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“Behind Enemy Lines” — Sermon Rewind

For yesterday’s message . . .

what happened in the lobby afterwards was more important than what happened in the Worship Center during;

the church got to learn a new word;

the church was able to celebrate its own remarkable history of generosity and impact;

the bottom line intentionally contained a grammatical no-no;

staff and volunteers coalesced to get hundreds of people involved in Outreach ServeTeams, a pivotal part of our strategy;

we realized together that when you marry anger with action what emerges is beauty.

 

Here it is:  “Behind Enemy Lines” from Psalm 129.

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I am SO excited today. You know why? I get to teach you all a new word! Would you like to know a new word, a bona fide word used primarily by religious PROfessionals? Here it is: imprecatory. How many of you used that word at work in the last week? (Liar!)
You know what it means?  You’re driving along, you get tailgated and then passed by someone going at least 20 mph over the speed limit and so you call out in your otherwise empty car, “Lord, PLEASE let there be a PO-lice car up there so he can get what he deserves!” That’s imprecatory. Or you see someone cut in line at Disney or Carowinds and you utter this silent prayer, “Lord PLEASE let the park officials see them do that so they get booted out of here and I get my rightful place back!” That’s imprecatory. Or someone at work boasts too much or cut too many corners and when it catches up with them you do this little celebration dance inside. “Thank you Jesus for seeing my righteousness! And . . . can I have their office now that they’re gone?” That’s imprecatory. It’s speaking curses, praying misfortune, longing for ill-will for your enemies and taking all that stuff to God. And we have those feelings, we utter those prayers, and most of the time we keep it secret because we’re a little ashamed to be acting . . . so small.
And the darndest thing is that those types of IMPRECATORY prayers made it into the bible. 36x in the Psalms alone! The same bible where Jesus in Matthew 5:44 tells us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors has 36 occasions of praying pain and punishment down on them! Who knew that the bible was so . . . unstable? Because if it’s a library, these 36 imprecatory psalms are its “I’m tee’d off!” section.
And one of the best of these is Psalm 129. Can I just show you how it ends because I love it so much before we circle back around to how it starts? And so you know: when it refers to “they” or “them” in Psalm 129, that’s a way of referring to one and all of the many, many oppressor nations who through the centuries were the enemies of the Jews: Egpyt, Rome, Babylon, Amalekites, Philistines, and so many more. So look at Psalm 129:8: 

May those who pass by not say to them,
    “The blessing of the Lord be on you;
    we bless you in the name of the Lord.”

I love that! God I hate them so much please make sure NO ONE ever says ‘Have a nice day!’ to them! Father, I detest them so much that please make sure when they sneeze, NO ONE EVER says, ‘God bless you.’ May those things never be! That’s how 129 ends.
So what is going on here? How did we arrive at that concluding imprecatation that really just heaps hot coals on an already burning head? And how does a song that, remember now, is being sung by pilgrims on their way UP to worship the Lord God at the Jerusalem temple . . . how does that song end up being such a gigantic ½ a peace sign to Israel’s enemies? And what does it have to do with us and our imprecatations?
Well, look at how it starts in 129:1-2:

“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth,”
    let Israel say;
“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
    but they have not gained the victory over me.

READ Israel has ALWAYS been under assault, from Egypt & Babylon then to anti-Semitism, Iran, and ISIS now. But I love that defiance of 129:2b – tuck that away because we might just come back to it. Then this graphic image of 129:3:

Plowmen have plowed my back
    and made their furrows long.

That is every bit as gross as it sounds. The psalm writer envisions his nation personified in an individual lying on his stomach with a sharpened plow moving back and forth across. Implausible, impossible, disgusting. That flayed back is one of those images that easily transferred from the national to the personal; from Israel to Jesus.  That’s what happened to Jesus’ back when he was flogged! 

 

So: Israel is always under attack, its enemies continually assaulting it, and then 129:5a cuts to the core of it all:

May all who hate Zion
    be turned back in shame

“Hate Zion” is code for hating God, opposing the things of God and the values of God. Which suddenly puts the whole Psalm – including the closing DON’T have a nice day! – into perspective.
This is not some kind of personal vendetta; this is wrestling with people and institutions who are actively working to thwart not just God’s people but God himself. People & movements who hate God. Those who profit from that which defames God and defiles his people. What do you do with the kind of righteous indignation you feel at that?! (Even more, what do you do when you are one who loves God on the one hand and falls prey to that which defames him and defiles his people on the other?!) What do you with the justifiable anger you feel at people & movements who are flourishing by flaunting their hatred of God?
Like you know what kind of things make me mad? Get my blood boiling? And I am a very patient person? But what makes me Psalm 129 mad, where I wouldn’t want anyone to wish anyone involved a “good day” or a “God bless you”?
Girls swept up in the rape for profit industry which is euphemistically called human trafficking. Let’s call it what it is: they are being raped. For profit.
Xns in India who come home to broken houses.
Hunger in an affluent city like Charlotte.
The UMC heritage betrayed by people making false claims about it and then declaring it’s God’s new will.
I see those realities at work and then realize that this psalm which SEEMS so distant is actually so immediate. Because look again at the defiance of 129:2b: READ. Couple that with the God-saturated truth of 129:4:

But the Lord is righteous;
    he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.”

READ. Know what happened there? The cords connected the plow to the ox were cut and so nothing was happening. Evil people think they’re still having an impact against God but they’ve been disconnected from their own machinery! Plowing without cords is like driving without gas. And then at 129:6:

May they be like grass on the roof,
    which withers before it can grow;

READ … which is a way of saying that the victories won by the forces that hate God are short lived and ultimate drift away. Like you know why we don’t all speak German, right? The Nazis – killers of whom? Israel! – lost.
And so I put all those pieces together from this psalm and realize it’s not so much about petty wishes that people will have their sneezes go UNBLESSED by God. It is instead about harnessing the power of righteous anger. Making anger into something beautiful by melding it with action and with generosity. Not like King David who Scripture tells us merely got angry with his children AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT. Not like those parents you see out shopping (Wal Mart maybe?) who ignore their kids, ignore their kids, ignore their kids, and THEN explode with screeches and slaps and THERE! consider that they have done some good discipline. No, not that kind of anger.
I’m talking about the anger that fuels action. Those times when you realize I can’t take God being mocked for another moment and so I’m going to do something about it! How else to you think the writer of Psalm 129 had so much resilience in 129:2! Not because he felt angry; because he acted on the emotions he had! Here’s my take-away, people: Get working on what you get mad at. (And yes, I finished a sentenced with “at”!) I’m not talking household anger, I’m not even talking what you do when you shank a golf shot or lose a bet; I’m talking about righteous indignation when you see God defamed and his people defiled. Get working on what you get mad at.
Isn’t it interesting, these things you find are actually IN the bible? God allows us to express all kinds of things that might not be all that . . . godly. He allows much of what he does not endorse to appear on the pages of Scripture. He gives us the grace to be brutally honest with him; to express emotions that aren’t all that holy. I think that’s the beauty of why IMPRECATORY psalms made it in the first place.  Get working on what you get mad at.
But in this case, there’s more and there’s better. There’s the recognition that when you marry anger and action the result is beauty. A furious, active, redeeming kind of beauty. And you all at Good Shepherd actually have a pretty phenomenal record at harnessing your righteous anger to make a radical impact in the world. Like earlier this year, you got ticked off and local hunger and you set the all-time record for area churches in terms of food collected. You! Last year, you got angry at famine in Africa and packed 254,000 meals in one day with SHN (AV). (Actually, an Asheville pastor asked a rep of that org what’s the biggest you’ve ever done and he answered, “Good Shepherd.” The A-ville pastor was Rich Tuttle!) And then you got angriest of all in early 2013 when we told you about the rape for profit industry growing in the Carolinas and you worked on it to the tune of $400,00 in a single day for the Hope House. Get working on what you get mad at.
But you know, ministry there didn’t stop when construction did. In fact, that’s when it started. And there are ways that you, today, can still REFRAIN. That’s why I have asked Emily Fitchpatrick, president of OEWM to sit with me for a few . . .
INTERVIEW on how people can still get involved.

 

Now: I realize the rape for profit industry might not be the best fit for all of you to get working on what you get mad at.
Some of you might get mad at addictions. That’s why we have Charlotte Rescue Mission representatives in the lobby.
And some might be angry at the fact that children who are abandoned. That’s why we have our Children’s Attention Home team in the lobby.

 

Or veterans who become homeless.  That’s why we have our Open Arms Team in the lobby.

 

We concluded with a dismissal into a mini Ministry Fair for Outreach Serve Teams in the church lobby.

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