Thursday, May 5, 2011

Born in Zion

Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High will establish her.” The LORD will write in the register of the peoples, “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87.5-6)

Too Far

One can’t help wondering how the congregation reacts when the Sons of Korah—a musical brood David tasks with composing new hymns—trot out Psalm 87. The first stanza is terrific, an anthem to Jerusalem, which is at its zenith as Zion, the city of God crowned with Solomon’s breathtaking temple. But one imagines tilted heads, startled glances, and flat-out consternation as the song progresses. Are they hearing the lyrics correctly?

Dead-center of the psalm, the Korah Boys run down a short list of the Jews’ perennial adversaries: Rahab (a poetic allusion to Egypt), Babylon, Phlistia, Tyre, and Cush. With that, their hymn takes a surprising turn. Instead of proclaiming Jerusalem’s God-given superiority over her enemies, the song predicts she will claim them as her own: “Indeed, of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High will establish her.’” (v5)

Who are they kidding? Sure, Jerusalem’s rapid ascent as a glittering capitol increases the odds the Jews will finally win their neighbors’ respect. And it's entirely possible that people whose ancestors sought to destroy the city will one day peaceably conduct business and secure friendships with its citizens. But the Sons of Korah go too far by envisioning a time will ever come when Jews regard former foes as family. Other than big-city culture and (recently acquired) sophistication, they have nothing in common with these outsiders. They worship different gods. They eat different food. They subscribe to different values. They dress differently, act differently, think differently, talk differently, and hold different political views.

An Act of God

Accepting outsidersformer adversaries, no lessexpects the Jews to disavow their hatred of lifestyles that contradict everything they believe is holy. It ain’t gonna happen. Rejecting any variance from their way of life is baked into the national character. Besides, too much blood has been shed to protect Jewish traditions to back down now. The Sons of Korah apparently anticipate outraged response to their anthem, because they end its main chorus with a sobering fact. Acceptance is not an option Jerusalem has. It’s an act of God: “The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion.’” (v6)

No one understands the transformative power of acceptance better than the Korah Boys. By all rights they have no business being near the Temple, let alone leading its worship. Their patriarch launched a revolt against Moses that ended in horrible death for him and his supporters; the earth split open and swallowed them alive. (Numbers 16) What’s more, the uprising is especially notorious for being a congregational coup: Korah tried to seize political power by forcing his way into the priesthood. Yet God’s grace becomes evident in the musical talents God invests in his survivors. They possess gifts that God’s people need. The unthinkable happens. David puts the Sons of Korah in charge of sacred songs, ordaining them as ministers in God’s house. They’re chief among the instruments God employs to reshape Israel’s liturgical customs and mindset to reflect its new era of spiritual maturity.

Thus, the topic of birthright is a vitally important to the Sons of Korah. For God to rewrite Jerusalem’s story to ensure their nemeses’ acceptance transcends religious, social, and political agenda. It attests to God’s grace—grace the Sons know first-hand. Based on their experience, it’s ridiculous to say, “It ain’t gonna happen,” when they know it can and will be done. By reframing inclusion as an act of God secured by divine writ, they change the conversation from piety to obedience. They ask, “Dare we cling to religious prejudices that defy God’s will?”

Embracing Spiritual Maturity

Not only are the Korah Boys confident inclusion can and will happen, they know how it happens. Psalm 87’s coda is their testimony of the impact God’s grace has on all who are welcomed into the faith community: “As they make music they will sing, ‘All my fountains are in you.’” (v7) Inclusion isn’t about embracing people we fear. It’s about embracing spiritual maturity that conquers fear—a new way of life all around. It calls for new songs we’d never dream of singing before we outgrew our childishness, opened our gates—which, according to verse 2, God loves more than all our dwellings—and widened our borders to include everyone.

“All my fountains are in you” is the zinger, since Jerusalem’s water source sits outside the city. When the Sons of Korah introduce this song, inside her walls she’s as a dry as a bone. God desires to fix that by enlarging her family with children she never knew she had—never conceived of having. God intends to force Zion’s expansion by rewriting her story. Her suspicious nature has blinded her to talents God invested in people she needs—people God wants to use to usher in her growth.

What Makes Radical Inclusion “Radical”

The Sons of Korah open their central chorus with, “Glorious things are said of you, city of God.” (v3) Yet by the song’s end, it’s very clear greater glory awaits her if—and it’s a big “if”—she overcomes her phobias and hatred in obedience to God’s will. Her success doesn’t rest on whether or not outsiders join the family. That’s a done deal; God sees to it. Zion’s future is solely predicated on her willingness to honor God’s desires and intentions. As history proves, stubborn refusal to obey repeatedly results in tragic downfall.

When we transpose Psalm 87 to a contemporary setting, Zion becomes the Church and its rivals become marginalized believers who frighten those clinging to heterosexist, patriarchal traditions. Through the centuries, the Church has constructed elaborate dwellings and doctrines—and shed much blood—to defend its insular way of life. But God loves its gates more than all its dwellings and has plans to expand the Church’s reach by rewriting her story, equalizing one and all by divine birthright. It’s time to make new music, sing new songs, and make room for new fountains.

While the inclusion battle rages, both sides fail to acknowledge their conflict is futile. What we do, believe, or prefer is ultimately immaterial. By divine writ, we are all born in Zion. We’re all members of God’s family. We all have divinely endowed gifts God wants to use and God’s people need to mature and grow. No one's shut out. Everyone's in. So the real issue isn’t whether we accept or reject one another, but whether or not we obey God’s will. One side needs to open up and the other needs to show up. Obedience, and only that, is what makes radical inclusion “radical.”

“Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the doors and see all the people” is more than a charming nursery rhyme. According to Psalm 87, it’s an act of God secured by divine writ.

Postscript: "How Many?"

(May 5; 4:30 PM CDT) Just before checking comments this afternoon, I opened an email with a link to the video below. In it, Minnesota State Representative Steve Simon challenges the wisdom and religiosity of his state's opponents to marital equality with moving--and remarkably sensible--conviction. The friend who forwarded the video link to me wrote, "Very eloquently put! Or better yet, just plain friendly!" I contemplated attaching the video here, but hadn't reached a decision, when I opened comments to find Sherry quoting Rep. Simon in her response. So, as the Bible says, "Out of the mouth of two witnesses..." I believe you'll find this well worth sharing.


Sherry Peyton said...

Your command of history is so amazing Tim. You give such incredible insight as a result. I can only add a huge Amen! to what you have said. I recently read from a legislator (name and state I don't recall..) who asked...Just how many gay people must God create before we finally admit, that God loves his created beings in all their forms and shapes? or words to that effect. This is simply lovely.

Tim said...

Thanks so much, Sherry!

Of late I've been at a bit of a loss about what to do around here. I'm sensing a need for changes and keep thinking I should go back to a shorter, snappier format that skims over a lot of the detail I find so fascinating about Scripture. And then I open to a text like this one.

In this case, it was a complete surprise. I'm sure I've read this psalm before, no doubt several times. But I came on it during a Bible study exercise in which we were asked to open to a random psalm, listen to it, and sketch out our response. (The point behind the activity was we often overthink our faith, which isn't necessarily bad except when it prevents us from responding with intuitive trust to its voice.)

So, as you can imagine, holding back from delving into the content was my biggest challenge. My sketch (which Walt wants to hang on our refrigerator...) had scores of stick figures entering a huge gate, bypassing fancy buildings, and proceeding directly to a park of fountains. The artwork stunk, but the image stuck because the "voice" was so trustworthy. I've spent the last two days exploring the text and have been amazed at how much the Korah Boys packed into seven short verses.

Now here's the kicker. Just before I opened your comment, I watched a video sent to me by a dear friend and S-F supporter of the State Representative Steve Simon (MN), whom you refer to above. My buddy wrote, "This may be too political for your readers, but I think it might be good for the blog." And then you mention it word for word! I'll attach it to the post pronto!

Blessings, dear friend. And thanks as always for your comments and, more than that, your presence here.