Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Prepositions can be notoriously slippery to translate. There are two of them here in Psalm 131 that proved game-changers for me when I first studied this psalm in Hebrew. But first a bit of background.
Some of you know I was a language geek in seminary. I regret losing a lot of my proficiency with Hebrew and Greek since that time but I’m grateful to have gained at least a basic understanding of how the two biblical languages work. Because there can be fun theological payoffs.
Sometimes even with the smallest words. Our seminary president back in the day used to preach such detailed expositional sermons on the Greek New Testament that students famously spoofed him in a comedy routine one time, claiming his next sermon would be on the Greek phrase kai ‘o (literally “and the”). Not one to shrink from a challenge, he actually took them up on it in his next turn to speak at our daily chapel service, preaching a memorable sermon on the inclusivity (“and”) and specificity (definite article “the”) of the gospel of Jesus!
My own first experience with the importance of translating small words like this came when I was studying a short Greek passage from Matthew 28, one of the texts about Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection. I’ll never forget the lightbulb moment when reading the line that said (in my English translation) “they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Nice symmetry there. Worship contrasted with doubt. But then I realized that the word translated “but” can also mean “and.” So it could just as easily read “they worshipped him and they doubted.” Whoa. That’ll preach. Apparently the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We can worship and doubt simultaneously. Thank God for that.
All this simply to say, when translating biblical texts, I’ve tried to keep an eye on the tiny connecting words as well as on the main nouns and verbs. And in the case of Psalm 131, it’s not a conjunction but a couple of prepositions that allowed me to see this psalm with fresh eyes.
So let’s return to those slippery Hebrew prepositions. First, in verse 1 this psalm is identified in many English translations as “a psalm of David.” Traditionally the psalms are said to be written by King David, and that could be the case here. But interestingly the preposition “of” (in the phrase “a psalm of David”) is a single letter in Hebrew, a prefix that when attached to the front of a word is usually translated “to” or “for.” In the 21st century we’re big on people taking credit for their own work. But it seems to have been a common practice in ancient times either to attribute one’s writing to a more famous person (to say it was written by them), or to dedicate it to someone famous. So we could be reading a psalm of David here (in other words, a psalm written by him) but we could also be reading a psalm with an inscription dedicated to or for him. King David having been well known as a musician, other songs would have been written in his honor.
I only mention this because openness to the authorship of this psalm will help us understand the second potentially game-changing preposition which comes at the end of verse 2. That verse reads in English, “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.” There’s a whole range of possible meanings for the preposition translated “with” there (Hebrew ‘al). But one of the most common is “on.” Meaning it’s equally appropriate to translate the end of that verse this way: “My soul is like the weaned child that is on me.” Can you hear the difference? “The weaned child that is with me” could actually be “the weaned child that is on me,” which calls to mind being held right up against the chest.
It’s a beautiful metaphor no matter who originated it. But given our default assumption that biblical texts were all written by men, I confess my mind was blown when my professor pointed out the distinct possibility that the person of faith who originated these words was a woman, a mother. Imagine this short, simple psalm of trust composed in a rocking chair, as it were, as a mother soothed her child.
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.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is [on] me.
A prayer of humility. A psalm of trust. With this image of a toddler, no longer nursing but seeking comfort in the safest, most familiar spot she knows.
Naturally fathers can comfort their little ones too. In our family we remember well (and have plenty of photo proof!) that my husband Ken’s favorite way to nap when our girls were tiny was lying on his back on the sofa, holding a baby on his chest. The gift of Psalm 131 is less about the gender of its composer than about the gentle beauty of the image for God we’re offered here, a God who loves and comforts us as parent does his or her child.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is [on] me.
It seems to me, too, that verbs of calming and quieting allude to a bit of a back story. A child who is already calm doesn’t need to be calmed. A quiet child doesn’t need to be quieted. Something’s happened – there’ve been tears, perhaps, a fight with a sibling, a skinned knee, a nightmare - and the little one needs soothing.
Whether or not we’ve ever parented a young child, we’ve all been one. So we know that feeling. We may remember a specific moment when we sought and found our mom’s or dad’s comfort, or we may just have a general sense that someone was there to offer soothing when we needed it. Any who were not fortunate enough to experience a loving relationship with their parents as children would surely know the desire for that sort of comfort, even and perhaps especially in its absence.
But regardless of our individual experience with human parents, we know what it means to want someone to cling to when it’s all too hard, too much. Whether as a child or as an adult, whether our tears come from physical or emotional pain or out of fear or frustration, we know the feeling of wanting to seek comfort in the arms of Someone who can wipe every tear from our eye. (Revelation 21:4)
Thank God we have such a Someone! Thank God that no matter the source of our anxiety, that loving embrace is waiting for us. No matter what this week or this year may bring. When we as God’s children need to be really strong, really brave - in a worrisome election year, for instance, or negotiating ever-changing pandemic conditions, or battling systemic injustice. Or when life is upended, as it is for those who’ve lost work, lost income, lost their homes; as it is for those who’ve sustained serious injuries from the terrifying explosion in Lebanon this week. Or when tragedy lays us low, as it has for those who’ve lost loved ones in Beirut, as it has for those who’ve lost loved ones to dementia or cancer or COVID, gun violence, racial violence… Even when the worst of the worst happens, God’s children are invited, every one of us, to climb up and huddle in close enough to hear our Heavenly Mother’s heartbeat as we lie against her chest.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is [on] me.
People of God,
hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore. Amen.
Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It can be difficult for us to connect with particular psalms sometimes. We talked about this last week. In any given moment we may be too down to resonate immediately with a joyful psalm of praise, or too cheerful to want to linger in a psalm of lament.
Then there are times when the words before us are all too fitting. Even the most basic awareness of the news on any given day can help orient us to Psalm 10:
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord…
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity. (Psalm 10:3, 5-7)
Tell us something we don’t know, right?
And it gets better - “In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor – let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.” (Psalm 10:2) Yes! “They think in their heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it. Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed.” (Psalm 10:11-12) Amen! “Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, ‘You will not call us to account?’ … But you do see!” (Psalm 10:13-14) Preach!
I personally can’t help thinking about our president when I hear words like that. All that talk of arrogance and boasting, deceit and pride. Scoffing at foes, watching for ways to take advantage of the helpless, and all the while insisting he’s above reproach. Even one-time supporters are becoming seriously concerned about his behavior.
At the same time, we know he’s not alone. Regrettably, every city, every nation, every generation has its share of arrogance and greed, pride and deceit. If we’re honest, there are times we even see some of these vices in ourselves. Meanwhile, not only do the righteous suffer, but the wicked seem to get away with murder. The poor are taken advantage of seemingly everywhere. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” (Psalm 10:1)
We talked last week about the raw honesty of the psalms, and it’s possible a few verses in today’s text made you squirm a little. For instance, “O God, lift up your hand… Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers.” (Psalm 10:12, 15) Maybe we wouldn’t mind too much if they got what they deserved, we might catch ourselves thinking. At the same time, this doesn’t sound much like Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies.
But if you flip through the book of Psalms, you’ll actually find this dynamic quite often: the speaker urging God to avenge him against his enemies. And the language in Psalm 10 is pretty tame in comparison to some of the others. A broken arm? The enemies of Psalms 69, 109, and 137 should be so lucky. There are at least 18 other psalms where God is asked to inflict painful judgment too.
Eugene Peterson reminds us, in this context, that the psalms are poems, and “far from being cosmetic language,” poetry “is intestinal. It is root language…Knowing this, we will not be looking here primarily for ideas about God, or for direction in moral conduct. We will expect, rather, to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened.”
I’ve talked on other occasions about the importance of remembering what kind of material we’re reading as we approach different parts of the Bible. This is absolutely essential when we read through the Psalms. Other parts of Scripture offer guidelines for behavior or charge us to go and do likewise. Not so with Psalms. The psalmists don’t worry about saying what polite people are supposed to say. They’re not interested in offering careful lessons on ethics and morality. They just say what they feel. That’s the nature of lament.
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) “They sit in ambush… they lurk in secret … in hiding places they murder the innocent.” (Psalm 10:8-9)
I wonder if this is how our black brothers and sisters are feeling as they protest the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and so many others, particularly given how shamefully long it’s taken the rest of us to pay sufficient attention to brutality and specifically police brutality against African Americans. However we may feel about those who’ve been co-opting peaceful protests for more destructive ends, surely it’s not difficult to imagine incorporating into Psalm 10 phrases like: Don’t shoot. Black lives matter. I can’t breathe. Right along with the psalmist’s own words: “Rise up, O Lord… do not forget the oppressed.” (Psalm 10:12)
When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin casually extinguished the life of a fellow human being, hands in his pockets, knee on his neck, did he “think in [his] heart, ‘God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it?” (Psalm 10:11) “But you do see!” (Psalm 10:14) There in those awful 9 minutes when George Floyd called out for his mama, you, O Lord, his divine mama bear, did see. It sickens us that such a thing could happen. We are horrified, too, to know it wasn’t an isolated incident. Far from it. But again and again, O God, you do see. Every instance of racial violence, with or without any cameras running. Every lynching, every act of terror, every abuse of power. Every act of sexual violence, too, no matter that the perpetrators think they can get away with it. And for that matter every heartless decision in the halls of power to exploit the poor. “They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might. They think in their heart, ‘God has forgotten; he has hidden his face, he will never see it… But you do see!” (Psalm 10:10-11, 14) You see, O Lord, and you care.
God sees and God cares because God is a mama bear whose love for her children is fierce and protective.
God sees and God cares because God is a God of justice.
God sees and God cares because God knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of injustice too. Remember that Jesus himself was unjustly condemned, beaten, left hanging until he couldn’t breathe. With a nod to Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, God knows what it’s like to be lynched.
“Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand … do justice for the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.” (Psalm 10:12, 18) Amen.
 See, for instance, Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 79, 83, 94, 139, 143.
 Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, pp. 11-12.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
My college roommate Linda loved to sing. She also loved to read her Bible. The connection between the two is that as she read along, next to each biblical verse for which she knew a song, she’d draw a little musical note in the margin.
You might be a little surprised how many parts of the Bible have given rise to hymns and praise songs over the years. Did you know, for instance that the title of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” comes from the prophet Isaiah? Or that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” comes from the book of Lamentations, which seems an unlikely spot for such a strong affirmation of faith.
What may not surprise you is that as Linda read through the book of Psalms, she drew those little musical notes all over the place. We don’t know what their original musical settings sounded like – it would be amazing if we did - but we know the psalms were sung regularly in worship by the ancient Israelites. They would have been sung in one form or another by Jesus and his disciples too, and by the early Church, and they’ve been sung by Jews and Christians ever since.
In some Christian traditions (in monastic communities, for instance) entire biblical psalms are still sung regularly. In my own experience, though, with the exception of the 23rd Psalm and settings by the band “Sons of Korah” whom I mentioned last week, it’s been far more common to find a verse or two highlighted rather than a whole psalm sung from beginning to end. So from today’s reading, for instance, Psalm 57, I know a song based on the refrain we see in verse 5 and verse 11: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.” But I don’t actually know any musical settings of the line about “destroying storms passing by” from verse 1, or any songs that incorporate verse 4 either: “I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords.” I know a song that highlights verse 10: “your steadfast love extends to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.” I don’t know any tunes to accompany “put[ting] to shame those who trample on me,” from verse 3.
Admittedly I’ve been known to do the same thing when reading the Psalms on my own. Does anyone else find yourself doing a bit of editing as you work your way through them? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing so when we’re specifically seeking out words of encouragement. We’ve talked this summer about the Psalms offering a beautiful assortment of little snapshots, or short scenes, and if one of those mini scenes speaks to us in a compelling way, or offers comfort when comfort is what we need most, surely that’s a gift worth claiming. Maybe it’s ok if we don’t immediately resonate with voices crying out from the depths, or with those who in the heat of anger say things about enemies we don’t feel ought to be said. Some parts of the book of Psalms might make us eager to hit the fast forward button to get to the next beautiful, uplifting verse.
But what do we lose if we consistently skip over psalms with unsettling references to enemies or painfully blunt lines about lying on a bed of pain or being stuck in the Pit? I worry we inadvertently convey that the unpleasant bits are less worthy of being included in our prayers, less welcome in worship, or maybe even that they’re a little embarrassing. Think about it, though. Not including such talk at church doesn’t mean we’re magically free of enemies, free of pain, or free of experiences of bottoming out.
So if we exclude lament from worship, where do we leave the person who’s seriously depressed as they arrive on a Sunday morning? Or the person feeling worn down by a serious injury or chronic illness? Or the person who’s furious over an injustice they’ve experienced? Are they not welcome unless they can “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100)? Is being upbeat a requirement for church participation? Are we implying God’s feelings will be hurt somehow if we don’t pretty up our feelings and our language in our prayers?
And even beyond asking individuals to check their feelings at the door when they come to church, what does it say to a society reeling in pain? What does it say to fellow children of God who are suffering, if we in the Church give the impression that lament is unwelcome in worship? How removed will we seem from the reality in which we live? Especially in a year like this one, or for that matter on a weekend like this one with all heck breaking loose right here in our own city! I’m convinced we need to return to what our brothers and sisters in Christ have known for hundreds of years and our Jewish friends longer still. That nothing is off limits in prayer. That every genuine human emotion is welcome and expected when we approach the Lord.
One of the things I love about today’s psalm is the back and forth dynamic throughout. The little notation Hal read before verse 1 connects this psalm to David’s life, before he was king, while he was in grave danger from King Saul. That connection with David gives us a clear example of an individual’s faith being put to the test, and we see that playing out as the psalm moves freely between lament and trust not just once but a number of times over its 11 verses.
But we don’t even need that connection with David specifically, do we, for this psalm to have meaning? How many of us have ever experienced a wavering between fear and faith, doubt and trust? As we’ve done with other psalms this summer, can you insert yourself into the scene here? Can you imagine giving voice to these words: “be merciful to me, O God, be merciful;” (verse 1) “put to shame those who trample on me” (verse 3) … but then pivoting to “be exalted, O God, above the heavens” (verse 5)? Or from “I cry out to God Most High… they set a net for my steps… they dug a pit in my path” (verses 2, 6) moving to “I will sing and make melody… I will give thanks to you, O Lord” (verses 7, 9)?
Sadly, infuriatingly, each of our lives has its ugly bits and heaven knows the world as a whole has plenty too. Reading through the book of Psalms reminds us there’s no need to excommunicate – that is, to exclude from Church - the less pretty and polished parts of reality. The book of Psalms models for us that we’re supposed to bring them right into worship with us and give them voice in prayer and song. How many more little music notes would that mean in the margins of our Bibles?
As an added benefit, trusting God to be able to handle everything we are feeling when we pray can lend weight and depth even to our most joyful expressions of praise. For the author of Psalm 57, for instance, how much more meaningful for him now to “sing and make melody” to God (verse 7) having been attacked by his enemies (verses 3 & 4) to the point where his soul was “bowed down?” (verse 6) Twice just in the opening verse he speaks of God as his refuge (verse 1); reading the whole psalm makes clear just how much he needed that refuge.
It helps me, too, to remember that when I lament, I’m not just complaining out into the void, shouting at the universe without expecting a response. I’m crying out to my heavenly mama bear, mother hen, mother eagle who longs to provide shelter when we need it most. Sometimes I can even look back and see where God’s fierce love has brought me through, redeeming the messiest bits of my story.
How about you? Have “destroying storms” ever driven you to seek refuge “in the shadow of [God’s] wings?” (Psalm 57:1)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’ll never forget our first animal blessing together several years ago. Out on the front patio of the church, around 20 people, maybe a dozen dogs, one very brave cat. Loud, happy chaos as everyone arrived, and I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of a challenge to get everyone’s attention. But hey, they’d trained us in seminary to project our voices, so I just upped the decibels and went for it. We’d sing a song, I explained, read a psalm, pray together, and then I’d make my way around the circle and say a blessing for each animal friend, addressing each one by name with a hand on their head. As I talked, canine attendees who weren’t quite sure of each other barked and jostled for position while other tails wagged, and wet noses nuzzled, and kids introduced furry companions to their non-furry friends with pats and handshakes and hugs all around, and everyone did their best to encourage the dogs (and that one brave cat) to keep things friendly.
Then we began to sing. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small…” And the most amazing thing happened. Suddenly every dog in the bunch was quiet, and attentive, and still. (I can’t speak for the stillness of the cat, who was at this point hiding in her carrier, but she was quiet too, which under the circumstances was pretty impressive!) You’d have sworn they all understood the significance of the moment. And admittedly, there was more wiggling along the way as we moved from the song into our psalm (the same one we read today) and our prayer. But then as I made my way around the circle to offer a blessing for each animal, most of them again sat perfectly still and some looked right into my eyes as I prayed over them: “Loving God, bless our friend Buddy, our friend Dixie, our friend Butch, our friend Miles... May they always know that they are loved by you, O Lord, and by their human family.”
I suspect the author of Psalm 148 wouldn’t have been as surprised as we were by the willingness of our canine and feline friends to participate in that service. We mistakenly think we have the monopoly on worship. But listen again – “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars! . . . Praise the Lord… you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost… mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds. . . Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148) Elsewhere in the Psalms, we find “the heavens declar[ing] the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:1) and “the gateways of the morning and the evening shout[ing] with joy.” (Psalm 65:8)
You see the earth isn’t simply a backdrop for the events that unfold in the pages of Scripture, like a piece of scenery or a glorified prop. The landscape becomes one of the characters in the biblical story, the trees of the fields clapping their hands, the land breaking forth and shouting for joy. So we can not only praise God out of gratitude for the beauty of creation, we can praise God right along with the rest of creation.
Sure, it requires an imaginative stretch to consider that moths and sloths and mountains and mountain lions can offer praise to God. But biblical authors are unafraid of such talk. The irony may be that we can so easily forget to offer praise of our own. Could it be that deer and otters, ferns and cedars get it in a way we sometimes don’t? The recognition that we are all creatures of our God and King. And that along with the “beasts and cattle,” the “bird and whales,” as we sang earlier, we too are called to proclaim God’s glory.
During this time of physical distancing from human friends, why not pay a little extra attention to our non-human neighbors? Time spent in God’s creation can restore our souls, offering a healthy balance to the significant challenges we’re all working through as individuals and a society right now. Whether you crave summer sunshine in a cloudless sky or like me you love walking in the rain too. Whether you’re an avid gardener or you prefer a book and a comfy chair under a tree. Whether you’re hiking, kayaking, going for a jog, seize the chance to look around you. Really look. And listen. Who else is there? They’re not only an important part of our community, the psalms teach us our fellow creatures are part of an ongoing chorus of praise.
There’s a fantastic scene in The Magician’s Nephew, one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, where he imagines God (in the form of the great lion Aslan) not just speaking but singing creation into existence:
There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard… the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count… [and] the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars…if you had seen and heard it… you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing… [then] the eastern sky changed from white to pink and from pink to gold. The Voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose…you could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up… when you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them.
Beech trees, and cool, green grass, and daisies and buttercups, showers of birds and flutters of butterflies and then the larger animals, from beavers to elephants, all of them somehow both brought into being by the Voice, the Song, and joining in its magnificent music.
Speaking of music, I’ve gotten permission to share with you today a musical setting of Psalm 148 by a group called the Sons of Korah. They take their name from a notation accompanying a handful of Old Testament psalms, indicating they were written for or by the “Korahites” or “sons of Korah.” (e.g. Psalm 84, 88) In contrast to many hymn and praise song composers who’ll use just a few lines or perhaps paraphrase the general idea of a psalm, Sons of Korah take their lyrics almost verbatim from Scripture so that simply listening to their recordings provides a terrific introduction to biblical Psalms. The lead vocalist you’ll see here in a minute, Matthew Jacoby, is a doctor of philosophy and theology at the University of Melbourne, Australia and I’ll send out a link to the band’s website later in case any of you are interested in reading the paragraph-long commentaries he provides on a number of psalms, or in hearing more of their music.
For now, I simply wanted to offer you, as we conclude, this gift on a beautiful summer morning, an opportunity to hear today’s Scripture reading in a new way...
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, Collier Books Edition (1970), pp. 98 and following.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I mentioned last week that we find in the Old Testament book of Psalms not a single unified story but a series of stand-alone scenes back to back. Each one a snapshot from a life, a glimpse into an author’s personal relationship with God. Because psalms are often written in the first-person voice, we’re invited in a sense to cast ourselves in these scenes. By that I simply mean that in many cases we can pick up a psalm and immediately find connection points with our own lives of faith. Not with every psalm perhaps, or every line, but at least with many lines in many psalms. Without even realizing we’re doing so, we kind of take on the lead role or primary voice, seeing ourselves as the “I” who’s speaking as we read along.
This summer we’re making our way through a “Festival of Shorts” if you will, borrowing a term from my daughter Alina’s college theatre department. Touching down each week in a different self-contained short scene from the book of Psalms. We began last Sunday by revisiting Psalm 23, and today we find ourselves in Psalm 16.
A prayer expressing trust in God, we find the speaker here both requesting and expecting divine protection: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’” (verses 1-2) Because the Lord “is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.” (verses 8-9). In contrast to other gods, all of them poor choices for worship and offerings, “the Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.” (verse 3) Instead of giving me up to destruction and death (Sheol and the Pit in verse 10), the Lord “shows me the path of life,” and “fullness of joy.” (verse 11)
Psalm 16 doesn’t get as much play time as Psalm 23. It isn’t as widely known as the more famous psalm of trust that begins “The Lord is my Shepherd.” But it’s well worth visiting this scene, too, from time to time. Did you find any points of connection with this script? Can you think of a situation in which you’ve experienced the Lord’s protection? Can you speak from the heart about God’s gifts of refuge and life and joy?
When my husband Ken read this psalm with me, for instance, he immediately thought of his family’s history in war-torn Korea. One reason why there are so many Christians and pastors on his side of the family is that during those awful years they felt God’s protection. The Lord didn’t give them up to Sheol (the land of the dead) during that frightening time, and they have been forever grateful.
Now I want to circle back to the middle of Psalm 16 because I left out a verse in my recap, and it’s a verse that has haunted me for years. The words are these from verse 6: “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I have a goodly heritage.” This is presumably a reference to the psalmist’s land or property, and the word “fallen” there is simply a poetic way of saying where the boundary lines of that property happen to lie. This “goodly heritage” and those “boundary lines” convey adequate and perhaps even abundant resources so that the speaker can enjoy a comfortable life.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. It’s entirely appropriate for the psalmist to include this line in a prayer about divine blessing and protection. The sentiment seems to be offered from a genuinely thankful heart. Within that same line, though, there’s a recognition that it could be otherwise. And it’s the otherwise that gets me.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. But for how many have they fallen in distinctly un-pleasant places? For how many have those boundary lines in fact fallen in terrifying, violent places, or in places without anything resembling adequate access to the basic necessities of life? Though the psalmist gives thanks here for his “goodly heritage,” why are so many without such a heritage? I’m reminded of a line from an old U2 song: “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.”
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. It’s essentially a statement of economic privilege. The psalmist is acknowledging here that the location of the boundary lines surrounding his property – property he seems to have inherited - makes an enormous difference in his quality of life. And this psalm would have been written in an agrarian society, remember, so looking out at rich, fertile land wouldn’t just mean a nice view. It would mean he and his family had plenty to eat.
I may not be an ancient Israelite landowner, but when I take up Psalm 16, I can cast myself as the speaker because I know I too have been blessed with a “goodly heritage.” I know it’s made a tremendous difference in my life to have been born into a family with sufficient financial resources – a home of our own, plenty of food on the table, funds to help me with a college education, which in turn allowed me to pursue a graduate degree and a career I love. Certainly, I’ve worked hard over the years in school and in my jobs, but if I’m honest, an awful lot of what I have is a direct result of having been born into a well-resourced family, rather than having been born into poverty. After all, if hard work alone brought financial success, day laborers and sweat shop workers would all be millionaires. But that’s not how the world works.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.
Though I confess it isn’t something I’ve thought about as often, I’m aware that the economic stability my family achieved in this country over the years was helped along significantly because we happened to have white skin. No one red-lined my ancestors out of a desirable neighborhood. No one withheld bank loans from our family business because they didn’t like the look of us. Teachers and colleagues and bosses have generally conveyed to members of our Scottish-American clan that we could achieve anything if we worked hard enough. We’ve never been told, either overtly or more subtly, that we aren’t worthy of success because of our race.
I expect we represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds here today, some of them providing a leg up the ladder of success, others of them putting up obstacles to overcome. The point is all of us are born into families and social systems not of our own choosing. Some of us benefit from those arrangements; some of us are hurt by them. And I wonder to what extent the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places because of who I’m not, as well as who I am? We’ll have a chance to talk about this later today in our conversation on white privilege.
The fact is for most of us in this gathering the boundary lines have fallen in (comparatively) pleasant places, and for too many others, “un-pleasant” would be a glaring understatement. But the message of Scripture is clear on one point. We are consistently called to use what we have – whether earned or unearned – to serve others. Abraham and his family were blessed by God in order to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). The Law and the Prophets remind us regularly to care for the poor, for orphans and widows, for the strangers among us. Jesus commands a rich young ruler to give away all that he has in order to inherit eternal life. (Matthew19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30) Jesus also reminds us that in the final days we’ll be judged for what we’ve done for those in need. (Matthew 25) Again and again in the pages of Scripture we’re called to use whatever power, privilege, and resources are at our disposal for the benefit of others.
Returning to our Scripture reading for today, there’s much to love about Psalm 16. For any one of you the most memorable part may be its language of taking refuge in God, or its image of the Lord at your right hand, or those heartfelt words about being saved from the Pit and shown the path of life, and fullness of joy.
Just as the best scenes in theatre lodge themselves in our minds and spirits so that we revisit them long after the curtain closes, so too can scenes like these from the Psalms.
And I find this particular snapshot from Psalm 16 really sticking with me.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. It simply isn’t so for everyone.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. This is a tremendous gift, and not one to be enjoyed selfishly.
The boundary lines have fallen for [us] in pleasant places. I hear in these words unearned grace, unearned privilege. What will we do with it?
 Lyric from the U2 song “Crumbs from Your Table”
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last fall my daughter Alina participated in something called a “Festival of Shorts” at Whitworth University, a series of short scenes performed and directed by theatre students. Normally an audience would watch a single story unfold on stage over the course of an evening, but those who attended the “Festival of Shorts” instead watched a series of stand-alone scenes back to back. Each one with its own setting and cast and director. Each one a snapshot from a different story.
As I began reading through the book of Psalms again this summer, it struck me that something analogous is going on there. In contrast to the gospel of Mark, for instance, or the book of Exodus, where each chapter is part of a single story, when we turn to Psalms we find a series of stand-alone scenes. The Psalter is, in a sense, its own “Festival of Shorts.” Each one a snapshot, a scene from the life of a person of faith long ago.
And the theatre analogy continues, for what we often do when we read or sing or pray the psalms is cast ourselves as the lead actor or primary voice in that story. Let me explain what I mean.
Many of the psalms are written in the form of individual prayers. So when a psalm begins “The Lord is my Shepherd,” as our text did today, it’s only natural to think about the ways the Lord our Shepherd has taken care of us, has met our needs, has restored our souls, has led us through dark valleys and pursued us with goodness and mercy. In other words, even though these are someone else’s words, I cast myself as the first-person voice in this scene. So that it’s me God makes to lie down in green pastures and leads beside still waters. It’s me God leads in right paths. My cup that overflows. I expect many of you have a similar experience. When you pick up this particular script, you take on the lead role and it becomes your prayer too.
The psalms seem to invite this kind of identification, allowing us to draw strength from these particular scenes in a different way than we draw strength from other parts of scripture that are more clearly about them (whether they be Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs or New Testament disciples). Here in Psalms first-person pronouns remind us powerfully that conversations between heaven and earth are about us too. What a gift.
And what comfort we can find in a psalm like this one which we studied together at length earlier this year. In the midst of something as worrisome as a global pandemic, with all of its accompanying disruption and loss, we long for words of comfort. Bring ‘em on! This is why I intentionally prioritized reassuring texts like this one as I designed our weekly services this spring. It's important to remind each other in frightening times that God holds us in the palm of God’s hand, or in this case that the Lord is our Shepherd.
There’s power, too, in remembering that others have cast themselves as the lead or taken on the first-person voice in this same short scene. I think of my parents and grandparents and Sunday School teachers praying the words of Psalm 23. I think of saints from this congregation and saints from other places and other times who’ve prayed them, each of them from their own unique circumstances. When the apostle Paul prayed this psalm, perhaps even in a Roman prison, he’d have cast himself as me-myself-I when he said, “the Lord is my shepherd,” and so would Mother Theresa as she served among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta a couple thousand years later.
But there are actors I’ve neglected to cast as I’ve reflected on this psalm over the years. Whole companies of actors, actually, all of them equally deserving of lead roles. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve been taking up this same script and playing this same part all along; I just haven’t taken a seat in their audience. I’ve been so focused on my own interactions with this particular “short play,” this beautiful scene of divine shepherding through life’s challenges, that I haven’t always noticed who else is lending the weight of personal experience to these words.
So let’s try a little recasting this morning.
Imagine, for instance, that the speaker of Psalm 23 is an anxious mother who’s just watched her son pull away from the house, thrilled at last to have his driver’s license. “The talk” she’s given him over and over, reminding him as a young black man how careful he needs to be if he’s pulled over – will it be enough to bring him safely back home again? Now hear her speak these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me…”
Or cast in that same role a black man on death row. A frightening prospect under any circumstance, and in this particular case he’s decades into an unjust sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Hear him saying to God, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me…”
And what if we were to cast as the first-person voice in Psalm 23 an undocumented farm worker or day laborer in Yakima County, all the more vulnerable now due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus? For someone in that position, what might it mean to say to God: “you make me lie down in green pastures, you lead me beside still waters, you restore my soul?”
I’d never suggest we need to set aside the ways we’ve heard and prayed and sung this beautiful psalm in the past. There’s so much here that we can approach these words again and again and come away with new insights every time. It’s not a case of either-or, but both-and. And it’s a both-and casting move that will – let’s be honest - be accomplished far more effectively when it’s not just me, your comfortably middle-class white pastor, trying to paint scenes I can only imagine. We’ll be far better served by hearing from other storytellers from time to time.
So this is only the most faltering of starts. But it’s a start.
As we conclude, I’m going to repeat the words of Psalm 23 – you’re welcome to say them with me if you wish, or simply to listen. Either way, be sure to recast the lead role this time through, and imagine someone other than you delivering this monologue. Perhaps someone with far fewer resources than you have, or someone of a different race, or someone else who is routinely marginalized or mistreated – imagine that person as the “I” here. Picture that person saying words like “me” and “mine.” We can’t possibly know anyone else’s innermost thoughts. It’s critical we remember that their stories are not really our stories to tell. But surely it’s also important to remind ourselves at least in some small way, as we approach this psalm, that the Shepherd’s flock is far bigger than our own little fold.
If it leaves us feeling a bit unsettled to reimagine a beloved text this way, that’s ok. Unsettled is ok. God might just use that feeling of discomfort to bring us greater empathy or insight, or to call us to action.
So let’s pray together on behalf of brothers and sisters who are not here in our circle today:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.