Praises and Swords (?)

September 6th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 149; Matthew 18:15-20

“House of Shalom”

In 2008, my wife and I felt God was leading us to take a huge step of faith. At the time we were living in a small rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore. We had a young child and another on the way. We were involved in full-time college campus ministry, and we had been invited to start a summer service program to connect college students with various non-profits and ministries throughout the city where they could serve during their spring breaks and summers.

Around that time we became aware of a rather large property that was for sale, and we felt it would be perfect to host the sort of summer and spring break program that we had been asked to lead. It was actually a rather massive house that had been split up into four different apartment units, but had been semi-converted back into a single family home. It was way out of our price range, but we prayed about it a lot, and God provided the money for us to put a down payment down, and we moved forward.

To make it work financially, we rented out parts of the house year-round to grad students and alumni, and it became a sort of communal living situation. Our desire was for the house to be a place of peace in a community that was often plagued by violence, and so we named the house “House of Shalom” — the Hebrew word for peace and wholeness.

A Stone’s Throw

As you can imagine, our rather large and active community house stood out in the neighborhood. Not only did we have a lot of college students hanging around all the time in a community where there weren’t a lot of college students, but the house itself was rather unique — much larger and in much better condition than many of the other properties in the surrounding neighborhoods, where almost half of the houses and storefronts were vacant or boarded up.

Eventually it seemed that our community house began to draw attention from some of the neighborhood kids. Perhaps it was a mixture of mischief and curiosity, or perhaps it was something else, but it seemed that one summer our house became target practice for those who wanted to hone their rock-throwing skills. On three separate occasions, rocks were thrown through our windows, shattering the window pan and scattering broken pieces of glass all over our living room and hallway. 

As you can imagine, this was rather upsetting, especially since we didn’t know who was doing it or why! We felt especially vulnerable since our house was located on the corner and we had a LOT of windows (my wife once counted that the house had 50 windows!) and we feared for the safety of our children. 

Around that same time someone keyed our minivan, inscribing curse words onto every panel of our van, costing us several thousand dollars in repairs.

At War

At this point, anger and frustration was welling up inside of me, to the point where I started having violent dreams in which I enacted revenge on the perpetrators for all of the pain and suffering they had put us through.

It seemed at that point that House of Shalom was at war with the very neighborhood we had originally wanted to bless. It seemed our house was not so much a place of peace after all.

Psalm 149

In psalm 149 something similar seems to have happened for the Israelite people. God had called their ancestor Abraham to leave his home country and go to a new land, telling Abraham “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3).

Abraham was called to be a blessing to others, and God promised to bless the nation that would be descended from him, so that through them all the families and nations on the earth would be blessed.

Now, Psalm 149 starts out great. It’s a beautiful, soaring psalm of praise. 

Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful. Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre. For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches. (Psalm 149:1-5).

I love the festive imagery, the people of Israel dancing in the streets and making beautiful music to God, singing for joy on their couches.

But then seemingly out of nowhere, the Psalm takes a violent turn:

Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, 

to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 149:6-9).

What happened to singing for joy on their couches? Where are the musical instruments, the tamborines and lyres? Why have they put down their tambourines and picked up two-edged swords? Why are they executing vengeance on the nations, rather than blessing them???

A Ritual Reenactment of God’s Judgement

But Biblical scholars tell us that Psalm 149 may not be so much a call to arms, as it is a liturgical reenactment of how God has fought their battles in the past. Rather than a rallying warcry for the people to go out on the battlefield and wipe out their enemies, it’s a worshipful reminder of God’s victorious rule and reign over all the nations.

There were times in Israel’s history when God used the Israelite nation to bring judgement on other nations. But the promise throughout the Hebrew Scriptures was that God would fight their battles for them. Think of how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, striking down the firstborn of the Egyptians, how God miraculously parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass through, but then caused the water to come crashing back down again, swallowing up the Eyptian army. God made the walls of Jericho fall, God gave David the strength and courage to fight against Goliath. All throughout the Bible, it was God behind the scenes, fighting their battles, sometimes involving them, sometimes not, but always at work on their behalf.

Live Peaceably With All

Last week in our New Testament Lesson, Paul told the Christians in Rome to Bless those who persecute you…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all….never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:14-21).

In Romans 13 Paul tells us, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). 

Jesus takes it a step further, providing a sort of how-to manual for dealing with conflict within the church. He says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (Matt. 18:15), and he goes on to provide instructions of what to do if that person will not listen to you.

The goal here, in both Paul and Jesus’s teachings, is not to get revenge or even to ensure that the one who has wronged us gets punished, but instead to find a way to live at peace, to live our lives without clouds of anger or bitterness hanging over our heads. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

“House of Shalom” Part 2

We never found out exactly who threw the rocks through our windows or why. But one night when we heard a rock hit the side of our house, I ran out of the house and saw a group of kids running away. I ran after them and caught up with one of the kids who wasn’t as fast at running as the others. She denied throwing the rocks but said she knew who did it. I pleaded with her to tell the other kids to stop, and I may have threatened to call the police if it happened again. I also told her that we had a baby in the house, that it wasn’t an innocent prank, but that it was actually really damaging and dangerous. It seems like the message got through, because we lived in that house for another 6 or 7 years and never had another rock get thrown through our windows.

We did eventually find out who had vandalized our minivan. We involved the police and they arrested her, but we did not end up going to trial. Instead we were able to sit down with her and her mother and social worker in the presence of a professional mediator and talk about how she had hurt us. We were able to set boundaries to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.

In both of those situations, staring in the faces of the kids who had vandalized our property and expressing how they had hurt us helped move me from anger to compassion. I began to feel sorry for them, knowing that the future was not very bright for them unless their energy could be redirected in a more positive direction.

Although we knew we couldn’t help the rock-throwers (since we didn’t even know who they were!), we decided that we could do something to help other kids in the neighborhood. Along with our college students and alumni we started a summer day camp that ran for 4 summers in Southwest Baltimore, providing safe and healthy activities, snacks, crafts, and Bible lessons, giving kids in the community a chance to interact with college students who became friends and mentor to them, and who told them how much Jesus loves them. 

Let Go, and Let God.

We must do everything within our power to live at peace with everyone. When others hurt us, we owe it to them to let them know, following the pattern that Jesus set forth for us. 

But there will be those times when others hurt us and we do not have the opportunity to confront them. Perhaps we don’t know who they are, or perhaps they choose not to listen.

It is normal and natural in those times to feel anger. But we have a choice. We can keep track of all the wrongs that others have done to us. We can let the anger fester and bitterness. We can spend our lives constantly on the lookout for ways to get revenge. 

Or we can let go and let God take control, believing that God is indeed looking out for us and fighting our battles. We can trust that wrongs will eventually be made right, that evil will one day be done away with, and that in the end God will sort it out. We can follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who forgave his enemies while hanging on the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

And so let us do everything within our power to live at peace with all people. Let us seek the peace and healing and forgiveness that Jesus offers, and let us “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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