Thursday, August 27, 2015

Psalm 11: When The Foundations Are Destroyed

This is a lightly edited version of a sermon I delivered last year at the opening worship gathering for Koinonia, the fellowship for Princeton Theological Seminary's PhD students. From 2011-2015, I served as Chaplain for the Koinonia fellowship. I felt urged to post it today, because not much has changed in the last twelve months, and my words convict me more than ever.


If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
    “Flee like a bird to the mountains;
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
    they have fitted their arrow to the string,
    to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed,
    what can the righteous do?”
The Lord is in his holy temple;
    the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
    His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked,
    and his soul hates the lover of violence.
On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
    a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
    the upright shall behold his face.

Bile and I have a complicated relationship. [Yes, I’m starting this way. Believe me, the other ways I tried starting were much worse.] I never outgrew the Gastro-Esophageal Reflux with which quite a few babies are born. In my case, I have a faulty stomach valve. At unexpected moments—usually at night, after laying down—bile and acid move up from my stomach through my esophagus. I begin spitting up, like a baby.

The problem is that I’ve developed an aversion to throwing up. I’ve done it so many times that my body physically doesn’t want to do it anymore. Before I can think, the muscles in my throat contract to force it all back down. Woken up by the shock, I gasp for air. Then the acid and bile enter my lungs, because the connection between my esophagus and my lungs is also faulty. Now I am sort of drowning. Every breath burns. More than half a dozen times, I’ve almost died because I just don’t like throwing up.

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

The word for “foundations” used in Psalm 11 is unique. It’s only used here in Psalm 11, and possibly in Isaiah. That’s it. In Hebrew, the word brings to mind something like support columns or pillars --- those structures put in place before the building is built. In the broader context of the Psalms, similar terms are used mostly as word pictures for underlying structures of society. If our society is broken, what can we do?

The whole Psalm is sort of weird. The text is garbled. Several words or turns of phrase only occur here. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the broad categories Psalms scholars have invented. God is never addressed, but only spoken of in the third person. The Lectionary skips this Psalm in favor of more popular or more interesting texts.

But Psalm 11 caught my attention and hasn’t let go. I was reading this Psalm when news broke that another unarmed young black man, Michael Brown, had been fatally shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Of course, he is not the first unarmed black man to be killed, but, to my shame, his death was the first one that rocked me to my core.

I suppose I’ve grown callous from day after day of horrible news for years on end. I also confess that I normally run from discussions of race. As a biracial man, still working out my identity, with a Chinese father, a white mother, and two nephews who are black, I’ve struggled to find my place in a conversation that often seemed to have only two sides.

For some reason, this time, I saw in Michael Brown my nephews, Dre and Greggy. Five or ten years from now, will I see them on the news? A friend made a comment on facebook to the effect that what happened in Ferguson will shape the way the young children there will grow up, view police, view white people. It will encourage black parents to continue to urge their children to exercise extra caution in whatever they do. How will Dre and Greggy be affected? Of course, for most black people across the United States, this event is not foundation-shaking. This is reality. This fear is the society in which they live. But for me, this time, my foundations were shaken.

Then I thought back to all of the world-shattering moments of the last few decades and came to realize that most of these things have been happening, with stunning regularity, for years. If the foundations are destroyed…if our society is broken…

But I want to return to Michael Brown. I want to go there because Princeton Seminary has a troubled history with race, a history I have no room here to give in detail. But, generally, it has been marked by avoidance and a “wait and see” approach regarding justice, freedom, and civil rights. And I have participated in that history. Like the bile in my throat, conversations about race have become something that I, that Princeton Seminary, have tried to avoid, even at the risk of cutting off my ability to breathe in the Holy Spirit. Even while writing this meditation, I had a strong desire to change the topic, to talk about anything else.

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? 

Verse 3 of Psalm 11 presents a quandary for the intrepid translator. Who is saying this? Is it part of the Psalmist’s friends’ advice? Does it mean, if the foundations are shaken, what else can the righteous do but flee? “Flee like a bird to the mountains.” Get the heck out of Dodge. Or, is it part of the Psalmist’s reply? If the foundations are shaken, the very mountains to which we could flee, what can the righteous do but throw their lot in with the God who is their true refuge? Regardless, the Psalmist’s perspective doesn’t change. Flight is not an option.

PhD students occupy a strange place at PTS. We are both teachers and students. We are here longer than Masters students, but for less time than most professors or administrators. Some of us are single. Some married. Some of us have kids, some don’t. Quite a few of us are international students. We’re small in number, and yet there are just enough of us to hinder knowing everyone. The structure of the program makes it hard to get to know people outside of our disciplines, at least not without some effort on our part. All of this is to say: It’s easy, as a PhD student, not to care, not to engage.

When I was a master’s student, I thought most PhD students were arrogant, aloof. Now, I realize that most PhD students are wonderfully kind people, who are overworked, fearful about their future in an ever-shrinking academic environment, worried about whether or not they belong among their extremely talented peers, and encouraged by their situation to hold onto relationships loosely because friends leave every year.

And, of course, there are professional reputations to consider. The safe academic stance is to take a neutral position. Institutions have a way of encouraging people to keep their heads down. Most PhD students are not aloof because they don’t care, but because it’s so hard to keep caring. “Flee like a bird to the mountains, for look…they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.” If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

What can our partners do? The husbands and wives of PhD students often occupy an even stranger position. Without course work or koinonia fellowship to build relationships, they must work even harder to find community. But what happens if nothing clicks? What happens if the friends they have made move away? It’s easy to not care.

I recently compared the life of a PhD student to an adult passenger in a crashing airplane. As the flight attendant says: grab your oxygen mask before helping someone else. We’re dying for air here and we feel like we can’t help others until we can breath ourselves. Or, perhaps, we’ve thrown up too many times, we’ve cared too many times, and we’re just so tired of caring that we’d rather drown than let it all come out.

Maybe it’s healthier to not take the time to address race in the way that it must be addressed. It’s certainly less stressful. But I want to encourage us not to take flight.

I want encourage us to continue to care about the systems of racism that impact all of us and about the very real, very human people --- our colleagues, friends, neighbors, relatives --- who live with the burden of racism every day. We’re called to care about each other. Period. Full stop. And this means dealing with racism and the way that it impacts all of us.

I’ve talked to many Masters and PhD students and their families who find seminary to be the most soul-sucking, spirit-defeating, faith-draining place. They are convinced that no one cares. With a spiritual and formational foundation like seminary, it’s no wonder so many pastors and youth ministers and spiritual directors and counselors leave the ministry after only a handful of years. At PTS, I’ve seen the effects of racism and of systems of racism. Take a look at who sits with whom at lunch some day. Most tables are pretty homogenous. What impact does this have on our churches?
We PhD students are in a unique position to do something about this. I know that many of us do care and are doing something. I want to encourage us not to take flight when the foundations are shaken. When job uncertainty casts a pall across our work. When the news makes you want to cower in your bed. When the foundations are shaken, don’t flee to the safety of the comfortable. Instead, hold steady to the more solid foundation, the God who demonstrated love for us in Jesus Christ, the cornerstone.

Many people turn to Ephesians 2 for scriptural reference when wrestling with race. What better text? Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between those who were far and near --- Gentiles and Jews. The PCUSA office of racial justice certainly turned to this text. They quoted it in both of the liturgical resources I could find on their website. We’re using those resources for our liturgy today.

I’m convinced that it’s easy to misuse this text. I’d argue that we find here not a directive, but a promise. It doesn’t license us to call for a simplistic and safe reconciliation at the expense of justice. On the Sunday after the events in Ferguson, the only time Michael Brown’s death was mentioned in my church was briefly during prayer. And the prayer was for racial reconciliation. It boiled down to: “God, help us get along.” This is not a bad prayer. God wants us to love each other. God desires reconciliation.

But after listening carefully and closely to black friends and colleagues, and watching an interview with Michael Brown’s mother, I am convinced that “getting along” must be paired with more difficult actions --- like the pursuit of justice, solidarity with victims of racial violence, deep confession. In other words, we too often fly too soon to the safety of “reconciliation mountain,” instead of trusting God’s promise to build us into a holy dwelling place in the midst of a foundation-shaken world.

Why does the Psalmist not flee? Because God is righteous. God is in God’s holy temple. God is just. Because Christ came, taught, loved, challenged, died, and rose again.

Perhaps that’s not a stirring statement with which to end a meditation, or with which to begin a new academic year. But this is what I needed to hear. And I believe, humbly, that I am not alone.

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? What can we do? I hope we do not flee. I hope that we stay and do the hard work of community, not because we have all the answers or can see the way clearly, but because we trust in the promise that we will behold God’s face. We trust that Christ has broken down the walls and that we are being built, spiritually, into a dwelling place for God. We trust that God is faithful, even when the world moves like mad. We trust that, when all else gives way, God’s salvation remains, and even in death, God’s great glory sustains. Amen. 

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