Archive for October, 2013

Psalm 65 from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible) 

Praise befits You in Zion, O God;

vows are paid to You;

all flesh comes to You,

You who hear prayer.

When all manner of sins overwhelm me,

it is You who forgive our iniquities.

Happy is the [one] You choose and bring near

to dwell in Your courts;

may we be sated with the blessings of Your house,

Your holy temple.

Answer us with victory through awesome deeds,

Ocean Sm 1O God, our deliverer,

in whom all the ends of the earth

and the distant seas

put their trust;

who by His power fixed the mountains firmly,

who is girded with might,

who stills the raging seas,

the raging waves,

and tumultuous peoples.

Those who live at the ends of the earth are awed by Your signs;

You make the lands of sunrise and sunset shout for joy.

You take care of the earth and irrigate it;

You enrich it greatly,

with the channel of God full of water;

harvest-12-2You provide grain for [people];

for so do You prepare it.

Saturating its furrows,

leveling its ridges,

You soften it with showers,

You bless its growth.

You crown the year with Your bounty;

fatness is distilled in Your paths;

the pasturelands distill it;

the hills are girded with joy.

The meadows are clothed with flocks,

the valleys mantled with grain;

they raise a shout, they break into song.

Every Sunday morning, one of the scriptures we read is from the Psalms. We often approach the Psalms in worship as something to mumble our way through or chant our way through—more, I suspect, like something to be endured than to be enjoyed. The psalms were originally the “sacred poetry that was used in ancient Israelite and Judean worship.” They were also “records of human response to God” AND “God’s word to humanity.”[1] Yet too often, we forget that the psalms are not just ancient poetry, but that they express every possible human emotion.

There is the lament of an individual—sometimes referred to as a “complaint or prayer for help.”[2] Most psalms fall into this category. There are the psalms in which the entire community laments, or asks for help from God.  There are hymns of praise, royal psalms—often used on a king’s coronation day, wisdom poetry, entrance liturgies, psalms of trust, prophecies, and psalms that focus on thanksgiving.

Whether a person is crying out to God, asking why something has happened in her life, or venting anger towards one’s enemy when a trusted friend has betrayed him, every one of the 150 psalms focuses on the relationship between God and human beings.

Sometimes a psalm is written from a number of viewpoints. For example, if you imagine several actors on a stage, speaking the words of a psalm, one actor might be an individual addressing the audience. Another actor might turn and address God.  A third actor might speak words from God’s perspective. In other words, when we read the psalms, it sometimes helps to ask ourselves, “Who is speaking right now?” Is it one person, or several? Or is it like a chorus?

Sukkoth boothIf we look carefully at Psalm 65 today, we see that it is “a song of praise or a communal song of thanksgiving.”[3] In its original setting, it was likely a seven-day “ritual for harvest thanksgiving.” Later, it was used at “the festival of Tabernacles,” also known as “Sukkot.” In fact, this festival was celebrated a couple of weeks ago by our brothers and sisters at Oseh Shalom. They built outdoor shelters.  They celebrated “the changing of the seasons, fruits of the harvest, time spent with family, friends and neighbors.” As my colleague Rabbi Doug Heifetz noted on his Facebook page, “We call the holiday ‘the time of our joy,’ but it’s more than a window of time to be happy. The festival helps build our vessel of gratitude and contentment.”[4] In this sense, perhaps Psalm 65 is a vessel, or psalm, of gratitude. Its focus is the God who forgives, the God who delivers, the God who provides.

The first section is the God who forgives. It begins just as we do every Sunday morning, with God’s people who gather for worship. Yet the emphasis is a little different than you and I might imagine our gathering at St. Philip’s for worship. Rather than focusing on our choice to come to worship, the psalmist notes that it is God who chooses us to come near to God’s presence in worship. Our worship is made possible only because God forgives our broken, human nature that rebels against our Creator. In other words, the very fact that we are drawn to God has less to do with you and me than it has to do with God’s gracious and abundant love and forgiveness.

Mountain Sm 1In verse five, the psalmist moves to the God who delivers or saves. As Christians, many of us have been taught to see salvation as individual or personal. However, the sense of salvation in the Hebrew scriptures is broader than an individual decision. It is more focused on God’s actions rather than human decision. The God of creation is a God whose “delivering work is . . .never less than, but always more than, personal forgiveness.”[5] In this psalm, God’s deliverance of us is promised in the strength of the mountains, “in the raging seas, the raging waves, and tumultuous peoples,”[6] which is another way of saying in times of “political turmoil, social dislocation, and communal despair.”[7]

So in all situations of our lives, whether they are good or bad, God is a God who is with us, who can deliver us. The God who provides is addressed by the psalmist in verse nine.[8] God “takes care of the earth and irrigates it.” God enriches the earth. God provides grain for humankind. God prepares the earth. The psalmist is effusive and poetic in the last part of this song of praise. In terms of the good earth, it is God who saturates its plowed furrows. God softens the earth, filling the dry, cracked ground with so much rain, the earth is transformed into a green, lush paradise. God crowns the year with God’s bounty, and the only appropriate response by God’s creatures and God’s creation is one of praise, of music, of thanksgiving.

Recently, Pat and I were reminded of the joy of God’s creatures. I had had my yard re-seeded and fertilized in late September. The company left instructions for watering. I  was to water the lawn three times a day the first week, twice a day the second week, once a day the third week, then every two days or so. Last week, after Pat had adjusted the sprinklers and watched to see if the spray was hitting the right areas, she came in and told me I needed to look out of the window. She said, “The birds are going nuts out there!” When I looked out, there were birds flying in and out of the sprays of water—cardinals, robins, wrens, sparrows. Even the rabbit who usually visits late in the afternoon was hopping through the sprinkler, as were the ever-present squirrels. The birds were drinking, hopping up and down, fluffing their feathers. . .all the while chattering like happy children. It was as if God’s creatures were exulting in the unexpected showers provided in their habitat!  They were not singing human songs, but their joy and delight in this cool, clean water was so evident in their behavior. Of course in this case, the owner of the lawn was providing the water.   Yet if we believe Psalm 65, not really. The true provider of water is the Creator of the universe—God. Perhaps the refreshment of water helped our birds, rabbit and squirrels to be more fully what God has created them to be.

So it is with God’s people. If we understand that God forgives us, that God delivers or saves us, and that God provides for us, we may be better able to live more fully into the human beings God  created us to be. We will draw near to God in worship. We will thank God for all of God’s abundance and providence. We will live more fully into people of “justice, generosity and joy.”[9] When we can do this, we will be able to say from our hearts, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures of grain and Sukkoth booth accessed through Google images.

Pictures of ocean and mountain taken by McJilton.

[1][1] From “Introduction to the Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 642.

[2] Ibid., 644.

[3] Ibid., 933.

[4] Rabbi Douglas Heifetz, from a Facebook post on September 19, 2013.

[5] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[6] From The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, (Philadelphia & Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 1180.

[7] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[8] N.B.: In the Tanakh, this is verse ten.

[9] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 204.

[10][10] From “Introduction to the Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 642.

[11] Ibid., 644.

[12] Ibid., 933.

[13] Rabbi Douglas Heifetz, from a Facebook post on September 19, 2013.

[14] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[15] From The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, (Philadelphia & Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 1180.

[16] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[17] N.B.: In the Tanakh, this is verse ten.

[18] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 204.

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“I am Wonderful!”

The morning had already gotten off to a rocky start. I had misplaced a book I needed. I had not had as much time as I liked with my early morning devotional time. I was close to running late for a diocesan meeting that was a thirty minute drive from home. I had not eaten breakfast, and one cup of hot tea had not given me much of a boost. Further, many of my parishioners had been affected by the government furloughs, and I was worried about their welfare.

Deciding to wait until later to find the book, I threw my briefcase in the back seat of the car, glanced at my watch and decided I would dash through the McDonald’s drive-through. Although I rarely eat fast-food, I decided to make an exemption that morning, especially since a cup of hot, black coffee was at the top of my most-wanted list.

I ordered at the speaker, then pulled around and waited impatiently behind another car. When I got to the first window to pay for my meal, a woman appeared at the window. “Hi! How are you?” she asked in a cheerful voice. Suddenly, I found myself looking into the face of a woman with Down’s Syndrome.

Downs SyndromeIn that moment, the morning began to shift. I have always loved people with Down’s Syndrome. My family used to tease me, because if I saw anything about the Special Olympics on television, they knew I would cry at the sight. I don’t know exactly why, but I have always felt like children with Down’s Syndrome were the closest glimpse we get of God in this life. One of my most cherished memories was baptizing a two year old with Down’s before I left a parish in Wilmington, DE. Those moments are etched indelibly in my mind. That child is etched forever in my heart.

In this moment, though, I was caught up short. I had not ever encountered a person with Down’s Syndrome at a fast-food drive-through. “Hi! How are you?” was her question. Almost automatically, my response (hardly heart-felt) was “Fine. How are you?” She beamed. “I am wonderful!” she announced proudly. “I am wonderful!”  She took my money, made change, and I drove to the next window to get my food.

But after such a proclamation, I could not be grouchy anymore. As I moved forward in the line, all I could do was smile. Jolted out of my doldrums by an enthusiastic morning greeting, I was able to wish the young man at the next window a good day and mean it. And as I headed onto the Beltway, I could not stop smiling.

These days, with a variety of worrisome things flooding our hearts and minds (people doing “honey-do” chores while waiting to go back to work, a Congress that would rather focus on partisan agendas rather than the welfare of all Americans, stewardship campaigns, family issues, etc.), believing that our lives are wonderful is a challenge. Yet a beautiful child of God, on a sunny fall morning, reminded me that sometimes the only thing we can change in our lives is our attitude. We can let negativity live “rent-free” in our heads, or we can choose to focus on the blessings God has given us. If I have a warm place to sleep at night with a roof over my head, I can be grateful. If I have eaten today, I can be grateful. If I love someone or they love me, I can be grateful. On and on. I can choose what Oprah Winfrey calls “an attitude of gratitude.” My attitude may not change others, but it can change me.

As I drove away from a fast-food restaurant last week, I realized the smallness of my worries. God is in control. God is wonderful. God’s creation is wonderful. As God’s beloved child, I am wonderful. So are you.

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Luke 17:5-10

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”

Mustard seeds. Mulberry trees. Tiny things. Things planted in places where they are not supposed to be.

This week, your rector has been searching for faith. I just wanted faith, even the size of a mustard seed—something tiny and round. Something specific I could hold and look at and feel in my hand. This past week, I have read and wrestled with scripture about today’s gospel, against the backdrop of the Capitol Hill dome and the White House. This week, I have searched for faith the size of a mustard seed. I know many of you have as well.

On Tuesday, I sat down and scribbled the names of everyone in this parish whom I knew would be affected by a furlough of the federal government. Just off the top of my head, I came up with a dozen names. A dozen parishioners who have now caught up on chores they have been meaning to do. People who have given significant time to a project on this church campus, or run for exercise, or sat down and planned for “what if”. . .As I sat and stared at, then prayed with, the names on the list in front of me, I searched for faith.

I thought about the fact that given third quarter pledge numbers, St. Philip’s still has some financial challenges for 2013. That our Stewardship Lunch was scheduled for today. Then I said to God, “Thanks, God. Perfect timing!”  and I’m sure God did not hear the sarcasm in my voice. . .

As Christians, we wonder about faith. Do we have it? Do we have enough? I suppose if having enough faith means that we can physically uproot a tree by thinking about it, then the answer is no. Yet in today’s Gospel, Jesus uses hyperbole—exaggerated language—to make a particular point. When the disciples ask for more faith, one would think Jesus would be glad they are making this request. As one writer has said, “Instead, his sharp answer implies that they have not really understood the nature of genuine faith.”[1]

What do they understand? The disciples do understand faith as something dynamic, as something that can grow—otherwise, they would not ask Jesus to increase it. Yet what they do not seem to understand is that they already have the faith they need. All they have to do is to exercise that faith. Name it. Claim it. Act on it. Another thing they do not understand is illustrated by the second part of this passage. Jesus uses a conventional image of the first century.

If you were head of a household and had a servant (slave) who worked for you, that servant’s work—whether in the field or in the kitchen—was the work he or she was supposed to do. It was nothing extraordinary. It was what is expected. In that particular culture, in that time in history, this example made sense. We in the twenty-first century are repelled by servant or slave imagery, yet we must not read our own culture and history back into the first. Jesus thus challenges his disciples to see themselves as servants—servants of God. God is in charge. God owes them—and us—nothing. Yet we owe God everything. Whatever we do for God is just what we should do.  Furthermore, God’s abundance, blessing and gift of faith come under the category of grace. Pure grace. There is nothing we can do to earn it. There is nothing we can do to deserve it. Yet, amazingly enough, God provides.

The challenge is that we cannot always see God’s provision and grace. We want faith we can see, touch, and hear. We want to see good things happen because of our faith. Yet as evidenced this week, good does not always happen—at least not what we would classify as good.

Sometimes, as I have said to you before, having faith in God may be like walking around the furniture in a dark living room. We may have some general idea of where the obstacles are, yet we probably don’t know for sure, so we have to move slowly—and often help each other negotiate the dark so that we don’t fall. In other words, faith is something that is God’s gift to each of us. At the same time, you and I have our own part to play in this life of faith. God gives us faith. It is up to us to use it.

To use another analogy, it is as if God has given us a very large bank account. When we get the statement, we are in awe of all the money in our account. At the same time, we are scared to spend any of it. We are afraid it will disappear or be stolen. Or perhaps we fear that this is a mistake. This account is not really ours. God meant to give it to someone else. No. This account—full of unimaginable riches of faith—belongs to you and to me. Yet if it sits un-used, it does no one any good.

How do we spend our faith? How do we appropriate all that the grace and faith God has given us? The first thing we must do is to acknowledge that we already have all the faith we need. Whatever we need, we already have. We may not already have what we want, but we already have what we need.

Several years ago, during the economic downturn, this parish was in a challenging place. Some folks had been laid off. Some had lost jobs they thought were secure. Others were depressed because they had jobs they hated. Yet St. Philip’s needed a new roof. Now that was pretty evident, because some of us were getting “rained on” at the altar or in the pew! Our need for a new roof was clear, but the economic recovery was not. At that time, I stood here and talked about the fear generated by nay-sayers and media about the economic situation, especially as it pertained to this parish. I must admit to you that at some point, I got angry. Then I realized that I was giving negativity rent-free space in my head and heart. I was also not living into my faith.

So I made a decision, which I shared with you at that time. Today, I want to repeat what I said then. I will not live in fear. Jesus said “perfect love casts out fear.”  Today, I re-claim that truth. I will not live in fear. I will not live in fear of politicians who hold the people of this country hostage with their partisan games. I will not live in fear of scarcity. I will not live in fear for the people of this parish for whom I care deeply. I will not live in fear that this parish will not grow and prosper and do what God calls us to do and to be in this world. I encourage you to decide not to live in fear as well. I challenge you to claim love out of your mustard seed of faith and to cast out fear.

Three years ago, I said that we are going to take care of each other. That is still true. If fulfilling your pledge for 2013 or making a new one for 2014 means that you cannot pay your electricity or buy food for your family, do not make it. And do not worry or feel guilty about it. Furthermore, if you need help, come to see me privately. If your finances or job have not been affected, I ask you to open your hand and see the mustard seed of faith there. You have all you need. You may not have all you want, but you have what you need in God’s economy. You may consider giving on behalf of those who cannot. Go out to dinner one less time a week than you would have, and give that money out of your faith that God will multiply it. Buy one less Starbucks Frappuccino and put that in the offering plate on Sunday. Buy a grocery card today and give it to me so that I can give it to a parishioner who needs it. Come to the Stewardship Luncheon today and give of yourself—your time and your listening heart—to your brothers and sisters.

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” It was the wrong request. Today, Jesus stands in front of you and me. He says, “Use your faith. Cast fear as far as you can throw it. Live in the fullness of love and faith that I have given you already.” Name it. Claim it. Act on it. Faith is yours. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] R. Alan Culpepper “The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 322.

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