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Series: Lent

Category: 2019 Sermons

Passage: Psalm 32

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

This morning's psalm has been with me all week, which has been a gift. In just one word, Selah. Selah shows up 71 times in 39 psalms... The Psalms reflect the journey of our lives. There’s a psalm for every occasion from joy to lament…. and this Hebrew word shows up 71 times in 39 psalms..scholars call it untranslatable, which of course means that everyone tries to translate it, to find it’s meaning, 

I’ve got a list of attempts to interpret this one word. And as I read these, I enjoyed all the ways I could turn them into metaphors; the ways in which we can practice the presence of God in our daily living, through the different translations of this untranslatable word. As you listen to the list I invite you to maybe choose the one you like best, that’s probably the one you’re already pretty good at, pretty practiced at. So maybe it’s even more important to listen for the one you like the least… that’s most likely your growing edge.

1-Selah- At it’s simplest, is a musical marker, like rest, on a musical score sheet. Take a beat here. Rest. Then continue. That’s a pretty simple idea. Metaphorically, how much as a culture are we resting or taking a beat in our days or weeks? What happened to Sunday stores closing, to the 5 day work week, to being off when you’re away from the office? To be out in the world without a phone, without an answering machine? Do we know how to rest?

2-Some say Selah may be more liturgical, like a place holder for people to shout Amen or hallelujah. Can you hear that as a call that we should all be shouting amen or hallelujah every time we’re gifted through God’s grace? You might get some odd looks from strangers in the process…but maybe others would join in more often.

3-Some call Selah a mood shift. And in some modern synagogues, the rabbi or cantor may use it as a call for a change in tone or repetition. Some things in our life, usually moments of epiphany are worth repeating, again and again, until it becomes a part of us. The same is true for sad things. before we move on from them, what if we just sat with it. Allowed for a mood change and repeated it. How different would our world be if the media didn’t just move on to the next and the next thing, providing more information than we can take in? We’ve become numb because if we wait five minutes there will be another story of injustice. There’s no time to allow your mood to shift into compassion or empathy if you’re overloaded with bad news. What if we could sit with the bad news of just one event, allowing it to repeat in our heads, to move us, to shift our mood enough that it causes a change in us internally- motivating us to make a change or do something about it.

4-Some think Selah may mean to rise up and be louder. This the perfect metaphor for social justice, those times we should be rising up and making noise to make our voices heard on behalf of those who have little or no voice in our world. Those who are victims of oppression, victims of injustice, victims of poverty. As children of God’s we are called upon to make our voices heard on their behalf.

5-Others think Selah it may mean to bow down or kneel during worship. That’s a display of humility before God….A physical manifestation of surrendering before this awe-inspiring  God who is so much bigger and greater. That’s another one that may get you in trouble in public, like a friend of mine who came to the little beach across from my house. He’s Muslim, he knelt down on the beach to pray, and 5 minutes later the police showed up. 

6-Selah may mean to hang, referring to measuring something (money, food, etc.) by hanging it on a scale to determine its value. Calling us to measure the worth of the preceding words. On our death bed….Are we measuring our own life by things that have no ultimate value… Or are we measuring by how many Porche’s we have in the garage? And if you have more than two, you should give your Pastor one. It says that in the bible.

Or are we measuring our life by how much compassion we’ve given?  If we trust we are inextricably woven together by love… is that how we measure the goodness of our life?

7-Selah’s consonants may be a signify a change of voices or repeat from the beginning. That’s a good one for all those times we fail. Selah, repeat from the beginning, but don’t do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Change it up.

8-Selah’s vowels may indicate that forever or always is to be interjected as a response…May it be so….forever and always…Like the rewards that come from commitment that exceeds our latest whim or fancy… calling on us to pull from the reserve of our core, of our baptismal vows that call on us to be accountable to some higher moral ground, forever and always.

9-The most colorful suggestion is that selah may be a Philistine swear word that David learned while banished there. It sometimes came out when he broke a harp string, since breaking harp strings is as arbitrary as the appearance of selah.[1] That’s a silly one, but how often do we need a reminder that we are human, that we mess it up, and that sometimes, there’s nothing better than that one word that expresses our regret.

So these are your choices…..These and the one that I liked best. Stop and listen. Listen to all the choices I just named….and there are a million other ways we could hear this one untranslatable word…and each one should be different….because we’re all in different places on the road…. 

But whatever this word means individually ….we know that it was said in community…Eugene Peterson said it best-

“If its meaning is an enigma, its use is clear: Selah directed people who were together in prayer to do something or other together. 

And today’s psalm calls on us to together recall what it means to be blessed through forgiveness and reconciliation. The psalm begins with Blessedness……but then the psalmist tells us why he or she is so blessed. 

And that’s where we hear the first use of this word…Selah… the place we rest, the place we listen, the place we measure, repeat and remember… most carefully…. 

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer. Selah 

Can you remember a time in your life, when the weight of what you carried, a burden of your own making, weighted you down so heavily it was in your bones…selah…listen to your body as you recall it….The psalmist is speaking of sin. Sin so deep he couldn’t acknowledge it, so he kept silent…….those are those moments, those circumstances, those words, we don’t want to remember….because we can barley recognize ourselves… those circumstances we don’t want to recall are the places we’re too ashamed to talk about… the psalmist is saying go there….selah…remember….feel it…the body wastes away there… groaning in pain. Shame does that….It keeps us from being able to feel God, separates us from being able to receive the love God is extending in forgiveness, Selah…

The psalmist continues…

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, (the psalmist speaks directly to God….no need for a confessional or a priest…)
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

Just like that…Can you feel the immediacy of that forgiveness….it’s didn’t with conditions, or over the course of time. Selah…feel that, measure that, hear that, rest in that.  Listen to that,…that’s the God we worship…the one who forgives you immediately…How can you be sure, you ask…look around you…look at the beauty that surrounds you…. look at the people who love still love you….look at your own ability to love and to laugh…Let there be no doubt, you’ve been forgiven…Selah. 

And the psalmist calls us into the communal experience of forgiveness 

Therefore let all who are faithful
    offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,[b] the rush of mighty waters
    shall not reach them.

You did this for me… let me pray for all God’s people to do the same…just as I can do this for others…..Selah…..take in God's unconditional forgiveness….listen for all the ways it transforms your life….and you will be left with no choice but to do that for others…..

Paul said it best…

if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[c] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ,

In a culture where people are far more likely to blame that to listen, to talk over than to listen, to shame than to listen, we are called to be ambassadors. To bow down in humility, to shift the mood, to measure, to listen.

We’ve forgotten how to respect, how to dignify, how to strive for justice belonging to God, the kind of justice that moves beyond political systems and sees justice as a way of life…. 

Thomas Mann, a great novelist, writer and activist and who fled the Nazis and came to America in 1938 gave a series of lectures against fascism, Communism and those who believed that anyone country comes first among all nations. 

Democracy, he taught, begins with one great truth. The infinite dignity of individual men an women is that we are made in God's image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible.[2]

We fall from grace, that’s our nature. But it’s also in our nature, with God’s grace, to elevate ourselves, to grow beyond our own limitations, to learn from our past and reconcile ourselves with an imperfect world in which we call on others to elevate themselves. How many of our leaders, our politicians, our neighbors are asking themselves whether what comes out of their mouths will elevate our humanity and recognize the dignity we are called to embody as being made in God’s image? 

We can do better. Stop and listen for all the ways we are being called upon to offer reconciliation. 

Selah-we named 9 meanings

Take a breath. Rest, shout Amen, shift the mood, rise up, and measure, begin again, make a change, forever and always…Oh..and occasionally there may be a curse word in there….but God forgives us that. And so will you…forgive and be ambassadors of reconciliation for Christ. 


[2] David Brooks, The Glory of Democracy, Dec 14, 2017, NY TIMES