Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sermon from Aug 7, 2011; Psalm 85

Rev. George Miller
of Emmanuel U.C.C., Sebring, FL
Psalm 85
“Order My Steps”
Aug 7, 2011

Guess who would have been 100 years old this week?

First hint: she once squashed grapes with her bare feet. Second hint: she once stuffed her face with chocolate. Final hint: she was always asking Ricky to be in the show.

Yes, if she was still alive Lucille Ball would have been 100. Perhaps even more amazing is that “I Love Lucy” is 60 years old.

Her daughter has a theory about the show’s appeal: it’s about unconditional love in which someone can screw up and have somebody else say “It’s OK. I still love you.”

In honor of Lucy’s birthday, here’s a joke:

A wacky red-head once bought a donkey from a preacher. She was told that the donkey was trained in a rather unique manner.

The only way to get the donkey to go was to say “Hallelujah!” The only way to make the donkey stop was to say “Amen!”

The woman was pleased with her purchase and tried out the preacher’s instructions.

“Hallelujah!” she shouted. The donkey began to trot. “Amen!” shouted the woman. The donkey immediately stopped.

“This is great!” said the woman. She rode off, shouting “Hallelujah!” for all to hear.

She came to a local saloon and desiring a cold sarsaparilla she said “Amen!” and the donkey stopped.

Refreshed and enjoying her day, the woman resumed her journey, getting on the donkey and with a shout said “Hallelujah!”

The woman traveled for a long, long time, across the mountains, by the streams, through the valleys, admiring the views.

But soon she realized the donkey was heading towards a cliff. She tried to remember the word to make the donkey stop. But she couldn’t.

“Stop!” she screamed. Nothing. “Halt!” she cried. The donkey kept going.

“Oh, no…Bible…Church…Please…Stop!” the woman shouted. The donkey trotted along, faster and faster. They were getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.

Finally, in desperation, the woman prayed like she had never prayed before: “Please, dear Lord. Make this donkey stop before I get to the end of this cliff. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

The donkey came to an abrupt stop just one short step from the edge of the cliff.

The woman wiped the sweat from her brow, and with a shout of joy exclaimed: “Hallelujah!!!”…

Not a bad joke, but there’s one little thing: why didn’t she just get off the donkey?

Why did she sit there like an…assumer, placing her salvation on whether she could just remember the right word or not?

If the cliff was coming up that fast she could have done something, anything, like, I don’t know, fall off the donkey, jump off the donkey, steer the donkey.

Instead she just allowed herself to be a passive observer of her own fate.

In some ways, I feel a bit about this in regards to today’s Psalm.

This week, when I sat down to take a good look at the words in this song, I noticed something: almost every sentence is about what the people wanted God to do.

Restore us again, revive us again, show us, grant us, speak, dwell, give.

And I realized something: it must be exhausting to be God.

I mean all these demands, all these recollections about what was done in days gone by; all this stuff about faithfulness springing from the ground and righteousness looking down from the sky.

It’s exhausting just to hear.

And to know that God hears these things day after day, month after month, decade after decade, century after century.

The demands could make a person crazy! Restore, revive, grant; restore, revive, grant; restore, revive, grant.

I’m surprised God has not lost God’s mind. As Ricky would say “I-yi-yi!”

…and yet, if we can not turn to God in our times of trials, who are we supposed to turn to? Who else can help us to order our steps?

Psalm 85 is a song of lament. It’s sung by a group of people who’ve been to the cliff and back, and just when they think the worst is over, they discover there are new cliffs coming their way.

50 years before their city had been attacked, their land and homes destroyed, the Temple turned to rubble.

The residents who were seen as viable workers were taken away; the undesirables were left behind. For fifty years they were a nation torn apart, until finally the exiled were set free and allowed to return home.

However, what was first seen as good news turned to sour grapes when they saw their hometown still in ruins.

The fields were dried up, the economy was shot, and perhaps worse of all, the Temple was still in pieces.

Originally, the people planned on rebuilding the Temple. But as each person worried about their own homes, their own families, their own bills, the Temple was left to gather weeds.

It is from this cliff that the people sing out to God.

They try to remind God of the past “You were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave...”

But now they feel as though God is silent, that God has forgotten them, and that God will no longer grant salvation.

They long for the land to once again yield produce and for the day when righteousness will make way for God’s feet to step along.

But for now, it is as if God…well as if God is not God.

But how can they expect God to bless them if they have not even begun the process of blessing themselves and rebuilding the Temple?

I have looked at this scripture, and I have to own up to and admit that I see myself greatly in this.

This one sided sense of a relationship with God in which it is very “me, me, me” and very “restore, revive and grant.”

It’s not until verse 8 in which any sense of a reciprocal relationship is even stated when they say “Let me hear what God… will speak…to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

The Psalmist wants God to do all of these things, but all they are willing to do is to hear and to turn.

Are they even sincere or are they just saying it because the cliff is in full view?

Now, I want us to be very careful here, otherwise it will sound like I’m blaming the victim, and that is not my intention.

The people represented by this psalm have endured things that most of us could never even imagine.

Anyone who has stood upon cliffs of great tragedy and financial ruin can tell you how it creates a lasting impact that affects the rest of your life.

When a person finds themselves to in such a precarious moment it is understandable that they cry out to God for help.

One more step and they’ll fall way, way down.

But, at what point does someone begin to realize that they may be able to help themselves and to play a role in what the future has in store?

In other words, at what point do we take some control of the donkey before allowing it, and us, to fall off the cliff?

The Bible is full of people who experienced the saving actions of God, but also played an active part in their own deliverance.

For example, Moses worked with God to bring the Israelites across the Red Sea.

Later on, the priests worked with God to bring the people across the Jordan.

And let us not forget how Jesus said “Whatever you have done for the least of these you have done it to me.”

That’s what I would have liked to have heard in today’s scripture; a sense of controlling the donkey, a bit of ownership, a willingness to work with God.

Eventually, the people of Psalm 85 did find a way to regroup and to feel revived. Prophets like Haggai motivated them to restore the temple.

Even though they would not be as they once were, they continued to grow into who they could be.

What percent of that was God’s doing, what percent was their own? No one can know, but God was indeed with them just as they had asked.

Just as God walks with and talks to us.

Going back to Lucy, in 1951 her career was as good as dead. At the age of 40 she was considered over-the-hill and on the cliff.

Yet she found a way to survive. She turned to TV and revolutionized it.

With Ricky, she presented to America the image of an interracial couple. She became the first woman to head a major film company. And do you know that some of the audience laughter from that show is still used in sitcom soundtracks today?

I bet you that when Lucy’s career was said to be over and done with she did a lot of lamenting, but clearly at some point she avoided that cliff, and boy did she make the rest of her life happen!

In conclusion, I don’t believe that God created us to go it totally alone or to be helpless victims always in need of rescue.

Sometimes in life we come up to a steep cliff that we’re not sure we can survive.

I believe that we have a Savior who unconditionally loves us no matter how much we screw up, who we can turn to when we are in need for help.

However, is that all that God is good for, and is it fair to ask God to do it alone?

Are there things we can do to play a role and take part in the direction our life is heading?

I continue to wonder, so I will continue to ask: how can we call upon God for help while at the same time finding a way to help ourselves?

I’ll leave that question for each of us to answer.

In the meantime, let us give thanks for Jesus who shows us how to play a role in our on journey, for the Spirit that fills us with breath, and to God who finds ways to laugh with us even when we face deep cliffs.

Hallelujah! and Amen!

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