Preaching Psalm 13
2008-06-23 by Gary Charles
Last summer, the worship staff and worship committee at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta decided to let the lectionary get some rest. We designed a “Summer with the Psalms” worship and education series. In worship, the entire liturgy – responses, music, prayers, arts, and preaching – was based on particular psalms, sometimes, but not always, the psalm lection of the day. I have been preaching regularly for nearly 30 years, but had never spent a sustained liturgical and homiletical season wandering through the Psalter. My quick review of last summer is that it was often difficult and a challenge to coordinate music, arts, and proclamation, but was the most wonderful summer of worship that I have ever known.
Too often in worship if the Psalms are considered at all, they serve as a liturgical “warm-up” for the “real” text to be considered from the pulpit. After a summer wandering through the Psalter in search of a homiletical word to proclaim, I came away with a renewed love for this book of psalms. In the Psalter, I rediscovered perhaps the most honest and provocative book in the Bible.
Throughout my religious life, I have been taught to speak only with the utmost reverence to God in prayer. Either the Psalmist never learned that lesson or quickly moved beyond it. The Psalmist accuses God of everything from negligence to outright persecution. For the Psalmist, prayer is not a lame habit that probably does not matter anyway; prayer is the loud and glad praise of God at times, but it is also calling God to pay attention and to let up when God is paying too much attention.
In the psalm for June 29, Psalm 13, there are no obligatory words of praise that are offered by the Psalmist to open this terse text. Words of praise will come, but they are not the first words spoken. Instead, the Psalmist examines her situation (what that situation is we are never told) and demands some divine attention: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (vs. 1) For those who think prayer needs to be flowery and always respectful, Psalm 13 shatters that illusion.
In Psalm 13, though, God has not just forgotten the predicament of the Psalmist – or the people – God has turned away on purpose. Any preacher in any congregation for any period of time has prayed or has stood with members of the church as they have prayed, “How long, O LORD? . . . How long will you hide your face from me?” Preachers/ pastors may try to “protect” God from such charges, label them “poor theology,” but in times of crisis, people of faith are not interested in a cordoned off God, they want to have a long, hard conversation with the LORD God who made covenant with Noah and Abraham, David and Christ.
Too much about faith today is painfully timid, expecting little from a God who can do less. Not the Psalmist. After howling, “How long?” the Psalmist moves from interrogative to imperative: “Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death (vs. 3).” The Psalmist lives under no notion that if she just thinks positive thoughts then life will turn in a positive direction or if she just gets enough education then she will be fully enlightened. In her despair and desperation, the Psalmist turns to God and expects an answer. What would it be like to call people to the kind of faith that sees God as the One who brings light and life to us, in our living and in our dying?
Praise arrives in Psalm 13, but not in an obsequious introductory way. The Psalmist is honest with God not in an attempt to tease God out of hiding, but because the Psalmist knows that the God to whom she prays is ultimately trustworthy. While the Psalmist accuses God of hiding from her, she will not hide her lament or her praise from God. Martin Luther once wrote of the mood of Psalm 13: “the state in which hope despairs, and yet despair hopes at the same time.” It is a psalm in which lament and praise live quite naturally together.
While Psalm 13 is short in length, it raises some of the most profound theological questions in Scripture. It is a worthy conversation partner for any preacher. I realize that some liturgical traditions reject the notion of preaching from the Psalms. I can only suggest that while tradition can be a loyal companion, it can also be an overbearing master. As you consider where the Spirit is leading this week, consider preaching on this psalm.
2008-06-22 by Gary Charles
In the blogs this week, I will look at the four lectionary texts individually and then will offer some homiletical themes that weave through these four texts. Today, we begin with arguably the most terrifying and disturbing text in the Hebrew canon, the so-called “testing of Abraham.” Like the stories that precede it, Genesis 22:1-14 is a primal story that addresses some fundamental human questions about the nature and intentions of God and the same of humanity.
In these primal stories from Genesis, God is not a distant Sovereign, but is dangerously imminent. In the previous chapter, God “tests” Abraham by telling him to accede to Sarah’s jealousy and send Hagar, his concubine, and Ishmael, his first born son, into the desert. Abraham obeys reluctantly, but only after God assures the patriarch, “Do whatever Sarah says, for Isaac is the one through whom your name will be carried on. But the slave-girl's son I shall also make into a great nation, for he too is your child' (Genesis 21:12-13).” So, in the Genesis story, Abraham and the reader hear repeatedly, and as recently as chapter 21 that God’s intention is not to sacrifice Issac, but to make of him a great nation.
Many of the primal stories are told with a healthy dose of irony and Hebrew humor and yet humor does not make this horrific journey with Abraham and Issac. Just as Jesus will later be “put to the test” in the desert, so now Father Abraham is “put to the test.” There is something about “testing” stories in Scripture that are deeply disturbing and perplexing. Surely after Eden was despoiled by a sacred trust betrayed and Noah found drunk and naked soon after the flood and Sarah heard laughing inside the tent before a divine promise while Abraham stood mute before the same promise, God must have readjusted divine expectations for human behavior. And, yet, here in chapter 22, God asks more of Abraham than humanly imaginable.
As my mind plays with this primal text, I find myself wondering: What if Issac had said, “Dad, I’m going nowhere until I see a sacrificial lamb”? What if Abraham had said, “God, I’m not about to terrorize my son to prove to you that I am loyal to you. Ask something else. Ask anything else”? What if Sarah had told Abraham, “Enjoy your trip, husband; Issac stays with me”? Of course, the one who tells this story leads us in none of these directions. Unlike Abraham negotiating with God to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham here is strangely silent and obedient. Is Abraham calling the divine bluff, after hearing repeated promises from God about Issac’s grand future? We do not know. We only know that Abraham sets off on a journey that no parent should ever be asked to take.
For lectionary preachers, Genesis 22 is often a choice text to skip. After all, the Psalmist, Paul, and Jesus in Matthew offer plenty of homiletical food for the day. Any preacher worth her salt knows that great damage has been done with this text over the preaching years. Why risk adding to the damage? It is a legitimate question, but there is perhaps a greater danger in avoiding this text for it is a text that is read by church members and contributes to their image of God.
So, if you plan to wrestle with Genesis 22 in the pulpit on Sunday, June 29, what do you say? In this story, God does not look for admiration or respect from Abraham. God is looking for total trust. The storyteller sets up the severity of the test by the use of repetition: “Abraham, Abraham,” “your son, your only son, your beloved Issac.” Abraham is not going on a spiritual retreat with his son; he’s going to sacrifice, his son, his “only” son (see how, in terms of election and future blessing, Ishmael fades from narrative thought), his beloved Issac (no laughing here).
Hints of the horror of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, appear as Abraham and Issac depart from the company to walk up a lonely mountain with Issac bearing the wood for his own sacrifice. The scene grows eerily graver with Issac querying his father about a sacrificial lamb, only to find himself set upon the wood as a sacrificial lamb. While God’s angel stays the knife before Abraham can kill his son, and by implication, the divine promise through Issac, the narrative cost is wrenching. Not unlike the sparse scene of impending death of Hagar and Ishmael with few provisions in the desert, here the reader is left wondering: “Why is this necessary, God?” “How could you go far as you went, Abraham?” “Is faith ever proved through violence?”
From Augustine to Calvin to Trible, fine theologians and biblical scholars have wrestled with this troubling text. My prayers are with you as you do so and I caution you not to rush to a happy ending – “Issac is spared” – because the one who tells this story is clearly not in a rush.
Our guest preaching blogger this week is
2008-06-22 by CJ Teets
Gary Charles, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in downtown, Atlanta. This 150 year old congregation has a long history of active social witness in the heart of the city. Gary is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. He has served four Presbyterian congregations over the past thirty years and has authored numerous articles for Theology Today, The Christian Century, the Journal for Preachers, and other publications. He is the author of "The Bold Alternative: Staying in Church in the 20th Century" and the co-author of "Preaching Mark in Two Voices" with Brian Blount, President, Union-PSCE. Currently, he is one of two pastors serving on the editorial board of the new lectionary commentary, "Feasting on the Word," with general editors, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett. Gary is married to Jennell, a nursing professor, and has two grown children, Erin and Joshua.
Fred Craddock Interview
2008-06-20 by CJ Teets
Go to Homepage, Share It, and Interview with Fred Craddock.Thanks to Peter Wallace and Day1 for making this available.
Garrison Keillor interview coming soon.
2008-06-19 by rick brand
While I agree with Preston that the Matthew text eventually speaks about Jesus taking care of his disciples and remembering them, Jesus will testify for them. Jesus is promising them that they will not have a good life. Jesus says they will be treated as he has been treated, that his coming divides people, and there have to be sacrifices and crucifixions of wants. "To lose our lives for him" At least in the lectionary text I read. Maybe I have a different Matthew than Dr. Harper.
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