Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 103) transports me to an early morning in the Charlotte studios of radio station WRFX, 99.7, home to classic rock during the afternoon and night. For four hours every morning, though, it is the flagship station for John Isley and Billy James, aka John Boy and Billy of Big Show fame. When they’re not talking politics, I love their cornball humor, especially in some of their regular sketches and characters, like the brothers Hoyt and Delbert, Ricky B. Sharpe and his wife Lucy, Rev. Billy Ray Collins, and Murray, the duo’s talent agent with the snappy New York City accent. Each call to Murray includes his getting their names wrong, always calling them Jimbo and Bobby, followed by fawning praise of their talent, and his promising them some sweet gigs that turn out to be real stinkers. The benefits of having Murray as an agent are always questionable, with the main benefit obviously being another opportunity for Billy James to showcase his talent for mimicking accents and creating comedic characters, of which he has an ample supply. And then there’s the added benefit of the signature sign-off: love ya–mean it. The line has morphed from Murray’s sign-off to one of the commonly heard catch phrases of the show, and the title of one of John Boy and Billy’s comedy albums.
Love ya – mean it could also be an apt description of the ongoing relationship between God and the covenant community, with the sincerity of love always qualified by demonstrations of how either side really means it. Here in the Psalm, the poet outlines the benefits of having the agency of God’s presence in their lives: forgiveness, healing, redemption, love, compassion, satisfaction, renewal of youth, and righteous justice for the oppressed. Don’t forget these benefits the Psalmist says. But there’s a catch in the contract – the benefits of God’s love are reserved for those who obey the covenant’s precepts. The people’s love for God can’t be filled with Murray-like fawning praise and empty promises. They have to mean it, and show they mean it by fulfilling the commands of the covenant. The history shows that the people quite regularly did forget God’s benefits, or perhaps a better description would be, they weighed the benefits and demands of covenant love against the benefits and demands of the surrounding culture, and they often decided to go with a different agent. They were not so high on some of the gigs God laid out for them – the year of Jubilee (a plan to completely redistribute all the wealth every 49 years, so that every generation would start out on equal footing in life), the radical idea of welcoming the foreigner in their midst, loving neighbor as self – these didn’t set so well, when compared with the imperial culture’s alluring offering of conquest, concentrated wealth, and expansion of land. Well, to be completely fair, the world’s values were so pervasive, that some of them actually made it into covenantal precepts as well. So the faithful followers had to make choices, welcome the stranger or kill the stranger. Redistribute wealth or grab more and more land, adding house to house and field to field. Each set of values, embedded in scripture as different ideological camps competed for the hearts and minds of the people, had to be weighed out, the benefits analyzed, so the people could make an informed choice about what kind of divine agency they wanted pervading their lives.
People across the ideological spectrum are loving God today, and they really mean it. They are banking on the benefits of forgiveness and healing and redemption. But they show how much they mean it in very different ways. Some will love God and show they mean it by advocating for national policies more in line with the year of Jubilee, while others will love God and show they mean it by supporting imperial expanionism. Some show they mean it by welcoming the foreigners into their midst, since we were all once foreigners and exiles, while others will show they mean it by expelling foreigners and maintaining a strong and secure border. Some will show they mean it through contentment and satisfaction, while others will show they mean it through continued hard work to garner more and more creature comforts. When Jesus arrived on the scene, he had choices to make, too, just like we do. What did Jesus teach and model in terms of loving God and meaning it? Which voices did he gravitate toward – the redistribution of Jubilee or the expansionism and concentrated wealth of the Kings? Contentment or creature comfort? Welcome or expulsion for the undocumented foreigner? I suppose how each of us answers those questions depends not so much on whether or how much we love God, but on which of the covenantal precepts we privilege, and how we set out to show we mean it.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.