Grace Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2016, Lent 3C
Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9
A Psalm of Dependence
Who do you depend on?
Earlier this week, I was able to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering, an assembly of teaching and ruling elders, seminarians and scholars and community workers in the PC(USA) seeking to catch a vision for the future of our battered but still vibrant denomination and its churches. One of the keynote speakers was Allan Boesak, a onetime clergyman in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and also a member of the African National Congress there. In his clergy role, Boesak played a major part in the writing and adopting of the Confession of Belhar, which has been approved by the presbyteries of the PC(USA) for addition to our Book of Confessions, pending final approval at this summer’s General Assembly.
It was a powerful address, well worth the registration fee for the conference alone. Perhaps the most striking moment in that speech, though, was one of self-criticism, both of himself individually and of his party and church. As Boesak noted, black clergy in South Africa could easily and readily draw upon the resources of their faith when struggling against that country’s minority-rule white political structure. Scripture and theology provided plenty of resources for critiquing the regime, many other churches across the globe (including Presbyterian churches) provided moral and ethical support, and frankly it was easy when the group practicing oppression on him and his people looked obviously different.
After the dismantling of apartheid, though, something changed. When it was members of the ANC in charge, critique became harder to do. It became harder or less palatable to speak out when the corrupt folks in charge were people he and other clergy had once supported. As Boesak put it, it was easy to speak out when the Pharaoh was Afrikaans, but much harder to do so “when the Pharaoh looked like us.” Boesak called out himself and his own for relying on human power, rather than remembering their dependence on and allegiance to the God who had sustained them in the dark days.
Who do you depend on?
You might have noticed that we’re having our own presidential campaign these days, one which has taken on some rather unusual qualities. One of those candidates (I’ll not give a name, but I’m guessing you might figure out who) has been trying to woo self-identified Christians with some rather familiar-sounding promises. A few weeks ago this candidate made the promise that , were this candidate elected president, “Christianity will have power.” Then, earlier this week, the candidate in question returned to this theme with the claim that (were this candidate elected president) “your church will be full.”
I acknowledge the way that must sound here, in a sanctuary that is not full.
The particularly concerning part is that I know ministers and members who are falling for this. They declare their support for this candidate so that Christianity will have its “rightful place” in this country, whatever that means. And one could even say it is a biblical promise in a way, since in Luke 4:6-7 we do read the similar promise that “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
The trouble with that is, of course, that the quote above is from that story we know as the Temptation of Jesus, and the quote is from the mouth of no one other than Satan himself.
Who do you depend on?
We don’t like the word “dependence.” We think of it as a negative, here in our land of independence, of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “self-made man” and all those things that make us sound more than we are.
The psalmist will have none of that.
The psalmist may not like the word “dependence” either, but what this psalm sings of is full of dependence on God. From the very first verse the psalmist is singing that “I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” Far from being ashamed on being so dependent, the psalmist praises God: “my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.” The psalmist’s soul is satisfied, the way one’s body is satisfied after a great feast. Then the psalmist returns again to praise to the God on whom the psalmist depends for life itself, for sustaining and maintaining; “my soul clings to you.”
We don’t like the word “dependence,” and we don’t at all like being dependent on anybody. In today’s gospel reading Jesus faces a curious crowd asking what seems to us a curious question. It’s a curious story, anyway; for a few moments we seem to be eavesdropping on a conversation about current events, circa first-century Palestine. Hey, Jesus, did you hear about the Jews Pilate had slaughtered in the Temple? Jesus then turns the subject into what today we’d call a “teachable moment”; neither the victims of state-sponsored violence in the Temple nor the victims of another headline story, a collapsed building that killed eighteen, were somehow more sinful than anyone else.
Wait, what? But notice what’s going on underneath. Note the unspoken thought: they must have been bad people for that to happen to them. I’m not a bad person. Threrefore, I should be o.k. I’m good enough. I’m good enough.
Jesus shoots that down in the following parable, in which an unfruitful fig tree is about to be destroyed by its owner, only to have the gardener step in to plead for time to nurture it into fruitfulness. In case it isn’t clear, we’re the fig tree, and Jesus is the gardener; we depend on him to be preserved. We don’t save ourselves or preserve ourselves.
It’s like Martin Luther put it in that stalwart hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”: did we in our own strength confide,/our striving would be losing/were not the right Man on our side/the Man of God’s own choosing. We don’t save ourselves. We don’t. And the moment we let our economic theories or our political affiliations or our craving for security and safety or whatever human system we claim cloud our self-knowledge of our reliance and, yes, dependence on the God who creates us and provides for us and sustains us, we are lost.
The psalmist has learned this – perhaps the hard way, we don’t know. Whatever the case the psalmist will not let shame or pride or any other thing get in the way of acknowledging the God in whom all power and providence really reside, the God on whom we depend. And only when we can, like the psalmist, not only acknowledge our dependence on God but claim it, even rejoice in it, can we truly live as the disciples, the followers of Christ, the imitators of Christ we are called to be.
For dependence on God and God alone, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from PH ’90):
#181 Come Sing to God
#198 O God, You Are My God
#78 Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed
#557 O What Shall I Render?
"My soul thirsts for you, ... as in a dry and thirsty land..."