The Psalter of Jesus: The Generous Will Bleed // Psalm 49
Everywhere we look in our city, we encounter needs. The children of our city need better education. The impoverished in our city need more support. The marginalized people groups in our city need swift and consistent justice. The immigrants and refugees in our city need hospitality. These realities provoke many of us to anger or despair. And some of us rage at the cruel disdain we hear from those in positions of power. Yet, righteous as this indignation may be, we often fail to turn its barbs on ourselves. We, too, are people in positions of power who levy cruel disdain at the needy, maligning those from beyond our urban scope who possess different sorts of needs than we typically know or see. We are what we hate, the rightful objects of our righteous rage. But deliverance is close at hand, if only the zeal of our self-righteous crusading would push us toward meeting needs. It is there, in the kindness and generosity of attending those who hurt, that we will discover our own poverty. In fact, it is in the blooming of generosity, not rage, that we discover we belong among the most needy of all. This is our rescue, to bleed.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF SERMON
The Generous Will Bleed
A sermon delivered by Pastor Mark Bergin at The Painted Door Church in Chicago
What a month this November is shaping up to be. Anybody else feeling emotionally exhausted? It seems like we've done enough gut-wrenching, score-watching for a lifetime. Between the World Series and the election, and the results of both, at least from my perspective, they were rather surprising. And now, here we are. The Cubs are world champions. And Mr. Trump is president-elect and nothing really makes sense anymore, does it? It's as though the whole world's been turned upside down. Lovable Losers, now an emerging Dynasty it seems, and all of the familiar kind of political party lines of the last century are now bent and twisted into new shapes, perhaps irrevocably.
It's a very different world. It feels rather suddenly like a whole new order has been ushered in, and in a very short period of time. And I have no doubt that there are some among our number who are anxious about this new landscape, even fearful about what this new landscape might bring with it. Surely, there are also some among us who are hopeful, who are optimistic that perhaps these changes will shake loose some of the entrenched brokenness in our political system. But either way, emotions are charged and there is great potential in this moment for divisiveness. Great potential for us to find ourselves at odds with one another, even here among our number, and definitely throughout our nation.
So what I want to do today is look to the Psalms, as we have been looking to the Psalms, and seek to map some of those anxieties, some of those fears, some of those hopes, onto the Prayer-Book of the Psalms in hopes that we might find some unifying force there. Something that would tamp down on our rushing to political ideologies that would divide us. Something that would call us back to what is our true identity in Christ, our true identity in the love of Christ, and life together in that love. Now it just so happens that our preaching calendar has us looking at Psalm 49 today. And there could hardly be a more appropriate Psalm to read for this particular moment than this one.
Listen to these early lines in this Psalm verses 5 through 9 of Psalm 49:
Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. These words can be a great comfort to those who are fearful among us, to those who have anxiety among us, about the new landscape of our nation.
These words are a rebuke in some respect from the Psalmist, but they are also, more importantly, a reminder from the Psalmist to place all times of trouble in their proper context. To see calamity and difficulty and upheaval and societal change in its rightful context. What the Psalmist is saying here, the implication of these words, is that if troubling times have you in a state of upheaval to the degree to where you are unraveling, coming undone, then you have lost sight of just how temporal and passing these moments and events really are. You've given them too much credence, too much weight.
More specifically, the psalmist says that if someone who boasts in their riches, someone who overlooks the needs of those outside the halls of power, is costing you sleep, then, likewise, you have lost sight of just how limited each person really is. You've lost sight that no one is immune to the limitations of humanity and to their own eventual demise. And so the Psalmist is talking us down, as it were, from the heights of our emotional highs and the lows of our emotional lows. Calling us to see that extraordinary times, for all their extraordinary nature, are just that: times. They are fleeting. They are temporal. They are passing.
The Psalmist tells us here that dishonest braggarts are not as powerful as they think they are -- and are not as powerful as they would have us believe. Their riches can't sustain them forever, or even as long as they would like to think they can be sustained by them. They're not invincible. They are as frail as any person, as frail as you, as frail as me. People in power, in essence, need not be feared. People in power are as dependent on the Lord as anyone else. People in power actually don't have that much power. Not truly, not ultimately.
Now, why should that be of any comfort to any of us. Those of you who are fearful, perhaps anxious, you might say, "OK, fair enough. My guy didn't win. My gal didn't win. Mr. Trump and his supporters are in power, and they will not be in power forever. That will come to an end. But what about in the here and now? Might they not do a lot of damage, even just for this short span that their power remains?" That, really, is the source of the angst that has come out of this political election. People are fearful that policies may be put into place that would harm needy people, that would overlook the needs of people on the margins.
And this is an understandable fear, especially for those of us who live in Chicago. Because in Chicago, like some other places also, but especially, I think, in Chicago, we are inundated with news of human need. The needs of this city are palpable. They come up constantly, continually. We see in our city that our children are in need of better education, certainly. That there are marginalized people groups in our city that are in need of swifter and more consistent justice. That there are many impoverished in our city who are in need of more support. That there are massive immigrant and refugee populations in our city that are in need of hospitality, and to be welcomed into a community. We are surrounded by needs. And so when a person in power, when a political leader, makes remarks that even hint at dismissiveness toward those needs, it is an affront to the compassion and the care that we feel. The compassion and care that we long to see expressly manifest in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our nation, and our world -- and especially for Chicagoans here in the local context.
But here's what we have to see. Here's what the Psalmist is urgently pointing us toward as we engage with Psalm 49: It's that self promoting boasters, people who shelter themselves behind large expensive walls of wealth, in truth, stand in opposition to the order of the cosmos. In other words, that kind of self-protective boasting dare not stand. It cannot stand. Justice will ultimately prevail. All of the self protection and hiding and resistance to care for the needs of others will fall. It will be toppled. Those sentiments of dismissiveness and smugness, that pompous indifference, callous indifference, to hurting people, even if only in tone if not in policy, will be toppled. It will be brought to its knees by a God who is ever taking up the cause of the needy. Resistance to care and attention to the needs of others is a rejection of the cosmic order. It's a rejection of the heart of God and it cannot stand. It will fall.
The Psalmist tells us this, starting in verse 10:
For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names. Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.
Here it is, this promise from the Psalmist. That pomp self aggrandizement, putting your name on everything, won't last. In fact, it will be undone. It will be undone and forgotten, and the injustices of privileged bombasts who have sought only their good will be set right. One way or another, they will be humbled. They will be brought low, because God opposes the proud.
So take heart, if you are fearful, in that our gracious God runs the World. It is our gracious God who sets up the Kings. It is our gracious God who sets up the senators. It is our gracious God who sets up the presidents. And he does this so that he might bring them low. Our God is ever at work to humble the proud and take up the cause of the oppressed. And this is great reason to be comforted. I want those of you who are anxious about the future to find great comfort in the character of God, in the promise of God, to bring about goodness in our world.
But, also, more than that even, these words should not only comfort you. They should also disarm you. Because God opposes the proud. And his opposition to the proud is not bent on simply moving pride from here to there. Take heart in the promise of God that He will bring the proud low. But God does not seek to bring leaders low so that citizens may gloat. He is not about playing some game of cosmic whack-a-mole, moving the vindication from here to there, bringing low those that you oppose so that you can puff in proud folly. God opposes the proud. He opposes those whose pride is manifest clearly and plainly for all to see, and he opposes those who are careful and sneaky in the way that they conceal the pride that lurks within them. He opposes pride wherever it lurks. He opposes pride in whomever it festers. God will humble and humiliate the proud.
Hear this warning from Psalm 49:
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases. For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him. For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light. Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
Did you hear that warning there? Sandwiched in the middle of all of those words of comfort, smack dab in those words of comfort the psalmist delivers a warning, a rebuke toward those very people that he means to comfort. He says you know all too well what it is to elevate yourself in your success. You know all too well what it is to find your sense, your identity, your ego in your success. You know all too well what it is that you claim to hate, this pomposity, this smugness, this disdain, this dismissiveness. It is as much in you as it is in any other. You enjoy that place of self elevation, too.
So much of the rancor and hand-wringing against the smugness of President-elect Trump and his supporters is flowing out of the mouths and the hearts of the most smug people of all. So easily we become what we claim to hate. So many of us are worried that President-elect Trump will use his power to disenfranchise the most needy among our society. But let me ask all of you – to what end have you used your power? To what ends are you presently using your power? It is so easy to get caught up in righteous indignation and somehow duck underneath letting any of that indignation fall on you. It is so easy to overlook our indiscretions in the self-righteous haze of noticing those shortcomings "out there"; those ignorant people "out there"; those power hungry self-protective people "over there".
And this is the most tragic thing that happens in the wake of elections in our country, that happens in the wake of any sort of divisive cultural shift in our country. We begin to lob bombs over the fence at one another, never noticing that the thing we so desperately want to kill is growing right here inside me. That I am as guilty, if not more so. And what a tragedy this is because all of the hand-wringing and opposition and protests and resistance to an emerging political movement, quite frankly, will have little to no effect on the tides of cultural change. But should your indignation be turned inward, were you to slow down long enough to begin to look in a mirror, to notice the abuse of power in your own hands, there may well be opportunity for repentance. There may well be opportunity for some of those pressing needs in our city and our community to actually be met. The needs are everywhere, aren't they?
Education and social support and advocacy and hospitality. The need for compassion is everywhere. Let me ask you, when was the last time that you had an immigrant or a refugee in your home for a meal? If the answer is never, what good does it do to posture in self righteousness about our nation's immigration policy, as though you care?
YOU DON'T CARE.
You like to pretend you care. When was the last time you volunteered to tutor someone, a child? Or better yet, got involved in adoption services or foster care of some kind? When was the last time you marched with those who are eager for justice to hold our leaders accountable? When was the last time you bled for anything, anything that we love to pretend we care about? When was the last time any of these needs cost you anything? What right do we have to pretend as though we stand on the moral high ground? What right do we have to pretend as though we are more compassionate than those people "over there"?
It is so easy to be and become what we hate. What right do we have to savor the anger against injustice when we are unwilling to bleed and serve to fight it? It's faux anger. It's window dressing. It's compassion PR. It's a wall that we can sit behind and hide our self absorbed lives. We have no standing. We should lay our hand over our mouths.
So, we're for justice? Good. We're for compassion? Beautiful. We want a more generous nation? Then let's be generous. Let's spend ourselves for these needs. They aren't hard to find. They're everywhere that we look. If only we would spend half the emotional energy and effort in meeting the needs of this city, of this nation, that we do in posturing, and hand-wringing, and self-righteous, self-congratulatory activism, then maybe some people might actually be loved. Some needs in our city might actually be met. A real and present manifest Christ Jesus might be made known.
Do you know how much power you have? You've little to no power to affect massive cultural and political shifts. But you have been given much power to help those in need. You've been given much power to love your neighbor. You've been given opportunity upon opportunity to spend yourself for the good of others. The great American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, we quote him a lot around here, he once wrote of generosity:
Our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.
We might in turn say that our calls, our spoken calls, for our nation to be more generous, are sorry substitutes for acts of generosity, for costly love. In Psalm 112, the Psalmist writes:
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries. He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honor.
What a stark contrast there is between our fearful and smug condemnations, and the joy and love found in pouring out our sweat and blood in the meeting of needs. That's the life of Christ. And you can see here how our enemy would play us, can't you? How our enemy would get us so hot and bothered about political ideologies that we would fail to see the clear and present needs right before us. That we would get so distracted by rivalry and conceit that we would have no quarter for our neighbor, no love for our neighbor. We are not so different. We are not as different as we think we are. All people have been given power to effect good by meeting people in need, by lending a hand, by showing compassion.
If you are one of those who is grieved by this most recent election result, if you're worried about our nation lacking in compassion, let that emotion awaken the life of Christ in you. Let that longing for a more compassionate world find legs and hands and feet in the person of Christ, who has been given to you, who is deposited within you. The heart of God is among us. Generosity is at hand for us.
Likewise, if this election stirred you to optimism and hopefulness about a new day, let that emotion also stir the life of Christ within you. This is not a time for gloating, or I told you so, or dancing on political graves. This is a time to remember who you are. Political differences cannot divide us, they cannot define us. The life of Christ alone defines us. And this is our unifying center. It is out of him that we live and move and have our being. It is his compassion alone that is compassion worth knowing.
Jesus, when He lived among us on this earth, never got caught up in the political causes of his day. He was too busy noticing people, too busy meeting needs. The life and ministry of Jesus was overrun with generosity, and of course, finally, run over by his generosity. Because this is where true generosity always leads us. This is where the generosity of Christ will always lead, into humiliation and humility. Not smug superiority. As we turn and meet the needs of our city, as the life of Christ manifests in us, we will be led to love our neighbors and bleed together for them.