I received a call Friday afternoon asking if I could fill in for the pastor of my home congregation on Sunday, due to some unexpected medical issues the regular pastor was dealing with. I agreed, and am also happy to report that my pastor is doing much better now.
My pastor has been using the narrative lectionary, rather than the revised common lectionary, for quite some time now. The preaching text for Sunday was Psalm 27:1-6, along with a reading of Matthew 6:25-34. I’ve included the text of each. Both texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the bible.
My sermon was considerably longer than usual, but there was a lot that needed to be said. Despite the length, I got overwhelmingly positive feedback about it, so I’m publishing it here.
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?
2 When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
4 One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I 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.
5 For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
I had to smile when I saw the gospel reading for today. This is the gospel lesson I chose to have read at my wedding.
It seemed perfect: I wanted a heavy emphasis on the centrality of God in our marriage, because I knew Tom and I would need his help to make it work. What better way to begin our new life’s journey than with a reminder that God would be with us and care for all our needs, no matter what?
My friend Paul from seminary came in from Ohio to preside at our wedding, and he questioned me about my choice. He was fine with most of it, but Paul wondered why I didn’t just stop with verse 33. Why did I want to end with it talking about tomorrow bringing worries of its own and today’s trouble being enough for today? Why not just end it on a note of certainty? “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Full stop.
My answer to Paul was that I might be a new bride, but I wasn’t young and naïve. Yes, it sounds so nice to think about God providing for all your needs, but life is neither that simple nor that easy, and I didn’t want to pretend that it is, even on my wedding day.
That was a little over eight years ago. Since then we’ve had two children, we’ve each suffered a variety of health problems, we’ve dealt with dual unemployment for nearly a year and the resulting financial consequences, we’ve struggled through the loss of my career and the extreme instability of Tom’s, and oh yeah, we’ve moved six times. We haven’t exactly been sitting on our fannies waiting for God to take care of us, the way the gospel reading without verse 34 would suggest. Today’s troubles are certainly enough for today, and I don’t have the time or the energy to expend on worrying about tomorrow.
I wasn’t young and naïve on my wedding day, but today I’m a lot more likely to quote Psalm 27 than I am Matthew 6.
“When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” The psalmist is just as certain that God will care for him as Jesus indicated in the Sermon on the Mount, but the psalm has a much stronger emphasis on the trials that the person will face. God’s care and providence do not equate to a simple and easy life, free of strife and trouble. The presence of evil in our lives is not a sign that God is not with us. It’s not a sign that God doesn’t care, and it’s certainly not an indication that God is punishing us. Today’s trouble is enough for today and tomorrow will bring worries of its own, but the LORD is my light and my salvation, so whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
One of the things we’ve been learning about the psalms is that they speak to the reality of people’s experiences. All of our experiences. Sometimes things are going really well and the psalms of praise resonate with us. Sometimes it feels as though the world is falling apart around us and we can’t possibly bear any more pain, and the psalms of lament give words to our anger and despair, and help us to bring those very real and legitimate feelings to God. And sometimes we feel embattled by life, but it’s not a new battle; it’s one we’ve fought many times before. And unlike the psalms of lament, when we might cry out “Save me, O God!” or “My God, why have you forsaken me?” instead we take more of a here we go again—you ready, Lord? approach. We have a battle plan. We assess our surroundings, we analyze our weaknesses, and we identify our strengths. And God is always our strength. He is always there with us. We may not like what’s going on in our lives. We may look at the choices in front of us and desperately want to pick ‘none of the above,’ because none of them lines up with how we want to live and serve the Lord. But the elements of this world have a far greater influence on our lives than our own wants and desires, and sometimes we have to change course against our will and do what we don’t want to do, or deal with something we’d just rather not deal with. But we’re not dealing with it alone.
As most of you are probably aware, last week a young white man walked into a bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, debated scripture with the black participants for an hour, and then pulled out a gun and began shooting. He reloaded his gun five times, and he killed nine people. He had made his racist views widely known before the shooting, and had even spoken of starting a new civil war. If ever there was a time for a cry of lament, this is it.
But when the victims’ families had the chance to speak to the shooter at his bail hearing, the overwhelming sentiment was mercy and forgiveness. As someone sensitive to the way violence and abuse can destroy people’s lives, I would never tell someone who has been abused or victimized to forgive their abuser—it’s too much of a burden to demand that of them. Whether it’s intended or not it suggests that the victims or survivors or however they choose to identify themselves should minimize or forget what was done to them, and focus instead on the redemption of the one who wronged them. After all, that’s what Jesus did, right?
But what Jesus did he did freely. No one told him he had to forgive. And no one coerced the forgiveness that those victims’ families demonstrated in South Carolina, either. Nobody minimized or ignored the pain of what had been done. You could hear it in the anguished words of Nadine Collier, daughter of 70 year old Ethel Lance, when she said, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” You could hear it in the quavering voice of Felicia Sanders, who lost both her son Tywanza Sanders and her son’s aunt, Susie Jackson, in that church. She said to her son’s killer, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.” The one that struck me the most was Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister DePayne Middleton-Doctor was killed while studying the word of God at her church. She said, “I acknowledge that I am very angry. But she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”
Bethane is very angry, and she has every right to be, and yet she chooses to cast hate out of her house and choose love instead. Felicia’s sorrow is so profound that it causes her physical pain, yet she chooses to recognize her son’s killer as a bible study participant, and includes him in the ritual sayings of their group, and prays that God will have mercy on him. Nadine is grief-stricken, yet she chooses to offer her forgiveness and prayers as well.
These are women who have done battle before. I don’t know the details, but I’m certain this isn’t their first experience of racism. Quite possibly not their first experience with racial violence, either. They’re women of color living in the United States of America. And we up here in New England don’t get to say, “Well, that’s just a southern problem. We don’t have any of that here.” I’m sorry, I was born and raised in a working class neighborhood in Arlington, Massachusetts. I wasn’t very old before I heard the ‘N’ word, and it didn’t take me very long to figure out who was being talked about whenever the ‘N’ word came out. I adjusted my expectations of black people because of the lies I was told about them, and I didn’t even understand what I was doing. It wasn’t until I was twenty-six years old and I walked boldly into the sanctuary of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Roxbury, MA, that I faced my fears and prepared to have my misconceptions blown to pieces. I still remember with pride the day Pastor John Heinemeier referred to me as a daughter of Resurrection. Most of the people there didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me, had wildly different life experiences from me and understood my life struggles about as well as I understood theirs—which is to say hardly at all—but they accepted me, and I was one of them. I was ordained at that congregation and the good people of Resurrection hosted a luncheon for me afterwards. To this day many of my cousins and aunts and uncles have not forgiven me for making them spend time in Roxbury.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton pointed out that this is not an isolated event. She writes: “And even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly.”
Yes they are. We don’t want to deny this fact or ignore it.
But what do we do about it? Jon Stewart spoke of this during his monologue on the June 18th edition of The Daily Show. He was shaken, and hadn’t prepared any jokes. He just couldn’t joke about it. And at one point he said, “I am confident, though, that by acknowledging it—by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do [anything about it].” I censored it a little at the end there to keep it church-friendly, but let’s just say he was angry.
We do need to acknowledge it. We do need to see it for what it is, not as what we want it to be, and we need to name it, and not make excuses for it. That’s the first step. But then what? Stewart is at a loss after that, because the problem has become just so big and overwhelming, and he doesn’t see any credible effort to correct it.
Whatever is working against us, whether it’s our own bad choices, malevolence on the part of someone else, or systemic forces so large and so corrupt that we feel we can barely survive them—let alone begin to fix them—whatever it is, God is bigger. No matter how strong our adversaries might be, God is stronger. No matter how powerful the circumstances beyond our control may be, they are no match for the One who created order out of chaos and who said into the darkness, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Yes, we might be going through difficult times, but we’ve all faced difficult times before. Maybe not this difficult. Maybe more difficult than this. And God was with us as we got through them and moved on to live another day.
“One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I 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.” That sounds like such a beautiful, peaceful ideal, doesn’t it? To live in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives, to behold his beauty and inquire in his temple? The presence of God with us enables us to do that, no matter what else is going on around us. The psalmist put those words right after talking about evildoers assailing him and armies encamping against him, and just before talking about having enemies all around him. In the midst of all that, he knows that he can trust in God, and that God’s presence can bring us peace and beauty regardless of where we are, what we’re doing, or what’s happening to us. God’s care and providence are not dependent upon the circumstances of our lives; God’s care and providence come to us regardless of the circumstances of our lives. And because of God’s care and providence, we have the resources we need to begin to change our circumstances.
As luck would have it, Jon Stewart’s guest that night was Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and activist for girls’ education. They talked about how she’s been elevated to this ethereal thing that is supposed to save us, but in reality she’s just a seventeen year old girl who enjoys tormenting her two younger brothers. But she also has a voice that people want to hear. Before she was targeted by the Taliban she was speaking out for girls’ education, and she had a few people listening. After she was shot she had a whole lot more people listening. She acknowledges that she never wanted to get shot, and she misses her beloved Swat Valley terribly because it is no longer safe for her to be there, but in a way she did choose this, because she chose to speak out for girls, many of whom cannot speak out for themselves. She didn’t make the decision to create this life for herself, but when confronted with it, she recognized it as a new and unexpected opportunity to continue serving in the way she’d always been called: speaking out for girls’ rights and education. Even though everything in her life has changed, much of it against her will, her mission and her passion have not changed.
We are called to do courageous things. Jon Stewart’s at a loss. We can acknowledge it, stare into it, see it for what it is, but what do we do about it??
Everyone here has a voice. Everyone here has gifts from God. Just because this evil reigns unchecked in the world doesn’t mean that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Get out there. Or even, start in here. Are there people you don’t know in this congregation? I’ll raise my hand to that! Get to know someone you don’t. Then get out and talk to strangers. Listen to people who you normally wouldn’t listen to. Think about your own reactions to people of other races, and examine why you respond the way that you do. If you changed their color or gender but everything else about the encounter remained exactly the same, would you still respond the same way?
It’s a lot of work. These are systemic problems. And systems don’t like to be challenged. But people like to be met where they are, whether they’re singing praises, laments, or weary assurances of trust.
God’s seen this all before, too. He’s got our back, as always, and he’s looking around and saying, “Here we go again—you ready?” And ready or not, there’s work that needs to be done in less than ideal circumstances.
As my wise-guy husband likes to say, “It’s not the fall that kills you; it’s the sudden stop at the bottom.” Whether you fall backwards willingly or are pushed before you’re ready, the arms of the Lord are behind you. He may not catch you before you fall, but he will catch you before you land. Amen.