"It is time for the Lord to act," is the psalm verse invoked at the start of every liturgy. It's a beautiful yet ominous way for the liturgy to begin because the entire verse account is, "It is time for the Lord to act, because your law has been broken." (Ps. 119:126) Fr. Marc reminds us that we don't gather around God and call for His action. God is the one who gathers his scripture around us and surrounds us with his instruction. It is the same Word that creates, gathers, feeds, and leads the liturgical community with the Lord's life-giving commandments.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm pleased to welcome Fr. Marc Boulos, pastor of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. He hosts the Bible as Literature podcast, the flagship program of the Ephesus School Network and is the author of Torah to the Gentiles: St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians. Fr. Marc isn't a full time pastor. He also works as an IT executive for a Minnesota-based global company. This education and experience helped us in developing the intensive program and servant leadership, which we call Doulos, made available through the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Fr. Marc, welcome to Doulos.
Fr. Marc Boulos 0:49
It's great to be back. When we first started the Bible as Literature podcast, we were also working on church school programs together. I think I mentioned that last time. So I always feel like I'm coming back to my roots when we get together to talk. So it's good to be here.
Hollie Benton 1:05
Great. So the start of every liturgy, we at St. Elizabeth make a big deal about the beginning of the liturgy, "It is time for the Lord to act for the people have rejected his law." It's ironic being an organization called the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. But it's not about our leadership, when it's time for the Lord to act. It's the Leader, gathering his people and calling them to attention because we have disobeyed his commandment. So I would really like that to be the context, the framing of our discussion today. It's in Psalm 119, reading just a few verses before and after this verse that always kicks off the liturgy for Orthodox Christians, starting at verse 124. "Deal with a servant according to thy steadfast love, and teach me thy statutes, I am thy servant, give me understanding that I may know thy testimonies. It is time for the Lord to act for the law has been broken. Therefore, I love thy commandments above gold, above fine gold. Therefore I direct my steps by all thy precepts, I hate every false way." Father, why is it that the liturgy begins with this verse, "It is time for the Lord to act for thy law has been broken?"
Fr. Marc Boulos 2:19
I love this text! If you hear it in the context of the Psalm, it is the Lord's precepts that are the leader. And it is the Lord's instruction that is calling us back. And to the extent that the priest is fulfilling the Davidic function of reciting this psalm, he is saying, we have not been following the Lord's precepts. This particular psalm is forceful insistence upon the doing of God's written instruction, which is made up of words that come one after the other, the debarim that you have to go through. And once you really hear that and understand it, you see what the liturgist is trying to channel with that very ominous prayer at the beginning of the liturgy. It's time for the Lord to act, because the people have rejected his instruction. And it should not be lost on any of us that the next part of the service is all psalmody. Now we've abbreviated it and we don't hear the psalmody or we hear a very short version of the psalmody. But that's how it works. It's psalmody. And then there's a Gospel reading. And at the very end, there's a Eucharistic meal, but we hear lots of Scripture text after that Psalm is invoked. We hear it as though we are deciding when the Lord should act, because we think like the disciples, who want to lock God up on the mountain in a shrine and then sell tickets, but you cannot use God. He doesn't belong to anybody. He broke free from the cultic temple in the Gospel of Mark and the resurrection. You can't hold him back. Nobody owns him.
Hollie Benton 4:16
And does he act at nine o'clock promptly for liturgy to start?
Fr. Marc Boulos 4:20
Don't get me started on that one. He does not act when the parish council votes or decides that liturgy should start, let alone when they ring the bell, let alone when the priest says it's time. It's just important that we don't start thinking this way as though it's a magical formula that you invoke collectively. And suddenly God acts and God is present. It cannot work that way. If that's how it functions in your mind, you've de-scripturalized the psalm because we don't bring God and we don't gather around God. God is the one who gathers his scripture around us, he surrounds us with his instruction. We are the ones that are surrounded. It is very difficult to understand because it goes against the way that we think. Because we imagine that we are something when we're nothing. And that's an impossible thing to explain in human words on a podcast. All I can say is keep reading scripture. And if you don't have the energy to read scripture over and over again, just do one thing, just read Galatians over and over again and you will get the message. There is no patrimony, there is no identity, there is no heritage, there is nothing, we are nothing. All we have is the commandment behind us, and the judgment ahead of us. That is it. There is no Hollie Benton or Marc Boulos beyond the commandment and the judgment. And it's very clear in Psalm 119. And it's very clear that the liturgist understands that that applies to the entire assembly. And so we are gathering now, because we are in desperate need to be reminded of the righteousness of God. Our Heavenly Father, as Matthew says, who is perfect, so that we can be corrected, so that we can walk on the path of righteousness, according to his wisdom. And I want to keep stressing, we can't say, Ah, yes, it's about the teaching. Because the minute you say, Oh, yes, it's about the teaching, you've already created something in your mind that is made up. And then you start talking about whatever you want to talk about, which is what people do. It's not the dabar (Hebrew for "word") in abstraction. It's the debarim, ha debarim, it's plural, there are words, one word after the other. You have to read them and go through them. And that's what's beautiful about this image of the path. Because if you don't take one step and say, whew, I'm there. It's a lifetime of steps, one after the other. So what's the next step? I don't know. Keep reading. What's the next word on the page? That's the proposition, Hollie. And it's beautiful and ominous, because the whole liturgy begins with a threat. Because you're saying it's time for God to act because we messed up. What's he going to do? And then you get excited because it says, hesed - loving kindness. But if you think that God's loving kindness looks like our worldly loving kindness, which ingratiates itself with the weak in order to extract value from them, you've got another thing coming.
Hollie Benton 7:48
The debarim, we have, the words, one word after another, and we hear quite a lot about "teach me thy statutes," instructions, commandments, the law, just learning it. But then, on the last day, we get to Matthew 25. And we're standing before the dread and terrible judgment seat of Christ. "On that day, when the Son of Man shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats, and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left, then shall the king say unto them, on his right hand, come, you blessed my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I hungered and you gave me meat, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you took me in naked and he closed me I was sick, and he visited me I was in prison, and you came unto me." So there are some people who see something different between being taught the scriptures and being taught the statutes and the commandments of God and actually doing them. How does the study of Scripture, the instruction, lead to the separation of the sheep from the goats? How do these fit together, especially serving in the household of the Lord, where you have a duty to learn his statutes, and a duty to perform those statutes.
Fr. Marc Boulos 9:06
This notion that there's a right way of thinking and then there's doing - the world of Scripture is not about fixing your reason. The world of Scripture is about telling you how to act, it's commandment. God doesn't talk to you about what's in your head, he tells you what to do. That is what Scripture is. And that's why people don't like it. Because when someone tells you what to do, they're not pandering to your feelings, or placating your intelligence or appealing to it or appeasing your sense of your own importance or intelligence. They are doing what a parent does to a child, what a boss does to an employee, and what a Roman patrician did to a slave, what a patriarch did to a member of his household. They're giving you an order. Nobody wants to hear it, but that's what Scripture is. It is instruction, debarim, commandments, precepts, laws, statutes. And the key to following God's ordinances in Scripture is to listen to what he said, and carry it out until you have listened to them so much that you just know them. And you do them on an impulse.
Hollie Benton 10:27
Yeah, even in Matthew 25, such an impulse that they didn't even realize that they are doing it. The people who were welcomed as the sheep into the kingdom of heaven were like, when did we actually do this?
Fr. Marc Boulos 10:40
Correct. Give us this day, our daily bread. It's right there. Just feed us scripture every day. This is the manna from heaven. You are nothing, you come from nothing. There is nothing behind you except the commandment. And there's nothing ahead of you except the judgment. And if you do something correct, the credit goes to the mitzvah, not to you. So how can you say you were successful? You have only to worry about the next moment where you can either obey the commandment or disobey the commandment until the Lord comes. And whatever he offers you is already complete and full. So what are you trying to grow? When Matthew says, "Seek and ye shall find," he's not talking about asking for your parish to succeed. Come on people. It's already a sin to ask for your parish to succeed. Because the gift has already been bestowed in fullness. What are you asking for? This is what is actually correct and valid about the Orthodox liturgy is the petition has already written you have nothing else to ask for, you just relax. How can you pray to grow your parish, when every gift bestowed by God is already given in its fullness? If there are three people in church, it's already full, if you trust God's gift. If you don't trust God's gift, you're going to make a plan to try to get five people in church, then you have a problem. Now, this will never make sense, if you're a secular humanist, or a pagan. But if you are scriptural, you'll have no trouble with what I'm saying. Because what Matthew is asking you to seek, is what you're being commanded to seek in the persistent beseeching of David in Psalm 119. You are to seek scripture, for the doing of God's precepts, his instruction. No one wants to talk this way. Because you can't build a marketing plan on that. You can't attract people with that. It doesn't fit the American ethos. But the gospel was here before the Americans and it will be here after the Americans are gone. And we need to start thinking this way. Because we were sent here to preach the things that pertain to the everlasting God, not that pertain to things that are passing away. We have to be citizens of the kingdom.
Hollie Benton 13:35
This podcast is going to air right before the liturgical new year, also, the time when people are going back to school. And even in the liturgical new year, "It is time for the Lord to act." So I think it's a good time for us to be students of the Lord's ordinances, of his commandments, of his scripture. This is a good time for us to dig in and get serious about being good students of his instruction.
Fr. Marc Boulos 13:59
When you seek scripture, it is scripture that seeks you. God is the one studying you when you study scripture. So those who study God with all their heart are studied by him.
Hollie Benton 14:12
Thank you so much, Fr. Marc for this great conversation today and for reminding us about the importance of hearkening unto God's Word.
Fr. Marc Boulos 14:19
Thank God. Take care, Hollie.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai