In These Tough Times... by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons, Southwest Conference Blog, United Church of Christ

In These Tough Times…

by William M Lyons

Ours is a world “no longer experienced as stable, predictable, or even comprehensible.”[1] Fear, anxiety and hopelessness have become hallmarks of how Americans feel these days, if not for ourselves, for our family members, our friends, or our neighbors. The question in our Gospel text is indeed the question of our day: What is this?!

In these tough times, Psalm 111 invites us to return to our spiritual center, focusing on the attributes and accomplishments of God.

“I give thanks to God with everything I’ve got—” writes the Psalmist. “Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation. God’s works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!

Splendor and beauty mark [God’s] craft; …generosity [that] never gives out, miracles [that make a lasting] memorial [to] this God of Grace, this God of Love.

[God] gave food to [ones] who fear him, remember[ing] to keep the ancient promise.

[God] proved to [Israel] that [what God said, God could really do]:

Hand them [a place and a home] on a platter—a gift!

[… manufacture] truth and justice;

[Everything God does is] guaranteed to last—Never out-of-date, never obsolete, rust-proof. All that God makes and does is honest and true: [paying] the ransom for his people, [ordering] God’s Covenant [be] kept forever. [God is] so personal and holy, worthy of our respect.

The good life begins in the fear of God—Do that and you’ll know the blessing of God. His Hallelujah lasts forever![2]

We may not see these qualities in our national or local leaders, but certainly God is:

  • Honorable
  • Majestic
  • Gracious
  • Merciful
  • Powerful
  • Faithful
  • Just
  • Trustworthy
  • Holy
  • Awesome

Because God is all those things and more, God does certain things. Psalm 111 calls them “wonderful deeds.” You can recount some of them; I know you can.

  • Creation
  • Leading the people out of Egypt
  • Giving them manna and quail in the wilderness
  • David triumphing over Goliath
  • Repeatedly saving the people from what appeared would be certain defeat
  • And the list goes on…

“The Hebrew word in Psalm 111 translated “wonderful deeds” is niphla’oth.” It means “something that I simply cannot understand,” or “something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.” [3] Something that makes us say to ourselves and to others, “What is this?!”

If we must be caught up in what feels unstable, unpredictable, or even incomprehensible, then at least let us choose what things those will be! Both Psalm 111 and our Gospel story today invite us to choose the attributes and works of God as the center of our attention. There goes the oppression of powerlessness and hopelessness and anxiety -did you feel it start to lift?! If we must be caught up in what feels unstable, unpredictable, or even incomprehensible, then let us choose what things those will be: the honorable attributes and wonderful works of God!

In these tough times, we don’t see those honorable attributes or wonderful deeds in our most visible leaders, and so we find ourselves grieving our loss of those expectations and past experiences. And yet, honorable attributes and wonderful deeds are alive and well in our God. God invites us today and each day to center ourselves in God’s instability, God’s unpredictability, in God’s incomprehensibility, for there we find all that is holy and just, gracious and merciful, majestic and honorable, powerful, faithful, and awesome!

When the people in our Gospel story asked themselves and one another, “What is this?!” they weren’t crying out against their political or religious leaders, or their hopeless circumstances, or their own insecurities. They were raising their voices in awe for what Jesus was doing in their midst: speaking with authority, taking on evil, silencing accusing, judgmental, disruptive and divisive voices, calling out demons, and restoring wholeness to ones who were caught up in brokenness through no fault of their own.

As Karoline Lewis points out, Jesus’s Gospel dared to stand up to supposed authorities. His Gospel challenged assumed power which had never been earned. His Gospel ripped apart the barriers and boundaries and borders that separated people from God. His Gospel tore down walls rather than insisting on ways to build them. With His Gospel the dead didn’t even stay dead! [4]

But “there are risks in identifying the forces of evil and of God in contemporary struggles…,” writes Cynthia Briggs Ketteridge, “specifically, [and] particularly if one assumes oneself and ones’ own “people” to be on the side of God.” [5]  Ones of us preaching out of positions of privilege or into communities with political and economic power must be careful about making that assumption. As Kettridge points out, “the community that performed and heard Mark’s gospel, was powerless and poor in a country occupied by a powerful empire. The theological imagination of the victory of God’s power over illness, disability, and danger was for them, lifesaving good news.”[6] The mere reminder that we can choose what kind of unpredictability, instability, and incomprehensibility we let ourselves get caught up in is for our time lifesaving good news!

But there is another risk. “…[ones] of us who decide to go about in the world, insisting that God is even for the unclean spirits, or for [ones] whom others have determined are unclean, will be suspect. After all, once God is really for everybody, well, there goes merit-based immigration. There goes regulation of pulpits. There goes justified discrimination. And there goes our own deep desire to make claims about God that are created in our own image.”[7]

Our Scripture readings today “provoke us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.” The reign of God promises more, whether the “more” can be realized now”[8]

“In this first skirmish, Jesus prevails, but not without the unclean spirit protesting and acting out.”[9] By the end of Mark, the forces of evil launch an all-out campaign to silence and immobilize Jesus in death. “… the world’s response was to crucify that Gospel.” [10] But Jesus won’t stay dead, because who God is (attributes) and what God does is wonderful, and powerful, and bigger than death!

Psalm 112 reminds Israel that the same honorable attributes and wonderful works that characterize God should also characterize them.

In John 14:12 Jesus told his followers, “The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it.[11]

So why are we so afraid to take on demons – our own, or the forces of evil in the world? Why are we willing to give ones who act for evil so much power – power they’ve not earned, and that God’s people have the authority to call out?

As it did in Jesus’ day, the cosmic conflict between good and evil has a socio-political dimension. We can be sure that if we are on the side of the powerless and poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, we are on God’s side. God has a long history or championing the cause of the disadvantaged, the suffering and the victimized, of siding with ones who have lost “their ability to control their movements and their voices” and are being “immobilized”[12]

“What is this?!” really is the question of our time.  Let us live in ways that put skin on the honorable attributes and wonderful works of God! When ones around us see what we are up to and how we are going about it, let them be amazed and exclaim, ““What is this?!” And we will reply, “This is what the Good News of Jesus for our day looks like!”

Praise the Eternal [One]! How blessed are [ones] who revere [God],
who turn from evil and take great pleasure in [God’s] commandments.
Their children will be a powerful force upon the earth;
this generation that does what is right in God’s eyes will be blessed.
[Their] houses will be stocked with wealth and riches,
and [God’s] love for justice will endure for all time.
When life is dark, a light will shine for [ones] who live rightly—
[ones] who are merciful, compassionate, and strive for justice.
Good comes to all who are gracious and share freely;
they conduct their affairs with sound judgment.
Nothing will ever rattle them;
the just will always be remembered.
They will not be afraid when the news is bad
because they have resolved to trust in the Eternal One.
Their hearts are confident, and they are fearless,
for they expect to see their enemies defeated.
They give freely to the poor;
their righteousness endures for all time;[b]
their strength and power is established in honor.
10 The wicked will be infuriated when they see [good people] honored!
They will clench their teeth [pause] and dissolve to nothing;
and when they go, their wicked desires will follow.[13]

 

[1] Watkins, Mohr, and Kelly. Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. p. 2

[2] Language made inclusive and adapted from Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ps 111:1–10). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[3] Nancy deClaissé-Walford. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=232

[4] Adapted from Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5047

[5] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[6] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[7] Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5047

[8] Matt Skinner. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2343

[9] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[10] Adapted from Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5047

[11] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Jn 14:12). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[12] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[13] Psalm 112, The VOICE

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