A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on January 30, 2011.
The picture caught my attention first and then the headline of the newspaper article. It was a picture of people playing in a heavy snow over the bold letters: Random Acts of Kindness Break Out After Snowstorm.” The article describes how neighbor is aiding neighbor as winter’s wrath grips areas across the Northeast.
“Across the Northeast,” the article states, “where people wear their brusqueness like a badge of honor, neighbors and strangers are banding together to beat back what’s shaping up to be one of the most brutal winters in years. It seems to have started a grass-roots movement of people helping one another.”
The article concludes with these words from Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter. “The main message of the day is be careful, be kind and look out for other people.”
This could very well be the main message of Psalm 15. Being a good neighbor and building healthy communities seems to be what this Psalm is about, too.
It appears that Psalm 15 is one of those Psalms people sang as they made their way to the temple. In all likelihood, it was not written for this purpose, but was designed to be used in the classroom to teach the Jews how God expected them to treat their friends and neighbors. It certainly follows the question and answer method of teaching employed by rabbis then and now.
Still, it appears that it was lifted out of the classroom, put to music and used to prepare pilgrims to worship in the temple. You can just imagine it being sung antiphonally with one group asking the opening questions and the other responding with the answers.
Let’s see how we can use it today to understand our role in the community where we live.
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Why did the Psalmist ask these two questions? They were important to him because he knew how much he needed God. Apparently, his life was filled with intimidating challenges that had shaken him to the core.
Read chapter 13, which seems to be connected to our text, as well as chapter 14. There is a noticeable movement in these three Psalms from being shaken by enemy attacks, to an affirmation of God’s presence with the righteous, to the portrayal of the righteous safely dwelling with God.
He also asked these questions because he knew they were important to others. It appears the words “tent” and the phrase “holy hill” originally referred to Mt Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments, but was re-directed to the temple, which symbolized God’s presence to later generations.
Evidence from Israel and ancient Near Eastern sources reveal that there were requirements for entering a holy place. Those around the Psalmist were no doubt wondering what these requirements were for going into the Temple in Jerusalem.
What was the answer to these questions? Perhaps it was not what his readers anticipated. They were expecting to hear about heritage, birthright, status, animal sacrifices and offerings, things important to people and institutional leaders.
Instead, they heard something entirely different. As far as the Psalmist was concerned, anyone could enter the presence of God whose desire was to reflect the heart and nature of God. In particular, the individual who did his or her job to build healthy communities could enjoy God’s presence. Listen carefully to the Psalmist’s words with this in mind.
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, do what is right and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors, in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt, who do not lend money at interest and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.
To what does the behavior in this passage lead? Healthy communities. People who live by this ethic of love, the Golden Rule we now call it, build healthy communities.
Why is community so important to God? It is important because God loves people and he knows that people need people. He created us to live in community, giving and receiving support, which leads to generosity and gratitude.
Where do you experience community? Look around you as you go about your daily tasks. The people you encounter at home, school, work, church, the civic club, on the golf course, in the grocery, in your neighborhood or on your social network make up your community. These are the people who need you to live by words of Psalm 15.
In particular, what does your community need from you? Follow Jesus’ example, who embodied Psalm 15 and reinforced it with his own words that were read today from Matthew 5:1-12.
Reflect the heart and nature of God. Strive to build bridges of understanding, goodwill and mutual respect to all around you. Be honest, truthful, trustworthy, reliable, loyal and unselfish. Reach out to those who are struggling with words of encouragement and deeds of compassion. Help those who have fallen and protect those who are vulnerable.
Contrary to what you may think, this is not done very often in heroic ways like we witnessed in Tucson a couple of weeks ago. It is done in the little things we can do everyday along our way.
As Tom Ehrich writes, “Goodness in its many forms warms a heart: kindness, generosity, self-sacrifice, mercy—in which one sees and cares for the other. The tendency of humanity to deplete—to take more than we give, to wound rather than be vulnerable, to fight for our way, to seize the larger share—is quietly counter-balanced when goodness is at hand.
The man Jesus himself seems to have been a quiet doer of good. He had relatively few in his entourage, expected no acclaim, left town before hero worship could begin, amassed no power or wealth, paid no attention to the lofty, launched no institution and in the end gave everything he had, even life itself, to God’s beloved. And yet, that doing of good filled the land with new life.”
This is what our community needs from us, new life, found in small acts of kindness.
Henri Nouwen believed that community is best understood as a quality of the heart. He wrote, “The word, ‘community,’ has many connotations, some positive and some negative. Community can make us think of a safe togetherness, shared meals, common goals and joyful celebrations. It can also call forth images of sectarian exclusivity, in-group language, self-satisfied isolation and romantic naïveté
However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own.”
Where have you fallen short and what do you need to work on this week? I have a feeling you know and who it is you have slighted, ignored or hurt. Will you do something about this as you move into a new week? Will you do your part to make your communities stronger and healthier by reflecting the heart and nature of God, which we commonly refer to as being the presence of Christ?
I know someone who will help you. Remember, anyone can enter the presence of God whose desire is to reflect the heart and nature of God by the way he or she lives. The door is open. Let’s join hearts and hands and walk through it.