God, The Centre (Psalm 90; John 15:1-15) Reverend Maxine F. Ashley
“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Those are words penned by poet W.B. Yeats following WWI when he saw society, as he knew it, falling apart. Change was just coming too fast. Nothing could hold together. It is a common sentiment today, too, I think. I hear people say they are afraid to turn on the news in the morning because they never know what may have happened overnight. It has been a particularly bad season with devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, wildfires and other so-called natural disasters. And in addition there is the anger and conflict all around. There are protests and counter-protests that threaten to become violent. We sometimes feel fearful that our families and communities we count on are being torn apart or at least damaged by all the conflict. It seems to be impossible to have a reasonable discussion about anything without hostility. To say nothing of the mass shootings and vehicles intentionally driving into the path of people. Each one seems worse than the one before. And so we say with Yeats, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”
M. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary has written an article in a recent copy of Christian Century titled “The Center That Can Hold.” He draws attention to the fact that the world has always been falling apart. You don’t have to read very far in history to find cultures destroyed by invading armies or deadly plagues that destroyed the known world or an economic depression that stripped people of their farms, jobs, and hopes for a future. You get the picture. These are not new problems. Throughout history the world has always been falling apart. But Barnes is equally certain that there is hope for all of us. And so am I.
Our two scripture passages point us in the direction of this hope. The Old Testament passage will point us to the One who is the source of that hope. The Gospel lesson will show us what it has to do with us and give some ways it will show up in our lives. Let us look at each of them.
Psalm 90 is a familiar psalm. You probably learned at least some of the verses by heart. The psalms are poems, or songs used by God’s people in worship. They still are often used today. Just as our hymnal has many different kinds of hymns and songs for various seasons and themes, so does this hymnal in the Bible. There are songs of praise and thanksgiving, psalms for special occasions and many to express the feelings people had during the bad times. These are called the laments. There apparently were many of these “bad times” for there are more laments than any other kind of Psalm. The Book of Psalms is divided into 5 books. Ps. 90 is the first in Book 4 . The individual psalms were not written as if they were one big book but were rather collected for use in worship. We can assume that they were, often, placed in a particular order for a reason. You have heard from this pulpit many times how important it is that we read things in the Bible in their context. I want us to read this Psalm in that same way this morning. I think the meaning in Psalm 90 becomes clearer when we see what came just before, in Psalms 88 and 89. All three of the psalms are laments, but there is something different about each. 88 is a desperate prayer for healing. Listen to a few of these lines: “For my soul is full of troubles. . .I am counted among those who go down to the pit.” “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” And the psalm ends as it begins with no word of hope. Still in bleak darkness. God has promised to keep a covenant but it doesn’t seem to be happening, at least for this psalmist and the community of which he or she was a part. And Psalm 89 is much like it only here the theme is related to David. The psalm begins with a litany of praise for God’s covenant with David which would last forever. But even that does not hold. Here are just a few examples of that cry: “But now you have spurned and rejected David. You are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant….How long O Lord. Will you Hide yourself forever?” This psalm was written when “David” (the monarchy descended from him, and all that centred life in that), had fallen to pieces when the Babylonians destroyed Judah and Jerusalem.
The psalmists in both 88 and 89 are calling out for God to answer these burning questions. Surely God has abandoned the people and failed to keep the covenant promises made, not even a promise as important as one made to David. We know the end of the story so we know that God has not failed on his promise to David. There is still much more to come. And in a couple of weeks, with the beginning of Advent, we will once again tell this beloved story of God’s faithfulness. But these psalmists did not yet know this. So questions remain And so does anxiety.
I think it is important to notice the honesty with which the psalmist approaches God. We are invited along with the writer to keep asking questions and to keep seeking for those answers until they are found. I hope we are never impatient with those who ask faith questions when they have them; or that we are not afraid to ask them when we are the one looking for answers. There is no better way to learn something than to ask good questions, even if it takes time to get the answers. And in this case, we end the psalm with those questions. If David (the tradition, the government, the hope of prosperity) is not a center that can hold, what is there that can?
And here we enter a new Book of the Psalms (Book 4) and a new discovery about God and about people. It is worth noting that this psalm is connected to Moses, unique in the psalter. It draws our attention to a hero of the faith who came before David. Don’t worry about an end to “David.” Before that, there was “Moses” who did great things, but there was still an end to the work of Moses. And here comes the important change in the message of Psalm 90. Listen again to vs. 1. “ Lord, YOU have been our
dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” God is said to be worthy of praise, not only because of the creation, but also because God was already there and already working before the creation of the world. And God’s work did not finish when that work was done. God is creating still. Moses or David or others we might name may hold things together for a time, but not forever. God is the one who is at work from generation to generation. The Eternal God is the center that can hold.
But that realization comes with a reality check that may not sound like good news to us. God is eternal, but we are not. Humans are mortal. And the rest of the passage spells out the transient nature of life for all of creation. Humans are part of God’s created order. We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the world. We come from dust and in what seems like a very short time we return to dust. It is the way of the world. We can do some things to lengthen the time and perhaps make people healthier during that time, but we cannot change the reality. All things created change, including us. With this thought in mind, the psalmist leads us to a thought most of us probably learned a long time ago. “So (because this is true)…”So teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart.” I do not think we are meant to interpret this as saying we need to spend all our time thinking about things that appear in our culture morbid and depressing. We may be part of God’s creation, but we are an important part of that creation. We are made in the image of God. Rather, the realization is to encourage us to learn to value what is really important. We are to learn to use the time we have for working toward what is good; for bringing about change which is positive; for participating in the work which God is already doing. Remember where wisdom begins: “The fear (or respect) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. “ (Prov. 9:10) And wisdom is the ability to meet the situations of real life creatively and appropriately. It takes a lifetime to become wise but learning who God is and understanding who we are in relation to God is a good beginning.
The psalmist brings us to an important realization: God is the eternal God. The creator, creating still. We are a part of the changing creation. What is our role? Our Gospel lesson will give us a picture of how we are to live and work in this world.
This passage in John is part of what is called a farewell discourse found in chapters 14-17. We are to imagine Jesus speaking to the disciples following the Last Supper. It is as if time stands still for a moment so that Jesus can prepare these he loves for the life they will live during and after the events of the trial and crucifixion clear up to the day he leaves them and they have to manage on their own. He will tell them how they are to live successfully after he has gone. It is interesting to notice that Jesus spoke to the disciples using all three tenses of the verbs. It was about to happen: If I go. . .; the work was already accomplished: I have conquered the world. .; and it is currently underway: I am leaving…” past/present/future. That signals that the words were for Jesus disciples before his death, but they were also for John’s hearers and readers years later, and they are also for us. The words are not tied to time. They are ever fresh and new. These are works to assist our living today.
Jesus paints a word picture to try to clarify what is hard to put into words. And he talks about a vineyard, a place his hearers would understand. And he says God is the keeper of the vineyard. And God and Jesus and the disciples are all part of the working and production of that vineyard, as long as they are attached to one another. Abiding in those relationships becomes the central theme of the image. Each person has a role in the production of fruit. God and Jesus and the disciples, including us. Jesus tells his disciples that if they remain in him, they also have a relationship with God; and if they have a relationship with God, they also have a relationship with all those others who have a relationship with God. So it is God and Jesus and the community of faith; bound together in relationship. And these relationships are defined by love. Remember that love is not just about how we feel but especially about what we do, how we act. And the good fruit comes from the good work done for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus describes the process of pruning and removing branches that do not bear fruit. We often see the images of pruning and burning as negative, but remember that this is a word picture. Let us rather see this as a part of the caring nature of God who knows how care for the branches so they will produce good fruit.
A little earlier this fall my brother John and his wife Dawn came to visit. They brought me a slip from a peony bush that belonged to a life-long neighbor on the farm, who died during the last winter. It was a real treasure for me. Dawn is a master gardener (and I am not). She knew just how to cut the slip so that it had a good change of growing. She knew just how deep the hole should be and how far the dirt should cover the plant. They wanted to be sure the plant would travel safely so they put a little extra soil in the container. When they saw the sandy soil in my flower bed, the decided to add the extra rich black Iowa topsoil for good measure. I think my plant has a good chance of producing some beautiful pink blooms next summer. This is more the kind of image we should picture when we consider the care and keeping our God gives to branches loved and tended that remain or abide in relationship.
Our world does seem to be falling apart, as it has at many other points in history. When we spend too much time looking only at the devastation, we lose sight of the image of a God who is the center that can hold. God is still at work in the world creating and recreating, pulling together the things that are in process of falling apart. We see it only in small pieces. We catch just a glimpse of hope for our world; just a glimpse of God at work.
And God has called his people to join in that effort of re-creation. It doesn’t mean that it is easy or that we will always do it well. But it does mean that we have a job to do and that as long as we abide with Jesus and others of his disciples, we will produce good fruit.
When we concentrate on the devastation, we become anxious and look for others to blame. Doing the work of discipleship calls on us to pull together to join in the work God is already doing. So, the church, the community of faith sends people into the soup kitchen and homeless shelter, not because we believe we can eliminate the need for such activities, but because we help to bring about a little healing for a few, now. We send people out to visit the lonely or to rake leaves for someone who cannot do that for themselves, not because we think we can fix the problem, but because we are to tend to our neighbors, the ones who need help . We respond to issues of injustice wherever we see them, not to be noticed, but because God is already at work before we arrived. There are no easy solutions to the problems of this world. But there is hope. The eternal , loving God is the Creator and the re-creator, still at work in this world. And we are called to join in the work already in progress. God is the center and that center can hold. Amen