This sermon was preached at North Manchester Church of the Brethren, in Indiana, on July 10, 2016.  It was important to the sermon that it was preceded by “Renew Your Church” and “Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness” hymns, a vulnerable and searching pastoral prayer, and a children’s story and call to worship about practical ways to be a Good Samaritan.  As with all my sermons, they are written for a particular context and a particular time and a particular people — I would likely preach something different to a different group.  So this sermon might not be for you… but still, I hope you find a needed word in it.

The scripture was Psalm 82:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

This is our third Sunday in the Psalms — as Jim noted last week, this is a pretty unusual thing for preachers to do.  The Psalms are highly emotional and evocative and they don’t lend themselves to analysis.  Usually they are better just experienced, read in the dark of night or in the blue-sky day as a lifting of emotion to God.

I chose this psalm months ago (rather than Psalm 25 which was another option for today), and between then and now, it has felt like a strange companion sometimes, but it has grown into a quirky friend as the weeks and months have unfolded.

Psalm 82 is a strange psalm.  It is one of the ones written by Asaph.  Asaph evidently has a bit of a fire in his belly, and he’s not going to let unjust things stand.  Many more of his psalms are justice-related than are the psalms of David.  And yet they are still meant to be sung in communal worship.

If psalms are keyed to emotions, this psalm seems mostly angry to me, an emotion we Brethren are uncomfortable with and rarely intentionally bring to worship. (Though maybe that’s a tendency of us good church people in general… heck, maybe it’s just a human thing!)

This psalm is also unique in that it mentions the “divine council.”  There are a few ways of interpreting this, and you can look them up later if you want to be thorough.  Here’s the interpretation that I’ll be drawing on:

Many scholars believe that the Israelites were not always monotheistic.  Israelites worshipped only one God, but for much of their history they believed that other gods existed, and reference to those other gods is occasionally seen in the Old Testament.  Monotheism, the belief in one God, came later.  Many scholars, then, see “the divine council” as a remnant of that former belief.

Why does this matter?  (Yes, I can hear you thinking…)

It matters because I think we have our own collection of lowercase “gods.”  We do not call them Baal or Asherah, but if gods are things we put our faith in, things that seem bigger than us, things that we worship and trust with our lives, then we are faced with the option of worshipping other potential gods on a regular basis.  If we are not careful, we entrust our lives to systems — things like Wall Street; democracy; medical systems; education systems; criminal justice systems; courts; media.  We unwittingly look to these systems to save us, even when we know that only God can save us.

The New Testament calls these things “powers and principalities.”  And in the Bible, the powers and principalities are not necessarily bad.  The psalm says that they are “children of the Most High” — creations of God herself to work God’s good will among people.

But there are two problems with powers and principalities — with systems, with lowercase “gods.”

The first problem is that we humans are too often tempted to put too much of our trust in them — to worship them and give them our allegiance more wholly than we do the God who created them.  We sometimes treat them as eternal and we fear annihilation if they crumble.

The second problem is the problem named in the psalm — these systems, though created good, are fallen, broken, and sometimes have become unjust.  Listen again to the psalm with “systems” in place of “gods:”

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the systems he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

The systems have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are the systems, creations of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

[and then the psalmist has the audacity to say…]

Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

***

With all that said, I have been very angry this week.  Each time I thought I couldn’t get angrier, something else happened that left me feeling consumed from the inside.

Early this week I spent a morning praying with the family of a gunshot victim in Fort Wayne.  This was the 10th young black or Latino man who came to the hospital with a gunshot wound within a month.  6 of them were teenagers.  4 of them died, including 2 of the teenagers.  1 of the teenagers was shot by police.

I have stood by too many families grieving this kind of senseless loss.  There is individual behavior that caused this violence, but behind this trend are also larger and very complex realities — racism, sexism, poverty, prison systems, drugs, police relations, gangs, gun control, collective trauma…

But it’s the individuals that end up caught in it all.

I stayed with one father this month who ran down a hospital hallway yelling at God after seeing his son in the ICU — “How could this happen?  It’s not fair!  He’s my baby, the only family I have left.  You can’t let this happen, God.”  A policeman followed him to the elevator, hugged him tight until he stopped yelling and started crying.  “I’m a father, too,” the policeman said.  “I can’t imagine what it’s like.  Let’s go find your girlfriend.”  Later the man told me that his son was a straight-A student who wanted to be a neuroscientist.

One 16 year old Latina with a far-too-old look in her eye, in fear for her boyfriend who had just been shot, told me of a string of shootings that happened in her neighborhood, one of which narrowly missed her; told me of how, at the age of 10, she held her cousin as he died of a gunshot wound.  It sounds like a war zone but it’s only 40 miles from here.

One grandmother, who had raised her grandson, paced the hallway, unable to breathe fully or sit down, her daughter and I very worried that she would collapse.  Every shaky breath was a new prayer.  “Give him another chance, please, God.”

One daughter, who I could not tell of her father’s true condition, saw it written on my face and screamed.  She was in the hallway and everything in me wanted to get her to a place where her screams could not be heard, to silence those screams because they were too much.  But while I knelt beside her, her husband sank to the floor with her and held her until screams turned to whimpers and she could stand again and face life.

I have been remembering the black Fort Wayne pastor I met last fall at the hospital, the pastor who told me that he had buried 16 young people in his congregation in the past year because of violence.  And I keep wondering how he got through it.

I asked a grandmother that question this month.  “There’s too much of this.  How do you do it?”  Her answer humbled me:  “God, baby.  We couldn’t do it without God.”

And this week in the news, with the three black men and five policemen who died, with the internet and the news and conversations blowing up with opinions and advice and emotions and speculation…

I talked to Davonte, the young man who takes out my garbage at work every night.  He hates working night shift, but he’s trying to get into college so he can get out of this kind of job.  I asked him how he was feeling about the news this week, and he told me of how powerless and afraid he felt, how worried he was about the future.  But he also said that it was so hard to know who and what to believe.

He asked me how I was feeling, and I admitted that I have been so angry.  And I don’t know what to do.  I’ve been reading many articles of advice on the internet, but I still don’t know what to do.

Maybe this has been your experience this week, too.

Or maybe this week’s news has not affected you that much, but you or people you love are feeling powerless and angry in facing other broken systems —

insurance when it declines essential treatment;

Wall Street when it affects already tight financial situations;

the education system when it requires of you or your children things you should not have to give;

the court system or prison system when they create spirals of punishment that are nearly impossible to find redemption in;

the foster care or adoption system when they put children in precarious positions;

the democratic system when it doesn’t include an option that gives you hope;

the media when it spins the truth so much that it’s hard to tell which way is up.

The thing about facing down systems is we can often feel so powerless.  We can be good Samaritans and reach out to the people around us.  The story in today’s call to worship and the ideas the children came up with, along with the ideas that are flowing through your minds and in your lives, are amazing examples.  We in this church are good at serving others and noticing and responding to immediate need, good about loving our neighbor, even those that are different from us.  But what happens when we keep walking down this road and see a new person every day who has been harmed by the robbers?

These systems are faceless but they play roles in our lives as characters that affect our future.  And right now, a lot of these systems are in various states of disarray.

How do we respond?  What can we do to be faithful in the midst of this?

***

It’s in living with this question that Psalm 82 has become a quirky friend to me.  As I have journeyed with this psalm, the call I keep hearing is this:

Bring it to God.

Bring your anger at the systems, your grief of loss, your powerlessness and fear.  Bring it to God in worship together.  Like the psalmist Asaph did, we are called to find ways to sing about it in the assembly.

We don’t bring it to God in order to cover it up or dismiss it.  We don’t bring it expecting God to take it away immediately.  We bring it to God to honor it.  There is a long tradition in the Old Testament and in present-day Judaism of holding God accountable — crying out for God to make things right.  That’s part of what we are doing when we bring our anger and fear to God in worship.

Part of what we are doing is making sure we don’t shut our anger and lament down too quickly.

When we act on impulse in response to our anger and lament, we can end up acting on our own agendas, out of our own anxiety, sometimes doing harm we may not intend.

But when we stay silent for a breath or two, when we grieve, when we watch and wait for God, sometimes we hear voices that we might otherwise shut out.

If we are quick to react in our anger, we risk talking over the hurt in brothers and sisters who need to be heard.

But if we bring our anger and lament to God, we begin to hear that God is already calling for justice.  In the voices of hiphop artists, in the voices of children, in the rhythms of slam poets, in the paint cans of graffiti artists, in the bodies of our neighbors who live in poverty or pain…

And we begin to hear that God is already working redemption in the small places — protesters on sidewalks across the country insisting that they matter and will not be ignored, police departments that are finding creative ways to prevent violence, town meetings in Fort Wayne to discover solutions to gang activity…

When we hold our lament before God, as uncomfortable as that can be, we begin to notice the places where we can align ourselves with the work that God is already doing.  We act out of God’s grace and abundant love that flows deep down, even in the dark well of our lament, even in the hot furnace of our anger.  And sometimes the tasks God will call us to are well beyond our own imagination.

When we bring our anger to God, I think we also find new reasons to praise the God who created everything and reconciles all creation to himself.

I don’t know exactly what all that looks like this time… and I can’t give you a money-back guarantee.  Right now I just have my lament and my faith to offer.  But maybe if we try it together, maybe if we bring the broken systems into God’s presence together, into the realm of God’s power and love, maybe we’ll find more ways to praise God and bring God’s healing.

And maybe you’re wondering if this is a cop-out — taking a breath like this, staying for a moment in anger, long enough to offer it to God — might this become a way to avoid doing anything?  A complacent kind of silence?

The God we worship is always going to be calling for justice, for right relations, for food for the hungry and clothes for the naked, for a cup of cold water for the ones who are thirsty.

And the God we worship is always going to be asking us to follow Christ into the places of need, always going to be choosing to partner with us to work God’s will in the world.

So I think, if we find a way to be deeply honest with God, ourselves and others, and if we can let some of our defenses down, grace will find us and God’s call will lead us back out into the world with renewed hope and regrounded faith.

So, what do we do in the face of weeks like this one?  In the face of broken systems that harm human lives?

We bring our anger and lament to God.

We connect honestly with one another, care for one another, seek to care for those who are outside our walls.

We wait in the uncertainty and listen for voices that are not easy to hear, listen for the call of God.

We sing; we pray; we lean into our faith in a God of abundant love; we find new ways and new reasons to praise.

And we pause before we move… in the mean time, gathering courage while we listen, so that when God calls us (and you know God will call us!) to go into places of injustice, to face systems that seem invincible, we will be ready to move in the path God has for us.

** (The closing hymn was “The Love of God is Greater Far”)

** (The question “what do we do if we go down the road and every day a new person has been harmed by the robbers?” was inspired by Kristina Keefe-Perry, who wrote her sermon for today on that question.)

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