Sometimes One Chews on One’s Words OR “Psalm 27, we hardly knew ye.”
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
Not so long ago I spoke about the Psalms as being difficult to pray due to the militarism, triumphalism, and revenge one finds in them. And then comes Psalm 27. It’s sentiment and poetry, as well as its intimate pleas to the divine can be irresistible if you let it. That is, if you are prepared to eat your past words in order to digest the nourishment that comes with a deeper dive – if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors. Psalm 27 does contain its share of evildoers and military encampments, all of which I have, without guilt, freely excised from the text. Following my edit, Psalm 27 reads this way.
Yahweh, you are my light, my salvation –
whom will I fear?
You are the stronghold of my life –
of whom will I be afraid?
One thing I ask of you, Yahweh,
one thing I seek:
That I may dwell in your house
all the days of my life,
To gaze on your beauty
and to meditate in your Temple.
Hear me when I call, Yahweh!
Have mercy on me and answer me!
You say to my heart, “Seek my face,”
and so it is your face I seek.
Don’t hide your face from me,
don’t turn your faithful one away in anger.
Don’t reject me, don’t desert me,
O God of my salvation, for you are my only help.
Teach me your way, Yahweh,
and lead me on a straight path.
Even so I have confidence
that I will see the goodness of Yahweh
in the land of the living!
Wait for God – stand tall
and let your heart take courage!
Yes, wait for Yahweh!
In his book, “Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this about Psalm 27 and others similar to it that share the desire to experience and to travel with the Divine. “It is the presence of the God of salvation in the congregation for which we give thanks, about which we rejoice, for which we long.” How precious is the congregation that worships with praise, thanksgiving, and longing for God.
Praying the Psalms begins with a simple read of the words, the phrases, the verses, and the overall impact of a surface level of presentation. But prayer searches for meaning, connection, and depth. For example, clearly we do not dwell in a house that belongs to God. So, how does one read the psalmist’s request, “One thing I seek: that I may dwell in your house.” One may respond, “Well, that’s impossible, a quaint image perhaps but a physical impossibility,” only to dismiss and disregard the search that is represented in the ask. There is no Temple, and after the Romans destroyed it in the year 70 CE, not for a very long time. So the psalm speaks of a situation that no longer exists and can never be again. However, what if the phrase nevertheless pulls the person in? What if dwelling in God’s house comes as an invitation? Historically, every good Jew had the obligation to go to the Temple in Jerusalem at least once in their life. Well, what if the person of faith realizes that the obligation is actually an invitation? Then meditating in God’s house becomes a grace – the unmerited gift of resting in the divine.
Our community, these days, is in a search for a place to worship. We are particularly sensitive to the grace that comes with having a home. It is the opportunity for a pilgrim people to reflect on what happens in worship space. Worship is giving praise and thanksgiving – not filling a space once a week feeling good about ourselves. We fill space – physically and virtually – in response to an invitation. We may or may not RSVP but let’s be clear that “gazing on the beauty of God” happens because the divine desire invites us to do so.
Praying the Psalms is an opening to God’s creativity not ours. The one who prays necessarily responds to the invitation to see, as in Psalm 27’s acknowledgment, “You say to my heart, ‘Seek my face.’” Here’s another quaint phrase that can be disregarded by the one who prays out of a desire to see some object that is called God.
“Seek my face” has a long history with people who seek connection with the divine. Moses told God, as the story goes, that he wanted to see God’s face. The people had been challenging him that they would only continue to follow him once he described the face of God to them. So, in a moment of effrontery he thought he would ask. That’s when we get the story of Moses slipping in between the rocks meanwhile covering his head. God said when Moses heard God pass by overhead that he could then uncover his head. When Moses did so and looked up all he saw was the back of God. This is a fantastic story, one in line with Psalm 27’s plea, “Don’t hide your face from me. Don’t reject me. Don’t desert me.”
To seek the face of God becomes in the practice of our faith the point of reconciliation. Seeking insight into the divine is so often about interpreting God’s presence in the wake of God’s passing by. We see God only in the after affect, in those moments of looking back on life and saying, “Oh yeah, that was God – the divine connection to my life.” To reject this insight into the divine is sin. To not seek God’s face in each other is a sinful abandonment of being a follower of Christ.
When Paul speaks of sin, as in today’s passage from the letter to the Romans, he is showing that there are such things as misdeeds against one another. However, the deepest sin involves what he calls the Law. The most accomplished practitioner of the Law can be the worst sinner if that person follows the Law rather than the message of Jesus – the Way of Love. Everything else is just “Showtime!”
Praying Psalm 27 is a plea for seeing the face of God; it is seeing that outside of this connection with the divine lies rejection, desertion, and abandonment. The great promise that the psalmist shares can be found in our communion song this morning, “Be Not Afraid.” Bob Dufford composed this song as a tribute to the fulfillment of that promise when he wrote, “You shall see the face of God and live.”
The final thing I have to say about praying Psalm 27 is about freedom. We pray, “Teach me your way, Yahweh and lead me on a straight path.” In today’s gospel there is a great lesson about the freedom of that equal intelligence in which we all share. When we are smart enough to recognize God it is then that we see God even if that vision contains traces at best. When we choose reconciliation over rejection and anger; when we are open to the path of Yahweh – fulfilled in the Way of Jesus; when we see that all these things are true, then we share equally and freely in the grace of intelligence. It’s the ability to quickly, clearly, and directly acknowledge the benefit of waiting on Yahweh.
This gospel passage that I’m referring to can be easily misread. It’s the one that tells of the reaction on the part of a whole town of Samaritans to Jesus. It says, “So Jesus stayed there two days, and through his own spoken word, many more came to faith.” Now think about this. How can it happen that in just two days faith in Jesus’ Word and Way takes root? I say that it is because, contrary to those who say they know what the face of God looks like, contrary to those who proclaim the primacy of Law over Love, and contrary to those who say you must follow their way – it is rather the case that humans possess equal intelligence to recognize goodness and love when they see it. And when they see it, they want more of it.
So, maybe the Psalms speak deeply of the divine after all!
A Prayer (JR)
We move in various places and locations only to search for you, O God.
We search for a place to rest in you. We search our hearts for the courage to respond
to you. While we search we pray a pilgrim’s prayer, “Search me, O God, and know
my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. See if there be any sin in me and lead
me in your way.”*