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Joy Is in the Details (Rev. Cathy Schuyler, June 6, 2010)

I worked in a small independent bookstore some twenty years ago, and in a bookstore it is handy to have a penchant for categorizing things.  Books arrive in big boxes and need to be put out on shelves, preferably in an order where people can find what they’re looking for.  Sorting the books is generally easy – fiction and poetry and biography are usually easy to separate one from another.  Some of the categories were eccentric – we had a whole mezzanine level of theology and spirituality in midtown Manhattan, and hagiography, biographies of saints, had its own two shelves in its midst.  There were always books that overlapped categories and choosing which shelf to display them was an arbitrary decision.  My office library is roughly organized in a similar fashion, as I suspect are many of your libraries.  The categories help us find particular books or guide us in choosing something that might catch our fancy at a particular point in our lives. 

 

When we come to study the Bible, we find that it is much more similar to a bookstore or a library than it is to a single book.  I wince when people tell me they’ve decided to read the Bible from start to finish, because it’s really hard to tackle that way.  Some of the books are stories, some are primarily lists of instructions, some are poems and songs, some are fantastical dreams.  Although it sounds overly intellectual, the genre of any part of the Bible matters enormously, and it’s hard to make real sense of a scriptural text if you don’t know what it is.  Just as it’s disconcerting to get halfway through a story you thought was memoir and realize it’s a novel only when the sister of the main character turns into a lizard, so it can be hard to take stories from Daniel as history when the next chapter talks about great beasts with the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle rising up out of the sea.  Clearly the author had something beyond simple sharing of facts behind the composition of the book.  Even the Psalms aren’t all simple praise.  If you page through our hymnal, you’ll notice categories assigned to the hymns themselves.  Some celebrate the Trinity, others are Christmas hymns, and others enable us to sing about love and joy and ministry and service.  The book of Psalms is organized as well, probably chronologically as well as thematically.  Psalm 146 is the first of the last section of Psalms, songs of praise for God from the post-exilic community of Israel, with no temple and no city to unite them, finding their sole identity in worship of the God “who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.”  It is a psalm I have always loved, because it states so clearly who God is – not simply the one who made heaven and earth, but the one who executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry, who sets the prisoners free and lifts up those who are bowed down.  These are words echoed in Mary’s song of praise when she finds out she’ll be the mother of the savior, echoed again in Jesus’ expression of the essence of his ministry in Luke 4.  This is who God is, the one who cares for those who have it tough in the world. 

 

But a careful reading of this psalm showed me that I had mis-shelved it in the library of my mind.  It’s not primarily a praise psalm, a proclamation of just how wonderful God is.  Happy are those whose trust is in God, this God who made the sea and executes justice.  Happy are those people who are willing to live their lives founded on God’s goodness and grace.  This psalm belongs in the self-help section.  God’s wonderfulness and justice to the poor and suffering is a clause of the main sentence.  The primary point is directed at us.  How shall we find happiness?  In fact, the Hebrew of verse 5 is closer to ‘contentment,’ long-term and deep joy, beyond the transitory nature of our common use of ‘happiness.’   Most of us are hooked by such a question.  Existence we’ve mastered; basic necessities plus aren’t a problem for most of us here this morning.  But contentment is a real challenge.  We’ve all glanced at those books which offer wisdom on finding meaning or reaching true joy, eight steps to happiness or the ten most essential things for a good life.  They’re quick reads and if not conclusive, they often have a good thought or two in them.  Because we want to know, because our lives are often not quite what we would have them be, our hearts not quite content with the lives we live.  It’s not a new phenomenon.  People across the centuries have been seeking joy, looking for the key to the meaningful life that they could live with contentment.  So we find self-help texts throughout ancient literature.  Souls which seek God are those who have realized that there is more to life than simply food and shelter, realized that it is worth the quest to find what else there is, what else is possible.  Psalm 146 offers its take on the question. 

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God.

Happiness, long-term contentment, is found by counting on God.  And not just the generic God, big guy in the sky who started this whole thing, though that’s the beginning of the description of the Lord – who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them.  But the description of God goes on – this Yahweh, this specific being who loves Israel and offers help and hope, has particular fancies and particular interests. 

The Lord executes justice for the oppressed;

… gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

9The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphan and the widow.

 

This God in whom we can hope and whom we can trust has a decided penchant for tough cases.  And that’s where we’re supposed to find happiness, in casting our lot with this God of odd affinities, with the Lord who cares deeply about the powerless.  It’s not an obvious point; in fact, it’s counter-intuitive.  In a world that honors success and power, this self-help book suggests we find happiness at the other end of the social spectrum.

 

The ultimate failure of categorization – of books or psalms or hymns or ideas – is that things finally are unique.  I brought two books with me on my trip east last week, neither of which I’d read.  Reading them, they left any categories I might have attempted to place them in.  They became separate entities unto themselves, each of them excellent and worth my time, beyond simple categories.  I enjoyed them both, more than I’ve enjoyed them when they’ve been on my shelf or in the pile by my bed.  The books didn’t change in that time.  My behavior did.  I decided to engage them, read them, take their stories into my heart and mind and let them affect me, even make me cry.  Without that engagement, they were sort of boring.  Neither of them has an especially beautiful cover.  I had to involve myself in them for them to work their magic upon me.

 

That’s the idea with the wisdom of this psalm as well.  The idea of hoping in God is OK as it stands.  It’s a little hard to imagine sometimes; God seems to care about things and people which don’t always interest us.  But we’ve been exposed to the idea of hoping in God and trusting in divine love for many years, so it’s not completely foreign nor shocking.  But it won’t offer the joy it promises unless we actually engage.  Hearing the words won’t bring contentment; actually letting go of our trust in other things and focusing our lives on God and on God’s ways is the only way to experience the happiness promised by the psalm.  The truth is, there are lots of things in which we might place our hopes in this world.  Banks and presidents and the American dream and football teams all vie for our loyalty and our trust.  They all have convincing arguments, some more convincing than others.  And most of us have experimented with placing our trust in “princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help,” as the psalm puts it.  This piece of scripture recommends something else, another way.  Put your hope and trust in God, a particular and perhaps even odd God, in order to find the joy you seek, the contentment you crave.  But you won’t know whether it works unless you try it.  Give your heart over to God; order your behavior on caring for the poor and seeking justice for the oppressed; rethink your allegiance to the ways of the rich and powerful and align your heart with the needs of those who are bowed down and struggling.  It’s not a recipe for worldly power.  But happy are those whose help and hope are in the God who welcomes all, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the misfit, to the table of forgiveness and abundance.  Happy are we when we engage our lives, actively, with such love.

 


Psalm 146

1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God,

6who made heaven and earth,

     the sea, and all that is in them;

who keeps faith forever;

7who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

9The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphan and the widow,

but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord!


Luke 7:11-17

11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

 

 

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