will be surprised how the stories change us to work to bring that spirit of hope to our world.