Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
July 1, 2018
Psalm 128; Mark 5:21-43
Happy are those who revere YHWH, and walk in God’s ways.
Back in January, when I laid out my preaching outline through the spring and summer, it made sense to place Psalm 128 on this day. After all, I was anticipating that I would be re-appointed here by the bishop for another year – and I am happy about that. So, happiness seemed like a good fit.
I must admit, though, I haven’t been happy much lately. Happiness is especially problematic if it depends on what’s going on around you – outside you. Even more so if one begins to realize that my happiness may come at the expense of others’ happiness. If that’s happiness I’d rather not have it. Happiness cannot be quantified or portioned out. We can’t fake it. And the kind of happiness the Psalmist evokes is like liberty – none of us is free if one of us is not. So too, the happiness of the Psalmist: none of us is happy if one of us is not. Happiness is not a substance, but a way of being. It’s very close to the heart at peace way of being that Terri described from “The Anatomy of Peace.”
Last Sunday morning, about eighty clergy and laity from Annual Conference gathered for a 6:00 AM prayer service outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. It’s where over ten-thousand gathered yesterday for the “Families Belong Together” demonstration. It’s where 174 immigrant mothers and 32 immigrant fathers have been held not knowing where their children were – and not knowing when or even if they would be reunited. The immigrants were there because they came to the United States seeking asylum, fully aware that they would likely be separated from one another and incarcerated – because it was better than – a brighter future than – staying in Honduras or Guatemala or El Salvador, drenched in the blood of conflicts that were cultivated if not sown by United States covert operations over decades. They did not come here for the pursuit of happiness. They came here to sacrifice their liberty in order to preserve their life. Clergy and laity gathered on Sunday morning to let them know – in prayer and silence and song – that we know they are there, that we care about them, that we mourn with them the absence of their children.
Imagine what a father would do to regain the life of his child. Imagine what a mother would do to stop the flow of blood.
We were there because despite our feelings of futility, we follow the One who does not resent a loss of power that restores life, who tenderly calls life to well up in the child whom the father was sure he had lost.
Walter Brueggemann tells us we can group the Psalms into categories of Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation. Psalm 128 is a Psalm of Orientation. “Life, as reflected in these Psalms, is not troubled or threatened, but is seen as the well-ordered world intended by God. They approximate a ‘no surprise world’ and consequently a world of ‘no fear.’”[i] This might be said also to characterize the presumption of white supremacy that has become apparent in our nation recently – safety and security are taken for granted. It’s smug. It’s the perspective that can say, “This is not America.” about lynching, beating, incarceration, and shooting.
Psalm 128 makes a correlation between right orientation to God and domestic tranquility – in which families and neighbors live together in peace and prosperity. It implies that if we are right toward God that all will be well. Happiness in this case might better be translated “contentment.” The reality on the ground appears different. Needless to say, those that have been driven from the pits of despair and find themselves now as strangers in a strange land, would not be found singing Psalms of Orientation. Rather, they would be expected to sing Psalms of Disorientation. “These are Psalms of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world.”[ii] We would more likely hear from Psalm 5.
Take note of my words, YHWH! Understand my sighs!
Listen to my cry for help, my Ruler, my God – for it is to you that I pray.
YHWH, every morning you hear my voice, every morning I put my requests before you, and I wait.
Arrogant people cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who twist the truth; you destroy those who lie, and abhor the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
But I, because of your great love, will enter your House; I will worship in your holy temple in awe and reverence.
Because of my enemies, guide me in your justice; make straight your way before me.
For nothing they say can be trusted: their hearts teem with treacheries, their throats are open graves, and their tongues speak nothing but deceit.
Pronounce sentence on them, O God!
Let them fall by their own devices!
Because they fall away from your word, banish them, for they’ve been in open rebellion against you.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad and rejoice forever.
Protect them, so that those who love your Name will rejoice in you.
As for the just, YHWH, you surround them with the shield of your will.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Latin American philosopher, theologian, and Dominican priest, is regarded as one of the founders of liberation theology. In his book We Drink from Our Own Wells he calls into question the generally accepted characteristics of Christian spirituality that are at odds with being companions of Jesus – literally those who eat bread together with Jesus. Those characteristics center around the idea that following Jesus can somehow be an inward and solitary pursuit. On the contrary, following Jesus is not for an expert few, it is liturgy – literally “the work of the people.” And it is not about the private interior life that is withdrawn from the world. The “way” of God that Gutierrez cites from Psalm 128 is the way of exodus. It is the way upon which God invites us to embark that leads out of captivity… and into struggle. That struggle is what forms the people of God as something more than descendants of a common ancestor. The “way” is the exodus in the wilderness together, with one another and with God. It is a strange, arid, and dangerous land, but one in which we are not alone. The Psalms of ascent are sung together as a people.
They are not to be sung alone.
So, Psalm 128 could be understood as a smug self-affirmation of our individual and private piety – a kind of contentment. Or it could be understood as aspirational – as is the preamble to the constitution. It could be understood as a test of our piety and trust in God. It could be understood that the evidence of our devotion and orientation to God is in the degree to which those who are made in the image and likeness of God – remember, that is EVERYONE – the degree to which they thrive in domestic tranquility – surrounded by their generations. The question should not be, “Am I happy?” or “Are those who I know and resemble happy?” but “Are we happy? Is our common good such that it fosters happiness?” The work of the people following Jesus – the LITURGY following Jesus is to expand the WE. It is to expand and restore our conception and understanding of the scope of God’s love and justice to the entire cosmos.
On Tuesday, clergy of all traditions stood on the steps of the William Kenzo Nakamura United States Court House in downtown Seattle in support of our Muslim siblings and sang a song that has been a theme of the New Poor People’s Campaign. It is a song in the spirit of expanding the “we.”
Somebody’s been hurting my people, and it’s gone on far too long, it’s gone on far too long, it’s gone on far too long. Somebody’s been hurting my people, and it’s gone on far too long, and I won’t be silent anymore.
Beloved, do not be silent. Expand the “WE” with me. Sing out in your actions and words and relationships so that all people can sing together, on the way up to the city of God’s peace, “Happy are those who revere YHWH, and walk in God’s ways.”