God, Our Liberator
Scripture: Psalm 142; John 6:66-68
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Sep 17, 2017
Last Sunday was a happy and blessed day in the life of WPC. By an overwhelming majority you called Rev. Dave Rohde to be your next pastor - only your third in almost 50 years. Dave and his wife Hailey arrive with daughter Ells (5), son Thomas (3), and daughter Piper (4 months). Dave begins his ministry with you on November 27th, but I understand they will be out in the area looking for a home and doing all the many things related in moving. So that is exciting and I'm delighted for you! Some of you have kindly asked about my future plans. One option I've thought about is selling my sermons out there on the church lawn. And as you can see I've already gotten started. I've even reasonably priced them. We'll see how all that goes.
The story of the Amistad revolt touches on all of the best in humanity and on all of the worst. It is a tragic and celebrated chapter in American history. The Amistad trials were a flash point and a transformational event in the world of slave trade. The year was 1839. Spain had prohibited the importation of new slaves into Spanish American territories for almost 20 years. Yet in that year, a man named Sengbe in Upper Mende County on the Ivory coast, Sengbe, the son of a local chief, was walking to his field and was captured by four men, sold in a nearby village, marched to the Liberian coast, herded onto a slave ship, and sold at auction in Cuba, illegally, for $450, to work in the sugar plantations. Fifty-three Africans then were forced onto an American built schooner called "Friendship", La Amistad, under Spanish sail. The voyage from Havana to Puerto Prince usually took three days, but they were blown out to sea, and one night in the cargo hold having been whipped, starved and others "too sick to be of use" drowned. Sengbe and other Africans, now armed with cane knives, took the ship, killing the captain and the cook but sparing the rest. Sengbe ordered the Spaniards to sail east back to Africa, but guided by the stars, the schooner sailed west, zigzagged for two months and finally drifted off Long Island Sound - sails blown to pieces, in late August 1839.
Three national trials followed over the next two years which caught the attention of the American and international public. The slaves were eventually freed and sent back to Africa in 1841, but it so embittered feelings between the anti slavery north and pro slavery south that the Amistad is considered a pivotal event leading to the American Civil War in 1860. So dramatic was the third trial that former President, 73 year old John Quincy Adams, defended the case before the Supreme Court, addressing the Court for 4-1/2 hours.
Intriguingly while jailed in New Haven, the news caught the attention of Yale Divinity students and particularly a professor of theology and sacred literature at Yale, who you would think not a very practical fellow. The interpreter at the trial who spoke limited Mende, the language of the Africans, was ineffective. So there was a search for someone who could speak Mende fluently. This Professor Gibbs, having learned to count to ten in Mende went down to the New York docks, counted to ten in front of every African sailor he could find. And one man recognized the language as his own, a James Covey who had been captured and sold as a child, recaptured by a British squadron and then learned to speak English fluently and joined the British navy. Gibbs took Covey to New Haven to see the jailed Africans, and there was a great shout for joy when the Africans heard Covey speak in their Mende tongue. They could now give their version of the events.
There is a stirring scene in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film, "Amistad," where the scene here is Sengbe or "Cinque" as he came to be called, was overcome with emotion at the trial. During the lawyers' argumentation, Cinque slowly stood up, and from the prisoner dock, bound in iron shackles, began to speak "Give Us Free," "Give Us Free!"
Today we come to our last Psalm in our Summer Psalms Sermon Series, Psalm 142, and we will be reminded today that God is our Liberator: our freedom giver. The Psalm 142 text is a vivid personal drama, a brief portion of Hebrew poetry. Psalm 142 is a poem of public lament. It is written from a situation of deep distress, possibly prison. Psalm 142 may have been composed when Israel was in exile in Babylon. Prison was the capture of Israel some 710 miles away from Jerusalem, in Babylon, six centuries before Jesus of Nazareth. The actual heading of the Psalm, which does not date to the original writing but is nevertheless ancient, describes Psalm 142 as "A Maskil" or an "instruction," a "lesson learned," a Maskil of David, the second king of Israel. And the ancient setting of Psalm 142, according to this heading, is David in a cave - when was David in a cave? Well, twice, and they were both pretty "terrible experiences." In I Samuel 24, King Saul was after David's life. Saul was tipped off that David was hiding in the rock wilderness Ein Gedi, a lovely oasis just north of the Dead Sea.
So Saul, acting on this information, takes 3000 of his best soldiers to hunt David down. And Saul came into the very cave in which David was hiding with his 400 men. And instead of killing Saul, David cut off a piece of King Saul's garment which he left beside Saul because David would not lift a hand of violence against the "Lord's anointed." The earlier time we read of David in a cave is two chapters before in I Samuel 22. Again, David is on the run from King Saul, and David escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and all of David's father's house heard of David in hiding, they went down to him.
Listen to the description of David's army in I Samuel 22: "Everyone who was in distress and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was discontented gathered to him, and David became captain over them." David in a cave once to spare Saul's life surrounded by 3000 of Saul's elite soldiers personally looking for David to kill him and once in a cave assembling an army of 400 men who were distressed, discontented and in debt. That's the setting of Psalm 142, or at least a situation very much like it. The psalm is a lament, it's David, or a lonely voice, maybe years after David: a voice in exile confined somewhere in a cave, maybe a prison and this confined, imprisoned soul begins Psalm 142, just trying to get God's attention. "With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make my supplication to the Lord." The New English Bible renders it, "I cry aloud to the Lord. I plead aloud for mercy."
In hiding, confined in a prison all the palmist has left is a voice, crying aloud, trying to get God's ear. Prayer in the Old Testament was not merely a personal matter. Prayer in the Hebrew Scriptures was also a corporate concern, maybe even more so. Most prayers in the Old Testament were said aloud.
Remember Hannah praying silently for a son at the temple in Shiloh? The old priest Eli thought she was drunk: her lips moving, no voice. Silent prayer was that unusual in the Old Testament. By the time Jesus came on the scene, many prayers became public spectacle, more for the crowd standing by than for God's ear. In Luke, we come across one such public prayer of hypocrisy said by that Pharisee: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there." And Jesus commends the tax collector who stood far off, beating his breast, and who kept saying over and over, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, "When you pray, go into your room, and shut the door, and pray to your Father in secret. So we say to our students, prayer is like an iceberg, most of it is underwater, invisible, behind a closed door. Psalm 142 was probably a public cry of David with 400 distressed, discontented and in debt soldiers about him, or Psalm 142 is a voice crying out in the marketplace in Babylon pouring out complaint. "With my voice I cry to the Lord." My dad used to say to me, "Charles, never complain." Never complain, he also said after, "Be part of the solution, not a part of the problem." Does anyone have a parent who ever said that? Yet, I'm not so sure anymore whether complaint, especially complaint to God, doesn't have a place in our lives of faith. If we took all the complaints out of the Bible, we wouldn't have a lot of Moses, or much of prophets Amos and Jeremiah. Yes, complaining is not all good. Martha complained about her sister Mary, and Jesus said, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things." But here is Psalm 142, the psalmist has a complaint to God and that is the psalmist's life is in jeopardy. Three thousand of Saul's crack soldiers are after him, "in the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. Save me from my persecutors. They are too strong for me." I am in this prison of a cave or an exile and moreover, "I am all alone here, God!"
"Look on my right hand and see. Look around, God there is no one who takes notice of me, no refuge remains to me." In the Bible there is a lot of "holy complaint," and Psalm 142 is such a one.
Maybe God has given you a passion to speak, to act upon a situation, a circumstance of injustice - "holy complaint." You see a moral need for correction. Someone is in trouble. Someone is being put down - for their religion or race or orientation. Maybe you are in the prison of a difficult relationship. The prison of an addiction, a very Biblical response to have in that cave or in that exile is with your voice, to cry out. Prays the psalmist in 142: "I cry to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him. I tell God all my trouble."
I must admit I do not like complaining people, and I try not to complain myself. That's one of the infinite differences between God and me. If God doesn't love complaint, God at least listens to those cries of social and personal trouble. So, maybe God does not have a "complaint department." That is where the psalmist is heading, to the "complaint department." And just maybe, God has given you a passion to complain to God about injustice. But notice finally in Psalm 142 that complaint becomes a prayer.
What are you praying for in these closing days of summer? We have been challenged recently to pray for world injustices, poverty, displaced people, 50 million refugees, floods in Houston and Florida. If we don't begin by praying, what chance do we have of helping? Laments turn into complaints, complaints turn into prayers, and then even in Psalm 142, prayers turn to freedom.
"When my spirit is faint, you know my way." The freedom that comes to our spirit the even when our spirits are fainting on the road, we say, "God you know your purpose your provide for me."
"You know my way, O Lord." If God knows the way, the purpose, the direction of our lives, then we are free to step out in boldness. If we do not know our way, and God does not know out way, then we cannot move, We are frozen in fear. But God knows our way, our purposes, our directions. We are free to walk, to plan, to step into the future. I can and you can believe with the psalmist in verse 5, "You are my refuge, my portion." "You are all I have," reads the New English Bible. And the psalm concludes with a prayer, "Bring me out of prison so that I may give thanks to your name."
Every Friday evening, hundreds of people meet in the Sanctuary and share personal stories of their struggle and success as they together strive to be free of alcohol and drug abuse. Where and when has God freed you from an imprisoning habit or relationship? God is our Liberator. The psalmist prays, "bring me out of prison so that I may give thanks to your name." Jesus one day spoke difficult words to people, and some of his followers left him. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked them, "Do you wish to go away too?" Do you want to go back to the prisons of your old ways, old behavior, old selves, or do you want freedom? As Peter, like Cinque, who shouted in a Connecticut courtroom, "Give us free," responded , "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
So may we choose Christ's freedom from sin to salvation in this good day in in the days ahead.
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church