22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33
November 13, 2011
You’ve probably heard enough sermons on the Parable of the Talents to last a lifetime. Me too. So there won’t be a sermon today on the text from Matthew (Matthew 25: 14-30). What caught my attention as I read the texts for this morning was the Psalm. Isaac Watts used this psalm as the basis of an old hymn. We sang it last week:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.
This psalm is attributed a “Psalm of Moses, a man of God.” Just that attribution summons up a whole picture of God’s people moving, moving toward the promised land, living in the wilderness, and in that time being led by God’s most faithful servant, Moses. Moses not only led God’s people, he brought them the teaching about God’s covenant, the relationship between the God of Hosts and this wandering tribe. They were chosen to be a light to the nations, to live according to God’s revelation. We can see them weary, stripped down to the last of their trust that God was still leading them. They ate the bread of God’s blessing every morning and waited for the evening wind for their supper. We see Moses himself, old and tired, longing for the land of promise, and realizing as he gets closer that he will not enter it himself.
God, addressed in this psalm is the God who is the true home of God’s people; even beyond the land which defined them. In the psalmist’s meditation on God’s time versus our time, we see God as home before the very concept of home could even exist. Only God’s own people know God in this way – as living beyond our knowledge of time itself. What seems so long a life to us is just a wisp, a whisper in the history of time itself. You have probably heard portions of this psalm at funerals. But when we contemplate the enormity of God’s power and reign, we are not only confronted with brevity of our lives, we are confronted with God’s perfection and God’s judgment. “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults,” says Psalm 19. We are confronted with the wrath, the anger, the fear of this perfect, timeless, completely other God. “Teach us to number our days that we may gain wisdom of heart,” says our psalmist this morning. Even though this psalm laments our mortality and our lack of ability to measure up, it still claims our understanding that we can come to God as God’s own people.
We hear this psalmist as pastor, theologian and liturgist all at once, says James Mays (Psalms. Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press. 1994). He and the congregation live in a time when faith and hope are thin, and they can see and think no further than their own human limitations and mortality. The psalmist gathers up and includes their human lament and leads them to understand it in relation to God. In a sense this psalm is a teaching, torah, leading the congregation in understanding as well as worship. So Lutheran! We also prefer our hymns and prayers to be theologically dense and correct teaching.
The reason this psalm reached out to me from this morning’s readings is that it gives voice to something that is happening right now in the church – both the “Big Church” and our church. We are being made more and more aware of the fact that everything around us changes. The things we have loved most in our lives has passed away: dear people, the way people gather, the place of church in the world, the way we think about and do church today. What is it that is still enduring and reliable in this time when the context of our world is so different from the world that was so familiar to so many of us? What is it that will still be there for those of us who will be the church of the future? The psalmist gives us a God who has been ours for generations and will continue to be ours in every generation yet to come.
We pray for a heart of wisdom that comes from considering the limited time of our lives. The church reads “satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days,” in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. He is the work of God that has decisively changed the sign under which we live and die from wrath to grace. In Christ we see troubles as chastisement, but also trust that God’s judgment on our sinfulness has fallen on Jesus Christ. “Troubles come,” says Mays, “Life ends. But the character of the time through which life runs to its end has been qualitatively changed, guiding us to be grateful for and to ask to receive what we are given already in Jesus Christ.”
In the face of all the changes we face, there is only one constant: God’s enduring love for us, shown in the life and death of Jesus, the Christ. There is only one source of power for all the challenges and interruptions of our meager attempts at being God’s people, the power that birthed the mountains and raised Jesus to life again. This psalm captures for me the ache of all that’s lost in life, all that’s missing from the life we envision for ourselves as God’s people, and at the same time offers the only hope we can turn to: “make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May the favor of the LORD our God rest upon us; Give success to the work of our hands; Oh, give success to the work of our hands.”
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
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