The Candor of Friendship
| Psalms 25
||Sun, December 3, 2006
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The twenty-third psalm is so well known that you just have to start “The LORD is my shepherd” and the congregation responds “I shall not want”. Not so with the twenty-fifth psalm. It lives in obscurity, overshadowed by its famous relative. It is a problem. It’s a problem because psalm twenty-five may be the very psalm we need to pray and sing and know. But if we do not know it - by heart or even by reputation - we will not pray it or sing it. It’s a problem. It needs addressing. Now. It begins:
“To you, O LORD, I lift my soul. O my God, in you I trust”.
The twenty-fifth psalm is a prayer to YHWH - the God whose name means “I am what I am up to”, the Holy One who calls Sara and Abraham to leave their settled lives for an unknown future, the Liberator met by Moses in the burning bush and at the Red Sea and on Mt. Sinai. It places the soul of the one who sings it in God’s hands. It confesses that the one who lifts this prayer to the heavens dares to trust in the unseen God rather than in the seductive promises of the material world. This is a risky faith. It is a leap into the arms of God. It is a letting go of trust in anything other than the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ. Imagine if this were the prime characteristic that a congregation was known for. Imagine that when people spoke about University Hill Congregation they said: “Now that is a congregation that really trusts in God”. Well, of course, that is what we hope every congregation of Jesus Christ is known for. It is startling to realize that it’s not always the first thing that comes to mind when speaking of a church. The twenty-fifth psalm is an offer of what a life that places its trust in the Lord looks like.
At the heart of this hymn to God there is a bold claim about those who trust YHWH: “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear God”. Friendship and fear. It’s not often that we see those two words together when speaking of a life of faith in God. Either we hear that God is like a good friend, a pal, a buddy who can always be counted on to come through or we hear that God is a dangerous, overpowering, terrifying force who is not to be trifled with. But this song knows that fearsome respect for the awesome reality that is YHWH will inevitably lead to friendship with the Lord. The psalm says that this holy friendship is about love. It says that the Lord’s covenant is made known to God’s friends. The covenant is God’s great vow. It is the bonding language of marriage. It is the speech of lovers. In Latin, in Greek and in English the word for “friend” comes from the root word “lover”. To fear YHWH is to be a lover of YHWH and it is to be loved by YHWH. It is to have promised oneself to the Lord and been promised the love of the Lord. That is what makes this company, congregated here around the Lord’s own table such an extraordinary gathering. It is a congregation of God’s friends. You who are in awe of the Lord and who live aware of the mighty power of God, you are being befriended by God. That is why you have been invited to this meal, to this table, to this company. Look around. God has given you friends. God’s own friends.
We are friends with this in common - the fear of the Lord. This fear is a healthy, necessary respect for God. It knows that there are limits to our capacities and knowledge. To fear God is to know that we are not God. It assumes that we are not the teachers but the pupils of God’s ways. This is what it means to say that we are disciples of Jesus. On Wednesday I took part in a conference call with a dozen United Church ministers across the country. We have been invited into conversation because we have been identified as pastors who are experimenting with a focus on discipleship in congregations. It’s true. We are. It is an indicator of a widespread amnesia in the church when recovering the practices of discipleship in congregations is called experimental. Somehow it has become possible to be a member of the church without thinking of oneself as a disciple of Jesus. It is not the first time it has happened. When speaking of the German church in the 1930's Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ". It’s the reason we should abandon the word “member” when speaking about belonging to a church. It is more accurate and honest to say “pupil” or “student” or “apprentice” or “disciple”. And the thing about being a pupil or a student or an apprentice or a disciple is that you don’t get to design the curriculum. It doesn’t matter whether you go to cooking school or you want to train for a marathon. Once you sign on as a pupil you start at the beginning and learn the basics. That’s what it means to say that University Hill Congregation is a disciple of Jesus, that the church itself is a student of the ways of the Lord. We are in training. We are apprentices in the practices and habits and ways of Christ. It is what we hope and pray will result from the discipline of our upcoming deliberations about Christian marriage. We want to be trained to be a church. In other words, our deep desire is to become a living, breathing sign of God’s kingdom come. We will surely not find a better verse to pray during the months ahead than this one from Psalm twenty-five:
“Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me.”
And the most surprising learning that the twenty-fifth psalm teaches the apprentices of the Lord is this: God can take candor. In fact, God invites candor. God expects candor. Most of the twenty-fifth psalm is blunt in its candid assessment of what is required now. Most of this great song of trust is a request, a petition, a demand, a cry. The opening verse places the soul and trust of the singer in God’s hands. The verses that follow call upon God to follow through. They plead with the Lord to provide evidence that this trust has not been misplaced. The thing that Gerald and Cathy and Jocelyn and I find most difficult when selecting hymns to sing in worship is finding songs with lyrics anything like this and many similar psalms. So many of our hymns seem to have forgotten that friendship with YHWH is not of the surface variety. This God is not the kind of friend who one greets in passing. With YHWH it is never: “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks”. YHWH is more difficult than that. With the Lord the truth is to be told, the truth must be told, the truth will be told. So the psalm puts the words of candor in our mouths for us:
“Do not let me be put to shame;
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
Do not remember the sins of my youth our my transgressions;
remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins
O guard my life, and deliver me.
Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.”
Psalm twenty-five begins with the word “trust”. It ends with the word “troubles”. It knows what we have often been too polite to name. It knows that God knows that things are not right. Things are not right with the world. Things are not right with the nation. Things are not right with the church. Things are not right with the household. Things are not right with the soul. There are troubles. Many troubles. There is reason for shame. And for guilt. There are afflictions of all kinds. There is distress. Great distress. And no amount of Christmas cheer or gift shopping or dinner partying will put an end to it. Yes, the troubles may be glossed over for awhile. But the jingle bells can never silence the groans and aches and grief and pain.
This is the place where Advent begins. This is the place where the Christian year begins. Because this is the place where trust in the Lord begins. It begins with the faith that only God has the power to save us. This is proper fear of the Lord, appropriate respect, deep awe and wonder and worship. Advent begins by entrusting the year, the future, our life to God. It is like the first day of class. We are pupils who long to learn the ways of God. We have old habits of fear that need conversion. We have anxious ways of being with one another that do not bring life. We begin not as masters of Christian living or as doctors of the faith but as apprentices, prepared to learn the disciplines from our master teacher, Jesus Christ. And the first discipline that we are taught is to tell the truth about the troubles that bring distress and affliction and shame. It is the starting place of Christian faith. It is the place of waiting expectantly for God to do a new thing. It is the place of resting our hopes for tomorrow in the God who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In this great act the Lord has given us the promise of a future that is not an inevitable replication of the past. We have been befriended by the God of tomorrow. We will face the trouble in trust. And we will give thanks.