We do not know what the ancient author of Psalm 66 had promised to God when she was in trouble. All we know is that she now proclaims that she will “pay my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.” (Psalm 66:13–14) Actually, we do know one more thing: she is likely to struggle to keep those vows, whatever they were. Promises that we make when we are afraid, besieged, ill, harassed, worried, stressed only seem like negotiated settlements. We have, in fact, bargained on both sides—specifying what we want God to do (or not do), and what we will do in return.
Actually, negotiating with God requires giving God a voice in the process. Religious traditions have taught us many ways to do that, several of which we have explored in the life of our congregation. Centering prayer, Lectio Divina, guided meditations, scripture study, sacred conversations, sacred music. All of these are methods of discernment; we listen for the gentle nudge—or the dramatic shove—that expresses the divine contribution to the conversation. Sometimes that contribution is pretty direct. We just heard Jesus say this, in the Gospel of John: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) You need to know that I have an uneasy relationship with the Gospel of John. It is Mark’s account of Jesus’ life that speaks most clearly and compellingly to me. The book of Mark is brief, the action moves fast, and the mystery of the Resurrection remains a mystery. John’s version, on the other hand, portrays Jesus as making long speeches with lots of theological statements, and includes several accounts of Jesus after the Resurrection. Nonetheless, this statement from the fourth Gospel makes me catch my breath.
I began my theological education in the upstairs study at Magnolia UCC in Seattle. I don’t even remember any more what the topic was, but I remember what Phil Eisenhauer, the pastor said. He said, “Lots of people believe that you have to be good so that God will love you. The Gospel truth is that you can be good because God loves you.” Jesus goes even further: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love comes first. And the commandments that he invites us to keep are also about love—loving God and loving one another. All of this is to say that when we negotiate with the divine, the divine part of the deal is always going to involve love.
The poet of Psalm 66 recounts all manner of woes that have befallen the people, and though she doesn’t mention pestilence, we can see our current crisis in her lament. And in one way or another, I suspect most of us have made some pseudo-negotiations during this pandemic. Perhaps “After this is over, I will never forget how precious a hug can be.” Or less nobly, “when this is over, I’m going to live it up!” or even, “If she survives, I’ll never complain about her snoring again.” Suppose we undertake a more intentional negotiation, one in which the divine position is love, and our position is informed by the Spirit of Truth that Jesus promised would dwell with us. (John 14:17) The Spirit of Truth has revealed disturbing, sad, unjust, and not really new pictures of how we have been living.
We have been living as though the earth has infinite resources and can withstand infinite greed, carelessness, and abuse. We have been living as though some lives matter less than others—and the ones that matter less are almost always persons of color. We have been living as though rewarding people who manipulate money is more important than rewarding the people who provide the essential services for our common life. We have been living as though everything can be commodified and monetized, even healthcare and healing. We have been living as though society is mostly fair, with a few pockets of injustice, when the truth is just the opposite.
At the same time, the Spirit of Truth reminds us of the generosity, courage, and creativity that have become especially apparent in recent weeks. The mask makers, the schoolteachers, the doctors and nurses and health care professionals. The zookeepers, the sanitation workers, the grocery clerks. We cheer for the remote graduations (with a speech by President Obama) and remote weddings (Jarod Jewelers will set one up for you), even a remote ordination this afternoon. We bring all these truths to the bargaining table, and the divine response is—as always—love. What compromise can there be between suffering and injustice on the one hand, and love on the other? Negotiation, it turns out, is not always about hammering out a compromise. Sometimes it is about transformation, about conversion. We talk about financial instruments as being “negotiable,” which means they can be transformed into other kinds of assets (usually cash!). Imagine, please, what transformations might be possible at the table of truth and love.
There is one more sense in which we negotiate with God—the sense of traveling successfully together over or around obstacles. We are negotiating our way through the landscape of emotional, financial, and spiritual stress. We are negotiating our way through the tangle of a crazy health care system. We are negotiating our way through the mire of a federal government that is flailing and failing to rise to the occasion. We are negotiating through the mazes of our own lives, where some paths have dead ends and others have rewards. The author of Psalm 66 writes about being past the danger and suffering, of God bringing her “out to a spacious place.” We are not standing in that same place. We still have a lot of negotiating to do.
For the last several weeks, we have been singing together “Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger than your fear . . . and I have promised, promised to be always near.” That is God’s negotiating position. Thanks be to God.