Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 1, 2013

2013.09.01 “Psalm 81 – Sweet Honey in the Rock”

Central United Methodist Church

Psalm 81 – Sweet Honey in the Rock

Pastor David L. Haley

September 1st, 2013

Psalm 81


Psalm 81

(Grail Version)

Sing joyfully to God our strength, shout in triumph to the God of Jacob.

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the sweet-sounding harp and the lute;

blow the trumpet at the new moon, when the moon is full, on our feast.

For this is a statute in Israel, a command of the God of Jacob.

He made it a decree for Joseph, when he went out from the land of Egypt.

A voice I did not know said to me: “I freed your shoulder from the burden;

your hands were freed from the builder’s basket.

You called in distress and I delivered you.

I answered, concealed in the thunder; at the waters of Meribah I tested you.

Listen, my people, as I warn you. O Israel, if only you would heed!

Let there be no strange god among you, nor shall you worship a foreign god.

I am the LORD your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.

Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it.

But my people did not heed my voice, and Israel would not obey me.

So I left them in their stubbornness of heart, to follow their own designs.

O that my people would heed me, that Israel would walk in my ways!

At once I would subdue their foes, turn my hand against their enemies.

Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him,

and their subjection would last forever.

But Israel I would feed with finest wheat, and satisfy with honey from the rock.”


Today I would like to open my sermon with a completely gratuitous bonus feature, a video of one of my favorite ensembles, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

You may view it here, on their website:

Sweet Honey in the Rock is an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble, who express their history as women of color through song, dance, and sign language. Originally founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired from the group in 2004, many different women have sung with the group through the years, but the group is always exceptional.  Some of us met one of them several years ago, Ysaye Barnwell, who led at song workshop at the United Church of Rogers Park.

So, you might ask, where did their colorful name come from?  You guessed it: the name Sweet Honey in the Rock comes from a song based on the last verse of our Psalm for today, Psalm 81:16, which dreams of a land so rich that when rocks where cracked open, honey flowed from them.  Bernice Johnson Reagon has said that this first song in which women blended their voices was so powerful, there was no question what the name of the group should be.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is another example of how the imaginative richness of the Psalms – written long ago by unknown authors in unknown circumstances – continues to inspire and feed the imagination and worship and prayers of people today.

I am glad we have done it as we have, using the Psalms given to us by the lectionary, rather than choosing our favorites, because it has taken us into territory we might not otherwise have explored, like Psalm 81. I hope that you have taken note that almost every Psalm we have encountered, even some of the more obscure ones, have memorable images and turns of phrase – like sweet honey in the rock – that still inspire us today.

Consider our Psalm for today, Psalm 81. It begins as a Psalm of praise, and a well-timed one at that, as it calls for God to be praised with “the sweet-sounding harp.”

But while Psalm 81 begins with praise, it quickly turns to preaching, with God as the preacher, and the text being the first commandment, the Shema, the summoning reminder of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” The Shema is the heartbeat of Jewish prayer, the practice of every faithful Jew as they begin and end each day with its call.

Except this is a Shema with anguish, because Psalm 81 is less about what’s right with Isael’s relationship to God, than it is what’s wrong. For, according to Psalm 81, while it is one thing to say The Shema, it is another thing to hear it and do it. And that seems to be the problem in Psalm 81: God is looking for people whose faithfulness matches God’s choice of them, who will actually listen to God.  Three times God says:

“Hear, O my people” (v 8)

“But my people did not listen” (v 11)

“O that my people would listen” (v 13)

In Psalm 81, God is like the parents of teenagers. And God’s people – whether Israel or us – are like the adolescents all of us once were and some of us are – we want to go our own way and do our own thing.  We don’t even want to be seen in public with God, who – to our way of thinking – has turned out to be far less omniscient and omnipotent, even less loving than we thought. Rather than listen to God, we’ve got the earphones in, playing our tunes.  Sound familiar?

And so God says, in what might well be some of the most chilling words in the Bible:

“But my people did not heed my voice,

and Israel would not obey me.

So I left them in their stubbornness of heart,

to follow their own designs.”

And so we – like teenagers – did our own thing. We left the house in the middle of winter in sub-zero weather in T shirts.  We wore clothes to school that our grandmothers would have blanched at.  We wanted to take the family car and drive all across town and stay out late at night.  And God said, “OK.”  Is God a good or a bad parent?

As all of us who are parents know, it is sometimes difficult to be a parent. If we don’t know that, we can ask our parents.  It is often hard to know what the right thing to do is, when our children reach that point that all children reach, as they grow up, that they think they are smarter than us, and want to be independent of us, sometimes before they are ready.  Should we be permissive, or should we be tough? There is a time for both; sometimes it takes the wisdom of Solomon to know the right thing to do. How do we raise mature, responsible, independent children, and do everything we responsibly can to keep them from getting hurt: whether physically, emotionally, spiritually?

I will never forget an experience I had when I was about 17.  I had a 1965 Ford Mustang. I was infatuated with a young woman who lived out in the country, about 20 miles away.  I had three of my friends in the car, it was around ten o’clock at night, and we drove down to check out her house (yeah, that’s the way teenagers think.)  At an intersection, a truck pulled out in front of us, and I caught the corner of his rear bumper. In a blur which I still remember, the car skidded around in a 360.  Thank God, no one was hurt. I remember when I got home, my dad had gone to bed.  I told my Mom.  She told my Dad.  He got up, went out and checked out the car, which, in some ways, I think he was more concerned about than he was me. All I can say is I am thankful I am still alive, in more ways than one. I am thankful I survived those years without getting hurt or killed, as indeed some of my friends were during those years.

A parent of a wandering child is but one of the images the Bible uses to say: God is like this, and this is the way we are as God’s people. God has created the universe and inhabited worlds, giving us humans the gift of life, such that if all creation were a 24 hour day, we humans show up just a few minutes before midnight. Relatively speaking, we live such a short time, you would think we would praise and thank God for the wonderful gift of life. But we choose to go our own way.  In our Christian story, God doesn’t give up, but comes to us in Jesus the Christ, whom we nail to a cross.  Even that doesn’t hold him down, so great is the Life God gives, so great is the love with which God loves us.  And still, we turn away.

And so in Psalm 81 and other Psalms like it, God says, “O that my people would heed me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” Because, despite all your wandering, know this: “I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and satisfy you with honey from the rock.”

According to the Talmud, so important was its message, Psalm 81 was set aside for weekly and annual use in the temple liturgy. Every fifth day, this psalm and its message would be sung to those worshiping at the temple. Yearly, most likely during the fall pilgrimage festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, recalling their root experiences of liberation and struggle in the wilderness, Psalm 81 would be used to remind the people of God’s anguished concern for their ongoing welfare and fidelity.  Today, it continues to serve as such a reminder for us: God not only wants people who talk; but listen.  God wants people who will not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

I hope you have enjoyed this summer of Psalms.  We will continue to hear them, and they will continue to speak to us, but from the background, Sunday by Sunday, and daily in our prayers. I hope, as we have looked at different Psalms week by week, that they have provided you with a vocabulary of worship and prayer, for your own worship and prayers. Because that is what the Psalms have done for God’s people through the centuries, both Jews and Christians, giving voice to our worship and prayers. And occasionally, along the way, even inspiring the names of great singing groups, such as Sweet Honey in the Rock.  Now that you have heard it – and the promise of God which it represents – will you ever forget it?  I hope not.


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