The Sunday Sermon: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 12, 2018
Scripture: Psalm 131
Calm and Quiet, Our Souls
Well, the truth is, we could find occasion for the words and questions that follow on almost any given Sunday, even perhaps any given day. So I really don’t need to spend a whole lot of time justifying why we’ll be reading this Psalm on this Sunday, but … this particular Sunday is what drew me to this particular Psalm, so let me explain just briefly.
It’s the last Sunday of the unofficial summer we’ve come to know that is bound by the last day of one school year and the beginning of another one. It’s not the calendar summer – far from it. We still have three more Sunday’s in that summer. But even if you’re not students or parents of students now, you once were – one of those, or both. And we all still, to one degree or another order our lives – vacations, work, sleep, waking hours, activities, clubs, transportation, and sporting events – around the academic calendar. And this Sunday is the last Sunday of the summer for Oldham County and Jefferson County public schools. Our Colleges and University students, if they haven’t started already, begin in the weeks ahead, too. And so I’ve been thinking about, which is to say I’ve been praying about, the summer past.
Pray with me …
(We’ll get to our scripture reading in moments, to, but first …) Okay, so … The summer, two-thousand eighteen, past: Think back to late May, now, or back to early June. What promises did this summer hold for you? What tasks were you supposed to accomplish? What hopes did you have for these fleeting months? What were you wanting to finally get done, now that you had the time? Who were you excited about seeing or where did you anticipate going? And, what percentage of all those dreams were realized? How many weren’t? Why and why not? The summer past …
I was looking at the lectionary readings for this Sunday morning earlier this past week, in part because I know that Wayne (our guest preacher last Sunday in my absence) always follows lectionary. I was curious how the Spirit may be moving and I was, at first, drawn to this morning lectionary Psalm, actually Psalm 130. In it, the Psalmist sings as he waits for divine redemption. But as I finished reading it, my eyes moved further down the page to Psalm 131, a “Song of Quiet Trust,” and I read something that made my heart move a bit differently.
The confidence “in the Lord” that Psalm 131 articulates and its final refrain to “hope in the Lord” make it a companion to Psalm 130. Actually, it’s got a lot of companions. It’s part of a collection of Psalms known as the “Psalms of Ascent” that include 120 through 134 in the book. These are thought to have been used by those making their regular pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So, my rationale is that, while I’m not in the lectionary, I was in a Psalm that was part of larger group of a passage that was! So … that’s how we got here, to Psalm 131 …
(How did I start out? A “brief” explanation?! Oh, well, so much for brevity …)
Let’s (finally) read our scripture for this morning: Psalm 131, page 574 in the Old Testament portion of your pew Bible (I’m not sure what page, if you’ve brought your own. Is anyone still bringing their own Bible?! Good …). We’re going to read this short Psalm together, so pull that bible out of the rack and dust it off!
This morning, as the words of this “Song of Quiet Trust” land on our ears, consider the summer past. Go back to a few of the questions I asked earlier and any other ones you thought of: What promises did it hold? What tasks was it supposed to accomplish? What hopes did we have for it? What were we wanting to finally get done, now that we had the time? Who were excited about seeing or where did we anticipate going? Now, let’s add a few other queries: What’s making you fret as this summer ends? What do you feel anxious about leaving undone? What are you worried about getting done or restless about finding the time for now? Take a minute to think about it all, or most of it – or just some of it: What were your hopes for the months past and how are you feeling as it draws to a close? And listen again as we read together.
Read Psalm 131 together (page 574) … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
For all its intense brevity, this is a poem of deep emotion and it has been fascinating to me this week: What were our hopes for the months past and how are we feeling as it draws to a close? You see, it turns out that this Psalm isn’t as “simple” as it appears or as it sounds. It can either be the “quiet statement of assurance” that we hear at first, a testimony that no matter how anxious we may feel, trusting in the Lord will calm us. Or, it could be the (quote) “subdued cry of resignation over a life of unrealized ambition!” It could be a statement of deep sadness. Let’s consider that first.
Take a look at verse one in your pew Bible. The NRSV translation uses the adverb “too” three times in this verse: “too high;” “too great;” “too marvelous.” But that adverb, we’re told, is really not supported by the original Hebrew text. That adverb is not actually there. In other words the translators put it in there to interpret the passage in the way they thought it was intended. (Every translation is an interpretation!) And, if you remove this word for the translation we have, the mood of this verse subtly, but certainly, shifts:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised high; I do not occupy myself with things great and marvelous for me.
Did you hear it? Instead of being an affirmation concerning the psalmist’s humility, the verse now becomes a statement of regret, if not real mourning. The psalmist has been beaten down, her head is sunken into her chest and deep reflection has been abandoned!
So, going on in the passage, as we read it this way, verse two becomes more ironic. Take a look as I paraphrase a bit: My soul is as calm and quiet as a two-year old child – in other words, not quiet at all, right?! Why in the world would the psalmist choose a small child as a metaphor for tranquility?! Unless a recently weaned child in Israel-of-old was vastly different from a modern “terrible two,” quietness and peace are the last qualities you’d associate with it! So as we keep up with this way of reading the Psalm we would have something like:
I am beat down, O God, by all the force of life. I’m not interested in great or marvelous things. I have tried to hold back my emotions, but my heart is sobbing like a child!
Verse three is the only hope, then. A hope based on the realization that there is nowhere else to turn by to Yahweh … So …
Is that it? Is that your answer to the end-of-summer question? As you think back over the months past, is yours a psalm of lament?
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised high;
I do not occupy myself with things great and marvelous …
I am “calmed” and “quieted” like a two-year-old with its mother!
My soul is like a two year old that is with me!
I am beat down and I didn’t even get done what I set out to do!
It’s possible … this reading. This past summer, or any of our days, not “fulfilled” as we had hoped.
But there’s an alternative. Perhaps, after these summer months, you hear and understand this Psalm as a song of quiet confidence and joy. If so, then verse one affirms the absence of an inflated ego in our heart. If so, then we are aware of personal limitations and we try to live our lives within those limits. If so, then we don’t need constant assurance to fend off despair, we appreciate our own worth before God, and we recognize our own humanity and mortality. (Any guesses as to which of the interpretations I’m hoping for you, for us all?!)
If we keep the adverbs as they’ve been added in verse one – “too high;” “too great;” “too marvelous” – then we are singing out that we have not tried to be something that God did not intend for us to be. And a marvelous peace may settle in on us, like the peace that ensues when a small child is with its mother. The inevitable, God-given consequence of a mother’s cradling of her child is peace in the child’s heart. So, too, we find peace and tranquility when we understand our relation to God and to the larger world.
Is that it? Is that your answer to my “end-of-summer questions”? As you think back over the months past, is yours a psalm of quiet assurance and peace? Because, if so, the peace that reading this psalm in this way offers generates a hope for all that lies ahead. If so, the final verse then urges everyone to live their lives accordingly: In hope, from this time on and forevermore.
I’ll leave it to you, of course, to determine your own interpretation of this past summer, or of any time in your life that you wish to measure – months, weeks, days, or hours: agitated and troubled, or calm and quiet? As I look out over this congregation, I am profoundly humbled by the depth and breadth of life that this community shares with me – from the heartrending to he heartwarming, and everything in between. I know there is more than one answer to the question of “how did your summer go?” So, before we end our meditation this morning … one more thought:
And his thought requires us to read our Psalm one more time. Men, read verse one with me. Women, read verse two, and then let’s all read verse three together.
Read Psalm 131: Men – verse one / Women – verse two / ALL – VERSE THREE
That was nice, wasn’t it? I always appreciate the different resonances in our gender specific readings, and I anticipated that this morning, too. You may have heard a bit earlier that I used a feminine pronoun for our psalmist this morning. In a deeper exploration of this passage, almost all of the writings on it noted that a “straightforward reading” of the last part of verse two (something closer to “my soul within me is like a weaned child”) suggests that the Psalmist is almost certainly a woman. Men just simply wouldn’t have understood the “contentment of a weaned child.” They wouldn’t have been around for that event. But we can certainly imagine this woman, this mother, singing her song as she carried her young child on her “way up” to Jerusalem.
These words, you see, give us a glimpse of the beginnings of women’s experience of equality in God’s sight. As Jesus proclaimed and personified the reign of God, he embodied that experience: We need not be something that God did not intend for us to be. All are equal in God’s sight. And a peace that passes understanding settles upon us.
No one of us, whether agitated and troubled or calm and quiet, is more dear and cherished in God’s sight than another and so we sing:
Our hearts are not too lifted up, our eyes are not raised too high;
We do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous for us.
Rather, we have calmed and quieted our souls …
As we continue our fellowship this morning after our worship hour during our Annual church Picnic, we pray for the summer past, and for all that lies ahead: from this time forth and forevermore, we pray that it may be so: Calm and Quiet, Our Souls.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 12, 2018