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Talbot Davis ~ On the Up and Up: The Right Stuff

This post is the second in a sermon series by Rev. Talbot Davis on the Songs of Ascent. The first one can be read by clicking here.

Most people had some sort of celebration for the 4th of July. Talk about “on the up and up” – many of you set off or at least looked at sparklers and explosions as they headed … well, up and up. But really, the 4th of July and the Declaration of Independence are only meaningful because of the Continental Congress, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights that followed it (well, that and the winning the Revolutionary War part!). Without the establishing of a government and the ensuring of freedom that followed, the Declaration of Independence was just that – a Declaration. It’s the rights that followed which gave teeth to what got declared.

If you grew up in the USA – and even more so if you didn’t and had to learn this by intention and not by osmosis – you have been immersed in your rights. Both the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments) and those that that have been added to it grant the right to free speech, freedom of and from religion, right to a trial by jury, and to keep and bear arms. Later came civil rights regarding race, voting rights regarding gender and property, and more recently the debated marriage rights regarding the make-up of the couple.

If you’ve ever traveled to a developing country with an incomplete infrastructure and no environmental policy, you’ll be really glad the USA has a de facto right to clean air and garbage collection! Everywhere you look in this culture, we have rights, written and assumed, articulated and internalized. And Lord knows, with most folks you don’t want to trample on their rights in the least or you will quickly discover another deeply held American right: the right to sue!

Most of you right now are welling up with gratitude for me and my middle school civics lesson, so you’re welcome. But you might also be wondering: why in church? Why today? What does this have to do with anything?

I’m glad you asked because the intersection of Psalm 122 – this biblical song – and this national celebration really has everything to do with our faith. The cultural reality of our rights influences how we understand the spiritual reality of this psalm.

Now, to remind you: Psalm 122 is part of what is called “The Songs of Ascent,” a collection of 15 folk songs (Psalms 120-134) that people would sing as they trekked from their farms, towns, and villages up to Jerusalem three times a year for religious feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. They went those three times because the Jerusalem temple was the central religious location for all faithful Jews then. And Jerusalem was (and is) physically at one of the highest geographic places in all of Israel. So the journey from those towns, villages, and farms more literally was a climb. A gradual climb, but a relentless climb nonetheless. To go to Jerusalem with a crowd of fellow pilgrims was, literally, to go on the up and up.

And these 15 folk songs functioned almost like “We Shall Overcome” in the Civil Rights era or like “This Land Is Your Land” during the Dust Bowl era: folks actually sang them as they marched together on the up and up. It’s one of those sections of the Bible when you can see how vividly biblical writings had a life before they made it into the Bible. And Psalm 122, which appears to be sung when the journey is “up” and done is particularly enlightening in terms of rights – because of what goes on with the pronouns.

Yes, the pronouns.

Check it out in Psalm 122:1a:

I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Can we acknowledge that on the Sunday after July 4th, in churches all across “the fruited plain,” we preachers are simply glad when anyone comes to the house of the Lord? But note the “I” there, because you’re not going to see it again for a long time in this psalm.

And as the psalm writer begins his song, think of all his rights: it says it is “of David” which means either the king hisself wrote it or someone from his inner circle did. In either case, he is a VIP. He’s a Jew, a member of the chosen people. He’s travelled to Jerusalem, so he is religiously faithful if not all-the-way elite. And he has survived a long, hot, dangerous hike and so as the psalm begins it seems as if he has every right to put up his feet, pour himself a cold one, and, if he goes to church at all, at least have a service he likes!

But that’s not really what happens. Look at Psalm 122:1b-2:

“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
 Our feet are standing
in your gates, Jerusalem.

“I” has quickly become “our.” In the face of God, his individuality has been swallowed up into his community. The self has become merged into the whole. And then 122:3 is so interesting:

Jerusalem is built like a city
    that is closely compacted together.

It seems as the though the city was designed and built in such a way as to maximize community. The architecture and the urban planning reinforce the theology that the faith is teaching: me comes to life only as it is part of we. Architecture is shaping life, shaping religion.

And then look at 122:4:

That is where the tribes go up—
the tribes of the Lord
to praise the name of the Lord
according to the statute given to Israel.

Tribes. Notice? It’s all about the group and not at all about the individual. It’s we who ultimately go up to Jerusalem, who head to church, not just a collection of me’s.

So let’s take stock of where we are and where we’re headed. Here’s a guy, either a king or a king’s assistant – in a time when they spoke of the divine rights of kings – who, after a long trek to Jerusalem, finds his me overwhelmed by the we of the community.

The “I” pronoun has disappeared in favor of “us” and “we.” Instead of asserting his rights – rights he was born into and rights he earned – the disappearing “I” pronoun shows he is instead relinquishing them. A psalm that could be about his personal religion instead becomes a song about our collective faith.

So here’s what we take from a king taking that approach.

Having the right doesn’t give you the right. 

Just because you have the right legally or even morally doesn’t mean you have to use it. Especially when it comes to worship and church and faith and relationships.  Having the right doesn’t give you the right.

Psalm 122 is the greatest example of how regular, consistent worship is the best preparation for life as a whole because in this collective experience of “having the right doesn’t give you the right” we actually learn how life beyond church works the best.

Because you could assert your me – which is the kind of thing in America we are brought up to do – but when you do that, God answers back with we. Let me show you what I mean and how it radiates out from this experience to all of life.

On a Sunday morning, for example, you have preferences. Some of you would prefer more gospel or urban gospel music. Others would prefer more classical, church-y music. Some prefer an edgier, louder, more churning sound (if you’re my age or older, for example, and you think we’re almost over the edge, we’re not. There are a lot of churches a lot louder and a lot darker than us). Some of you would prefer a pastor who preached verse-by-verse or wore a suit or even a clergy collar. But what I’m saying is that in the Good Shepherd community most of you who call Good Shepherd home are essentially “at home” – but only because you’re willing to sacrifice an area or two of your preferences. More of your taste.

For the vast majority of you, the me has surrendered to the we. You have the right to insist on everything done the way you like, but because of Christ’s blood and the ethos of Psalm 122, that doesn’t give you the right to assert everything you have.

It’s funny: sometimes people will tell me they chose Good Shepherd because it “fit” or it felt “comfortable.” That’s great. I love it. We don’t want to be difficult. But know what I’d love? If people told me, “I’m looking for a church where I will be uncomfortable. Stretched, poked, prodded.”

That’s the spirit of Psalm 122 – where those of us living in a me world are part of a we church. Having the right doesn’t give you the right. That’s why our mission talks about a living relationship with Jesus Christ and not a personal one. Now: you have a personal relationship with Jesus, but it can never stay personal. That means it’s private. Faith is lived on the up and up and together.

Having the right doesn’t give you the right.

Some years ago a man’s parting words to me as he left the church were, “I’m not getting fed.” That’s devastating for a simmering cauldron of insecurity like me. But you know what I’ve learned since? There have been five subsequent churches where, apparently, the same guy wasn’t “getting fed.” Oh. Sometimes the problem is not with the food; it’s with the eater. It’s an endless quest for a me church; a loop of my rights.

Having the right doesn’t give you the right. (And just once, someone should leave because “you’re not leading enough people to Christ!”)

Look at 122:5 again:

There stand the thrones for judgment,
the thrones of the house of David.

That means that we gather at this time and in this place to focus on the decisions that God has already made. We don’t come here so much for affirmation as for reformation. We celebrate God’s decisions that – even if they cramp our style – nevertheless save our lives.

It’s like this: picture a kid’s car seat. I remember those days: kids objecting, squirming, screaming, hating you for putting them in. And yet putting them in that car seat is the most loving thing you can do. It’s the same with the Commandments! We buck, we squirm, we question, we even hate God for them. But they are the ultimate act of protecting, preserving love. We have the right as Americans to post these or not, to follow these or not, but that doesn’t give us the right as Jesus’ people to do any of that.

Having the right in the USA doesn’t give you the right in the kingdom.

Having the right doesn’t give you the right.

All that is why worship is such preparation for life. If you realize we is bigger than me in your marriage – think you’d be a better mate? If you realize it’s not about your preferences but his purposes, think you might have more patience with your spouse? Your kids? Your co-workers? Speaking of work, what would it be like if that space was free of “right-asserting”? If no one said, “what gives you the right?!” Less infighting and backbiting and more kingdom building, no doubt.

Being glad that you’ve come to the house of the Lord (122:1) isn’t about generating phony enthusiasm for a Sunday morning; it’s about a deep satisfaction that in worship you get a weekly reminder that your preferences are secondary to his purposes, that even though you could doesn’t mean you will; that me is secondary to we, that the phrase “my rights” is seldom if ever on the lips of a Christian. You could say Psalm 122 is one of the least America-focused psalms ever…and one of the most kingdom-centered of them all.

Do you remember in May, in Garland Texas, a Mohammed cartoon art contest was held? And it was attacked by terrorists who were killed by security? No one shed many tears for those deaths. And Christians rightly pointed out that Jesus is ridiculed and blasphemed and cartoonized every day in religion classes across our land but no one protests via mass murder. So they pointed out a double standard and we were grateful that terrorists and not “artists” got killed. It was the kind of thing that as an American you could feel okay about. We can make cartoons of Mohammed if we want to – we have the right.

But what about as a member of the Kingdom? What does Colossians 4:5-6 say about purposely antagonizing a billion Muslims?

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

How can you invite people into a living relationship with your Savior when you first ridicule their prophet? Might those words, along with Psalm 122, say that having the right doesn’t give you the right?

And where better to experience that week after week than in the place and among the people where your preferences are submitted to his purposes and where your me turns into his we?