By Pastor John Johnson

April 22 -- "Pulling the Wool from Off One's Eyes"

May 2, 2018

Well, last Sunday represented the final performance of the season for Arizona Opera, to which I give most of the time I do not spend as pastor. Yes, the final opera performance of the season, but opera is not the only musical form I enjoy, and I am in the throes of attending several performances of a genre that has wider public embrace than opera, musicals. Musicals, what are sometimes called “musical comedies,” though not all are comedies, or sometimes referred to as “broadway musicals.” Two weeks ago last night, Patricia and I attended a current popular favorite, “The Book of Mormon,” the language of which I could not possibly use in this building even if I used it elsewhere; and yesterday, we attended a university student performance of the 1950’s “Pajama Game,” a musical that I only saw before in the 1950’s when our high school performed it. This coming week we will see the musical based on “Shop Around the Corner,” the 1940 movie some of you watched when we showed it shortly before Christmas.

That last musical is called, “She Loves Me!” and I have threatened — offered — to show it by streaming over the Internet. If not my absolute favorite, it is certainly among my favorite musicals. The music and lyrics were by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnack, and if those names do not ring a bell, their best known and most successful collaboration will do so: “Fiddler on the Roof,” the late 1950’s show that I suspect might still rank as one of the greatest ever Broadway box office successes.

I once before mentioned that show and one of its songs. The story is about a family in a Jewish village in Russia (near the Ukraine) and has the unhappy ending of everyone’s abandoning the village in the face of a pogrom, those horrid destructions and burnings and persecutions of Jewish communities and people. The central character is the father in that family, Tevye, who would like to spend his day in good Jewish fashion studying with his fellow villagers and the village rabbi. In one scene, the rabbi is asked to say a prayer for the Tsar, who in fact would not have looked with favor on Jews, and the rabbi says, “May the Lord bless and keep the Tsar . . . as far away from us as possible.”

Praying for one’s enemies, for in a real sense, the Tsar was, if not an enemy by intent, an enemy by omission for not stopping the pogroms.

We toss around words like “enemy” and “hate” and, I hasten to add, “fascist” and “racist” and “communist,” much too easily, and when we do so, they lead to further hyperbole, whether as in “Impeach Trump” or as in “lock-her-up.” What in heavens’ name; it is hard not to take this as what is true hate speech, and while I do not believe there should be a law against it — a political law, that is, — the Epistle from which we have been reading brief excerpts, 1 John, offers these statements:
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.
All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

And I hope I do not have to add for any of you that if a one is a child of God — and who is not, — whether or not that person has yet come to Christ, he or she is a 
brother or sister,” though I am not sure the writer of 1 John means that.

Especially as we have bid “good-bye” to Barbara Bush, it is worth all of our noting the genuine friendship that arose between her husband, President George H.W. Bush, and the man who kept him from having a second term as President, President Bill Clinton, a friendship so genuine that President George W. Bush joked about himself’s having been replaced as “son.”

I have commented to you that my daily devotions this calendar year have included a “psalm-a-day,” as I have read a psalm for a particular translation by a University of California scholar, then his notes on his translation, and then re-read the psalm again.

Most psalms are songs or poems — Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized them as “the prayers of Jesus” — of praise or thanks or requests for blessings. Most, but not all.

The other day, I encountered a call for revenge to be meted out by God. The psalmist in this case apparently believed he was being falsely and maliciously slandered or sued or even prosecuted , and in the psalm asks God to deal with whoever was so slandering him or pursuing legal action falsely against him:
Help me, O LORD, my God
Rescue me as befits Your kindness,
that they may know that Your hand it is,
it is You, O LORD, Who did it.
Great, so far; the psalmist, who believes he is wrongly accused, asks for God’s rescue, but then he goes on:
Let them [my accusers] curse, and You, You will bless [me].
They rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.
Let my accusers don disgrace,
and let them wrap round like a robe their shame.

Whoa Nellie! A call to God to even a score? To avenge a wrong done to one? A psalm calling for vengeance? This is hardly a psalm I would use, as I do so often use a psalm, for our “Call to Worship.”

I have also shared with the Bible study class a psalm to which I have not yet arrived in my private reading as an example of how a psalm can be beautiful and ugly at the same time — Psalm 137, clearly written during the exile and captivity in Babylon in the period 589-539 BCE:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Lovely, is it not? It ends thus:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” What?!? That is in the Bible, for sure, but, and not merely as an aside, do you think those are words God said to the writer of that psalm? Were they inspired by God? I do not think so.

But I digress — though not without having intended to do so.

The rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” is certainly not in the tradition of the writers of these two psalms. The writers of both these psalms may have had humanly justifiable reasons for anger, yet they were calling out to God for something that is not — well, I get ahead of myself.

I get ahead of myself for, is not our God a vengeful God? Is it wrong to pray for God’s vengeance against those who have done wrong or done us wrongf?

One of the tougher things our Lord and Savior had to say is in the magnificent Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus — Jesus who, asked the question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” responded with, “Not seven times, but . . . seventy-seven” — or “seventy times seven” — “times.” This same Jesus says — among many other statements similar in form:

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

How many of us who call ourselves Christians believe it is fine to “hate” Donald Trump? or Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? Or members of the NRA or of Greenpeace or the ACLU?

Jesus, the “Good Shepherd,” tried to pull the wool off from over the eyes that could pray for killing the innocent children of Babylonians or seek vengeance for those of us who have felt ourselves wronged.

But did we get the message? We did not get the message if we cannot see others as children of God. In a real sense, a fictitious rabbi in a 1950’s musical labors better than most of us, when, though he does not offer a true prayer for well-being, does not pray for harm for the morally short-sighted Tsar.

I doubt that any of us here today pray for any physical harm to come to Donald Trump nor any of his opponents, but in so far as we, if not create, then condone and tolerate an atmosphere of hateful words and thoughts, we risk an environment in which people will be hurt.

I guess by this time of year the Lutherans in our church family have left for their other homes, which means that most of us are Presbyterians, and I mention that only because one of the two aspects — to be sensitive, I won’t mention a third — one of the two aspects of the Calvinism of presbyterianism that I like best — the other is the form of church government — one of the two aspect of presbyterianism I like best is what Calvin called the dialectic, which is just a fancy word for something like discussion involving differences, and Calvin liked it because civil discourse about these differences, discussions over disagreements, can help us to understand both sides in an argument and to grow in our own understanding and wisdom — maybe even pull the wool off our own eyes where we have been mistaken or misled.

Mistaken or misled, such as in the idea that a loving God would ever dash little ones against a rock.

The message of God’s love shown in Jesus simply over-rules any such concept. God does indeed cause the sun to shine and the rain to fall on all; if God can accept us all, so, too, should we.

The person whose politics differ from mine is not my enemy, just my misguided brother or sister — or is it possible I could be wrong?

Quite possibly, it is that neither of us is wrong, we just see things differently.

See things differently, but not this: That God loves us! God showed that love by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray for all God’s children, friend or not friend, to know and appreciate that love.

In Jesus’ name. Amen

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