What is our Orientation?

Good Morning Friends. Before I get started, I want to say that I am deeply indebted to the scholar Walter Brueggemann for the content and character of my next two sermons, his commentary and exegesis of the Psalms has quite literally changed my life for the better and these sermons stem directly from my experience of God’s work through him. Last week we talked about the ways the Psalms help us to bring the fullness of our emotional selves before God. The Psalms of Orientation provide a calm, non-anxious center that is the foundation of our ability to fully enter God’s presence. Next week we will get into the times of disorientation and the necessary reorientation, but first we need a foundation, a basic orientation to start from. When we have a quiet center to work from we can better face the storms of life and God becomes the safest one to turn to in those storms. The Psalms of Orientation orient us in five ways: Gratitude for the created order, Joyful obedience to the gift of the law, trust in the wisdom of God, safety in the knowledge of God’s justice, and recognition of the active presence of shalom/peace/well-being when we are in alignment with God’s purposes. These Psalms proclaim that the world is a well ordered, reliable, and life giving system because God in his goodness ordained it that way and continues to preside effectively over the process. Please turn with me to Psalm 8

 

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

1 O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

2   Out of the mouths of babes and infants

you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,

to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

and crowned them with glory and honour.

6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet,

7 all sheep and oxen,

and also the beasts of the field,

8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9 O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

 

The starting place is, of course, gratitude. Creation and our daily lives are recognized as avenues of God’s blessing on us. Our times are ordered of God and experienced in the seasons of the year, the seasons of life, and according to the needs of the day. It is in the constancy of these mundane things that we can find havens of safety and freedom. The world was created and is a source of awe and wonder at the artistry, majesty, power, glory and generosity of God. The Psalms tell us to whom the Earth belongs and calls us to appreciate the gift of creation that we are called to steward. Psalm 145: 14-15 tells us of the faithfulness of God upholding creation:

15 The eyes of all look to you,

and you give them their food in due season.

16 You open your hand,

satisfying the desire of every living thing.

 

The provision of all that is prompts a grateful response. Israel’s response to the good order of God is by living in the covenantal relationship expressed in the Torah/law.  This obedient response is joyfully undertaken without calculation or grudging. When the law is viewed through the lens of gratitude, it is no longer a system of appeasement, but the only possible response to the gift of God’s beautiful and verdant world. Psalm 1 introduces the Psalms in the context of Torah/law and expresses confidence that God watches over the righteous who delight in God’s ways.

1 Happy are those

who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

or take the path that sinners tread,

or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law they meditate day and night.

3 They are like trees

planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do, they prosper.

4 The wicked are not so,

but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

 

It is important to note that these are not Psalms addressing a theologically ambiguous or morally disruptive world, but Psalms that are descriptive of God’s perfect will and our desire to live by it, and express confidence that there are consequences to both obedience and disobedience. Indeed God’s wisdom is displayed in giving us the law and we need to remind ourselves of the wisdom of trusting God’s moral will. You might say that what you have experienced and see in life does not appear to match up to the faith in the justice of God articulated by this Psalm. That is indeed some of the disorientation that we all go through. These Psalms of the Torah, however, point us to the ultimate reality that God’s order is sustained by God and that while our efforts to live justly are often ineffectual; God’s will cannot be thwarted. There will be consequences that arise from our actions, and those consequences are applied by the mercy of God’s justice.

The Psalms of retribution or justice remind us that true justice is dispensed from God’s hands, and the character of that justice applies to all people. The clearest example of this kind of Psalm is 112:

1 Praise the Lord!

Happy are those who fear the Lord,

who greatly delight in his commandments.

2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land;

the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3 Wealth and riches are in their houses,

and their righteousness endures for ever.

4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright;

they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.

5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend,

who conduct their affairs with justice.

6 For the righteous will never be moved;

they will be remembered for ever.

7 They are not afraid of evil tidings;

their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.

8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid;

in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.

9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor;

their righteousness endures for ever;

their horn is exalted in honour.

10 The wicked see it and are angry;

they gnash their teeth and melt away;

the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

 

This Psalm is a bold declaration that there are indeed consequences to our actions. One thing to note here is that not only our character, but the ways we interact with people who are “under” us in the world’s eyes are criteria for judgment. God pays attention to the way we interact with the world and God’s judgment is based not on our circumstances, but on the ways we interact with the good creation he gave us, especially those parts weaker than us.  Satisfaction and life fulfillment do not come from greed and self-filling and self-sufficiency, but from trusting the generosity of the God who always feeds us. We can then fully experience the mercy of God’s justice when we submit to His wisdom and will. This is the second time I have used this statement and I am sure there is a little confusion. We tend to think of justice and mercy as opposites, even seeing mercy as the suspension of justice. What would it mean for mercy to be an expression of justice or for justice to be an expression of mercy? God’s will is expressed through both, so can they truly be opposites? Important questions to think about but I am getting off track.

The final orientation is in praise when we see God’s will actively functioning to create wellbeing and wholeness through the quiet, unobtrusive sustenance present in the patterns of daily life. Indeed, these are the Psalms that speak of the results of being oriented on the truth of God. Often called the Songs of Ascent, these were what Israel sang as they climbed the temple mount. Psalm 131 speaks of what it really feels like be oriented on God.

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

1 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

3 O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and for evermore.

 

The use of this remarkable domestic image makes two crucial points about the proper ordering of life. First, it affirms that being one of the created is contrasted with autonomy. The faithful human creature, is like a small baby who is dependent on its mother for food and has no inclination to autonomy. The second is that glad, submissive reliance is the antidote to anxiety; indeed the point of the Psalm is that anxiety comes from trying to be self-sufficient or attempting equality with the source of our life.

These orientations fly in the face of our culture that values independence, self-sufficiency and autonomy. The great myth of our time is that real maturity is defined by freedom from every relationship of dependence. In these Psalms we begin to hear the context in which Jesus can say in Matthew 18:3-5 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

The Psalms of Orientation help us to share the controversial message that we depend on our God, because our God is faithful, mighty and continues to create all that is. We have a God that we can depend on and while some might say that depending on God is a crutch; I have to ask: what is so great about standing alone? Is there some kind of trophy or prize? There is not a single human being in our society today that exists without depending on other people. Independence is impossible, but I would go further and say that striving for independence is striving to separate from God. These Psalms orient us to the fact that not only our lives, but the lives of everything in creation is dependent on God for existence, or as Paul said to the crowds in Athens “In him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28. When we express gratitude for the bounty of God’s good creation, joyfully obey the call of Jesus on our lives, depend on the wisdom of God, rely on God’s justice, and recognize those times when we get to experience the well-being that comes from witnessing God’s loving power we are oriented on reality. Stand with me to sing that great hymn of orientation “How Great Thou Art”.

*All scripture texts taken from the NRSV.

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