Psalm 85 is introduced in the Revised Standard Version as “A prayer for deliverance from
national adversity.” This is a national lament. I think the psalmist is calling
upon us to strength our wings and dream.
The ascription says that
it is a Psalm of the sons of Korah. The story of Korah is a strange one indeed.
You find the story in the 16th Chapter of the book of Numbers, which
in the Hebrew Bible is called, “In the Wilderness.” In the wilderness people
are uneasy with the leadership that Moses is providing. Korah leads an uprising
against Moses. He has a following of 250 people. Moses tells Korah to come to
the Tent of Meeting where they will settle their differences. Moses appeals to God to decide who should be the leader. So they meet and each
leader states his case, and then Moses tells his people to back away because
God is about to make a decision. At that moment the ground opens up beneath
Korah and swallows him up and all his followers with him. But now, centuries
later, the sons of Korah are worship leaders in the Temple in Jerusalem. I
can’t explain that story, but there it is.
was written after the people of Israel returned from exile. The Babylonians
conquered Israel in 587 BCE and led the members of Israel's political class and the
economic elite into exile. They were there for about 50 years. This was
their time in the wilderness. While in exile the elders talked to their
children and grandchildren about what it would be like when they returned home.
That is what verse 1-3 are about. In the good old days: “You were favorable to
the land, O Lord. You restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the sins of
the people. You covered all their sins. You set aside your wrath and turned
aside your fierce anger.” You did all that, Lord. It will be like that again
when we go home. It will be the way our parents and grandparents told us it
would be, only better.
When the exiles got home
they thought they would be welcomed with open arms. They thought there would be
happy family reunions. Old friends and neighbors would kill the fatted calf. Life
would go back to the way it was. Once the pandemic is over, life will be normal
But what they discovered
was that life had moved on for the people who were there. The people who had
been left behind were not particularly happy to see the returnees who tried to
reclaim the family farm, and reassert their authority and reclaim their wealth.
And so the returnees
began to complain: Reading verses 4 -7: “Restore us again, O God of our
Restore us again. That is more than a figure of speech. They wanted
their land back. They wanted their old jobs back. They wanted their money back.
They wanted their lives back. “Lord, put away your indignation. Will you be
angry with us forever?”
Read between the lines. What they are saying is: “We
spent all this time in exile. We lost everything. Will you prolong your anger
to all generations?” One translation for verse five says: “Lord, your nostrils
are flaring. How long will your nose be out of joint?”
Show us your steadfast
The psalmist is getting
real here. There are things in this world that we hope for, and there are
things we are stuck with. Verses 1-3 are about the things we hope for. Verses
4-7 are about we are stuck with. The things we are stuck with cause us pain,
create insecurity, and make us mad. That is what the psalmist is dealing with. The
returnees thought they would go back to the Promised Land. Instead what greeted
them was a new kind of exile: the loss of financial security--the homestead is
gone and it is not coming back; there is no saving account; friends and family
members have died.
Here in the US the
official count says that more than 161,000 people have died from covid-19, and before
the end of the year it might be closer to 300,000. Schools are reopening and we
are afraid. The Senate wants to enact legislation to hold employers harmless
for any work-related health problems, and workers have reason to worry. If your
inbox is like mine, you get multiple reminders every day about our endangered
postal service and social security. In the wilderness dreams die. That is what
the psalmist is telling us.
Placebo prayers just don’t
cut it any more. The comforters of Job did not bring him comfort. Experts tell
us that perhaps as many as 40 million people may be unemployed by the end of
this year. Job loss will quickly translate into a loss of housing and health
care. We are not acting like a nation that not long ago prided itself as being
the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
The Psalm begins to turn
in verse 6: “Will you revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Then
in verse 8 the psalmist declares: “I will listen to what God, the Lord, will
say, God promises peace.” Langston Hughes wrote a poem entitled “Dreams” that I
think captures the meaning of these verses. He wrote: “Hold fast to dreams/If
dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly. Hold fast to
dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.”
People of faith are
called to be nurturers and encourages of dreams. Now is not the time to
despair. Now is the time to strengthen the sinews and structures of hope. “I
will listen to what God, the Lord, will say, God promises peace . . . . “Surely
salvation is at hand . . . that glory may dwell in our land.” Augustine said
that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” There is a parallelism here.
Salvation refers to healing and health and wholeness. The glory of God is a
healthy planet and people who are fully alive. Hold fast to that dream.
Then jump down to verse
10 and 11: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss
each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks
down from heaven.” And verse 13: “The Lord indeed will give what is good.” The
psalmist has moved away from privilege and loss to a vision of the common good.
The Psalm ends with a
call for restorative justice -- a theme that resonates deeply with our time. Verses
12 and 13 read: “Yea the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield
its increase. Righteousness will go before God, and make God’s footsteps the
Whose footsteps will you
follow? Whose voice will you listen to? Let me share the voices I listen to
these days and invite you to name the voices that you are hearing.
The motto of the State of
Hawaii reads: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” When we
are right in our relationship with the land, there will be peace. For the
Indigenous people of Hawaii the motto refers to the sovereignty of the land,
when the land of Hawaii is returned to the people of Hawaii, there will be
peace. Native Americans tell us, when stolen property is returned to its
rightful owners, then there will be peace. Black Lives Matter is telling us it
is time to take down monuments to “the Lost Cause” and start enacting laws for
“a Just Cause.” I see moms on the front line in Portland and on the front line in
marches to end gun violence. Just yesterday I received an email telling me that
335 institutional investors who manage more than $9.5 trillion have released a
statement, made a pledge, a commitment to a five point plan for covid-19 that
calls for prioritizing worker health and safety and promises to keep supplier
and customer relationships intact. Putting people’s health over short-term
psalmist is telling us that restorative justice is the path peace. That’s the
dream. I want to close with another poem from Langston Hughes:
Let America be America Again
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let America be the dream that
Let it be that great strong land of
Where never kings connive nor tyrants
That any man [one] be crushed by one
[Where] opportunity is real, and life
Equality is in the air we breathe.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. David Hansen