The impulse to punish by setting apart is a tale as old as time – and yes, you now have the Disney tune stuck in your heads. No charge. A documentary program on punishment notes that the very earliest practices involved a removal from the company of the community – separation and isolation.
And even though the word punish dates back only to about 1300, it has older Latin roots. Even before we had the word, we had the understanding that to separate, to make distinctions, is who we are. In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth.
To make order from chaos, God separates: the heavens from the earth, the seas from the dry land, the night from the day, the skies from the planet. God fills the oceans with their creatures and the land with theirs. And God makes you and me in God’s very image – yet not God. Beloved. So like the One who made us, who is especially fond of every single one of us.
That distinction – of God, yet not God – and the desire to separate that is hard-wired into you and me and every person: that is where we find ourselves in the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 15. It’s very brief. What you hear is the whole thing. And this song, this prayer, is a rhetorical question.
We begin today a “summer of Psalms,” bringing our hearts and minds in community to attention on these ancient poems that are also ancient hymns. For the next six Sundays, these compositions will claim our engagement with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “prayer-book of the Bible” and Martin Luther described as the whole Scriptures in miniature.
What does today’s psalm have to say to you and me, thousands of years after it was composed? First, the rhetorical question: Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill? And then the response: Those who lead a blameless life and do what is right, who speak the truth from their hearts. The psalmist then gets specific: People who live in such a fashion do not: speak slander; do evil to their friends; discredit their neighbor; bribe anyone; neither do they accept bribes against the innocent. Instead, they reject the wicked … they honor those who fear the Lord.
And … we’re back to that deep human impulse to punish, to separate, to divide into us and not-us. Do you see it? Can you hear it in this brief song? I urge us not to hear this as the psalmist crowing that he is right and everyone else is missing the mark. What happens when, instead, you and I tune our hearts toward what it looks like to abide on God’s holy hill: to live in God’s kingdom, and also to bear in our thoughts the question of last week, Who is my neighbor?
Yes, we are instinctive, even reflexive in separating out for punishment because we are conscious that separating the individual from the community is one way to call the wayward back to the path. Shulem Deen describes it in All Who Go Do Not Return, his memoir of being cast out of the Hasidic Jewish community. Among Old Order Amish communities, the practice is known as “shunning.” The Roman Catholic church refers to it as “excommunication.” There is a procedure in ELCA congregations but it’s so rarely invoked that I had to check with my colleagues to find out what it’s called. Responses varied. Basically, in a last-ditch attempt, a person can be removed from the rolls of a congregation. Let’s don’t get any ideas.
Because – look, raise your hand if you have never ever slandered. Raise your hand if you’ve never done evil to a friend, even unintentionally, or discredited a neighbor.
I believe that this psalm calls us not to sit in judgment and decide who is worthy to dwell in the Lord’s tabernacle. Instead, I hear a humbling reminder that the composer might well have been taking to his own heart: Help me live like this. Help me remember that everyone created in your image is my neighbor. Because you are God – and I am not. You are God – and other people are not. That means that in being separate and distinct from you, I am to speak the truth from my heart. Help me to do that with your command to love laying a claim upon my words and my hands. Guide me to live upon your holy hill.
The Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, now retired as a Methodist pastor, composes poetry prompted by Scriptures. Hear his recent offering:
The holy urge that birthed us
is the energy of wholeness,
self-flowing of love,
desire for the well-being of all Creation.
Christ is the body of this love,
of which you, and all Creation, are part.
Everything holds together
in this divine longing.
This love contains everything,
even what is cruel and senseless.
Don’t let evil convince you of anything.
Stay mindful of the sacred wholeness.
Let yourself be gathered up in its light.
Even in chaos and darkness,
you walk with the Beloved.
That’s what it means every time the sun rises.
Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill? Those who do these things shall never be overthrown…. And who is my neighbor? … Go, and do likewise. Do this, and you will live.
 Psalms: The Prayer-Book of the Bible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Republished 1974 by Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
And: “…they may be fairly called a little Bible, in which everything that is in the whole Bible is contained in a beautiful and compendious manner.” – Martin Luther, Introduction to the Psalms.