Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 16, 2013

2013.06.16 “Psalm 5 – A Psalm for a Troubled Morning”

Central United Methodist Church

Psalm 5 – A Psalm for a Troubled Morning

Pastor David L. Haley

June 16th, 2013

Psalm 5


Psalm 5 (Grail Version)

To my words give ear, O LORD, give heed to my groaning.

Attend to the sound of my cries, my King and my God.

It is you whom I invoke, O LORD.  in the morning you hear me;

in the morning I offer you my prayer, watching and waiting.

You are no God who loves evil; no sinner is your guest.

The boastful shall not stand their ground before your face.

You hate all who do evil; you destroy all who lie;

Deceitful and bloodthirsty people are hateful to you, LORD.

But, I, through the greatness of your love have access to your house.

I bow down before your holy temple, filled with awe.

Lead me, Lord, in your justice,

Because of those who lie in wait;

make clear your way before me.

No truth can be found in their mouths, their heart is all mischief,

Their throat a wide-open grave, all honey their speech.

Declare them guilty, O God. Let them fail in their designs.

Drive them out for their many offenses,

for they have defied you.

All those you protect shall be glad and ring out their joy.

You shelter them; in you they rejoice,

those who love your name.

Lord, it is you who bless the upright:

You surround them with favor as with a shield.


It was Wednesday, November 10, 1993. The Archbishop of Chicago was the saintly Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  On that day he was in New York to give the annual Thomas Merton lecture at Columbia University. Cardinal John O’Connor, with whom he was staying, told him about a disturbing rumor that was circulating: a U.S. Cardinal was about to be accused of sex abuse.

By the time Cardinal Bernardin returned to his office in Chicago the next day, he was stunned to learn that some were speculating he would be the cardinal to be accused. He discovered that rumors about an impending lawsuit accusing him were spreading rapidly across the country and around the world. Further, he learned that the next morning he would be served papers charging that, when he was Archbishop of Cincinnati, he had sexually abused a seminarian, Stephen Cook, whom he did not remember, whom he did not know.

Of the accusation, Bernardin wrote:

“The accusation startled and devastated me. I tried to get me beyond the unconfirmed rumors and return to my work, but this lurid charge against my deepest ideals and commitments kept consuming my attention. Indeed, I could think of little else as my aids continued to bring me additional details of rumors that were still circulating. I sat quietly for a moment and asked myself a simple question: Was this what the Lord had been preparing me for, to face false accusations about something that I knew never took place? Spurious charges, I realized, were what Jesus himself experienced. But this evolving nightmare seemed completely unreal. It did not seem possible that this was happening to me.” (Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace, p. 20)

Though he does not say so, it would not surprise me to learn that the prayer Cardinal Bernardin might have prayed that morning, could have been our Psalm for today, Psalm 5, a Psalm for one unjustly slandered and accused:

“To my words give ear, O LORD, give heed to my groaning.

Attend to the sound of my cries, my King and my God.”

Psalm 5 is the fifth Psalm out of 150 in this Old Testament book of hymms and prayers, which more than any other book in the Bible, have given voice to the worship and prayers of Jews and Christians for 3,000 years. Our goal is to learn more about the Psalms, to understand why they are so important for our public and private worship and prayers, and to help us draw upon them, in our worship and in our prayers, just as Cardinal Bernardin might have drawn upon Psalm 5, on that day.

Those here on previous Sundays, when we looked at Psalm 96 and Psalm 146, will note the tone of Psalm 5 is quite different. There are five groupings, or books, in the book of Psalms: while the Psalms in Book 5 (Psalms 107 -150) tend to be Psalms of praise, the Psalms of Book 1 (Psalms 1 – 41), are more often pleas or laments addressed to God. They have an intimate feel, as though – in this age of spying – we are listening in on someone else’s prayers, which we make our own.

But the dichotomy of plea or praise is not the only way to think about the Psalms. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruegemann, whom we met via video last week, classifies the Psalms in an insightful way: as Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of re-orientation.  It’s like this:

Most of the time human life consists of satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude and praise. Corresponding to this are Psalms of Orientation, which articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s law. Psalm 146, which we looked at last week, is a Psalm of Orientation.

But unfortunately, life also consists of seasons of anguish, from hurt, alienation, suffering, and death, which evoke rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred. Psalms that voice such feelings are what we might call Psalms of Disorientation: using forms of speech and expression that match such seasons in their ragged, painful disarray. Such speech, the lament, consists of the kind of language that permits the extravagance, hyperbole, and abrasiveness such experiences of life call for.

Fortunately, life also consists of turns of surprise when – after a season of sighs – we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when light shines in the darkness, when joy breaks through despair. Such Psalms of Re-orientation correspond to the surprise of the Gospel, the Good News, which speaks boldly about a new gift from God, a fresh intrusion of God that makes all things new.

And here’s another thing: Brueggeman goes on to say that the life of faith expressed in the Psalms is focused on one of two decisive moves of faith that are always underway, by which we are regular surprised and which we regularly resist. One move is from a settled orientation into a season of disorientation. It is experienced partly as a changed circumstance, but is much more personal awareness and knowledge of the changed circumstance.  It may be abrupt, or slowly dawning. It constitutes a dismantling of the old known world, and a relinquishment of safe reliable confidence in God’s good creation. The movement of dismantling includes a rush of negativity, including rage, resentment, guilt, shame, isolation, despair, hatred, and hostility. It is this move which characterizes many of the Psalms in the form of complaint and lament. As Brueggeman says, “It is experienced as a personal end of the world, or it would not generate such passionate poetry.”

The other move we make is a move from disorientation to a new orientation, when we are surprised by a new gift from God, a new coherence made present to us just when we thought all was lost. This move entails a departure from the pit of chaos just when we suspected we would never escape. It is inexplicable to us, often credited to the intervention of God. Such a move to a new life includes a rush of positive responses, including delight, amazement, wonder, all, gratitude and thanksgiving. It’s this move which characterizes many of the Psalms, in the form of songs of thanksgiving and hymns that tell a tale of a decisive time, inversion, a reversal of fortune, a rescue, deliverance, saving, liberation, healing. Such hymns are a joyous assertion that God’s rule is known, visible, and effective, just when we had lost hope.

While these moves in the Psalms are solely Jewish, for Christians these moves are decisively embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That is why the church has found it appropriate to use such hymns – using the language of the Psalms – with particular reference to Easter. (Walter Brueggemann, The Meaning of the Psalms, pp. 19 – 23)

Looking at our lives this way, where would you see yourself right now? Oriented?  Disoriented?  Re-oriented?  Are you on the move from a settled orientation to disorientation? Or from disorientation to a new orientation? At almost every stage of our lives, one or the other is going on.

Based upon this, how would you classify Psalm 5? Yes, disorientation, a time of anguish and trouble.  “To my words give ear.”  In other words, “God, listen up.”

What’s the problem? While Psalm 5 lists five traditional categories of wickedness – “an evil person, the boastful, evildoers, liars, and people who shed blood and deceive,” – the particular plea behind Psalm 5 is that the power of a lie threatens the life and reputation of the faithful, as it did Cardinal Bernardin.

No one knows, of course, the actual context or even who the person praying is.  The superscription – likely added at a later date – is that it is a Psalm of David (not me), but King David, as 73 of the Psalms in the book of Psalms are.  But it’s unclear if it that means it was written by David, compiled by David, or dedicated to David.  It also says it’s for the choirmaster (Joe?) and for the flute (Michele?) Was the author King David? If you know the story of King David in the Bible, you know there were many times in his life when he was betrayed, threatened, slandered, by King Saul and his allies, even by his own son, Absalom. It is easy to imagine King David praying this prayer.

Indeed, if ever in your life someone has spread lies about you, or wrongfully slandered or accused you, you can identify with Psalm 5, because you know how sickening and frightening it can be. Now, in the age of social media and 24/7 media looking for a story, it’s easier to do than ever.  You live your life in such a way, you work hard to acquire a reputation of character, and one deranged, deceitful, or mean person can take you down.

Psalm 5 is one of the biblical witnesses that the lie is one of the most dangerous and detestable forms that evil takes, especially when used to harm another. While speech is the distinctively human capacity, the interpreter of others and of all around us; it is also the cheapest, most common and inhumane means of causing trouble and anguish for others. There’s a reason “Thou shall not bear false witness” is one of the ten commandments.

On the one hand, this Psalm may reminds us of those times when we may have spoken harshly or falsely, even unintentionally, about another.  As James Luther Mays says: “We can never hear the declaration that wickedness contradicts the will and way of God without trembling at our own need of repentance on grace, nor can we ever pray in the midst of the conflicts of life as though we could distinguish in an ultimate and final way between the righteous and the wicked.” (James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p. 56)

Psalm 5 also asks us whether we take the difference between truth and lie seriously enough as a matter of faith, that we are not only alert to the lies told to us and about us by the powers that be, but that we are ready to stand with those damaged by falsehood and propaganda. (p. 58)

And, when we are the ones falsely accused, Psalm 5 encourages us to pray, and even provides the words, in the confidence that our prayer will be heard by a just and righteous God.

What to pray? Well, God knows, at such times, emotions run wild, and the Psalms express that, with prayers for judgment and even vengeance, not necessarily to be emulated, but definitely realistic.  Quite likely, that what most of us like about the Psalms, they don’t hold back, reflecting the emotions we feel, sometimes even crossing the line. It’s too soon in the Biblical revelation to pray for our enemies, it will take Jesus to teach us that, which, let’s acknowledge, we’re still learning.

But I like what the Psalmist does, in Psalm 5. He prays for God to lead him in the right way to go, the right thing to do: “Lead me, Lord, lead me in your righteousness; make your way plain before my face.” That’s a prayer we all can use, and not just when we are maligned. I like this calligraphy drawing of Keico Watanabe, illustrating it:psalm-5

It would take 100 days before the false charges against Cardinal Bernard would be resolved. Stephen Cook, his accuser, at that time was in his mid-30s, and ill with AIDS. In time, not only did the evidence and therefore the case against Cardinal Bernardin collapse, it became clear that Stephen Cook himself had been used, encouraged by critics of Cardinal Bernardin to try and take him down. On February 28, 1994, of his own initiative, Cook asked a judge at Federal Court in Cincinnati to drop the charges.

Later that year, Cardinal Bernardin met with Cook, who apologized to him. Bernardin told him he harbored no ill feeling toward him and forgave him.  Because he could see that he was sick, he celebrated a reconciliatory mass with him, using a 100 year old chalice which had been given for the occasion. They kept in touch, and 6 months later, when Cardinal Bernardin received a diagnosis of the cancer that would eventually kill him, a letter from Stephen Cook was one of the first he received. Stephen died at his mother’s home on September 22, 1995, fully reconciled with the church. Cardinal Bernardin died, November 14, 1996, a prince of the Church. (The Gift of Peace, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, 1997.)


“All those you protect shall be glad and ring out their joy.

You shelter them; in you they rejoice,

those who love your name.” (Psalm 5:12)


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