Sermon for 3/22/20 Psalm 23

Everyone take a deep breath with me. It is so good to see you and to be together in this virtual community of Christ. Please know I miss gathering in person but I am thankful to all of you that set aside the time to join us this morning. I saw a joke going around Facebook earlier this week that said “my 90 day subscription to 2020 is almost up, how do I cancel?” I don’t know about you beloved, but I have alternated between fits of laughter and fits of tears this past week. Decisions have been made and then changed within a matter of hours. Sleep has eluded me quite a bit; it’s a heck of a time to try and heal an ulcer, I’ll tell you that. So, while that John reading is beautiful and has some lessons for us even for today, I cannot help myself but to preach on Psalm 23. Last week if you were in church or watched you may recall that I talked about the different wells we may drink from over the upcoming weeks. Psalm 23 is a deep deep well for so many of us full of life giving waters. It’s exactly what we need in a time such as this. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. What a bold statement! Not just now when we are facing uncertainties, but for everyday life. Now, as I’m sure all of you know, there is a very big difference between wants and needs. God supplies us with all we could ever need. But with the Lord as our shepherd, we shall not want. That seems to be taking on a different tone these days, doesn’t it? Do we want to see one another or do we need to see one another? Do we want to spend time apart or do we need to spend time apart? Do we want 96 rolls of toilet paper or do we need 96 rolls of toilet paper? It’s interesting how something like this pandemic suddenly brings a lot of things into focus, isn’t it? The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

I thought about that phrase a lot this past week and how we also balance it with our proclamation of “give us this day our daily bread.” God provides us with all we may need, daily. It’s been so tempting to give into the idea of worrying about next week, next month, or even 6 months from now. Believe me, I’ve given into this thinking more once. Then I wondered if God is calling us to really live into the promise of daily bread. God may be calling us to just live in today. After all, after that first phrase, after declaring that God is our shepherd and we shall not want, what does the Lord provide for us? Rest. And God not only provides us rest, but a rest that will restore our soul. 

I wondered what a soul restoring rest looked like. I don’t think this is a nap on a Sunday afternoon while NASCAR is on (sorry, Leon). This is the kind of rest that really fills you in body, mind, and soul. So for me, it is actual rest, time with family, and time to engage in activities I normally don’t have time for: reading, knitting, and catching up on correspondence. As I said, rest has been eluding me this week, but I have had a lot of time with family and I have been spending more time reading. Perhaps God is providing us with opportunities to recharge and rest our souls. 

Now, do I think that this catastrophe was created by God? Absolutely not. I think God is in the midst of all of this suffering. There are people who are dying. There are loved ones who are separated. There are people wondering how they will pay bills. There are people who are putting their lives on the line every single day just to earn money or provide for their families. And the psalmist reminds us “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) This is most definitely a dark valley kind of time. And God is with me. God is with you. God is with all of us. 

In the dark valley we shall fear no evil. Uncertainty brings a lot of fear, doesn’t it? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t even know what this afternoon will bring. Fear itself can be evil. If we let it, fear can control our lives. Fear can quickly become our god (with a lowercase g). I think we can all think of examples that we may have seen of fear ruling lives this past week. And I’ll admit, I’m quick to say “faith over fear.” I think that faith is important in these times. We should be praying for one another and for the world God made. But I wondered if instead of faith our response to fear should be love. The way that God loves us is the way we can attempt to love the world. The world certainly needs it now, don’t you think, my beloved? After all, we serve a God who overfills our cups. Goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. All the days. We will never run out of goodness and mercy. It seems in short supply right now. Our response to fear maybe isn’t faith as much as it’s love. 

In these anxious times, God our shepherd is calling you to rest. And if all you do is rest, that is enough. God will restore you. God will fill your cup so that it is overflowing. God will anoint you. God is with you. God the shepherd is with you. God the provider is with you. God our keeper is with you. God our protector is with you. Repeat after me: God is with me. God is with me. God is with me. Indeed, God is with you. May God our shepherd who calls you to rest keep you safe and healthy. Amen. 

Sermon for 3/8/20 Psalm 121

There’s a quote I have hanging in my office on a post-it that says “God saves us when we are at a stage of humbleness, brokenness, and depravity because that is when God reaches us; and not because we have made our way down there, but rather because we are no longer in denial over our condition” (Vitor Westhelle The Scandalous God). I thought of that quote as I read Psalm 121 this week. “I lift my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (v1-2). It’s a humbling thing to admit you need help, but I think we’ve all been there a time or two. I mean, I’ve been there probably half a dozen times already this morning. So the psalmist asks a logical question that isn’t unique to Biblical times: where can I get some help? Maybe it’s better worded “where can I look for help?” We then are encouraged to look up. Not to the hills, which can be large and intimidating, depending on the hill. But instead, we look to the Lord who made heaven and earth. 

That should seem a simple enough answer right there, shouldn’t it? Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord. Great. End of sermon. Sounds good to me. But when do we ever make it that simple? There must be a catch, right? Why must we humans complicate things so much? There’s a word that gets repeated 6 times in these 8 verses. For me, that’s enough to pay attention. Some form of the word keep or keeper is sprinkled throughout. God is our keeper. God keeps us. What does this mean? Well, there is a difference between having something and keeping something. I have a sweater. I keep my dogs. If the sweater gets a hole in it, I’m not going to be too upset about it. If something happens to one of the dogs, that’s another story. I watch over the dogs. I try and protect them. When they hurt, I hurt. When they do funny things, I laugh. It’s relational. 

“Likewise, God does not merely have us. God keeps us. We are God’s beloved, and immeasurably dear to God. We are not merely possessions in the eyes of the Lord, because if we suffer, it hurts God too. Psalm 121 celebrates the fact that the Lord is our keeper” (Fisher, Feasting on the Word, 60). It is relational. God abides in us and we in God. Our help, then, comes from the one who made heaven and earth. Our help comes from the same immortal being that spun the cosmos into creation. Our help comes from the same God that breathed life into every single living thing, that created every living plant, and saw dry lands and made them oceans. Our help comes from the same God that saw this earth and knew it wasn’t complete without one of you and so here you are. Isn’t that just amazing and mind blowing to think about? 

Just in case that’s not enough, the psalmist gives some more examples of how the Lord keeps us. Maybe, for whatever reason, your heart or mind doesn’t want to believe that God can or will help you. After all, we’ve all heard that old adage “God helps those who help themselves.” I’m begging you to forget that. We are told that God who keeps us will not slumber. God doesn’t sleep on the job. God cares for us and for our well being so much that God never takes an eye off of us. I think about when my brother, sister, and I were teenagers and were out on the weekend. We all had a light in the house we were responsible for turning off when we got home. I was responsible for the little lamp in the hallway. It never failed that as soon as I tip-toed in (a few minutes before curfew, of course) and turned out the lamp, I would hear my mom whisper from her bedroom “good night, baby.” See, she may have been laying in her bed, but she wasn’t asleep. 

The Lord will keep us from all evil. Phew. That is a full time job, isn’t it? Like, no wonder God doesn’t slumber or sleep. Now understand, beloved, sin and evil can be two different things. Sin is a direct result of something we ourselves have done. If you forget that, the easiest way to remember is to think about the middle letter of sin and that will tell you who is to blame. But evil is an outside source. When we gather at the font to baptize, we promise to deny the devil and all the forces that defy God. These are forces of evil. God protects us from all evil. “There may be some pain in this journey–and even death–but it will not be meaningless pain or meaningless death, and you will not experience it alone. There will be resistance and there will be danger, but the Lord will be with you” (Feasting of the Word, Burns 61). 

It is so important to remember that, my beloved. Just because God keeps us, protects us, and doesn’t slumber doesn’t mean that our lives will be without pain, suffering, and hardship. We know this isn’t true. I can look out and so many of you and see faithful Christians who have had to suffer in one way or another. God’s claim on us in baptism doesn’t guarantee us an easy life. What we are promised is that we are not alone. Our suffering is made easier because of God and because of the community we have built around the cross through the help of the Holy Spirit. 

The Lord as our keeper may be hard to accept because what it ultimately means is that the Lord loves us. The Lord loves you therefore the Lord keeps you. The Lord keeps you therefore the Lord loves you. These two thoughts are intertwined. God’s love does not, will not, and cannot change, no matter what. Our love for God may wax and wane but God’s love is solid, trustworthy, and abundant. It never changes. It never runs out. God’s love never fails. God’s love is what keeps us. Even as we face the reality of what happens to Jesus on the cross, which is the evilest of all evils, God is and will always be our keeper. 

Sermon for 1/26/20 Psalm 27:1-9

At Wartburg Theological Seminary, each graduating class is asked to pick a class verse from the Bible. The same task fell to my class and we hemmed and hawed over several verses before finally deciding on psalm 27:1 “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” We joked that chose a verse about not fearing and not being afraid during a time in our lives when many of us did have a lot of fears and many of us were afraid. After all, many of us were waiting on calls, waiting to be sent out into the world to do ministry, having no idea where God would send us. There was a lot to fear. What I appreciate about this psalm since that time in my life is that it has grounded me — brought me back to my true identity as a called and claimed child of God. And while picking my favorite scripture is probably akin to picking a favorite child, this psalm ranks high in my personal favorites. 

I really wanted to preach on that scripture from Matthew 4 today, really I did. But this Psalm just wouldn’t let me go this week. So, like always, I am going to preach to myself this week and you all just get to listen in. Now feel free to pass judgement on me if you wish, but believe it or not, there are very few verses of scripture I have committed to memory. There are a lot of things in my brain already. This verse, however, is one I have memorized. The promise is just too amazing and the grace is just too much for me to want to forget this verse. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” There is a long list of things we could fear, maybe even should fear (have you watched the news lately). But fear can quickly become our god (little g). We can quickly stop truly living our lives thanks to fear. But God is our light and our salvation. We have nothing to fear, my beloved. 

The psalm continues by saying “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.” This language of “stronghold” would not have sounded strange to the people of Israel. In fact, God is referred to as a “stronghold” several times throughout the Psalms. “The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults” (Creach, Working Preacher). Therefore, picturing God as a stronghold and calling God a stronghold is akin to admitting that whatever may be troubling us, God’s protection is enough for us. In times of trouble, the temptation may exist to flee. What better place to flee than to God and God’s protection? This psalm reminds us once again that God is a safe place for us. 

Now I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I am bombarded by messages from the world that go against this. Apparently, according to the commercials I see on television, I need the expensive face cream or botox, the newest diet trend or botox, a different job with a huge paycheck, well behaved children (notice I said “children” plural), a well manicured lawn to go with my well kept house, and did I mention botox? But did you notice that the psalm didn’t say that the Lord is our stronghold once we get our lives together? This is the good news that the Lord welcomes us just as we are; not after we are our own version of perfect, but when are forgiven and loved, which we already are in God’s love and by Christ’s actions on the cross. 

Then the psalmist asks of the Lord something I think we all desire. Verse 4 says “One thing I ask of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” And isn’t that it? I mean, more than riches, more than land, more than a supermodel body, what I really desire is just to live with the Lord, to sit at his feet, to ask him all the questions of my heart. Sometimes I wonder if we dare ask the Lord for such things because we wonder if we are actually deserving of such things. We may not ask because fear there’s a catch. We may not ask because we fear our list of sins and shortcomings will be listed before we are able to dwell in such a glorious place. Maybe we may not ask for fear of who else might be dwelling there. 

But here’s my thought, beloved, and I’m willing to be wrong about this: when (not if) we are in the glorious, light filled presence of the Lord, does any of that matter? I want to believe that when we are in the Lord’s light, in the Lord’s stronghold, in the Lord’s house, his shelter, his tent, God’s love will just simple drown out any questions and doubts we may have. We will, I believe, know without any doubt, that we truly have nothing to fear and nothing of which to be afraid. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a powerful statement. Because whether I want to admit it or not, I have a lot to fear. I mean, some of what I fear is valid: what kind of world will exist when Ellen is an adult? Will another war be waged in my lifetime? And then there are the fears that I dare not even speak out loud. These are the fears that many of us have that are usually coated in shame or the inability to forgive ourselves. But, but(!) the Lord is our light and our salvation, who shall we fear? Nothing. And while I don’t want any of you to be in any hurry, we don’t even need to fear death. 

God’s love is our light and salvation. God’s mercy is our light and our salvation. God’s forgiveness is our light and our salvation. The cross is our light and our salvation. We need not fear anything. This is why I have this verse memorized, because I need this reminder daily. No matter what I fear, no matter how often the darkness may tempt me or call my name, the Lord is my light and my salvation. I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear. Thanks be to God.