This is our last week in the “Songs for Every Season” series. We’ve looked at a number of Psalms and how they give voice to human experience and emotion, but do so in the context of faith. Today’s Psalm takes a bit of a turn from grief, suffering, and weariness, to sound a note of thanks and celebration. Much of what it is celebrating is God’s faithful deliverance in the past, but there is always a new challenge and new situation in which to turn to God.
Psalm 124 is called a “Psalm of Ascent,” to be sung on the walk up to the Temple in Jerusalem. In this particular song, the Lord is being praised as Deliverer, with the imagery bringing to mind the Exodus, when God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt. We used a bit of the “Song of Moses” from Exodus 15 as our call to worship, to further bring to mind the time when God delivered his people from the hands of the Egyptians who would have surely killed them.
Though I chose today’s text back in March, the language of slavery, rising up, anger, and rage speak powerfully into our modern context, as does language of deliverance and help. It is notable to me that the last time I preached this Psalm, in August 2017, a person had just driven a car into a crowd in Charlottesville and we were facing some of the same dynamics around race and the value of human life. And now we are back to this Psalm with the national spotlight on the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. We also read this Psalm today in the context of Acts 2 and Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on people from every tribe, race, and tongue. It is a timely reminder that God’s intent for human beings, made in His image, is for freedom, dignity, and equality.
Singing the Exodus (Psalm 124)
Exodus has been called the “Gospel” of the Hebrew Scriptures. Exodus tells the story of God delivering His people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. To do so, God raises up Moses, an unlikely front man for a number of reasons. He is older, he stutters, and he has run away from Egypt for murdering an Egyptian. And yet… God calls him, equips him, and sends him to confront the ruler of Egypt and say on behalf of the Lord, “Let my people go.” After no less than ten plagues – miraculous signs of God’s power – and much back and forth and changing of Pharaoh’s mind, he finally relents and the Hebrew people flee in the night. Even then, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends the army after them to bring them back (or kill them) and God parts the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Hebrew people to escape, while causing the Egyptian army to enact judgment on the Egyptians. It is the core story of God’s power and deliverance in the Hebrew Scriptures and is still remembered every Passover.
Psalm 124 appears to be a song reflecting on that that deliverance. Verses 2b-7 describe with various images, some metaphor and some frighteningly literal (when you think about the Red Sea):
Men rose up against us…
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger was kindled against us (v.2b-3)
Waters would have engulfed us,
the stream would have swept over our soul,
the raging waters would have swept over our soul. (v.4-5a)
The deliverance is pictured in imagery of animals escaping death and snare:
[The Lord] has not given us to be torn by their teeth (v.6b)
Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper (v.7a)
The snare is broken and we have escaped (v.7b)
And then bracketing all that is the refrain that points to the Lord as the source of deliverance:
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side…
[Let Israel now say] – as if to say, “Let’s all sing this one together!”
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side… (v.1-2)
Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. (v.8)
But does God still do “Red Sea” miracles? I certainly believe He can, but I also read in the New Testament that Jesus was like a second Moses, not only delivering and saving people, but announcing the Kingdom of God among us.
Today and Tomorrow
And that is a good place to jump into the realities of the day. There is so much that could be said. Let me offer this as a starting point for myself and for us here today, with hopes that a conversation continues, that we commit to seeking the Lord’s help, that we pray and see clearly.
I believe one of the great challenges before our country – and me personally – is a culture of racial inequality. Let me illustrate from my own life. I was raised to be “color blind.” I was taught that was the opposite of ‘racist.’ I was also taught, whether explicitly or not, that achieving such color-blindness (particularly internally) was the goal. But my attempt to be color-blind actually left me culture-blind! I’ve had a huge blind spot for most of my life. It is one I am still trying to see around and I am trying to listen, read, pay attention, and see what I can’t see. I believe my blind spot was reinforced by the perceived ideal of being “color blind.” What I am coming to see as my eyes are opening is that we are all swimming in waters saturated with racism.
What does that mean? It means that a person of color has a very different experience than I do of seeking housing, getting an education, being listened to, getting a loan, getting medical attention, what happens at a traffic stop, and 100 other every day experiences. I’ve shared this before, but will again: One of the most mind-boggling, humbling, discouraging, eye-opening moments in my life was sitting in a workshop with 25 white pastors and 25 black pastors and hearing near unanimous testimony of being pulled over, suspected, doubted, questioned, and worse by my black colleagues who are pastors. I knew every person of color there. Many have advanced degrees; every one of them are respectful, humble, men and women. It opened my eyes. Over the last few years I have observed and participated in the surveys, dialogs, priorities, and passion in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. I’ve seen and read the various responses about how and where to draw school district lines… it has opened my eyes. Being blessed to be a part of a presbytery, a collection of Presbyterian churches rich in racial diversity and realizing even there the vast differences in pastoral salary, transition, and other factors. It has opened my eyes. We swim in water full of inequity and inequality and experience it so radically differently just because of the color of our skin. There is so much more to say, so much more to do.
What does this have to do with the Bible? And what can we do?
First, it has everything to do with the Bible and with our faith. From the beginnings in Genesis to the endings in Revelation, God’s vision for humanity is for the nations and races of the world is that they know Him, be gathered in to Him, and reflect the glory of being made in the image of God. Divisions of race, language, and culture are first manifest at the Tower of Babel and are the result of human sin. Human sin – not God’s will, but turning away from God and toward human self-rule and self-supremacy. But God comes to Abraham with a plan and a promise to reach and bless all the nations of the world. That covenant lies at the heart of God’s dealings with Israel and unfolds in the coming of Jesus, who announces the Kingdom of God and dies for all the world. At Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit in a vivid demonstration of calling together the nations under Christ. The Apostle Paul is called and sent to the nations and to the world, preaching a Gospel where there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The final picture of eternity in Revelation has people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathered around the throne of God. That is God’s design for humanity; not one race or one people, but the nations of the world gathered as one holy family in worship together.
Secondly, there are many ways for the church to respond to the inequity and inequality found in our culture and society. But I believe the FIRST STEP for many of us is to seek to see beyond our blind spots. There is more after that, but we cannot engage what we cannot see. So, I’d offer a tangible, doable first step toward where I believe God is leading us. If you want to do something on your own I would encourage you to read the book, Waking Up White. Several Good Shepherd folks read it and discussed it in small groups and it’s opened up some good starting conversations. Even better, find one other person in the church and read it together so you’ll have a conversation partner. I’d also invite you this summer – starting today! – to be a part of a Zoom Sunday school class that will be starting with scripture and then discussing matters of race and racism in the context of faith. The first class is today at 10am, but it won’t be too late to start next Sunday if you missed the one today. Contact me or Cindy Dolinger for more information!
May God lead us and join us and bless us as we respond to His Word. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and earth. Amen.
Some Music Used
- PRELUDE: Holy Spirit (Torwalt)
- A Mighty Fortress is Our God
- Holy spirit, Living Breath of God (Getty)
- OFFERTORY: If it Had Not Been for the Lord on My Side (Douroux)
- What a Beautiful Name