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”