GOD BLESS THE GRASS
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
January 28, 2018
Texts: Psalm 4; 2 Sam. 19:16-30
In her song “God bless the grass,” Malvina Reynolds holds forth not only the hope of new life but of life where we least expect it. Although those of us who have little cracks in cement or wedges between the pieces of a slate walkway may not appreciate the literal images that this song brings to mind, the figurative image portrayed in this song is one of hope where we least expected it.
Certainly that was the case when after the revolt of Absalom, David faced other possible contenders to his kingship. Among those who came to David begging pardon were Shimei, a Benjaminite from the house of Saul, who had stoned and cursed David early in Absalom’s revolt, and Ziba, a servant in the house of Saul with his sons and servants. David proved to be as magnanimous here as he had been to Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson Mehibosheth, following the Battle of Mount Gilboa, taking him into his own house.
Much like the grass that comes up through the cracks, David’s former enemies or those he could assume to be disloyal found that they would have another chance to live and even thrive. The same tone of pardon and thankfulness is found in this morning’s Psalm as David sings of God’s protection when he was in distress and the ultimate peace of being able to sleep in security.
People usually cry aloud to God in distress. The question is whether they continue to remember God’s grace after the distress is over. A case in point is the way people flooded to churches following the attacks on 9/11. Mark Chaves of the Duke Divinity School National Congregations Project noted that the spike in church attendance lasted just a few weeks. Although the impact was not felt long term on Christian church or Jewish synagogue attendance, there were some long term effects of the attacks.
Before 9/11 the overwhelming majority of Americans had no idea what Islam was or who Muslims are in our society. One result is the significant increase in Islamic studies both among Muslims trying to figure out how this kind of terrorism grew in their faith as well as among non-Muslims trying to understand what Islam actually believes. And there has been a significant increase in looking at all kinds of terrorism that claims a religious basis, including Christianity, which, like Islam and Judaism, has been per-verted by claims of racism and superiority.
Unfortunately there is still an unwillingness to look at Islam from a cultural and historical point of view. This past weekend in Chatham a mother with the assistance of the Thomas More Law Centre, which states its mission is to “preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, defend the religious freedom of Christians, preserve time-honored moral and family values,” filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education because it included Islam in a social studies curriculum.
Like David, we cry to God in distress, but are we like David granting pardon when the offender repents? Just consider the policies now being pursued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions against minor drug offenders in an age of opioid addiction. “Throw the book!” he cries, and the book will come down hardest on minorities, you can bet on that. Disparate treatment by prosecutors and society of addicts based on race is quickly becoming the rule again.
And what of ex-offenders, the term given to those who have served time in prison? Stripped of voting rights, barred from living with their families in public housing projects, they will have no stake in restoration or in the society that sent them off to jail in the first place. Like David, they may cry to God in distress, but laws making them second-class citizens will only force them back into the very streets that gave rise to their criminal activity.
Like David, we cry to God in distress, but do we remember God’s grace when the distress ends? When we are disturbed, unsettled, like David, we cannot sleep in peace. We need the security of soul in order to do that. And in our distress we may ask God for the peace that enables us to sleep restfully. But do we remember the source of our peace when our distress is over?
Many people have felt that the last fifteen or so years have been a period of continuing and constant stress. The 9/11 attacks did more to the national psyche than even World War II. Both were “sneak attacks,” as President Roosevelt called the one against Pearl Harbor. But World War II had a definite beginning and an end. The so-called “war on terror” does not. So, even after all this time, we have no concrete “enemy,” only this amorphous thing called “terror.” It’s not a particular country, not a particular group, it’s just “terror.”
Now, one might think that people would be flocking into the churches in droves much like 9/11 as a result of the continuing emphasis on fighting terrorism, whatever that may mean for the ordinary person. But they are not. The constant bombardment of 24-hour news, quite frankly, leaves us exhausted. The feeling of continuing helplessness is not like the feeling we had when first attacked. We are just simply overwhelmed by it all.
Many in our society have simply turned to drugs as a way to escape the daily reality we find ourselves in. And by drugs, I do not mean just opioids but the drug of the quick fix for problems, whether real or imagined. Finding that the God we were taught in Sunday School does not come in like Zeus throwing thunderbolts to restore a society that never really existed, we have become immobilized by the con-stancy of it all.
Like David, we cry to God in our distress but find that there are no simple answers even as we are reassured by our political leaders that this law or that regulation will solve it all. A recent interview with Rev. Wayne Flynt, an Alabama Baptist minister and historian, was most telling. The words of Jesus in the Gospels are less central to people’s thinking and behavior, he said. Although many evangelicals became involved in politics because they feared the rise of a secular post-Christian America, Flynt stated that their faith has been co-opted by an unholy trinity, that of materialism, hedonism, and narcissism.
David’s Psalm sums it up when he cries, “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!’” So many who look for the light of God’s face look in the wrong places; they seek salvation in material goods and the promise of lower taxes even as our schools suffer and we hit potholes on our streets.
Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone lamented the loss of community in America. But it has been more than simply that. It has been loss in the faith of a common weal, the belief that the old should care for the young and the young should care for the old. The demand to restructure Social Security is only one symptom of that lack of care; reductions in school funding and the flight from public schools reflect much the same.
We cry to God in our distress, but we need to look beyond the immediate distress of the moment and remem-ber that God isn’t a problem solver. God is a source of strength as we seek to solve our problems. As a society we need to move beyond our first-grade attitudes and become responsible adults committed to the creation and mainten-ance of true community beyond individual material wealth.
The struggle we face goes beyond individualism versus community for total reliance on community values can be oppressing. Following Absalom’s revolt, David par-doned many of his former enemies. Learning how to be gracious when we have been given a second chance is vital to our lives as Christians and human beings. So often we are given second chances, even third chances, and we do not appreciate how important such gifts are.
Letting God’s light shine on our faces is what we are called to do. This means letting God’s light shine on the faces of those who are still in distress, who do not feel God’s presence in their lives. When we show the grace we have been shown, then we will have gladness in our hearts, the true gladness that comes from God, then, like David, we can both lie down and sleep in peace.
Let us come to God in prayer: Embracing One, who has given us so much, help us to heal our brokenness by extending the grace we have been shown to others in faithfulness to your Gospel. In the name of him who came to heal our hearts, even Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.