Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ordinary People (15 Minute Sermon)

I preached this sermon yesterday in class. It's the same one that I preached for the preaching contest. The theme is that although none of us is perfect, God can still use us to do miraculous things. God must have realized that although I wrote the sermon, I had yet to learn the lesson, and so proceeded to make two of the pages stick together in the middle of my sermon delivery, prompting several seconds of awkwardly frustrating silence. This, however, was not as bad as the fact that the final page was missing.

Afterwards, the substitute professor asked about my strange interpretation of the text, which, to be fair, is a legitimate question. I told her that I had not been able to find any information on the particular verse I was working with, and she told us that if we are going to go with an unusual interpretation, we should first find 3 sources that agree with the way we are interpreting it. In some ways, I appreciate this Presbyterian "gate-keeper" mentality, as it prevents preachers from going off the wall by delivering sermons about men "pissing on the wall," but after careful consideration, I would have to disagree with her assessment. What she basically said is that the Bible has nothing new to tell us. I'm sure that isn't what she meant to say, but if you must find three sources to back up your interpretation of the Bible, that means everything we can learn from the Bible has already been discovered, and I don't think you could be further from the truth. I personally think that the Holy Spirit is working in us every single time we read the Bible, and especially so when we are preparing sermons.

Anyway, here it is, its full-length glory. I had to start winging it after "David wasn't perfect, but David loved God." Everyone said they would never have known the last page was missing if I hadn't told them, but I know the sermon suffered pretty significantly because of its absence. Oh well. As God seems keen to point out to me, I'm not perfect. But, that's okay.

Ordinary People

When I first started to work on this sermon, I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed in myself. To help you understand why I was so disappointed in myself, I have to take you back to the beginning of this process and highlight some of the things that happened along the way to bring us here today.

The first thing I had to do was find a text, and I found myself being drawn to Psalm 23. Now, I was hesitant at first, because my last sermon was on a Psalm and I didn't want to fall into some kind of pattern, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like the right text, so I got to work. I got out my tools, my Hebrew Bible, my Hebrew Dictionary, my Hebrew grammar book, all excited 'cause I was gonna do this right!

Now, a lot of people don't really see the value in preparing for a sermon in this way, anymore. After all, we have dozens of English translations available to us now, many available on the Internet. There's Bible programs and websites that basically translate the passages for you; all you have to do is click a button, and it's done. The translations come with definitions for different Greek and Hebrew words, there's parsing for the verbs, sometimes the nouns. There's even references to other biblical texts related to the ones you're looking at, and commentaries to explain to you what other scholars have pulled form the texts in the past. Why not rely on all of this when there's just so much available?

But, there's something about the original language that still intrigues me. If there's one thing I remember from my language classes, it's that when you translate something from one language to another, there's always something that gets lost. There's always those subtle nuances and culturally specific connotations that just can't be translated. And on top of that, I don't like feeling like I have to rely on another person's work to figure out what the Bible says. I mean, that's a big part of why I came to seminary, so that I could rely on myself, to figure out on my own what the Bible says. I don't wanna use someone else's work and just hop that I'm not being lead astray by someone who might have some kind of agenda, or who might have a radically different theology than me, or maybe even worse, someone that just got it wrong.

So when I started to work on this sermon, I opened my Hebrew Bible, and I started flipping through the pages to find the Psalms. And, I'm flipping through the pages, and flipping through the pages, and flipping through the pages, and I'm not finding it, and I finally get to the end, and the heading at the top says, "Genesis?" And, I blink a few times and shake my head because isn't Genesis supposed to be at the front?

And then, I remember. Hebrew doesn't read left to right, it reads from right to left! I had just flipped through the entire book, not to the end, but to the beginning! This did not bode well for me. See, it's been almost a year since I've done any real work with the Hebrew, and over a year since the actual language classes themselves. I remember, on the last day of class, my professor begging us to keep on top of it by translating just one verse a day. just one verse a day! I think she said it knowing it just wasn't gonna happen, but you know, it's kind of her job to try to get us to be the best biblical scholars we can be, so she had to say it. It probably won't come as much of a surprise to any of you, but most of us didn't listen to her advice. And, I'm paying for it now.

I really struggled to translate the Hebrew text into English, and I was even using one of the free websites that do most of the work for yo. It just wasn't coming to me! What you need to understand is that I was really good at Hebrew. I mean really good! I helped other people study. I go t A's on all the exams. I loved Hebrew! There's just something so magical about the Hebrew language! I felt like an explorer discovering new things whenever I dove into the Hebrew text. I just loved it!

So, as I started preparing for this sermon, I could feel this sense of dread settling over me, this feeling of helplessness, hopelessness as I struggled with the language that I had loved so much. Did I really go through an entire year of Hebrew, only to lose it all? I mean, if that's what happens, that what's the point? Why even bother taking the classes at all if just a year later, I won't be able to remember anything that could actually help me? I was so disappointed in myself, all I could do was shake my head in disbelief as I continued to struggle with the passage.

It got so bad, that I just kind of gave up at one point and decided that I would just try to translate one verse, the one verse that I thought had the most potential for a sermon. It was verse 5, which says, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows."

Psalm 23 is a beautiful Psalm that, over the centuries has somehow seeped into our cultural consciousness. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul." I have to apologize for the King James, but I tried to write this in NRSV and the Psalm is just so familiar in its King James version, it just didn't sound right any other way.

It continues on, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

These are classic Biblical texts that many people go to for comfort, for proof of David's piety and artistry, sometimes even as an example of how beautiful scripture can be.

But, if you just continue on to the next verse, he says, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." What? Provide for me, comfort me, protect me, and spread out a lavish dinner table for me in front of my enemies so I can thumb my nose at them while they watch me eat? What is this? Was David six when he wrote this?

The whole Psalm is this beautiful poem, except for this one weird, and jarring, and really out of place line. But, David really isn't know for being level-headed and rational, is he? I mean, this is the guy, who, when he was a child, slew a giant with a slingshot and a stone. I mean, we're talking about a guy that dances naked in the street. This is the man who was spying on the naked woman who was bathing on her rooftop. Then he seduced her, got her pregnant, and sent her husband off to war, hoping that he would get killed so that he wouldn't find out about it!

I mean, come on, this isn't someone that we should be modeling our lives after! He's brash, he's arrogant, he's impulsive to a fault and he wants things that are bad for him. Is David really supposed to be an example for us?

I mean, we all want things that are bad for us. It's just kind of how we are. There's this horrible TV show that I was kind of forced to watch one time called "Hoarders." It's about people who have a kind of compulsive disorder that prevents them form throwing things away. They save everything, and I really mean everything. There was this one woman who refused to throw away food. So she just had these mountains of food all over her house. She had a fridge in her basement that wasn't working anymore and it was full of rotting, moldy food! I mean, this stuff was getting ready to crawl out of the refrigerator by itself.

The premise of the show is that people come in a clean all this stuff out. There's a therapist there to make sure the person is handling everything okay and to make sure they actually go through with the plan to clean up their house, and really clean up their lives. I mean, these people are in all kinds of trouble, beyond the fact that they're living with mice and rats and cockroaches, and that their houses have turned into fire hazards and that many of them are becoming physically ill because of their living environments. One woman was a compulsive shopper whose debt was spiraling out of control. There was a family on the verge of being evicted form their home. There was a couple that was about to lose their children to child protective services.

Now obviously, these are really extreme examples of people wanting things that are bad for them. But, we all want things that are bad for us. I eat things I shouldn't eat. I don't study as much as I should because I want to watch movies or hang out with my friends. I buy things I don't need. I'm not trying to come down on myself or tell you that I have this huge sense of guilt over who I am or the things I do, only that I recognize the very obvious fact that I am not perfect.

But, David wasn't perfect. Adam and Even weren't perfect. Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Miriam, and Samuel and Saul weren't perfect. Esther wasn't perfect. Mary and Joseph, and Peter and Paul weren't perfect. There's only one person in the Bible, in the whole history of humanity that was perfect, and that was Jesus. So, we're in good company. The Bible is full of stories of imperfect people. God loves imperfect people. God can use imperfect people.

David wasn't perfect, but David loved God. Now, I'm not saying that this excuses any of his bad behavior, just like loving God doesn't excuse our bad behavior, but David really loved God! And God was able to use David to do some truly miraculous things, just like God uses all of those people on that list of imperfect people to do miraculous things.

Looking back on it now, I can see how the whole time that I was struggling with the Hebrew text for this passage that God was leading me. God used my frustration to help me interpret the psalm, to lead me to this message. I was so disappointed in myself because I wasn't perfect, because I had forgotten how to translate the Hebrew texts. I'd been holding myself up to this ideal, that I would have these Bible languages down, that I would always be able to go back to the Hebrew, to go back to the Greek, to translate the scripture for myself, and that this would always be the starting point for every sermon that I would ever write. I'm not giving up on that dream, but I am admitting that I am not there right now, and that I may never get there. But, that's okay. God doesn't expect us to be perfect. We don't have to be perfect. We couldn't be perfect, even if we tried. And, that's okay. So, no matter what we might think is wrong with us, God will always love us and can use us, even in our imperfections, to do miraculous things. Amen.

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