| Psalms 78
||Sun, November 10, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children, we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of Yahweh, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Ps. 78:1-4). We are a community of memory. We are a people who listen to the parables and “dark sayings from of old”, things that our grandparents and parents have told us. The book and the table are a repository of communal memory. Here we remember who we are, where we are from and where we are going. Here we take on the sacred calling of hosting the memory for another generation: “We will not hide these memories from their grandchildren; we will tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD.” You would think that this great psalm of memory would be a beloved favourite. Yet even when Psalm 78 appears in our worship it comes in a truncated version. Perhaps you noticed as you read just now - Part One (verses 1-7) and Part Two (verses 12-16). This suggests that some of the Psalm has been edited out, for brevity. What you may not have noticed is that it is not only verses eight through twelve that are missing from our living memory. It is also verses seventeen through seventy-two (yes, seventy-two!) that go unspoken, forgotten in our life together. Which makes our declaration just a bit hollow don’t you think? “We will not hide these memories from our children; we will tell the coming generation ...”. Just how will we propose to teach our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren verses and stories and memories that we forget to remember?
Well, of course, memory is the dominant theme of this long weekend in the Commonwealth, ‘lest we forget’. Tomorrow, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we will find ourselves eighty-five years away from the end of the ‘war to end all war’. Remember? The day was established as a permanent memorial to the end of global warfare between the nations. That terror had ended with the inhuman trenches and mustard gas attacks of the Great War. Surely the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations marked the beginning of the long awaited age of peace. The citizens of Vancouver were so excited by the prospect that they named a local beach in honour of the Treaty of Locarno that guaranteed a future free from war in Europe. But our eleventh hour memories tomorrow will not be of eighty-five years of peace. Instead we will not be able to forget that 1918 was just the beginning of the troubles and of the violence and of the terror ... troubles and violence and terror that continues unabated. Gathered to remember the huge cost and sacrifice of war we find ourselves in the midst of nations poised to attack, to fight, to kill.
Today, though, we gather to remember back beyond 1945 ... and beyond 1918 ... to “remember dark sayings from of old, things that our ancestors have told us.” We gather, says the text, to recall the glorious deeds, the miracles, the marvels and the wonders of the LORD (Ps. 78:4, 11, 12 & 32). In other words, we remember dark sayings and strange parables that assert the power of God to act in miraculous, marvellous and wonderful ways that are beyond all expectation or possibility. The faith of the people of Israel - which is now our own - rests in the impossibilities of Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses. This is not a generic faith in a generic God who creates a generic world. This is an odd and peculiar faith in an unusual and particular God who surprised barren Sarah with a child and who stunned Pharaoh with disastrous freedom for his Hebrew slaves at the sea, not to mention who overwhelmed Jesus’ disciples with the impossible overcoming of death on an impossible Sunday. Keeping alive the memory of God’s impossible actions is critical to the faith of Jews and Christians. If we forget the extraordinary freedom of Yahweh to shape new futures that are, surely, impossible then we settle only for what is possible. Such amnesia will cause us to imagine that this is, as one movie title puts it, “As Good as it Gets”. Such forgetfulness robs the synagogue and the church of deep hope for transformation. When there is no memory of Yahweh’s power to save then those who are deep in personal distress forget that God is in the business of shattering impossible pain in ways that are beyond all our ability to predict. The life blood of our living faith as a people is trust in the freedom of God to do an utterly new thing.
God does impossible new things. This is the memory that Psalm 78 reminds us not to hide from our children. God does the impossible. This is the story that we will tell to new generations. But notice how difficult it is for the generations to actually believe that this is true. Most of the 78th Psalm’s seventy-two verses have little to do with the wonders and marvels and miracles of Yahweh. Most of Psalm 78 tells the story of Israel’s disbelief. Simply put, the people find Yahweh hard to believe. The people of God say “In God We Trust”. Then their lives make a mockery of their sworn allegiance to the God of impossible newness. The Psalm tells story after story of disbelief. “They tested God, they spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness, even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out, can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?’” (Vss. 18-20). “They flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant” (Vss. 36-37). “They tested God again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not keep in mind his power; or the day when he redeemed them from the foe” (Vss. 41-42). The power and potency of God is easily forgotten. This is also the memory that 78 reminds us not to hide from our children. We are not the first parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who have lived in an age of forgetfulness. But we do live in such an age - don’t we? We easily forget God’s marvels and wonders and impossibilities in the midst of a world of technological marvels and wonders and impossibilities. We easily begin to trust in our own ability to create wonders and to do the impossible. Soon we forget the One who has power to make new and to bring to an end.
But the text will not let us forget this One who does not cease being God simply because the people forget. The text goes on. It remembers more. It tells of a God who is at wit’s end and “full of rage” (vs. 21). Perhaps this explains our unwillingness to read Psalm 78 to our children. We find a portrait of an angry God unsavoury. We are much into the God of love, or so we say. Yet the text portrays a God of immense compassion and huge restraint. Again and again the people of the Covenant - God’s marriage partners - forget their relationship, do not keep their vows, place their trust in others. In short, God’s own beloved people ‘fool around’, have affairs with small ‘g’ gods. They get intimate with pretend gods - with idols - with ideas and forces and powers that have all the appearance of being able to deliver a good life. We know the story all too well. We find ourselves in the a cultural milieu that tempts the church and synagogue with idolatry on every side. It seems so much more logical to trust in the predictable outcomes of our techniques and systems than to place our future in the hands of God’s impossibilities. Like an addict, desperate for the next fix, our culture cannot imagine life without oil. This addictive craving generates the political and economic urge to dominate peoples half a world away. Urges to get and to control and to have overwhelm our promises of loyalty to the God of the neighbour, of the stranger and, yes, even of the enemy. We know the story of forgetfulness well.
We are less familiar with the story of God, who is enraged by such blatant acts of infidelity. Psalm 78 tells a forgotten story of restraint and mercy that is mingled with wrath and judgment. It remembers “dark sayings from of old” in which God gives the people the food they crave only to find that their disbelief continues (vss. 21-31). It reminds us and our children of the judgement that inevitably comes upon the covenanted people when they confidently ignore their promises of obedience to the ways of Yahweh. This, reminds Psalm 78, is the God of love who will not let us go and, so, who waits for us on the other side of judgment. This, reminds the Psalm, is a long story in which the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Miriam and Moses has impossible patience and endurance. As we listen we learn to remember that Yahweh is determined to do the impossible and will not give up on the people who long to share in the ways of God in the world.
In struggling to utter these “dark sayings from of old” I stumbled across the Back Page of the November issue of the United Church Observer. There Keith Howard, a close friend of many years, finds the words that I am looking for. He writes: “One of our children has serious struggles with addiction. We are under no illusion that if only he would try harder or if he loved us more, all would be well. At the same time we have also developed a great sensitivity to the broadsides wielded against ‘scumball junkies’ who, as one commentator suggested, should be left (and, it was implied, encouraged) to die of their own devices. While we protect ourselves from the implications of his addictions, we also love all the talent, insight, love and humanity that form the rest of him. As a father I am often not optimistic about his future. As a Christian I am a prisoner of hope because, when all is said and done, I do believe that God continues to be present and at work in and through bent, if not broken, people. And perhaps even more outrageously, I continue to believe that the same Spirit who could sweep through at Pentecost and transform thousands continues to brood over the creation including the church.”
Determined readers and keepers of Psalm 78 remember that we are prisoners of hope. The community that sings this ancient song keeps alive this dangerous memory. It is a dangerous memory because a people that remembers to trust its life to God’s impossible future finds surprising resources of courage to live freely for God. This is a dangerous memory because it reminds every generation that it cannot escape the judgement of God on its ways and on its wars. We are not saved from judgement simply by choosing to forget the ancient memory of God’s purposes and promises. Awakening to the ways in which we have wandered from the love of God we glimpse an desperately bleak future. Deep despair is just below the surface of days flooded with tragic news and of lives soaked in grief that will not let go. Thank heavens for the dangerous memory that we will not hide from our children and grandchildren ... or from ourselves. Thank heavens for the memory that puts the lie to our apathy and discouragement. We are determined to remember the power of God to do wonders and marvels beyond human calculation. This dangerous memory is the source of the risky new life beyond despair that the Risen Christ breathes into our life together even now, even now. Lest we forget. Lest we forget.