Sunday, January 29, 2017
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This is flu season, and if any of you have visited a major hospital or nursing home, you will be made aware of a number of restrictions.  This last week, I visited someone undergoing chemotherapy, and realized there was a long list of things that I, as a visitor needed to take to heart before going.  It was a self-screening process.  One of the hospitals has the following restrictions:  Do not visit if you have a new or a worsening cough, fever, chills, shortness of breath, severe headache, unexpected muscle aches, unexplained extreme fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea and rashes.  I think that pretty well covers the major things!  So, I did an analysis of myself, found no rashes, I wasn’t sneezing, etc. so I went ahead and did my visit.  Nevertheless, I thought, “You know, the wisdom of this and advertising it ahead of time is tremendous!”  It protects those who are there, either the patients who are vulnerable or the staff who have to care for them daily.  If we screen ourselves before going in to a place of healing, we would make that place much more secure. I mention this because of today’s passage.  In many ways, we have to read Psalm 15 in the same way that we would read a hospital notice.  It is a reminder of what you need to be like when you enter the House of the Lord.  This particular passage was probably written, or certainly sung on a regular basis after the people of Israel returned following the Exile.  What happened was, the Israelites had been spread all over the eastern part of the world, but now were returning to Jerusalem, Zion, and Israel.  So, this is in a sense, a song that was sung.  It was a liturgy that was read at the beginning of a gathering of people.  Basically, it said, “This is what worshippers should be like when they come into this sacred place.”  What is fascinating about it is that not only was it a song that everyone sung, but it was a passage that was repeated over and over again when the people of God met.  Remember the Psalms are songs of worship, as Emma talked about in her children’s moment. This Psalm is a reminder that whenever you go to worship in Synagogue or in a place of worship there are certain things that you need to keep in mind.  You will notice if you read this carefully that there are ten things that a worshipper should consider.  In many ways, they reflect the Ten Commandments.  The reason why ten was used so often (and I didn’t realize this until the lecture I attended during the winter in the U.K.), was because we have ten digits and it is easy to memorize ten things when you have four fingers and two thumbs.  As we look at this particular Psalm, it is not just ten things that are laid out, but they are laid out to make sure that when you enter into the House of the Lord you are doing the right things.  The great Fred Craddock, who preached here in this pulpit may years ago said, “This is not exactly the ‘Everyone Welcome’ sign that you find in most churches.  This is a thing that we need to look at to analyze ourselves, and it is in the form as is often the case in the Scriptures, of a question and answer.  The question asks this:  who is able or who can come into the Tent of the Lord and who can ascend to the Holy Hill?”   Now, this was a question about a tent or a tabernacle.  The people of Israel had been scattered all over the world, bringing with them a diversity of cultures and traditions, and now they are coming into a tabernacle, not a temple, for the temple hadn’t been rebuilt, but a tabernacle, like a great, big tent.  In the tent was the Ark of the Covenant, the focal point of the worship of the people of Israel.  They are asking who is worthy to come into this magnificent tent, where the Lord dwells.  In many ways, it echoes Psalm 24.  This Psalm asks exactly the same question, “Who can come in to the House of the Lord?”  It wasn’t designed as you might think, to keep people out.  It wasn’t a barrier for people.  Someone wasn’t sitting at the entrance to the tent making sure that you have adhered to all these policies. Rather, it is for the person who is coming in to analyze themselves spiritually to see if they had been good citizens and neighbors.   The beautiful thing about the Psalms is that they look not only at external behavior, but also at internal motivation.  The best way I can describe this if you are going to visit a hospital, and let’s say externally you are fine with all the criteria that has been established – no fever, no flu, no sneezing, no rashes, you are good – but the reason that you want to go into the hospital is to steal from the patients.  Externally you have met all the right criteria, but you are motivated by deceit.  This last week, when I visited the hospital, I went into the ward, sat down next to the person, who was asleep and realized there were personal belongings sitting right there that could easily be stolen.  In other words, if my heart was evil, I could have done damage even though externally I met all the right criteria.  Internally, I could have a warm heart, visit someone and give them compassion and love, but if externally I had a fever and I still went and visited that person, then I would be doing them damage.  See the distinction?  In other words, external and internal can conflict with one another.   What all this is about is personal integrity.  This isn’t about setting up barriers.  It’s not about what I talked about last week with the lepers not being allowed to go into the House of the Lord because of their disease.  Rather, this is about the personal integrity of worshippers.  It is good at times to analyze ourselves, do a bit of an audit, and confirm that when we come into the House of the Lord that we are meeting these wonderful criteria:  There are five, if I break them down to sections, all of which are powerful.  The Psalmist talks about being blameless, which in Hebrew is tamim.  When you look at the word “blameless” you naturally think, “Who can go and worship and be blameless?”  The Bible after all only speaks in The Old Testament about people like Jonah and Job being blameless.  Even in The New Testament, 1 Peter 3 says that “You should seek to be spotless and blameless.”  Blameless means not having a guilty conscience before God.  The Apostle Paul said, “We have all sinned.  We have all fallen short of the glory of God.”  Jesus, in looking at the men who were going to stone the adulterous woman, said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”  In other words, none of us is actually blameless.  Nevertheless, that does not mean we shouldn’t seek to be of a clear conscience, that we shouldn’t analyze ourselves and do the work of some serious introspection in our own lives.  I know this isn’t in vogue these days, the whole notion of guilt and suffering from guilt is something that is so far remote from our common discourse, but it is nevertheless something that goes right to the very heart of the matter.   Blamelessness is not about the external as much as it is about the internal. It is about the motivation.  None of us by virtue of our own actions can ever be blameless and spotless or completely guilt-free.  It is not possible.  I love an allusion that Martin Luther made (and by the way over this next twelve months I am going to be quoting Luther and Calvin because it is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, so if you think I am overdoing the Luther thing a little that is why).  This is Luther for you: “He who would gain righteousness by faith and works is as the dog who runs along a stream with a piece of meat in his mouth and deceived by the reflection of the meat in the water, opens his mouth to snap at it, and so loses both the meat and the reflection.”  Isn’t that beautiful?  That is what “works” does.  If you are trying to grasp it, you will end up losing it, and that is exactly the way we are as human beings.  Luther was real.  It is not as if we can be spotless and blameless through our own works, but by coming into the House of the Lord, we seek the righteousness and the forgiveness that is his.  That is why, always in our prayers at the beginning, there is a sense of confession. There is another thing that Luther says, and this is more about how we relate to others:  “Speak the truth from the heart.”  I don’t know, but it seems to me that this whole notion of truth has hit the headlines over the last few weeks and months like it hasn’t for many years.  I think we are all struggling a little bit with truth.  We have perhaps created a bit of a beast, and by that I mean our post-modern agenda that says truth is relative and your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth has maybe hit a wall because in the relativizing of truth then what you get is ultimate truth, what you get is another truth, or another set of facts – or “post-truth”.  It is everywhere by the way!  If we get to a world that is post-truth, who do you trust?  What peace is there in knowing that something is solid and right?  The psalmist talked about speaking the truth from the heart.  In other words, not through the manipulation of the mind for personal gain, but from the heart, from a true and a sincere and an honest assessment of what you believe to be right.  That is very different from “your truth and my truth”.  It is a truth that becomes part of you and comes from the very core of your moral being.  It is about integrity, and so often one can purport to use truth to mislead or mismanage or manipulate, but a truth that has sincerely worked its way through the heart, is a truth that results in a stable world.  That should be what we seek, and when we come into the House of the Lord it is where we analyze and where God’s spirit touches us and says, “Is this the truth that is really in your soul?” There is also a social code:  do not slander your neighbor.  This is a reflection of course of The Ten Commandments:  “Do not bear false witness.”  This is a powerful phrase!  What society can base itself on slander?  What community of faith can be held together if it is torn apart by slander?  What can a world and a future that has peaked if it is built on slander?  One of the ways that we respect and love our neighbor is not to slander them.  This past Thursday, I attended a fascinating evening here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church where Dr. Debra Pepler, psychologist from the University of York and an outstanding expert and writer on bullying, came and talked to both parents and young people about the dangers of bullying, particularly cyber-bullying, for we have encountered incidents of this recently, and it is hurtful, it’s painful and it is profoundly destructive.  In her presentation, she talks about how cyber-bullying is a form of slander.  But not like the days when I went to school where if you slandered somebody, a few people might hear about it, and it might go across the twitter universe, and by “twitter” I mean just talking to one another. That really is old – right?  It would go around the school, but likely that is as far as it would get.  Now when you slander somebody and you do it the cyber way, you have created something that can keep going and going and going.  It’s dangerous!  This might sound outmoded but when you come into the House of the Lord you put away slander. Those who truly worship God put away slander.  But I am not sure it is as outmoded as people think.  I think it is about as relevant, and as important as you can find.  Barbara Blaisdell, a preacher in Hawaii, writes these wonderful words:  “Words can beget worlds.”  The whole world can be influenced by words.  They can create and they can destroy.  Words need to be chosen carefully.  Words can do, according to the Book of James enormous damage, but can also bring great comfort and peace.   For those who come into the Tent of the Lord, watch what you say, because it might hurt your neighbour. There is also an affirmation here, and this is going to make us all squirm in our pews, that money matters, and what we do with our money matters – and it is so profoundly true!  Those who returned from the Exile into Jerusalem, brought many traditions, some of them from Persia, and Babylonia, and some from Syria, a world that is often being talked about now.  When they returned to Israel, those who were Jewish returned to Zion and they brought with them many traditions in business.  One being the principle of usury.  Now, usury is a very powerful biblical word.  It is not actually used in today’s passage. The word “interest” was used, and it is really bad, because the Hebrew is neshekh, which means “to bite”.  So, usury is not just the gaining of interest; it is the “biting” of people.  It is taking people who are poor and exploiting them.  It is making sure that the poor become indebted to you, giving you power and control over them.  It is not about gaining interest in the normal way one gains interest in an account of some kind.  That is not what he is talking about here.  What the psalmist is talking about is usury – the exploitation of the weak.  In his commentary on this, another reformer, John Calvin said the following:  “A word above all things, counsel my leaders to beware of ingeniously contriving pretext by which to take advantage of their fellow men and women, and let them not imagine that anything can be lawful to them which is grievous and hurtful to others.”  In other words, Calvin in writing about this very Psalm is saying “Don’t invent ways to exploit the weak.  Do not manipulate the poor.  Do not make them on you, but rather use your money wisely.”  And so, this is a call for us to use our money wisely, to look and to see if it is grievous to our neighbour and to make sure that it is not exploiting the weak and the powerless.  I think the world needs to hear that, not just those who come into the tent, but for all time. There is a fifth warning here, and this is a really strange one:  “Do not be deceived by deceivers” or “Do not associate with those who have turned their back on God”.  In other words, be careful who you associate with.  This, of course, was a word for the exiles, to remind them that the friends they make and the people with whom they associate should be those who want to build up the common good and not break it down.  Unfortunately, this passage has been used throughout centuries of the Church for schisms and groups that decided to create little “holy clubs” so they don’t have to associate with people who don’t think like them.  We all create our holy clubs to some extent, even by the friends that we have and those with whom we associate closely.  But the psalmist is not talking about the creation of a holy club.  He is not talking about some elite, self-righteous group.  There are way too many of those!  What he is saying is to be careful with whom you associate.  Make sure you choose people who are going to lift up your faith and encourage you to do the good and to love your neighbor.  This is at the heart of what he is saying.  It is in keeping then with this whole social code that we find manifesting itself in this Psalm. It is powerful and it is real.   The conclusion is simply this:  This is not about keeping people out of the tent.  It is not about setting purity laws or making sure that we exchange our openness for a closed door.  It is not about that at all!  This is about the integrity of believers in both honouring God and caring for their neighbor.  The world could do a lot worse than heeding these words, because a world that is not so worried and torn by guilt, a world that speaks the truth from the heart, does not slander, and uses money for the building up of people, not the breaking down of them, for relationships that are mutually supportive and encouraging, to do the good. If these things are at the foundation of a worshipping community, then as the psalmist said, it is solid and stable.  It is built on something meaningful.  So in our relations with one another and in our relationship with the world let us listen to this ancient Psalm.  It is a song, but take it to heart in Christ’s name! Amen.