Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 30, 2014
When we read or hear scripture, and be faithful as we do it, we have to have one eye, one ear on the words and their meaning and the other eye and ear on our community, our society, our world—on people. If we read this psalm as edited by the lectionary, we can hear the voices of people of color after the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, MO.
The psalmist calls upon a shepherd God—a poor, at-the-bottom-of-society God—to lead the House of Joseph, the favored and yet despised son of Jacob and Rachael. By also using Ephraim and Mannaseh, sons of Joseph, for emphasis, the writer is including descendants, the generations that came after that old story of Joseph and his brothers. Both the House of Joseph and the tribe of his younger brother Benjamin used as their emblem the image of a young boy. O God, stir up your might and save us, whose emblem is every young black boy killed by police, incarcerated five times more than white boys, one in three of whom will go to jail in their lifetime. Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved! How long will you be angry with the prayers of a people who, despite emancipation and civil rights and the first African-American president, are still not free and equal? You have fed us with the bread of tears, we are the scorn of our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved!
This is not our prayer, our psalm, we who have not been judged to be inferior because of the color of our skin, we who can expect to see people of our skin color widely represented in the media, where church is still the most segregated hour of the week. But if we read the psalm in its entirety, we can see in the recounting of the beginnings of Israel the birth of our own nation. The first Pilgrims saw themselves as those in exile being brought to a promised land. And even though there were nations already living here, the indigenous peoples were seen as inferior and eventually they would be driven out, as part of doing God’s work.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.
They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
Israel, formerly prosperous and bountiful, once again returns from slavery and captivity now to find the vine—their people—ravaged and plundered. No longer are they the conqueror. Now they are on the bottom. This is a people in pain, from Babylon to Auschwitz, and they want God to know about it.
Throughout human history, whenever there has been a forced relocation of one group of human beings to support the success of another, violence has been met with violence. When justice is denied, the old wounds cry out and are stirred up again. The oppressed becomes the aggressor. Fires and riots raged in Ferguson after the grand jury made its decision. Countless more protested peacefully and are continuing to do so, but of course it is the fires and the riots that make the news.
On March 14, 1968—only 3 weeks before he would be shot down—Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about rioting and social unrest:
“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
These same words could apply today. And though the grand jury decision was certainly not the justice that was hoped for, we still have an unarmed young man who is dead, a police officer who is responsible for that death, an unjust criminal justice system, and a community like so many others whose angry voices still go unheard.
O God, stir up your might! Restore our brothers and sisters! Shine your face upon them and save them!
Not our might but God’s be stirred. What needs to be stirred up within us is hope; a hope that sustains us so that we do not give up on God and God’s justice. Stirring up hope can be a dangerous thing because hope is stirred when the truth is told. And the truth is, what needs to be indicted is a society that declares that all are created equal and yet still favors one skin color over others, still favors binary gender (male/female) and one gender over others, still favors straight people over others, still favors able-bodied people over others and overlooks those with mental illness and addiction, still favors citizens over non-citizens, still favors class and those with money and affords them a better education and health care than others. The truth is not intended to paralyze us with guilt but to set all of us free. But as Sue Monk Kidd reminds us, before the truth can set us free, it will shatter the safe, sweet way we live. And indeed, we have been and are living through these shattering times.
Benjamin Watson who plays for the New Orleans Saints, despite his hope and his hopelessness, is encouraged. His Facebook post on Ferguson, which went viral, ended with these words:
“I'M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I'M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through…Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that's capable of looking past the outward and seeing what's truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It's the Gospel. So, finally, I'M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives [humankind] hope.”
The Gospel gives humankind hope. The Gospel in which we hear the ancient stories of a baby born in poverty who lived to be a teacher of justice, who died preaching forgiveness, whose story lived on through his disciples and continues to live in us. As Christians, this is what we believe has the power to save humankind, this story of Jesus. To be saved is, as Ben Watson puts it, a transformed heart and mind, which is an ongoing process. We progressive, liberal Christians have to reclaim both of these words: sin and salvation. If this story can save us, transform us, we who follow Jesus, and if we strive to live as he lived, with radical, extravagant, unconditional love, then indeed it can save the world, including Ferguson and so many other places and peoples like it.
Stir up your might, O God, and stir up our hope! Restore all of us to you and to each other. Continue to transform all human hearts and minds. Shine your face upon us and save us. Amen.
"Hope is the desire of the heart to continue on when the mind says cease the foolish game."