For those of us of a certain age, it’s hard to encounter Psalm 103 without hearing that song from Godspell. Oh, bless the Lord, my soul; his praise to thee proclaim; and all that is within me join to bless his holy name.
Verse 8, where the reading concludes today, tells us: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
There’s that hesed, that steadfast lovingkindness. And as always, what pours from God’s hand is abounding. Limitless in its extravagance. Here is the Kingdom of God. Right here, available, an incredible foretaste of the feast to come. Though the reading ends here, verse 9 brings us right back to Godspell. He will not always accuse; nor will he keep his anger forever. Or, in the words of Stephen Schwartz, the composer: He will not always chide; he will with patience wait. His wrath is ever slow to rise and ready to abate.
In my second year of divinity school, we had fieldwork: ten hours a week and a pastoral supervisor. By the grace of God, I found myself at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in High Point under the supervision of the Rev. Sue Gamelin, who was a co-pastor along with the Rev. Tim Gamelin, her husband.
Not a minute goes by in my life as a pastor that I’m not drawing on the well of wisdom that she made for me. Among the memories that stand out is one from a Communion visit to a member. I was only vaguely aware during the visit of a tension underlying our time.
Once we were back in the car, Pastor Sue let several minutes pass before measuring her words carefully. She said that she herself was frequently having to curb her know-it-all tendencies, the desire she had to provide the knowledge, answer the question, whatever it was. Which, of course, is exactly what I had done no fewer than three times on the same question.
Later, when each of us independently wrote up our final evaluations of our nine months together, guess what we both described?
I cannot read Psalm 103 – or hear the song from Godspell – without thinking of that day and the car ride back to the church. As annoying as my behavior must have been, Pastor Sue did not let it rip. When correction was needed – and that was far from the only occasion it was – she corrected. It was the way she corrected that made all the difference. My entire soul could feel that she was chiding me so that I could gain a portion of the self-awareness that helps make a pastor. So that I could find a boundary, to know a healthy and productive reason to guard my tongue.
When is it most loving to speak – and when is it most loving to choose not to speak? Whatever wrath Pastor Sue might have been feeling, it was ever slow to rise, and ready to abate. She was showing me the Kingdom of God.
Here is the Kingdom of God, as near as the person next to you and to me; here is the Kingdom of God, intimate as breathing, necessary as a heartbeat.
Bless, and do not forget all his benefits. Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. The Lord works vindication for those who are oppressed. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Once again, the psalms are showing us how very much the presence of the Kingdom of God is as much effect and cause as it is cause and effect. When to speak – when to hold the tongue? Which is the loving action in the moment? And what words, when spoken, help make the Kingdom?
The reading from Isaiah chapter 58 bears out this beautiful reality: If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil… then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord shall guide you continually …. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Not cause and effect – effect and cause. When you do these things, when I do these things, we are blessing the Lord. The speaking of evil, the pointing of the finger is shown as the yoke among us, the thing that hinders us from moving along the path that pleases the Lord.
That does not mean biting our tongue every time. Not at all! Rather, I believe that it means drawing from the wisdom well of Pastor Sue and Psalm 103. It means to be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And when that happens! We shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. When everything that comes out of our mouths has passed through the Godly gate of lovingkindness before speaking a word into existence, then you and I are the Kingdom of God.
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us how deeply rooted each of us is in that Kingdom. But you have come to the living God… and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Cain and Abel…. We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let mutual love continue.
In today’s Gospel reading, a brief glimpse into Luke chapter 13, Jesus heals a woman who is described as crippled. She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.
How many times and with how many words have I left someone else bent over and quite unable to stand up straight? When do my words, your words, our words heal and when do they cripple? When am I, when are you, when are we, repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets to live in – and when are we the ones making the potholes?
Bless the Lord, O my soul. Let all that is within me bless his holy name. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Kingdom of God to which we are promised in baptism, after our journey here has concluded, is a Kingdom that we are repeatedly told is here among you and me right now – in glimpses, in foretastes, in the words on our tongues, in the way that you and I are present with one another.
Oh, bless the Lord, my soul; his praise to thee proclaim; and all that is within me join to bless his holy name.
The musical Godspell was part of a moment in musical-theater history that reflected the charismatic movement of the early 1970s. It was not well received at the time. In some circles, it is still not well received.
So why did Godspell even make an appearance in the pulpit today? Partly because of our collective musical memory, and partly because of composer Steven Schwartz’s response to the controversy.
He says: “Godspell is about the formation of a community which carries on Jesus’ teachings after he has gone…. It is the effect Jesus has on others which is the story of the show.”
Rather than instructing me and you how to bless the Lord, Psalm 103 shows effect and cause. When we bless the Lord, we are dwelling in the best representation of the Kingdom of God that any of us can encounter in this life. When you and I are merciful and gracious. When I choose to not always chide, when your anger is ever slow to rise and ready to abate, then the Kingdom of God is in our hearts, on our tongues, when we choose not to be yoked by pointing the finger, when like the woman before Jesus, we are healed of the broken back and able to stand up straight. Then we are living as though God has already, and continually, crowned each of us with steadfast love and mercy.