July 23, 2017 Reverend Ralph Moore

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.

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