St. George Chapel, 7-23-17
A bit of an unusual way of doing things, I concentrate on a psalm this morning.
First and foremost, psalms are poems, and, as happens to much poetry, they rarely are
honored for their deepest expression of living experiences. Psalms weren't composed by
professionals. They began as fragments of people's feelings, struggles, anxieties, griefs,
hopes, joys. Most of them existed orally long before they were picked up for chanting.
In Greek, "psalm" means "set to a stringed instrument." It came to be applied to texts
read and chanted in liturgy. But Greek and Latin labels hide the fact that a desert people
evolved and adapted over generations living these emotions. We don't know just how
some of these poems ended up in the early temple liturgy–nor how they eventually were
written down beginning as early as 3000 years ago. Some were beautifully composed,
and others were rough hewn in almost undecipherable Hebrew. The collection of 150
writings we call Psalms might not have come together and put onto scrolls until as late
as four centuries before Jesus' day. We have no originals, only copies of copies–such as
in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other archeological findings. But the point for us to bear in
mind is that first and foremost these were–and still are–poems that arose directly from
intense reactions of travail, triumph, anguish, and yearning, in the lives of real people,
rich and poor, urban and rural.
Here's something that helps me remember this. A few years ago I was at a concert
of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The work performed was a newly-composed oratorio for
large choir and full orchestra. The Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg was present. He
used as his text the Latin phrases carved into the walls of the ruins of Pompeii, the
Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. It has been almost
totally excavated. There in plain sight all around are poetic scratchings of every kind.
We may be familiar with Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," based on 11th century Latin
poems about life and love. Lindberg's oratorio is shaped that way, and simply entitled
"Graffiti." There are over thirty texts about common emotional experiences. "Profit is
happiness." "Good luck to whoever is in love." "Happiness dwells here." "Nothing can
last forever." "By despising the smallest wrong, it becomes the greatest." "A bronze pot
has gone missing from the shop. If anyone brings it back they will get 65 sesterces."
"Good people, welcome; thieves, be gone." "You are dead, you are nothing." There are
obsenities and violent outbursts and prayers to and praises of gods and emperors and
gladiators. A touching meditation appears: "I'm amazed, wall, that you haven't fallen
into ruins. You hold up so many writers' burdens." For me it's helpful–and authentic–to
read psalms as though they began that way–graffiti on the walls of people's hearts.
Psalm 73 is an outpouring of deep feeling by a person who has spiritual values but
writhes in pain because because the culture is dominated by privilege, wealth, and
coercion. Let's put it on as though it could come from each of us; let's read it
together…..Ps. 73 from the Iona Abbey Worship Book.
I can't help but reflect on the work of Quaker educator Parker Palmer. In his very
fine book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, he describes the reality of "living in the
tragic gap." On one hand, we hold dear strong values of honesty, decency, justice–the
ideals we strive to support in our thoughts and deed. On the other hand, we experience
the actual raw realities we experience in the society we live in, the worlds of conflict,
inhumanity, and injustice. Our task as people of conscience is to do what he calls, "soul
work," the daily exercise of applying our wisdom, our core values, our faith, to living in
terms of beloved community not drawn to either extreme–neither reverting totally to
past images of our ideals, nor falling into angry and unproductive ideologies about
perfect solutions. Maturity, in his view, is living with this tension, not denying it or
trying to avoid it, but rather receiving the inner strength of spirit that sustains us in
patience, courage, insight, and true compassion–dialogue rather than destructive
combat–all of which are the insights of this biblical tradition. Psalm 73 is a good
example.The beloved community (sometimes called church, other times called network,
or gathering, or movement) arises through the "soul work" of individuals.
In an obituary of Simone Veil, a Jewish French survivor of the Holocaust who
died at age 89, it is reported that she was 14 when she and her entire family were
arrested and dispersed to the camps and that she alone lived. She spent the rest of her life
in reconciliation activities–French-German, Christian-Jew, women-men of power–as a
magistrate, minister of health, leader of the European Parliament, mother of three sons.
"War is so unspeakable terrible," she would say. "The only possible option is to make
peace." That sounds like a psalm. That required "soul work."
Luke puts a psalm into the mouth of Mary as she ponders the child growing in her
who will pitch into doing "great things," scattering "the proud in their conceit," casting
down the mighty from their thrones," lifting "up the lowly," filling "the hungry with
good things," sending "the rich…away empty." What a radical "soul work" goes on in
this woman. "The whole creation," writes Paul, "has been groaning in labor pains….we
ourselves, who" have experienced a taste of new birth in ourselves, "groan inwardly
while we /expect/ adoption….in our bodies….we hope for what we don't yet see, we
expect it with patience." (A play on the same word: wait, expect, hope.) We've been
given the insight and we put it to work as best we can: "soul work." The tragic gap,
where, as Jesus explains, good grain and weeds grow together entangled, no simple
solution except to grow and let the toxic plants wither and be tossed out. Tragic gap,
soul work. Isaiah hears the Almighty saying, "Is there any other option than the creation
as we now live it? If there is, tell me about; I'm all ears." It's put well by the Persian
poet Rumi: " Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wiser,
so I am changing myself." Life forces for the good are in us as creatures. We're always
being prompted to live them in the beloved community of love, peace, justice.
And this is my take on Psalm 73.