Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 18, 2013

2013.08.18 “Psalm 80 – A Psalm of Absence”

Central United Methodist Church
Psalm 80 – A Psalm of Absence
Pastor David L. Haley
August 18th, 2013
Psalm 80

Psalm 80
(Grail Version)
O shepherd of Israel, hear us, you who lead Joseph like a flock:
enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth upon Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh.
Rouse up your might and come to save us.
O God, bring us back; let your face shine on us, and we shall be saved.
How long, O LORD, God of hosts, will you be angry at the prayer of your people?
You have fed them with tears for their bread, an abundance of tears for their drink.
You have made us the taunt of our neighbors; our foes mock us among themselves.
O God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine forth, and we shall be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
Before it you cleared the ground; it took root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shadow, the cedars of God with its boughs.
It stretched out its branches to the sea; to the River it stretched out its shoots.
Then why have you broken down its walls? It is plucked by all who pass by the way.
It is ravaged by the boar of the forest, devoured by the beasts of the field.
God of hosts, turn again, we implore; look down from heaven and see.
Visit this vine and protect it, the vine your right hand has planted,
the son of man you have claimed for yourself.
They have burnt it with fire and cut it down.
May they perish at the frown of your face.
May your hand be on the man at your right hand,
the son of man you have confirmed as your own.
And we shall never forsake you again; give us life that we may call upon your name.
O LORD God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine forth,
and we shall be saved.

It was back in the fall of 2007, shortly after I moved to Central, that late one day the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I found our Superintendent (at that time), James Preston, standing there, with a plant in his hands.

He said, “David, I am so glad you are on our District and at Central, and to express my gratitude by giving you this plant.”

It was an ivy plant. For a long time I kept it in my office at church in the eastern window, where it did well, growing long vines. The problem was, the pot it was in had no drain, and so it was difficult to tell how much water was in it. I would water it daily, until it would begin to look bad, and then I would discover that it was a swamp, full with water almost to the top. Then I would not water it, until it would begin to look bad, and then discover it was bone dry.

Whenever I would see James I would proudly report to him, “Remember that plant you gave me?” “It’s still alive!” I would also tell him I was concerned about keeping it alive, because I was afraid that if it died, given the circumstances under which I received it, I would have to move. And he would laugh.

The bad news is, this summer it died. (Uh-oh!) Over the last six years, one by one the vines would turn brown, and then they would die. I began this summer with one vine left, and just before our trip, it began to turn brown. Despite the good care given to our plants by our neighbor Elizabeth, by the time I got back, it was gone for good. The good news is, so far our Superintendent, Dr. Zaki Zaki, has not called. (Shhhh!)

I tell you this story because it is the metaphor of a vine that is at the heart of two of three of today’s Scriptures, Isaiah, chapter 5, and Psalm 80. I expect, in ancient Israel, it was not ivy, but a grapevine that was the source of their inspiration.

We usually read Psalm 80 during Advent, a time of longing and hoping for God. “Stir up your might and come and save us,” from Psalm 80:2, is one of the traditional prayers of Advent. But late summer is not a bad time to hear Psalm 80, either. As we move toward the end of summer and fall harvest, it seems appropriate that the readings from the Scriptures should talk of vines, which either die and wither, or prosper, resulting in fruitfulness. I could tell you about my tomatoes, for example, which after a promising start, have not done well this year, as they have been affected by wilt. (Please believe me when I tell you that not everything I plant dies!)

In Psalm 80, the vine that is Israel is not doing so well either. Apparently, God is not listening. There is no activity coming from God’s direction, no sign of God’s shining face. Although the people pray imperatively (“give ear, shine forth, stir up your might”), God does not respond.

The psalmist interprets this silent treatment as God’s anger; we do not know whether God finds the content of their prayers offensive, or whether God is too furious with them to hear a single word they say.

In the verses to come, everything is God’s fault. Because of what God has given them, the people are eating and drinking their own tears. God has made them the scorn of their neighbors. Because of God, they must endure the scorn of their enemies. All of this is the fault of the Shepherd of Israel, for withdrawing from the flock.

Initially, it sounds like whining, the language of people who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. WHO has made them the scorn of their neighbors? WHOSE behavior has given their enemies reason to laugh?

Heard another way, the same language gives voice to their utter dependence upon God. Whether they behave well or badly, whether they eat lamb chops or tears, they know that what happens in their lives comes from God. Without the shining presence of the Lord of Hosts, all they (we?) have to look forward to is dying in the dark. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 81 – 85.)

And so three times in the Psalm, with increasing intensity, we pray:

“O God/ O God of hosts/ O LORD God of hosts, bring us back;
let your face shine on us, and we shall be saved.”

I hope if we have learned anything this summer in our study of the Psalms, it will be these two things: the richness of the poetic and prophetic imagination, in its use of metaphor and image, (of which Jesus was a master); and secondly, it’s realism and honesty. You have to admit they weren’t afraid of being honest to God. Our own prayers should be nothing less.

For example, in commentary on this Psalm, Rev. Shawnthea Monroe says that during a summer of clinical pastoral education, she visited a woman who had received a terminal diagnosis. She says that as she held her hand, she cautiously picked her way through a prayer, asking for peace, strength, for healing of body and soul – nothing controversial or unattainable. Rev. Monroe says when she had safely concluded her prayer, the woman squeezed her hands and added: “Almighty God, I want you to take this cancer away from me. I know you have the power, and I want you to do it. I want to be healed and I want to go home. Amen.” Rev. Monroe says the woman then looked at her and said: “Don’t be shy with God. If I don’t ask for what I want, how can I hope to get it?” (Shawnthea Monroe, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 82.)

The poets and prophets of Israel were never shy with God, never afraid to remind God of Israel’s story and history, and that is what happens next.

“God – hello – did you forget? You brought us – a vine – out of Egypt; you cleared space and planted it. It took root and filled the land, like kudzu in Mississippi. But now, God, that vine you planted; it’s not doing so good. Your vine – God – stands unprotected and vulnerable: its fruit has been plucked; the vine has been trampled, fed upon, burned, and cut down. God, when are you going to do something about it?”

As the case with most Psalms, the historical circumstances that prompted such a prayer are not certain; perhaps it was a national disaster, of which the people of Israel had plenty. The references to Joseph along with Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh suggest that the psalm might have originated in northern Israel, perhaps after the northern kingdom’s suffering after Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E.

But as James Mays suggests, “Whatever the original historical setting, the psalm in its continued use belongs to the repertoire of the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history.” (James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 264.) The fact that this Psalm was used in ancient temple worship, and is still used in the worship of both temple and church, (just as we sang a little while ago), tells us that it is not just an ancient prayer, but a modern one.

Of course we have to ask ourselves, as the Psalmist asked, as all religious people have at one time or another asked, “Who went away?” Is it us, or is it God?

In modern times, admittedly, sometimes it seems like God, who has died the death of a thousand qualifications. Forty years ago, the British philosopher Anthony Flew used the analogy of a garden in a parable, to point out the evasiveness of God.

“Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” (Antony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” University, 1950-51; from Joel Feinberg, ed., Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1968, pp. 48-49. )

On the other hand, perhaps it is not God, but us? Through the millenia of human history, after all, millions of people have powerfully experienced the presence of God, not least, God’s own people, Israel. But from time to time, they have also painfully experienced God’s absence. So who has gone away: God, or us? Based upon my own personal experience, I know who it usually is. You too?

But whether it is God or whether it is us, many people, both inside and outside the church, sometimes feel God’s absence, to which the cry of Psalm 80 gives voice. Sometimes, in our deepest affliction, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, the absence of God is heartrendingly real. And thus Psalm 80 becomes a lament we still take up, not only for ourselves, for all those who feel ravaged, preyed upon, burned, and trampled down, who cry out for the return of God’s presence, for God’s face to shine upon them again. We sing this lament in solidarity with all who are afflicted, and at the same time point to God’s incarnation in Christ, in which we Christians believe the presence of God became real in human form.

Having said that, we acknowledge that this sacred text is shared by two religious traditions who do not read it the same way. All the more reason to give thanks for the long history in which the Shepherd of the Sheep has cared for the flock, from Genesis to now, through absence and presence, with tears and with laughter, in darkness and in light, without ever failing to answer the prayers of the people, in God’s good way, in God’s own good time. As God has done in the past, so God will do in the future.

And so with God’s people we pray:

“O LORD God of hosts, bring us back;
let your face shine on us, and we shall be saved.” Amen.

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