All You Need is Chesed (חסד)

Psalm 33:12-22

Bill Maury-Holmes

I’m sticking with you

Cause I’m made out of glue

Anything that you might do

I’m gonna do too

“I’m Sticking With You,” by the Velvet Underground, 1969

Lyrics by Lou Reed

I think that I got lucky around the time that I became a Christian in the early 1980s, blessed if you will.  One of the many blessings came from a very modest saint in my midst.  Her name was Balbeena.  She was our cleaning lady when I was growing up, and she was from El Salvador.  My parents both worked and, and with permission to out them a little bit, they were like many of us here today in Southern California who hire occasional help with no concern for legal documentation.  My parents paid fairly and were thankful for consistent and good work. 

So was I.  As a teenage male, I was quite grateful for anyone who could make some order out of my teenage-male bedroom disaster.  More than that, Balbeena was a kind person.  Part of that was that she had no problems with me trying my halting Spanish skills out on her, and she encouraged me to keep learning. 

It took a while but a couple of years in she shared with me that she and her family had fled their homeland.  “Mi pais es muy peligroso.”  “Muy peligroso?”  “Si, tan peligroso.”  And as a teenager I wondered what could possibly be so dangerous that someone as gentle, kind and hard-working as Balbeena would have to flee, a rather horrible and terrifying flight in itself it turned out, in order to find safety for her herself and her family.

So I started reading.  It wasn’t hard to find materials that provided answers.  On March 24, 1980, Father Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city, was assassinated while saying Mass at a hospice facility there.  Most Salvadoran people, and those outside paying attention, knew who was behind it.  In 1979 a military-led junta had assumed power, squashed notions of democracy, and tolerated little dissent.  This led to a devastating civil war, with violence the norm on all sides and a civilian population held hostage, in the midst of a grinding poverty that left no easy options available if one were to remain. 

It was but five years after the fall of Vietnam and the Cold War was roaring.  The United States had learned that putting American boots on the ground and in harm’s way was not popular at home and El Salvador became one of a handful of theaters where the United States and the Soviet Union waged proxy war.  (Afghanistan was another.)  What happened in a foreign place to foreign, brown people was a whole lot less politically problematic than having Johnny from down the street come home in a body bag.  The United States backed the Salvadoran government, whose military we had been training at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning in Georgia for many years by that point.  This is where those Salvadorans who participated in what the U.N. Human Rights Commission rightly called death squads got their training. 

The murder of Archbishop Romero sent a powerful and horrible message to the Salvadoran people: nobody is safe.  A million Salvadorans fled in the 1980s to escape the perils of their homeland, of a country with a population of maybe five million at that time.  Half of those, approximately five hundred thousand, came to the United States.  Stemming from that time, it is thought that a quarter of a million Salvadorans, now live in Los Angeles.  Balbeena and her family were and are among them. 

It was in conditions such as those, of devastating violence, sustained landlessness and desperate poverty amidst consistently corrupt governance, that attentive Christians throughout Latin America had to consider afresh how the Gospel might actually work.  From the first century onwards, the best of the Christian tradition had taken seriously Jesus’ proclamation that he had been sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4.18).  Now many Christian leaders and lay people in those lands began to speak of a “theology of liberation.”

Last Sunday Pastor Jill spoke of many ways in which the Bible has been exploited by people seeking to justify themselves and actively diminish others.  Yep, there’s been plenty of that over the centuries and millennium.  No argument from me.  But I want to offer another way to read the Bible that tends to be rather more consistent.  It is this: God has what liberation theologians called “a preferential option for the poor,” the disenfranchised, those imperiled, those weak, the needy, the vulnerable.  It’s all over the scripture.  It’s what many Catholic Christians in Latin American were called to embody in the 1980s.  And it is as essential to reckon with this now as always. 

It’s basic to Jewish and Christian message and practice.  This is clear in our Psalm.  Psalm 33 is what Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a “psalm of orientation,” a song that is sung to tell and remind a congregation of how things are normally, because this God being praised is reliable and trustworthy.  The tone is happy.  In the first verses (before our portion) it begins by commanding the group to rejoice, to praise, to sing and to play music.  It’s festive.  The Psalm ends in telling us that the folks singing this are “glad” because of who the Lord is and how they can thus live. 

Why this happiness?  Because of the Lord!  This Divine One “works faithfully,” and “loves righteousness and justice.”  That’s all good and there’s nothing particularly controversial in this.  All of that could simply re-state religious niceties.  It’s practically a bumper sticker: “God loves righteousness and justice.” 

It is when we get to the verses that we read (vv. 12-22) that something notable shifts, and it leaves the realm of conventional religion. 

This second half of the Psalm starts normally enough.  It is said that the Divine perspective is from heaven, as we just prayed in the Lord’s prayer.  The Lord, “looks down,” “sees,” “watches,” and “observes all [humanity’s] deeds” (vv.13-15).  This repetition implies that the Lord is paying attention to what is happening in our world.

This is where it gets interesting.  What is seen?   Warring violence.  Kings, armies, warriors, weapons of war and the presumption of “might making right,” all on plentiful display. 

And they are all seen negatively.  

There are four “nots” of human power as played out in violence. 

“A king is not saved by his great army;

a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,  

and by its great might it cannot save.” (vv.16-17)

The Psalm makes the claim that these don’t work.  No salvation, no deliverance, no victory.  Oh yes, the waging of war is devastating.  But it doesn’t solve anything.  It is vain, empty, ultimately futile.    

There will be no good legacy.  I have grown up thinking that America has long been searching for another “good war,” one where the stakes are as clear as WWII.  It hasn’t happened, now 74 years and counting this week, after the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had fallen in August of 1945.

Are the legacies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon better for Vietnam?  Hitting a little closer to home, is Obama’s legacy better for the continuation of the wars in, oh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, etc.?  Might the teenage Noble Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai have been right to tell our last Commander in Chief, when they met in 2013, that drone strikes were actually increasing terrorism, that inevitable civilian casualties were leading to greater resentments? 

This Psalm 33, this nice, little religious ditty is, in truth, extremely radical, and practical.  As we reel from the latest rounds of mass shootings in our country, I will confess to you I have no interest in the usual expressions of “thoughts and prayers.”  Yes, it is good to grieve with those who have lost loved ones.  Absolutely.  But it may be the height of hypocrisy to think and pray and do nothing else.  Which is what we are usually left with as a country.

Let’s make it practical, and personal.  Here’s one: I won’t vote for anyone who’s ever taken money from the NRA.  But let me push further.  It may be easier to make the following request in this particular congregation, here in liberal, somewhat well-regulated California, but I’ll do it anyway.  If you own a gun, get rid of it.  Turn it in to law enforcement.  If you’re an active duty member of the military, or serve with a police or sheriff’s department, you’re exempt.  If that’s your job, then do it well, carefully and humanely according to the dictates of your conscience.  But for the rest of us my request stands.  Lose the guns. 

I know what the 2nd Amendment says and how its interpretations have expanded over time.  Yes, as a U.S. citizen, you have a right.  But why do you want to exercise that right if you are a Christian?  What will it do?  More ominously, what might it do? 

Psalm 33 continues with a contrast (vv.18-22).  This gets back to the divine perspective.  What the Lord likes to see are people who remain more constant in the righteousness and justice that characterizes divine creativity.  This creative action is called “steadfast love,” chesed (חסד) in the Hebrew language.  Aha, that’s why all the love songs today!  Well, sort of…

The steadfast, committed love of the Lord hoped for in our psalm is one of creative deliverance.  It’s deliverance from death and the things that kill.  It is from poverty and the things that starve.  It’s from loneliness and imprisonment.  It’s for kids being kept in cages.  It’s for refugees and folks seeking safety and work and a better life and being scapegoated for it.  It’s for people whose brain chemistries aren’t working very well and are becoming cast-out.  And yes, it’s for broken young, mostly white men so lost in their alienations that the sugar high of hatred and their thirst for validation lead them to devastate others with our readily available weapons of mass destruction.  The Lord’s delivering, steadfast love is for them too.  Preferably sooner. 

For those of us who are doing alright, we’re not to remain on the sidelines.  We can also become workers in the fields of liberation.  Hear this from the great Peruvian liberation theologian, 91 years young these days, Father Gustavo Gutierrez:

The Lord’s is a faithful love that demands fidelity in return.  It calls for an enduring recognition of the God who delivered the people from the oppression and want that they experienced in Egypt, and an ongoing establishment of justice and right in the new land in which they now live.  It calls, too, for “love and mercy” on the part of the covenanted people.  (The God of Life, Orbis Books, 1989)

From the words of Father Oscar Romero himself (read The Violence of Love)

We can be happy, rejoice and be glad that God is this way.  Amen.

The Violence of Love (Words by Oscar Romero, Music by Craig Hovey)


We do not preach violence   (we do not preach)

Except the violence of love   (violence of love)

We do not preach violence   (we do not preach)

Thanks be to God!

It left Christ nailed to a cross

For his love of the world

This is the way that God has brought us peace

It must be done to us

To our selfishness

Such cruel inequalities among us

Not violence of the sword

The violence of hatred

Instead it makes an enemy a friend

And they shall beat their swords

And they shall take their weapons

And turn them into plowshares meant for work