July 23, 2017
Psalm 139 is one of my favorite prayers in the Psalter. It declares a complete trust in God’s care, petitions God for help, and sings praises to God. It speaks of an intimate relationship with our all-knowing, always present God. The part we heard today is the prayer that my journey group often prays together before we work on interpreting our dreams. We pray this Psalm because only God knows all there is to know about us, and our dreams, even our nightmares, we believe, are messages to help us recognize what we need to change in our innermost self—a slow, thoughtful, mysterious process of transformation that never ends.
There is a part of Psalm 139 that we did not hear this morning because it is left out of our Sunday lectionary. Without buffer or warning, right in the middle of its praise, it turns to profound cursing: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God. . . I hate them with perfect hatred.” [i] A simplistic reading of this, or any Scripture for that matter, has caused all kinds of problems. But we want to read for depth. Just like my journey group, we want to glean the innermost meaning of God’s word. So, we want to pay attention to what is missing in our reading, we want to pay attention to the tough stuff. I couldn’t always do that—I flat out skipped the cursing parts because I didn’t know what to do with them. But then, I experienced the Psalms.
[i] Psalm 139: 19—21.
As it happened, I was in my car, driving to a dreaded destination, grieving a great loss, and deeply troubled by waves of unexpected chaos and meanness. My “Listener’s Bible” was in the CD player. I was listening to Psalms. And then it happened, the Psalmist’s cursing words touched every part of my being: the pain, the anger, the isolation, the despair, the desperation – the Psalmist was saying everything that I was thinking and feeling, but had not allowed myself to say aloud, not even to God. For the first time, I had ears to hear the cursing parts because I was ready to hear them in a way that I could understand them, own them--see the results as my own little resurrection.
Ellyn Davis, in her book, Getting Involved with God, says that praying the “cursing psalms” while we are still angry about something, can be the vehicle where we yield to God our own vengeance, and that is the crucial first step to healing. She continues by saying that If you run across one of these psalms when you are blessedly free of the feeling they articulate, try turning the psalm a full 180 degrees, until it is directed at yourself, and ask: Is there anyone in the community of God’s people who might want to say this to God about me—or maybe, about us? [i] Psalm 139, it seems to me, is a pattern of just that. Just as our dreams point to our innermost selves, so does Scripture.
This morning, we also heard the Parable of the Weeds. It is only one of many parables about the Kingdom, the Kingdom that we pray for every Sunday, and if we use our Book of Common Pray for our daily prayers, we pray for this Kingdom during every morning prayer, every noonday prayer, and every evening prayer— “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—on earth as it is in heaven. Last Sunday, Amber kicked off the Kingdom parables with the Sower—with God’s abundant sowing. God’s Kingdom has already been sown on earth. Remember? There are no places, no times, no circumstances, no people in which the kingdom is not already at work. [ii]
Today, we hear about weeds growing right along with the wheat, and Jesus says to let them grow together, because otherwise, trying to pull up the weeds prematurely would uproot the wheat. We can relate to that on many levels. BUT then, we heard the Parable of the Weeds explained—explained away actually, because it becomes an allegory instead. It is the “explanation” of the parable that jars our ears open to just how serious this message is. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. . . Let anyone with ears listen!” We can understand “let anyone with ears listen.” It is saying: this is tough stuff, you have to think about this, you have to connect it with your own experiences, you have to connect it with what Jesus has already shown us about God’s Love, you have to connect it with your relationship with God, you have to connect it with your relationship with others. And, you have to come back to it again, and again, because there is always something new to learn from it.
Still, I cringe at the language itself. “Sin” for example. But then I remember how Richard Rohr describes sin. Rohr says that “the word sin in our vocabulary implies culpability or personal fault, and that is not at all what the doctrine wants to say. In fact,” he says, “the precise meaning of original sin is that [we] are not culpable for it, but [we] must, absolutely must, recognize that a wound is there, and that all people share in it.” [iii] We are all a mixed blessing, filled with contradictions. So, separating the totally good from the totally evil, like we hear in the Parable of the Weeds, should send up red flags for us, or better, white flags of surrender. In fact, any time we are thinking totally either/or with no capacity for paradox and little tolerance for ambiguity, [iv] should give us pause.
Parables do not give us neat and tidy answers. If we think they do, we need to go back and read them again. If our interpretation does not raise even more questions—we need to read them again, and again. Parables are meant to wake us up, to shake us up, to challenge our stereotypes and our fears, to keep us thinking, to pull in our memories, to connect with our own experiences. They are meant to inspire depth.
I can’t seem to think about the Parable of the Weeds without remembering the story in John when Jesus says,“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw the stone.” Punish the adulteress is one option; let her go completely free as if nothing happened is another. Jesus does neither. I’m wondering if the explanation of the parable of the weeds is Jesus’ “what if” version, meant to call us forward to a brand-new story. What if Jesus is asking us to hold the tension between punishment and no responsibility for our actions. What if Jesus is asking us to hold them both, eliminating neither, until we get to a reconciling third option—a spacious, unlimited place called mercy, compassion, forgiveness, or grace?
If we turn this parable, this allegory, around 180 degrees like Ellyn Davis suggests for the cursing Psalms, might we be asking: Has there ever been a time when we’ve rejoiced at the condemnation of others? Has there ever been a time when we remained silent when others were condemned? If so, might we conclude that perhaps God’s mercy in this New Kingdom is greater than what we think it can be? Might we see both the weeds and the wheat differently than this raw allegory suggests?
Basic to our understanding of Scripture is the idea that we know whom to trust. Our Nicene Creed sums up our belief by saying that we TRUST the one God, the One who holds everything together. The One we trust is nonviolent and thoroughly gracious. The One we trust, the One we see in the whole of Scripture, is always inviting us into a loving union—NOT separation. We say in my journey group that our interpretation of our dreams should never lead us away from the teachings of Jesus--that God restores rather than punishes; neither should our interpretation of Scripture lead us astray from that.
Note where the Psalmist picks up again in the end of Psalm 139, after the cursing. You heard it this morning: “Search me out, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness and lead me in the way that is everlasting.” The Psalmist is confident in God’s fairness, and submits to the judgment and mercy of God.
May we all be confident in God’s fairness, judgment, and mercy. May we respect the mystery of it. May we all, with ears to hear, allow our Loving God to lead us through our own journey, our own wounds, in a thoughtful, mysterious process of little transformations. May we see our transforming journey as the reconciling grace of resurrection.
[i] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001), 28.
[ii] Drawn from Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), Kindle book location 1015.
[iii] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture As Spirituality, (Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008), Kindle book page 33.
[iv] Ibid, Kindle book page 135.