Sunday, September 4, 2016

Phil Kniss: To seek God’s success

Labor Day Sunday 2016
Psalm 90:1-2, 14-17

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Who among us doesn’t want our work to last?
    I know I do.
    I’m not always sure, as a pastor,
        if I’ll ever know if my work will last,
        or even how anyone can determine if it did.
    Sometimes I envy builders of cathedrals and monuments,
        who know their work will still be there,
        long after they are forgotten.
    One of the things I love about the house we live in,
        is that I knew the man who had it built nearly 100 years ago—
            Harold Lehman’s father.
        It was built well, and to last.
    Someone crafted book shelves behind glass doors,
        and built them into the front room of the house around 1920,
            assuming they would be there for generations.
        And they are—as beautiful and functional and fine as ever.

    But I am also intrigued by, and deeply admire,
        people who put extensive time and painstaking effort
            into what they know, from the beginning, will NOT last.
        In fact, for some, the very im-permanence of their creation
            seems to be the point.

    My artist cousin, Eric Kniss, creates art in dust.
        Yes, he also created the massive concrete sculpture
            near the library circle at EMU.
        That’s not going anywhere. I’m quite sure it’s tornado-proof.

    But he also loves to create large and intricate works of art
        on the floor of an art gallery,
            by sifting clay dust into interesting forms and patterns.
        When the exhibit is over a week or so later,
            it’s removed with a broom and dustpan.

    For contemporary artists like my cousin, and Christo,
        and people who sculpt in ice or beach sand,
        at least their fleeting works are well-documented
            by high-res color photos and videos,
            and shared on Facebook and art websites,
            and will have some kind of life into infinity.

But since ancient times, long before cameras of any kind,
    there were Tibetan Buddhists and others
    creating intricate images with colored sand,
        sometimes working in teams for many days or weeks,
        and sweeping it up when they were done.
    Preserved only in their memory.

But the kind of persons willing to invest of weeks of labor
    into a project that will only exist in a moment of time, and be gone,
    those persons are rare, and are the exception that proves the rule.

    As a rule,
        we want our work to last.
        We want it to be remembered . . . enjoyed . . . used.
        We want it to hold its value, and even grow in value,
            long after we’ve put in the time.

So it’s worth pondering the prayer of the psalmist
    with which we opened our service this morning.
    We recited these words together:
        “Establish the work of our hands for us—
            yes, establish the work of our hands.”

It is an emphatic end to this Psalm 90.
    The psalmist doesn’t often repeat lines back to back,
        but when it happens,
        we know to pay attention.

But what, exactly,
    was the psalm writer trying to underscore
        in this double-ending to the prayer?
    That’s an interesting question,
        because the word the psalmist chose here
        gets translated a lot of different ways, with different meanings.
    The original Hebrew word is konnehu.
    The most common translation, in English versions,
        is “establish” the work of our hands.
    But some other versions render it “confirm” or
        “bless” or “make successful.”
    The more I thought about this,
        the more I thought this question was kind of important.

    Not because we are building doctrine here.
    The Book of Psalms is not a theological training manual.
        It’s a prayer book.
        These are heartfelt songs and prayers of God’s people,
            intended to express their love, devotion, or frustration,
                with God,
                in response to particular circumstances.

    So, keeping that in mind, I ask,
        What was the Psalmist trying to communicate with God here?
        What was on this poet’s mind?

    As a potential model for our own prayers,
        I suggest it really matters how we answer that question.

    For us, the phrase, “establish the work of our hands,”
        does sound like we are asking God to do something for us—
        to take what we have offered up in labor,
            and make it last.
            Establish it.
            Bless it.
            Make it productive and fruitful.
            Make it successful.

    So the idea here, is that I do the work,
        then pray over it,
        and ask for God’s stamp of approval.

    That’s not a bad prayer.
        Especially for those of us who want our work to last.
        It’s actually a noble prayer, to a certain extent.
            It’s saying, here is the best I have to offer.
            Now, God, take it the next step, beyond what I am able.
        How much better is that,
            than to pray with a selfish spirit—
                make me influential, make me famous—
            or worse, not to pray at all,
                and take all the glory ourselves for what we have done.

    So it’s not a bad thing to pray for God to take our work,
        and make it into something more.
    There should be more prayers like that.

    But I find in Psalm 90, upon closer inspection,
        an attitude even more profound, more humble,
            and more difficult to pray.
        And it’s a prayer I haven’t often had the courage to pray.

And it hinges on the meaning of this word konnehu
    that we translate “establish.”
Yes, the word can, and often does mean to make firm, to make lasting,
    to make permanent.
    But “establish” has another closely-related meaning,
        that puts a different angle on it.
    The word “establish” is also used to mean verify, certify,
        confirm, or substantiate what is true, and what is not true.
        In a court of law, attorneys seek to “establish”
            what happened, and what didn’t happen.
            In this case, to “establish” something, is to “prove” it.

Using “establish” as “prove” helps Psalm 90 make a lot more sense.
    That meaning seems most obvious and straightforward,
        given how the psalmist was using it.
    The psalms are always, primarily, about God.
    There are no more God-focused texts in scripture than the psalms.
        It makes sense, because they are prayers.
        They are usually written as a direct address to God.
    And no matter what the psalmist is going through—
        whether life is good and the psalms are overflowing in praise,
        or whether life is oppressive and the psalms are crying out
            with loud laments—
        always, in the end, they turn toward God.
    They either declare some confident truth about God
        and God’s character,
            or they seek to put God in the spotlight,
            or to put God on the spot,
                by reminding God of God’s own promises.

    But the thing that is really hard to find in the psalms
        is the kind of self-centeredness
        that we are so good at in our prayers.

    From the perspective of the psalms,
        if I’m asking God for help,
        I’m not asking in order to save face, or make my name great,
            or protect my agenda.
        I’m asking as an advocate for God’s purposes in the world.

        The argument to God is never,
            “God, don’t let them make a fool out of me.”
        No. It’s always,
            “God, don’t let them make a fool out of you.”
        Continually, the psalm writers pray in such a way,
            as to advance God’s agenda,
            to protect God’s reputation among the nations,
            to ensure God’s will prevails.
        Even when praying about their enemies,
            and asking God to destroy them,
            they don’t ask to take matters into their own hands,
                so they get vengeance for themselves.
        No, they point out
            how their enemies have wronged and offended God.
        They ask God to do God’s work of justice-making,
            and then they leave it in the hands of God alone.

    The psalms are written from a stance of humble yielding to a God
        who encompasses all things,
        and yet cares about the smallest things,
            even the modest work of my hands.

So when the psalmist closes out Psalm 90
    with this double plea about establishing our human labor,
    I think I am on solid ground to say
        this statement is still primarily about God,
        and not about wanting my work to last.

    Clues run all the way through the psalm itself.
        The psalm writer prays, repeatedly, and in different ways,
            for God to be preeminent.
        Lord, you have been our dwelling place since forever.
        Before the mountains were born
            from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
            It is your deeds that matter,
                your work that lasts,
                your activity that will shape this world and the next.

        So . . . why in the world would this psalm end
            with an emphatic focus on my own work and legacy?
        Well . . . it doesn’t.

    Here’s how I would translate, and paraphrase,
        the close of this prayer.

    God, here is the work I have done.
        Confirm that it’s true to the work you wanted me to do.
        Test it. Prove it.
        Establish it to be authentic,
            establish that it is work that fulfills your purposes.

    Implied in such a prayer, of course,
        is our willingness to yield to God’s assessment.
        Even if our work doesn’t pass God’s test.

That’s an important distinction, I think,
    and one that was missed by some of the translators.
    When the New Living Translation renders Psalm 90:17 as,
        “make our efforts successful”
    or when the International Standard Version says,
        “make our endeavors secure”
    or worse, when the God’s Word Translation puts it,
        “make us successful in everything we do,”
    I think they have missed an opportunity
        to express this prayer in the manner it was prayed.

The psalmist is not asking God for a legacy.
The psalmist is not expecting God to rubber-stamp his work.
The psalmist is not even praying for his work to have lasting value.
    The psalmist is praying,
        on his own behalf and on behalf of his people, thusly,
    “God, see to it that our labors advance your agenda.”
        Establish the truth of what we have done.
            If it’s true to you, let it stand.
            If it is untrue, let it be undone.

    And that, dear sisters and brothers,
        is the challenging and humbling part of this prayer.
    And it’s a prayer we might want to think twice before praying.
    Are you ready to pray this, in all honesty?
        “If it’s true to you, let it stand.
        If it is untrue, let it be undone.”
    I want to be ready to pray that, and truly release my work.
        But the fact is,
            I’m pretty invested in my assumptions
                that my work is God’s work.

        And, I suspect, so are most of you.
        And why wouldn’t we be?
        We want our work to be meaningful,
            beyond any immediate compensation.
        We all want our work to be God’s work.
        As to whether or not it is, that’s for God to assess.

    This prayer, on this Labor Day Sunday,
        is an opportunity for all of us,
        whether our work is explicitly connected to faith, as mine is,
            or whether our work is located entirely in a secular context,
        whether our work is compensated with a paycheck,
            or whether we do it as volunteers,
        whether our work is a source of joy,
            or a source of frustration and feelings of entrapment.

    This prayer is an invitation for us all to remember,
        that we are all, equally, called to fulfill God’s purposes.
        We all, as followers of Jesus,
            have a vocation beyond any job or place of employment.
        We all have a calling
            to invest our time and energy and resources
            into God’s big project of salvation and reconciliation.
        And all our efforts—paid or unpaid, religious or secular—
            are subject to God’s assessment,
            as to whether we are contributing to God’s cause.
        The question is not whether or not our work lasts,
            or our labor ultimately brings us success.
        For God’s people, the question must always be,
            Are we, in our labors, seeking God’s success?

    So can this be our honest and bold prayer this morning?
        If our work is true to you, let it stand.
        If it is untrue, let it be undone.

—Phil Kniss, September 4, 2016

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