Sunday, October 3, 2021

Sermon: "THOSE PEOPLE", Psalm 26/Mark 2:13-17 (October 3, 2021)


Generally speaking, I don’t like to preach from the psalms. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like *them*; on the contrary, I think they’re a wonderful collection of writings that represent the human side of the divine/mortal relationship very well. But that’s exactly the problem: I love turning to the psalms for empathy and solidarity in my personal faith life, but when it comes to community worship, preaching from the psalms feels like centering the message on humanity instead of God. Preaching from the psalms feels self-indulgent.

Take today’s psalm, for example. It’s a particularly egregious case of scriptural egotism. The author (ostensibly King David) mentions himself—either as the subject of the sentence, as the object of the sentence, or describing something belonging to him—27 times in 12 verses. “Establish justice for ME,” “*I* detest the company of evildoers,” “Purify MY mind and MY heart”. In contrast, God is only mentioned an average of once per verse. Just twelve times—less than half as often!

Of those 12 times, fully half of them are David addressing God by God’s proper name: YHWH. This may seem unremarkable, until you consider the fact that as early as the 6th century BCE, the Jewish people had declared this name “too sacred to be uttered” or written, a tradition that persists today. This prohibition wasn’t yet in place during David’s reign, but as anyone who’s ever tried to call a teacher by their first name knows, this presumes a level of intimacy that could be considered inappropriate in a relationship of such dramatically unequal power dynamics. David is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t even think twice about calling his own creator by their first name instead of an appropriately reverential honorific or title.

So hopefully you can see how the psalms frustrate me as sermon fodder. And yet, something drew me to the psalm this week. Maybe it’s the relatable feeling that so many of us have been experiencing lately, the feeling that we’ve been working so hard and trying to do everything right, only to seemingly have it make no difference. We KNOW that it’s not all about us, but dang it, we’ve trusted God, we’ve followed the truth, we’ve stood on the level ground of science and scripture, we’ve striven to love our neighbor as ourselves, so how’s about you make with the salvation and mercy already, God! We’re all exhausted and would love for all of our efforts to finally pay off.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. After all, Jesus tells us, “Ask, and you will receive…knock, and the door will be opened to you.”[1] There’s nothing wrong with asking God to vindicate your faithfulness, even when it comes across as egotistical. But this psalm goes one step further beyond simple supplication. If we read more closely, we notice that David indulges in a second human impulse, one even more petty than his self-absorption: David chooses to add an antagonist to his psalm to make himself look better.

In order to bolster his personal claim of integrity and righteousness; David takes great pains to disassociate himself from THOSE PEOPLE. You know the type: those who are “up to no good”, liars, evildoers, wicked and violent people, idolators, hypocrites—in short, sinners. If I were to summarize Psalm 26 in as few words as possible, it would go something like this: “Me me me, God, me me me me me, NOT THEM, me me me, DEFINITELY NOT THEM, me me me, you.” There’s no question here where everyone stands in David’s eyes.

Psalm 26 sounds painfully childish and absolutist when distilled down to its essence like this, but of course, it—like all psalms—is an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of the human experience. How often have you defined yourself in opposition to others? I suspect that in the 2020 election, more people voted AGAINST the other candidate rather than FOR the person whose name they marked on the ballot. Living in Boise, I hear the rhetoric of “We don’t want to become Portland!” every day, as if Idaho and Oregon were on opposing ends of the culture spectrum instead of neighboring states. Personally, I confess that every time I read another article about a tragic COVID-19 death, I scan the piece for the victim’s vaccination status, to figure out if they were one of “us” or one of them “them”. To figure out exactly how bad I should feel for them. A friend of mine recently remarked, “I’m extremely uncomfortable with the character of my compassion these days,” and it’s the most relatable sentiment I’ve heard in a long time. We still “love” our neighbor, but nominally and from a distance; our first priority is to make sure everyone understands that we’re nothing like THEM.

This isn’t a great attitude in and of itself, but it becomes an even bigger problem when we expect God to share our mindset. That’s obviously what David is trying to do here; he assumes that God will be more likely to have mercy on him if he emphasizes how little he associates with sinners. This assumption reveals exactly what he expects his “justice” to look like: being treated better than THOSE PEOPLE. “Don’t gather me up with the sinners,” he begs. Don’t lump me in with them. Don’t subject me to their punishment. I’M so much better than that; I love the place where your glory resides, YHWH—take me there, instead. David assumes that God’s justice can be measured by proximity to the divine. It seems logical: the faithful are rewarded with a place at the Lord’s right hand and the sinners get tossed out with the garbage, as they deserve. It would make all the sacrifices that we’ve made in God’s name worth it to know that we get to dwell with the Lord and THOSE PEOPLE don’t.

But (and you KNEW this was coming) that’s not how God works at all. David, of all people, should have known that. God doesn’t hang out in a distant sky-throne, surrounding Godself only with those whose resume of righteous acts makes the cut. No; God comes down and gets into the muck and messiness of human life with us. And not just with us *repentant* sinners working hard to try and do the right thing, but with THOSE PEOPLE. The ones that we, like David, assume don’t deserve it.

Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the four—it moves quickly and conveys a sense of immediacy—but this brief account of Jesus eating with sinners still made the cut because this point is THAT IMPORTANT. It’s tempting to read this passage as a movie cliché, with Jesus seeking out the one tax collector “with a heart of gold” and redeeming him by bringing out his best qualities—but that’s not what’s happening here. Tax collectors were seen as traitors to their own people; they profited by appropriating money from the Jews on behalf of their Roman oppressors (often unscrupulously). There were no redeeming qualities to any tax collector, as far as Mark’s audience was concerned. And yet, Jesus went to Levi’s house and ate a meal, not only with *him*, but with MANY sinners and tax collectors—there’s no possible way that they ALL had hearts of gold. This is where Jesus spent his time. This is who Jesus associated with—the very same sort of people that David took such pains to distance himself from.

Now, we need to be careful not to take the wrong lesson away from this. Jesus hanging out with sinners doesn’t mean that he was condoning their sin. It doesn’t mean that righteousness is subjective or that “both sides are equally valid”. God’s values are immutable; it will never be righteous to take care of ourselves at the expense of others (like the tax collectors here in Mark 2) or to send “thoughts and prayers” instead of actively helping (like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan). David got this much right in Psalm 26: there is a recognizable difference between righteous and sinful actions, and while it can sometimes be tricky to figure out where the line between them lies, there is no overlap between the two.

God, however, isn’t confined by these sharply drawn moral lines. God doesn’t “belong” to the virtuous. God isn’t on the side of the morally upright. God is “for” all of us, every single one, reprobate and righteous alike. And God can be found just as readily in the company of the sinner as with the saint—perhaps even more so, since, as Jesus notes, “healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do”. This is where God has decided God belongs.

So defining ourselves in opposition to THOSE PEPOLE doesn’t have quite the reputation enhancing effect that we might think it does. The people who seem furthest away from God are exactly the ones with whom Jesus would be dining, the ones with whom God’s Spirit most longs to dwell—and the ones with whom we should be spending our time. It doesn’t make us more holy to distance ourselves from those on the other side of righteousness; it actually pulls us away from where God is.

That’s not to say that engaging with THOSE PEOPLE will be easy. Jesus warned us up front that this was part of the gig. We all know that abuse and ridicule is far too common when individuals with opposing viewpoints clash—especially in the relative anonymity of the internet. But if we remember that God is with THOSE PEOPLE, too, and that even they are beloved children of God, we find that true righteousness isn’t found in exclusion, but in radical inclusion—ESPECIALLY when it’s most difficult.

One of the best examples of this comes from an unlikely place: comedian Sarah Silverman.[2] In late 2017, a Twitter troll responded to one of her tweets with a vulgar insult. But Silverman, whose comedy itself tends to run rather dark and bawdy, chose not to respond in kind. Instead of distancing herself from him with a counter attack or by ignoring him, she responded with empathy and compassion. Among other things, she tweeted back, “See what happens when [you] choose love. I see it in you.”

Her unexpected response was a risk, but it paid off in a big way. She had no magic words; no secret knowledge, no carefully-honed technique. Just love and the knowledge that this man deserved to feel seen. Instead of focusing on what divided them, Silverman focused on what they had in common: “Welcome to the human race, friendo,” she tweeted, “You are not alone.” What a message to share with someone who had offered her nothing but contempt! (The man, by the way, began opening up to her, and by the end of their exchange, he’d apologized for his trolling and had decided to seek help for the physical and emotional pain that was fueling his vitriol.)

Silverman isn’t religious, but God was clearly present in the most malicious and swampy depths of Twitter that day. Maybe we should take this Twitter exchange and add it as Psalm 26 1/2 , to counterpoint David’s embarrassing self-absorption. Only Jesus would have been able to muster a more holy response.

The temptation to distance yourself from those who choose wickedness over righteousness is understandable. It’s so hard to go to the places where anger, hate, and sin reside without sacrificing your mental health and emotional wellbeing, or, on the flipside, without being tempted to respond in the same way…but it’s entirely possible. God is already there, and is calling you there, too. God’s kindom will not come through humanity separating ourselves out like recycling, but through us figuring out how to bring the best parts of all of us together to reflect God’s image as one. And if THOSE PEOPLE aren’t going to do it, then it’s up to us to bring them with us—because we can’t do it without them. Only then will we be able to bless the Lord in the great congregation of ALL humankind, as David envisioned. Only then will we be able to claim the holy integrity that we seek. May it be so. Amen.


[1] Matthew 7:7, CEB.


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