When I graduated from high school many years ago, my class started a new practice. Instead of inviting someone famous or accomplished to give the commencement address, we asked one of our teachers. Mrs. Timmerman was our social studies teacher, and she knew us well. She taught Current Events, so she asked us, “What are the events that have happened in your lifetime that have made an impression on you?” My answer made it into her speech.
She described the Tostengard family camped out in the family room on a Sunday night in July 1969. Lying in our sleeping bags late at night, with no lights on in the house other than the light-emitting from our little black and white TV, we watched the Apollo 11 moon landing. With Walter Kronkite narrating, we were wide-eyed as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of the Eagle lunar module and placed his foot on the moon’s powdery surface. “My golly,” was all the esteemed journalist could say.
Then came the famous quote from Neil Armstrong, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A camera attached to the outside of the space capsule allowed hundreds of millions of people around the world to watch as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag on the moon’s surface, spoke to President Nixon on the phone, and did some simple scientific tests.
Two hours later, they were back in the lunar module, where they slept that night. I think it must have been the universe’s most singular camping trip to date.
This was 1969. Our country was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been shot the year before. The nightly news carried images from the Civil Rights movement, and women marched for liberation. We were in so many ways a fractured country. And yet, on that night, our country and the whole world came together and watched, transfixed. Motivated by a mandate from John F. Kennedy in 1961, the country united around a common vision.
The astronauts left some things on the surface of the moon, and among them was a plaque that said, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon – July 1969 A.D. – We came in peace for all mankind.”
Meanwhile, there was a third astronaut, Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module. He recently said on PBS NewsHour that, for him, “The moon was nothing compared to my view of home planet….I would look out the window, and there would be a tiny little thing….It wanted you to look at it. It wanted to be seen. It was gorgeous. It was tiny, shiny, the blue of the oceans, the white of the clouds, little streak of rust color that we call continents. It just glowed.”
Two hundred forty thousand miles from home, he was struck by how fragile our planet appears, and how beautiful, and how sacred a trust it is to protect it.
Two hundred forty thousand miles from home, humans caught a glimpse of our home that had previously been seen only by God.
Today’s reading is a song of praise to this God who created the universe and holds it all together. Psalm 34 is one of my favorites. I learned it a long time ago when I was a camp counselor. The first four verses were set to music, and it was a song we would sing often around the campfire.
I will bless the Lord at all times;
God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul shall make her boast in the Lord;
the humble shall hear thereof and be glad.
Oh magnify the Lord with me;
let us exalt God’s name forever.
I sought the Lord, and God heard my cry,
and delivered me from all my fears.
At a time in life when faith was becoming real, this psalm invited me to praise, and it told me something of God. The one who is beyond me and who holds the universe together answers prayer. This God looks after the one who is afraid, the one who is in trouble. This God brings good news for the humble, the lowly, the downtrodden. The psalm’s words told a story, and its melody pulled me in.
Many years later, I find myself singing it once in a while. And when I can’t remember exactly how the words go, the melody jogs my memory. The melody is a memory device that helps me recall the lyrics that are etched somewhere deep in my heart.
At times I have gone back to this psalm and wondered, what else does it say beyond those first four verses? What’s the rest of the story? But before long, the cadence of the psalm changes. The verses do not flow one from the other. They become individual, short statements – words of wisdom, most often about God who rescues and provides refuge.
As a matter of fact, the psalm is a wordplay. It’s an alphabetical acrostic. In the original Hebrew, each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet. There are actually 22 verses in this psalm, and there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Again, it’s a memory device to help recite this song of praise. Like the street names in Minneapolis, west of Lyndale – Aldrich, Bryant, Colfax, Dupont, Emerson, Fremont… the whole alphabet is used to praise God. Everything from alif to tav, or A to Z.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the Jews cannot pray very long before they begin to meditate on the Torah, or instruction. Indeed, if you go to the very middle of this psalm, verse 11, the psalmist invites us to instruction:
Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord…
Here’s how to live, the psalmist says:
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.
For Jews, the Torah – the commandments, teaching, instruction – are an invitation to walk with God. They recognize that faith is not only private, but indeed public, and that faith has ethical implications. The way we live matters. And living together is not easy. The commandments are not just a list of do’s and don’ts but a way to walk with God, a way to grow closer to God. They are not a test that we can fail, but a guide for how to live well. They are not a formula for avoiding pain, but a guide for choosing God’s way. And here the psalmist says:
- Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit; speak truth instead.
- Steer clear of evil; do good instead.
- Seek peace, and pursue it.
Like many of the psalms, this one tells of a God who has compassion for the poor and needy, for those of broken hearts and broken spirits. It doesn’t describe a God who privileges one ethnicity or pedigree over another. It tells of a God who stands by and with the ones whom the world rejects; the God who stands for the ones whose lives are at risk.
I wonder, to whom does this Psalm clearly speak today? Who feels threatened now? Immigrants, who risk their lives to escape violence and poverty? Children, who are separated from their parents at the borders? Young girls and women, who are trafficked in the sex trade? People whose skin is brown? People you may know?
Two weeks from now, people from around our church will come together in Milwaukee, Wisc. for the ELCA churchwide assembly. That’s the place where decisions get made for our denomination. In 1993, the church adopted a social statement on racism called, Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture. Among other things, it said it was a time of vision and a time of confession, a time to take culture seriously and a time to confront racism.
“All of us sin and fall short of the glory of God,” the statement acknowledged. (Romans 3:23) And “racism is a sin.”
“It’s a mix of power, privilege and prejudice, and it’s a violation of God’s intention for humanity, denying the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity.”
“Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.”
“When we speak of racism as though it were a matter of personal attitudes only, we underestimate it. We have only begun to realize the complexity of the sin, which spreads like an infection through the entire social system…. Racism infects and affects everyone.”
“It deforms relationships between and within racial, ethnic, or cultural groups….It hinders us from becoming who God calls us to be.”
Twenty-six years ago, the church adopted a social statement on racism because we still struggled with it. Two and a half decades after we landed on the moon and thought we had made progress through the Civil Rights Movement, we still needed to say out loud that we still struggled with it. America’s original sin is what it’s been called.
Racism has reared its ugly head again in bold and unapologetic ways. How do we live in these times? It can’t be dismissed or denied. We must speak that truth. How do we find a way forward?
Life is complicated. But there is a gift in the words of today’s psalm. They are words that can lead us forward one step at a time. Words that can draw us close to God and one another:
“Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.”
It’s not easy. In a world where there are conflicting voices, where those in power do what it takes to hold onto their authority, where wealth and status are seductive, the God who created this world and holds all things together calls us to another way:
Do the hard work that makes for peace.
Fifty years after we landed on the moon and left a plaque that said we came in peace for all humankind, the vision still lies before us.
God give us the courage and grace to pursue peace this day. Amen.