Approaching God


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

April 15, 2018

Texts: Psalms 15, 16, and 17

      In a now famous interview, CBS news corres-pondent Dan Rather sat facing Mother Teresa, founder of the order of nuns known as the Missionaries of Charity, and he asked her about prayer as a means of approaching God. When he asked her what she said in her prayers, Mother Teresa simply replied, “I listen.” Thinking he could turn the question around, he asked, “And what does God say?”  “Oh,” she replied, “God listens.”

       Obviously flustered, he stared in silence for a few moments, and Mother Teresa continued, “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.” Con-templative prayer is just one way among many others to approach God. And usually we think of worship as another means of approaching God.

        The ancient Near Eastern ways of approaching God in worship were similar with three exceptions, first, the Israelites did not practice human sacrifice as did some of the Mesopotamian cultures. Second, of course, the other cultures were polytheistic whereas the ancient Israelites practiced monolatry or monotheism.

        The third exception was although other Near Eastern deities had priestesses as well as male priests, the Israelites had only male priests. However, worship was not, by in large, little more than an orgy as Cecil B. DeMille depicted in many of his film epics. Central to all Near Eastern religions was the pledge of loyalty to the deity as well as a covenant between the deity and its people.

       The trilogy of Psalms we read this morning are concerned with Temple worship and address how people should be when they approach God. Psalm 15 makes it clear who can approach God: those who walk blamelessly and do justice and who speak the truth from their hearts. Psalm 16 carries the theme of ad-mission to the temple setting out a critical difference between those who worship the Lord and those who worship the other gods of the ancient Near East; worship of the Lord does not include human sacrifice.

        The series culminates in Psalm 17 as the psalmist repeats the words of David: “Hear a just cause and attend to my cry . . .  if you try my heart, visit me by night, test me, you will find no wickedness in me,” obviously composed before David the King saw Bath-sheba on the roof. In addition to the hope that the worshipper will see God in the temple, this psalm reflects many of our own prayers, namely that God will listen to our cry and answer our prayers.

         So, how is it we approach God? Do we believe that we need to walk blamelessly before approaching God? I don’t know about all of you, but I was raised to believe that it did not matter how far from grace I had fallen, it was still possible – indeed, necessary – to approach God since the first act in that approach was usually to be one of petitioning for pardon.

        The poetic language in these Psalms includes some of the most common phrases we use when describing our affection for others, someone we cherish above all others, such as the apple of one’s eye. And we affirm that we shall not be moved when God is at our right hand, words sung in the old civil rights song.

When I hear the words asking God to hide me in the shadow of God’s wings, I remember the image of ulti-mate sacrificial protection in the old Disney film The Vanishing Prairie, the mother hen spreading her wings over her chicks in a prairie fire so they will live.

        Approaching God takes an almost infinite variety of forms including the visual arts and music. The early Christians broke with the ancient Jewish interpretation of not making graven images stated in the Second Commandment, which actually referred to making deities in clay or other sculptural forms. As a result of course, artists created all manner of images. Music flourished as well.

        Last November Trinity Church at Wall Street as part of the White Lights Festival presented all 150 Psalms by 150 different composers, and the pieces selected by the choirmaster was only a selection of a thousand years of musical compositions based on the Psalms.

        Each of us in this room approaches God in a variety of ways, and, I daresay, none of us limits our-selves to only one way of experiencing the divine in our lives. We may say the same words as part of a liturgy but the words have different meanings for each of us. Take, for instance, the words of the Lord’s Prayer we say every Sunday. Just the opening phrase, “our Father who art in heaven” has a different meaning for each of us.

       There are those times when we try to approach God and feel that we have simply not connected with what one theologian called the ground of our being. We have all experienced such moments and sometimes they have led us to despair. It’s important not to brush those times off for although at times they may not last long, at other times in our lives, we have felt the lack of God’s presence.

        It’s important not to attribute our feelings in this regard to a lack of faith, which we sometimes do. Despair can bring us into a deeper appreciation of God’s presence, as we often hear in the Psalms. The language of approaching God in the Psalms may give us the feeling that despair and doubt are quickly over-come, but I would argue that the closing language affirming God’s righteousness or protection is the result of struggle with despair.

        We hear the cry of the Psalmist even as the words uttered call for the Lord to confront the evildoers and to reward those who live in righteousness. As in many of the Psalms, there is a cry for deliverance, but there is also the recognition that although deliverance may come from the Lord, it cannot come without our help. The Psalmist cries for the bellies of the people to be filled and that something is left over for “their little ones, we know this cannot happen without our actions.

        For as the Psalmist says in the first part of the trilogy we heard this morning, we cannot enter the tent of the Lord, a place holy to God, unless we speak the truth from our heart and do justice. Speaking the truth is part of doing justice. Calling out evil when we see it is essential to doing justice.

         Over the past year we have witnessed an increase in hate speech and actions on an everyday scale. Events like Charlottesville galvanize us, forcing the issue to national attention, but it is the daily be-littling and bullying that has created an atmosphere of unacceptable tolerance of such behavior.

        I think what has always amazed me is that some of the people who are promoting this hate speech and who are so opposed to an inclusive view of American society are white evangelicals. In fact, according to one of the leaders of white evangelicals who support Trump and his policies they are planning to meet with him later this spring over allegations of sexual misconduct.

        Are they meeting with him to raise questions about his hate speech or his narrow view of who be-longs in American society – not those people from ---hole countries but white Norwegians?  No, they have not raised any of the serious justice issues addressed in the Psalms or by the prophets, not to mention the One they claim to follow and worship as Lord.

         In the fifties and early sixties, it was no different. As a child I asked my dear Alabama Aunt Ruby if, in the words of the old song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white…” why there was such a difference in the way black children were treated. “Oh,” she said, “we’ll all be equal in heaven.” That answer didn’t sit well with me then and it certainly doesn’t sit well with me now.

         A few weeks back, The New York Times carried a story about how African-Americans were slowly but surely leaving the evangelical churches because they totally ignored the fact that racism and white supre-macy exists among their fellow church goers and pastors did not address questions of race.

        Well, if when we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” then why are these so-called biblical literalists not addressing these issues with the White House? My suspicion is that what they really want is a return to an America that existed in the past when white men ruled and made all the important decisions.

       The Psalms provide us with another vision of approaching God, one that is based on justice where people are fed and housed and clothed. As Mother Teresa said, “I listen.” Listening to God’s call for a just and equitable society is surely an important way of approaching God.

        Let us come to God in prayer: As we enter your temple in worship, O God, help us to listen to you with all our heart and mind and soul, reflecting your call for love and justice. In the name of him who showed us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.