Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 25, 2008
THEOLOGY AS LULLABY
Texts: Psalm 131; Matthew 15:29-32
.........How do you preach a lullaby? That’s what this psalm is, a lullaby: a song between God and us, where singer and song, breast, sunlight and milk, the divine and the human are one.
It is also a song for the fretful mind and troubled heart seeking the place the scriptures call “The peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Psalm 131 is not well known and is rarely read in worship. It is one of the most powerful feminine pictures of God in all scripture: God as Mother at whose breast we find peace and nourishment, safety and rest. The Holy One transcends male and female, and partakes of both male and female.
Theologian Margaret Miles has studied the history of Christian art. For most of our history one of the predominant ways we pictured the saving love of God was Mary, mother of Jesus, nursing him, infant mouth to breast. That began to change around the fifteenth century, and by the eighteenth century, the sacred depiction of Mary nursing Jesus was largely replaced by bloody paintings of the tortured and crucified Christ.1 This psalm helps restore something important.
One of our favorite kinds of psalms is “psalms of trust.” Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” Psalm 121: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come?” Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
We could arrange psalms of trust into two categories: male and female. Masculine psalms I call “fortress psalms.” God is pictured as fortress, stronghold, rock of salvation, rescuing king. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, a bulwark never failing,” sings Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46.
Feminine psalms of trust I call “wings psalms”:
Keep me the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings.
We feel treasured in our mother’s gaze. In her arms we are held, fed, and kept safe. God is like a mother in whose arms we are nurtured, happy and serene.
I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a weaned child quieted is my soul.
Some translations picture here a “weaned” child, some do not. The Hebrew word for “weaned” means “finished” or “completed.” So this psalm may be picturing a child still nursing who is full and content, or a weaned child choosing to return to its mother’s breast for comfort and love.
Both images are powerful. In one the child is dependent in every way for his or her survival and well-being. In the other the child has achieved a measure of independence but returns to the mother’s arms for comfort and care.
I love to watch children with their parents in worship, at times asleep in their mother’s or father’s lap, or resting their heads in their parent’s shoulders, enveloped by their arms. This is a sacred moment.
I have calmed and quieted my soul
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast,
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
The psalmist was a developmental psychologist before his time. The famous development psychologist Erik Erickson wrote that the great developmental task of the first eighteen months of a child’s life is trust vs. mistrust. The child’s earliest months with mother and father establish to a remarkable degree whether we move through this life with an elemental sense of trust or a basic sense of distrust, a dis-ease about the trustworthiness of life.
Is this true? I do not remember my first eighteen months, but I remember many nights growing up being put to bed by my parents, their reading a story or singing a song or talking to me, all the while rubbing my back. So when I hear the words from the Bible, “The Eternal God is thy dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27 KJV), they resonate deeply with my experience of nights drifting to sleep with a hand on my back.
This speaks to our calling to raise up our children helping them through our embodied actions and words experience the trustworthiness of God and learn the elemental dimension of faith called trust. We seek to help all people of all ages trust that there is “a faithfulness at the heart of things.”
Sometimes churches do the opposite and offer the spiritual equivalent of a father in a pool saying to a child, “Jump, I’ll catch,” only to withdraw his hands, letting the child plunge panicked into the water, only after a few harrowing moments rescuing them from the water. Some theology does that: scaring us to rescue us.
But this psalm is also a song of mature faith. You might even call it a mid-life crisis psalm. It pictures the simplicity on the yonder side of complexity. This side of complexity it is only simplistic. It is not childlike but childish.
The psalmist has traveled through the shadow side of life. He has run into his own limitations, the limitations of others and of life itself. He has tasted defeat and tragedy. As the character in The Last Convertible says: “Life is completely fair. It breaks everybody’s heart.” Sooner or later it breaks everybody’s heart. The mystery of suffering has pierced the heart and defied the mind’s understanding. So the psalmist writes,
O Lord, my heart is not prideful,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
Job says almost the same words after he has met terrible tragedy and recognized the end of his understanding (Job 42:3).
Here we come to the deepest dimension of faith called trust. It does not ever stop its search for understanding, but it recognizes the limits of the mind’s understanding.
So Pascal, the famous eighteenth-century mathematician and scientist who came to profound faith as an adult, wrote in his Pensees:
Le coeur a ses raisons
que la raison ne connait point.
The heart has its reasons
which reason does not know. 2
Thomas Merton reached this point and expressed it in this famous prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.3
Reinhold Niebuhr expressed this mature dimension of faith as trust in the face of the complexity of history and challenges of life with these words:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love.4
O Lord, my heart is not haughty,
my eyes are not raised too high
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous from me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul;
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
Let Israel hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
Now a final move to Matthew’s Gospel and the picture of Jesus as healer and feeder.
In these verses from chapter 15 we see the final picture in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus as the healer. Great crowds came and were healed: the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and “many others.”
They were brought to Jesus and placed at his feet. They could not get there on their own. They needed to be brought. They needed bringers. This is the church, this is us: the brought and the bringers, sometimes one, sometimes the other.
And at Jesus’ touch the mute speak, the maimed are made whole, the lame walk, the blind see, and all praise the God of Israel.
Where are you mute and need to speak, maimed and need to be made whole, lame and need to walk, blind and need to see? What part of you needs to be brought to Jesus?
But that’s not all Jesus does here. Jesus feeds us too! By God’s hand we are fed, fed with the food our bodies need, fed with the milk our spirits need.
Jesus had compassion on the hungry crowd. “I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”
So Jesus invites us to this table, that we not faint on the way.
This is where Psalm 131 and Matthew 15 meet: with a God who births us and feeds us, holds us and treasures us. And with a Christ who comes to meet every need, who multiplies loaves and fish and who offers his own life for us at this table with bread and wine.
Hope in the God of Israel.
Come to the table of the Lord.
1Margaret Miles, “An Image of Salvation: God’s Love, Mother’s Milk,” Christian Century, Jan. 29, 2008.
3Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude.
4Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, frontispiece.