June 30, 2019

 “Learning Through Repetition”

Psalm 136


I have mostly fond memories of my time in Elementary school. From 1st to 6th grade, I attended Rancho Cordova Elementary. And I have to say I learned a lot in those 6 years, often through the teaching method of repetition. When I learned how to write numbers, beginning in kindergarten, I can remember writing the numbers 1-12 repeatedly, until they almost became second nature, that is, with the exception of the number 8, which I still have trouble writing well to this day.  I remember the lessons on how to write cursive in third grade.  We practiced writing each letter, using lined paper to help with proportion, and through repetition learned how to write letters and eventually entire sentences in cursive. And perhaps one of the most important skills I learned through repetition was memorizing my times tables. I still use the times tables when writing checks, providing tips, and for all sorts of things.  Through repetition, I learned how to write something or be able to understand something.


Today’s psalm has an exercise of repetition in it- something the psalmist wanted those who gathered in the ruins of the temple to repeat and learn. “Your love is everlasting.” Its message is for us today as well.


Before we dig into the content of the psalm, we need to place it in its historical setting. This Psalm was believed to have been written at the return to Jerusalem after the exile, approximately 539 B.C. Most all of Jerusalem had been carted off into captivity to Babylon in 597 B.C.- Now, some 60 years later, the people were allowed by Babylon’s king to come back to rebuild Jerusalem. Verses 23-24 echo their time in captivity in Babylon - “God was good to us in our lowly estate.”  I imagine the setting of this psalm to have first been read while the temple was still in ruins, being rebuilt around 537 B.C. when reconstruction of the temple began. I imagine the people gathered in the temple ruins, after having been in a foreign land for so long that Israel had become a distant memory. Now here they were, trying to rebuild a sacred place, trying to rebuild their lives, their culture. The psalmist did something unusual, using repetition to teach the exiled returnees some things about the nature of the on God they followed. “Your love is everlasting.” This was a message they needed to learn in the midst of a difficult, overwhelming time.


What is the content of this psalm? It contains many titles of God-God of gods; Lord of Lords, God of heaven. Is there anything different in these titles, or are they pretty similar? The first two titles denote God being the primary God over all other gods. The third titles give us the residence. Today’s call to worship contains many names as well. Is there one which fits well for you when you think of God, either from the psalm itself or the call to worship? If so, I invite you to call it out now.


This psalm is primarily a hymn telling of the creation of the world, of the exodus, of the conquest of the land of Canaan, and of God remembering and rescuing the people from exile. This is the only psalm to use this structure of an antiphonal phrase repeatedly (26 times) “Your love is everlasting”.


Verse 1 begins, “Thank You, God, for You are good!”  This same phrase is also used in Psalm 118, which suggests that Psalm 118 and 136 are bookend psalms of the psalms of ascent, the psalms used by pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem, Psalms 119-135, many of which were said on the steps going up to the newly built temple.


One of the striking things about this psalm is how active God was and is. Just listing the verbs gives us the image of a moving, dynamic God. God in action: Does great wonders as Creator-Made the heavens, spread the earth on the waters, made the great lights-the sun and moon and stars,  helped rescue Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt; Struck down mighty kings, and gave the land of milk and honey the land of Canaan to the people of Israel. Furthermore, God remembered the Hebrew people and their lowly estate in Babylon. God was so very active in the lives of the people. Yet God’s activity is not limited to the past in this psalm.


Verse 25-Claims God’s current activity in the lives of those who are reciting the psalm together - “God feeds(not fed) all flesh.” It is a verb in the present tense. This important verse suggests God is active in the world today for us as well. It is a psalm which proclaims God’s works of the past, which impinge upon on the present and shapes the future.


I’d like to focus now upon that repeated phrase, as Joanne read it in today’s Egalitarian version, which we repeated together -“Your love is everlasting!” The Hebrew word translated as “everlasting love”- is hessed, which is better translated as “mercy, kindness”. Hessed is a characteristic of God most often praised and written about in the psalms. All of the actions of God are connected to the hessed of God.


How then does this psalm instruct us about our faith?


First, its intent is for us to learn through repetition- “Your love. Your hessed, O God is everlasting!” By repeating this phrase, it causes us to grapple with its content. Have you experienced God’s “hessed” in your own life, God’s mercy, kindness in the past? During the prayer time today, you are encouraged to remember a time you have experienced God’s mercy, God’s loving-kindness, and write in on the paper provided in your bulletins, placing it in the cross up front.


I have experienced God’s hessed many times, most recently during Abby and my trip to Scotland. We were very near the end of our trip, and quite frankly were exhausted. It was our last day in Edinburgh, and we didn’t fly out to Dublin until 7:30 that night. Our group tour was over after breakfast, so Abby and I decided to take in a few more sights of Edinburgh. We went to Holyrood Palace- an amazing place where Mary, Queen of Scots lived in the 1500s, and where the current Queen of England stays when she and her family come to Scotland for a visit.  After a couple of hours there, we went and got lunch at a Mexican restaurant, looking for the most authentic Mexican Scottish food we could findJ From there, we made our way to the airport through an Uber driver, then spent a long time going through 2  different screening areas of customs. We arrived at our gate about an hour before our flight took off.  We finally arrived in Dublin around 9:30, and took a long trek to where the courtesy shuttle was that would take us to our hotel for the evening. This is when our over tiredness got the better of us, and we began arguing over where we should go, as the signage was poor. Things got pretty bad, and I finally said, “Will you please stop arguing over every little thing!” which of course put my daughter to tears as she walked away from me. I was at the end of my rope, and asked God for some help, stat! As I turned away from my daughter to take a breath, I saw a clock tower, right by the courtesy shuttle, which simply said, “God is love.” God was so merciful to this tired, stressed out father and answered my prayer, reminding me that even though I was exhausted, I was loved and needed to show love, to show God’s hessed to my beloved daughter. “Your love is everlasting.”


How then do we understand this repeated phrase, “Your love is everlasting”,  God’s hessed for the world, in light of the suffering around us, things like the deplorable living conditions we are now hearing about regarding immigrant children at the border? God’s intention is love, mercy, kindness- This repeated phrase instructs us of God’s true nature. Yet sometimes the sin of humanity gets in the way of hessed. Sometimes the world is merciless and unkind. However, when we model “hessed” when we model mercy, it spreads, and things can get better. I have shared this story with you once before, but it just fits so well- a story of women’s college softball from 2008.


With two runners on base and a strike against her, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University uncorked her best swing and did something she had never done, in high school or college. She hit her first home run, which cleared the center field fence. But it looked like the shortest of dreams-come-true when she missed first base, started back to tag it, and collapsed with a knee injury. She crawled back to first but could do no more. The first base coach said she would be called out if her teammates tried to help her. Or, the umpire said, a pinch-runner could be called in, and the homer would count as just a single.


Then, members of the Central Washington University softball team stunned their home crowd in Ellensburg by carrying Tucholsky around the bases Saturday so the three-run homer would count - an act that contributed to their own elimination from the playoffs.


Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman, the all-time home run leader in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, and shortstop Liz Wallace put their arms under Tucholsky's legs, and she put her arms over their shoulders. The three-headed around the base paths, stopping to let Tucholsky touch each base with her good leg."It was the right thing to do. She'd hit it over the fence. She deserved the home run," said Holtman.  As the trio reached home plate, Tucholsky said, the entire Western Oregon team was in tears.


Central Washington coach Gary Frederick, 70, a 14-year coaching veteran, called the act of sportsmanship "unbelievably merciful and kind." They modeled God’s hessed so well. AND, six years to the day after Tucholsky was carried around the bases,  a similar scene unfolded in a Division II game between. Eckerd College and Florida Southern. I am told this merciful act of carrying an injured player has happened now in some high school softball games as well. When we model mercy, God’s hessed, it spreads. When I am reminded of God’s hessed, Gods mercy and kindness, as I was at the Dublin airport, I am reminded to be merciful to those around me, and it spreads. But just like my times tables, it takes repetition to get better at sharing that mercy. Your hessed, Your mercy, Your kindness are everlasting, God. May we go from this place, remembering the phrase over and over, “Your love is everlasting,” so that we too can learn to share that merciful kind love and watch it spread. Alleluia! Amen.

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