Psalm 138 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, June 7, 2015
“. . . I sing your praise before all other gods.” (Psalm 138:1)
Though a word often capitalized, it ended the opening verse of Psalm 138 in lowercase: gods.
After that plural word, I couldn’t concentrate on Psalm 138’s remaining seven verses. There it was . . .
I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord.
I sing your praise before all other gods.
Do you see that final word in the first verse?
How long have the Psalms been part of worship for Jews and Christians? Haven’t they, for more centuries than can be counted on my fingers and toes, been read in ornate synagogues, simple country churches, and grandiose cathedrals? Haven’t two or three believers whispered the Psalms in a hiding place while soldiers marched outside? Weren’t the Psalms intoned a thousand years ago by a fancy-robed bishop with a shrill voice, who poured more wine than necessary in communion for guaranteed leftovers? Weren’t the Psalms recently read by a layperson with an overdue mortgage that was just given a two-week’s notice about her job? The Jews, long before Jesus’ birth, memorized the Psalms. All the Christian Gospels quoted the Psalms. I’m sure an obscure or famous person died a few days ago, and a rabbi or pastor, in a sunlit dappled cemetery under the shadow of a tree, cleared her throat and offered a Psalm to the mourners huddled around an open wound in the earth. The Psalm did—or did not—comfort the grieving. But it was read. It was heard. It was expected.
They are ancient words, rooted in a community that served and serves one God. One Lord. One Creator.
I sing your praise before all other . . . gods?
I glare at that word in plural. What gods?
History taunts and teaches me.
As once-powerful Egypt slowly collapsed over the centuries, the pharaohs—even the weak and obscure ones in the final dynasties—were viewed as gods. And the Psalms were read somewhere in that waning empire.
The mighty Persian Empire, in the era of Cyrus and Darius, claimed Ahura Mazda as god. And the Psalms were read somewhere in that former empire.
The Greeks rose, with Sparta and Athens city-states that are still revered, with Plato and Socrates names that are still honored. Zeus, of mythology now and worship then, reigned over a gaggle of other gods. And the Psalms were read somewhere in that vanished empire.
The Romans, cruel and greedy, claimed Jupiter as god. But also Caesar! Like the pharaohs forgotten in the swirl of desert sand, the rulers of Rome named themselves gods. Worship me! Bow to me! And the Psalms were read somewhere in that fallen empire.
Walter Brueggemann wrote, “The Psalms are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture, which wants to deny and cover over the darkness we are called to enter. Personally we shun negativity.”
The dominant culture, whether led by a Caesar or President, always reassures that everything is just fine. When war comes, keep doing your jobs, keep shopping for the latest fashions, and keep searching for the best new car deal. When economic disaster comes, don’t worry because more coins will be minted, more cash will be printed. There is no darkness, for the empire is a city shining on a hill. All is well. All is right. All is as it always will be.
The empire promises. The empire seduces. The empire provides gods to worship . . .
What gods do you worship?
Time? Cash? Promotion? Pensions? Mortgage? Technology?
Or is ____________ your current god? (Please fill in the blank while bowing before the object of your affection.)
With overt humility, I’ll claim not to be influenced by Money, but how often do I scheme about ways to get more? In truth, I’ll prattle on about not being influenced by Power, but how often do I secretly desire to control a friend or colleague?
I know I worship words. Or should I more honesty state: I worship Words? Ah, you see, the word Word is rightly capitalized! When with another, I believe I can say the right thing to help them. When I write a (brilliant) sentence in a (brilliant) essay, I believe I’ll craft clever opinions that inspire positive changes in another’s life.
And yet my words are less than lowercase. My mouth is stuffed with dry bones. My writing, the best of it, is a drop of water against a forest firestorm. Always, it’s easier to teach, preach, and write about faith . . . than to follow Jesus. Words are safe; being Christ-like isn’t.
The Persian Empire is long gone so I don’t follow or fear Ahura Mazda. I learned about the Greek gods in high school, viewing them as required, but irrelevant reading. In any empire’s last gasps, Pharaoh and Caesar and the President continue declaring all is well. And in every soon-to-pass era, humans concoct and worship lowercase gods.
The Psalms are subversive.
Please, Lord, help me seek an uppercase path that shines a loving, lasting light against the darkness.