All summer at Church of Peace, we’ve been continuing the Year of Psalms with a strange and courageous endeavor. We have been immersing ourselves in the cursing Psalms. No green pastures beside still waters. No “Let everything living praise your name!” No. What we’ve been doing is echoing the demands that God wake up already, that God rescue us from evil and bring shame upon evildoers.
Our Psalm of the Day is no exception. Today we’re wrapping up this series on imprecatory Psalms by sharing Psalm One-Forty. As is common in these Psalms, this one comes to us written in first person. This means if you are going to read this Psalm out loud like Karen just did, you will hear cursing come out of your own mouth. In your own voice, you will hear yourself asking God to bring suffering to your enemies: “Let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall on them!” and if that feels weird and wrong to you, me too. Where’s the line between praying my own prayer and reading somebody else’s…
These prayers don’t seem to match up with Christian values of kindness and forgiveness. They’re not very nice, and reading these Psalms out loud does not make me feel like a nice person. Maybe this kind of praying is fine for the Psalmist, it was different back then, but this is not my kind of prayer. Summoning the wrath of God is not the heart of my faith. So I can start to feel a distance between myself and the Psalmist.
I would prefer to sing the praise Psalms at church, please, and talk with children about praying, and exchange friendly greetings. As though we didn’t mean to come here to think about evil… As though we didn’t mean to come here with fear and pain infecting our prayer…
Unless maybe we did.
It could be that coming to church is more than being nice, thank God.
It really could be, the difference between the Psalmist and me is not that my prayers are so full of high-minded Christian virtues and her prayers are raw, and ugly, and raging with vengeance. It could be the difference between us is that I’ve never had to pack up a baby and flee for our lives, and she has, and many people have. It’s easy for me to say, “This is not my kind of prayer.” Yeah, because it’s not my life on the line, at least not yet.
What if Psalm One-Forty is exactly the prayer for people who are putting their lives at risk to escape domestic violence, for people forced to leave their native country and pack onto a raft in hopes of washing up on the shores of a country that will admit them, for people fleeing gang violence with the single-minded goal of getting their littlest children to safety…
“Deliver me, O LORD from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent, who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually… Guard me, O LORD from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall.”
God, they saw my face. They know where we live. He said he was going to kill me, and I believe him, so you have to help me O LORD, my Lord, my strong deliverer —right?
Hearing these Psalms in church is choosing to hear the ugly deep-bellied cry for help in the Bible. It’s acknowledging that scripture is more than inspirational verses. There are desperate, screaming prayers in the word of God.
And there’s no way to hear them and not remember there are are desperate, screaming prayers right now in the world. There’s no way to hear these Psalms and not hear the cries of actual vulnerable people. And there’s no way to hear this desperation and not need to do something. And maybe that’s not even the problem. Maybe that is our hope.
I know you have seen the world these days, and you know keeping up with the news comes with an emotional cost. Not only is it taxing to keep up, but a lot of what’s happening has faded from the news cycle. Still the world is experiencing a massive refugee crisis. Still there is homelessness, and hunger, and gun violence we don’t hear about.
Something that concerns me about our practice of incarcerating people is it becomes so much easier to forget about people once we’ve locked them in a warehouse —whether they’re hard-core felons, or joy-riding teenagers, or terrorists, or toddlers… it’s out of sight, out of mind.
There is spiritual violence done when we forget those who are vulnerable, which is anybody locked up. This is where my heart breaks. I know there are issues breaking your heart as well. I know if we were to go around this room and name examples of evil, and violence, and hurt, if we tried to write them all down in this sanctuary, our list would cover the walls.
In response to this growing climate of concern, you might be hearing the fever-pitch cry that goes: “We have got to do something. Imagine if this were Germany during the Third Reich. Imagine knowing there is evil in the world then simply going on with your life not doing anything about it.”
And look, you might not agree with this comparison, but I will tell you, a whole lot of us are hearing this on Facebook and among friends. I will tell you, a whole lot of us are deeply afraid that there is evil happening and we aren’t doing enough to stop it.
It might be, that’s not the worst thing to be afraid of… The danger is this fear can lure us into thinking there are just two paths to get shunted down and neither are good. One path says, “There’s no way we can adequately respond to evil, so never mind, I’m going home. I’ve got laundry to do.” The other path says, “The only way to respond to evil is to wipe it off the earth with decisive, superhero bravado.” Now both of these paths are flawed, but the real problem is believing they are the only options.
Our Psalm of the Day reminds us that evil is real. It’s in the oppression of those who are vulnerable —the needy, the widows, and orphans, and immigrants, those who are running for their lives… But evil does not only exist in official policies or systemic cruelty; it gains power at a personal level. Look I do not mean to suggest that any individual human being is evil; I’m not saying that. But evil can gain power —or not— in how we treat each other. This is good news for all of us who know we need to do something right now.
Paul lays it out. He’s writing to the church in Rome, and there’s something so refreshing in coming upon this list of instructions. Just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it, right? It kind of seems like he’s saying, “You want to be a Christian in the world right now? Go and do these things. Here’s the list.” And that’s so empowering, but it’s not entirely accurate. Instead, Paul is painting a picture of what a Christian looks like. As much as I love a good check-list, this is not really that.
The heading in our Bibles clarifies that this is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. The editors titled this section, “Marks of the True Christian” which makes me imagine an entry in a Peterson’s Field Guide. Do you think you might have spotted a Christian in the wild but it’s hard to tell? Well, look for these identifying characteristics. If you see any of this behavior, you’ll know you found a Christian.
So Paul makes a list, and nowhere does it say, be nice. Instead:
“Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good…
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere.
Give money to the saints, share hospitality with strangers.
Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them…
Do not repay anyone evil for evil…”
In two places, Paul quotes parts of the Old Testament. He invokes Deuteronomy when he tells us not to avenge ourselves but to let God’s wrath prevail. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says God. Paul pushes it further by quoting Proverbs: “If your enemies are hungry feed them, when they are thirsty give them something to drink. By doing this, you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Yeah, I know…
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Paul is describing what it looks like to respond to evil with love. It’s rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. It’s sharing hospitality and making peace. It’s changing our policy and changing our minds. It’s believing those who are crying for help while they are running for their lives then amplifying their prayers with our own. It’s remembering the people who are locked up and thrown away.
And it’s this too: It is treating our enemies with compassion, not just to shame them, but to entice them to begin to believe in their own belovedness, because you can you imagine if our enemies would begin to believe in their own belovedness…
We can choose to do this.
Nobody’s asking us to give up, and go home, and do laundry. Nobody’s asking us to obliterate every force of evil that rears up. Nobody is asking us to be nice. This is far more important: We’re being asked to love and let love be genuine. As though by loving each other, we get our hands on the moral arc of the universe and help it bend towards compassion. As though by loving our enemies, we share communion with Jesus, and you tell me if that doesn’t change the world. It’s not even too late.