Generally speaking, on any given Tuesday, say around 2 PM, where would you be? What would you be doing? At work? Home? School? Play? Volunteering? Practicing? Napping? Generally speaking, it’s not a particularly glamorous time of the week. Not a lot happens on Tuesday at 2. Maybe that’s the time when, a little bored, you’ve “gone fishin’.”
I think of my cousin, Herman, a retired Navy pilot who flew missions during the Vietnam War. He and his wife, Linda live in Florida with their pick up and boat. They spend a lot of time fishing. When Herman was active on Facebook, he regularly posted pictures and accounts of their fishing expeditions in the lakes and rivers of northern Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. After an active life of service and raising a family, there’s something sort of idyllic about adopting as your motto and way of life, “Gone Fishin’.”
In 1868, the great American Episcopal preacher, Phillips Brooks, penned his best-known text in the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” inspired by a visit he had made to Israel in 1865. More than once, we have mined this hymn for the beauty of its words and richness of its imagery. The phrase that’s stuck in my head today is the joining of the “hopes and fears of all the years” as they meet at the foot of Bethlehem’s manger, I am drawn to the convergence of these two, presumably opposed, emotions because our own day and age is wrestling with just such a convergence.
Among the readings for Advent, we hear twice Luke’s angel say, first to Zechariah and then to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” As we know, this is a familiar theme in scripture, especially when an angel appears. “Do not be afraid,” seems like an appropriate word when confronted with the mystery of the holy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel fear if some sacred figure showed up at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I know Old Scrooge was shaken to the core as the spirits appeared in his locked chamber, well after midnight.
“Isaiah is clear that we are not the ones who usher in a new era; it is God who brings it forth. Some would therefore say that Isaiah’s call is not to action but to hope; but hope, in the end is action, with the power to overturn old assumptions and sad cynicism, to give new eyes, and to heal our warring hearts.”
Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor, First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, MI
In the spring of my freshman year of college the Glee Club went on tour. I had never experienced anything quite like it. We traveled by bus to Washington, DC, for our first concert. The rest of the tour was by train – to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Memphis, and on to Little Rock, our western terminus. While in Little Rock, we sang a concert at the Arkansas School for the Blind. Our conductor, J. Bailey Harvey, affectionately known as “Oats” for reasons I can’t remember, was a “hail fellow well met.” He was a big man with a booming baritone, an English professor at City College by occupation and an amateur conductor driven by his love of the male chorus tradition and memories of his own bight college days. He always insisted we sing like men, not boys and we did our best to comply with eager desire to fulfill his hopes for us and sound grown up.
When I suggested “Love Came Down” as our Advent theme this year, Gregory raised a question as to whether or not this theme is too tied to the archaic notion of a three-storied universe. I don’t think I see the universe in those terms but his question did cause me to pause and ponder. Much of our literature and imagery reflects heaven above, hell below and earth caught somewhere in the middle. We don’t give so much attention any more to hell, that underworld burning with fire and brimstone, but heaven, as the place God dwells, is still generally aspired to, some place beautiful, above and beyond. I think we are still more drawn to images of the vast and unimaginable expanse of space than we are to think on the molten mass at the center of the earth.
However, I don’t believe we have to posit a literal three-storied universe to believe that there is life, that there are qualities, that there is spirit, beyond what we know well. There is mystery, maybe even a little magic, in creation that is beyond our grasp. It’s not that we have no access to the mystery, that we are never drawn to the magic, that we are never touched by the Holy, but there is a sense that some things, some One, some Presence, comes to us from beyond ourselves. We are challenged and, when open, changed in encounter with the sacred Other.
This conversation with Gregory led to a rather playful collection of themes or titles for the services and sermons of this Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season –“Hope Bubbles Up,” “Peace Blows In,” “Joy Bursts Forth,” etc. Check your Advent calendar for a complete listing. Hope, peace, joy, love, Christ, Word, light – each of these meaningful metaphors of the season in some sense comes to us from somewhere else – from above, below, afar, near at hand. They come to us in ways familiar and totally unexpected. Perhaps this is central to the wonder of the season.
The notion that hope bubbles up comes partly from wondering whether all the wonders of the season need to come from above. If not, what would be the opposite of above? Below? I began to imagine what grows and blossoms from the soil. Flora of every sort, even those that push their way through the frozen ground of a bleak midwinter or a shoot breaking forth from a stump thought long dead. Dust to dust, we are told, so the blinded hymn writer sings, “I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.” Then our Seasons of the Spirit material offered the powerful image of volcanic activity pictured on the back cover of your bulletin which made me think of Old Faithful and the geo-thermal power of geysers bubbling up from below.
There is a very real sense in which hope is born deep inside us and bubbles up to the surface. As does the psalmist, we live with a longing for something more in our lives. “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Whatever we have acquired or become, it is never quite sufficient. Echoing the psalmist, Augustine also expressed this longing when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something in the depths of our being remembers and longs for the fullness of the creation we were meant to be.
This longing is never more real than in the season of Advent when we wonder, we watch, we wait in anticipation again of the coming of the Christ, the Word made flesh, the Holy one in human form who comes to redeem the whole creation. “Oh holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin. and enter in; be born in us today.” We live with a longing that the Source of our being will come close to us from above or beyond or deep within and touch us in ways that will cleanse us, heal us and make us whole. There is hope that we may still be all that we were created to be by the Creator of stars of night, the Giver of life, the Lover of our souls. Is this not that very Holy One to whom the psalmist lifts his soul – the source of truth, of righteousness, of goodness, of mercy, of steadfast love, of salvation? Is this not the God in whom we, too, hold our hope?
“Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our sins and fears release us; Christ, in whom our rest shall be.” We live in a time of fear – fear that threatens to lead to despair – despair, the antithesis of hope. We talked about this Tuesday in Bible study, how fear can control our lives and cause us to turn from this God of justice and compassion to false gods of self-serving security. Let’s build our walls higher and thicker. Surely that will be our salvation. Keep the strangers away, arm the population, lay up for yourself all the earthly treasure you can get your hands on. Remember who’s number one. That will undoubtedly ensure our safety.
But Jeremiah, speaking for God, doesn’t see it that way. We find him under a kind of house arrest. The leaders of his people have been dragged off to exile in Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem looms large on the horizon. This troublesome prophet, who has been harsh in his judgment while weeping bitter tears for his people, suddenly proclaims a remarkable word of hope. From the bottom of the barrel and the depths of his being he asserts that the days are surely coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled and justice and righteousness will rule the land. Has the prophet lost his grip on reality? Has the strain of the work overcome him? Have his own words of gloom and doom done him in?
From somewhere else comes these eloquent, noble words, an amazing confession of trust in the God who holds both the future and the prophet. Jeremiah has been safely centered in God all along. In an even more remarkable witness, Jeremiah does not just proclaim words of hope; he applies them in direct action, he lives them. While his way of life is crumbling around him, his own prospects of exile growing daily, the Babylonians gobbling up the land and destroying its ancient. sacred structures, Jeremiah elects to buy a piece of property. Yes, you heard right. This gloomy, weeping prophet of destruction, in obedience to God’s instruction, chooses to invest in a future that he believes is inevitable. In the end, if this great prophet sees anything at all of the future, he sees Who holds that future and puts his faith in that very One. Just when you think he is going to give up in despair, he expresses his hope by putting his money where his mouth is.
Seeing that hope grows from the ground up, Bruce Epperly writes of our text, “Jeremiah speaks words of hope. A branch, full of blossoms and eventually fruit, is bursting forth from an arid and broken nation. Life abounds beneath the current uncertainties. Life is emerging quietly like the fig tree’s growth and we can open our eyes to the deep down hopefulness of life or live in despair. There is a future – God has a vision for you, for good not evil, for a future and hope. This future is not predestined or automatic, but the invitation to become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us” (Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: The First Sunday of Advent,” November 27, 2012, patheos.com).
Is there anything we can learn from the psalmist’s affirmation and Jeremiah’s living into hope? Will we allow ourselves to become victims of the fear growing all around us or will we say “no” to terrorists and fear mongers of every stripe and “yes” to the hope that bubbles up within as God again comes to us to redeem us? Do we sense that life still abounds beneath our own current threats and uncertainties, that there is a future, that God has a vision for us? Can we yet become the future that we dream about, incrementally embracing life’s fruitfulness and tending to growing things all around us?
Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place or in the place of the psalmist. What fuels your fears? What feeds your anxiety? What might lead you to despair? Among friends and in a community that cares about you, let yourself consider these things in the safety of this place and time. These things help to make up what Carl Jung calls our “shadow,” those qualities that also linger deep inside and can be highly destructive if left unattended. We need to look closely and try to understand, but we are not to dwell there.
It is important to know what threatens us and frightens us, what stirs our anxieties and fuels our fears. As a paradoxical expression of grace, today’s Words of Preparation suggest that “The power of hope is made more palpable by the fragile circumstances of everyday life. A cancer diagnosis. The loss of job and home. A fight with friends or family. The rejection from a college. A divorce. The death of a loved one.” Is this not what happens to Jeremiah when finds hope bubbling up in the worst of circumstances? Even in the deepest darkness, the Light shines and cannot be overcome.
Finally, these Words of Preparation also remind us that “…often hope comes in small doses and flickering images. Signs that are fleeting and brief, and usually seem insignificant. Advent is a season in which we can cultivate a posture of waiting and watching with hope. It is hope that anchors us – it nourishes us, it sustains us, it keeps our eyes up” (Advent Meditation, d365.org). So, friends, where do you take heart? Where does hope bubble up in you? From the ground of your own being, what glimmers and glows even in the darkness that you might hang your future on? Perhaps you would be willing to share your own word of hope on this first Sunday in Advent.
It is my longing in this Advent season that we will find hope born deep inside each of us, hope that bubbles up to bring about the future that God imagined for us and all creation from the beginning of time. May hope anchor us, nourish us, sustain us and keep our eyes looking up or down or wherever it is we find hope bubbling. Amen.
Does anyone besides me share a love for a good mystery? I wouldn’t say I was obsessed but I enjoy Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis, Sherlock Homes in his many manifestations, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and most of the other British mysteries on PBS. I have read all of Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter series and several of the Wallander tales by Henning Mankell. Now I confess, I am not very good at figuring out “whodunit.” I actually enjoy being surprised in the end when the erstwhile detective reveals it all to you. Maybe you’re one of those people who reads the end of the book first because you are impatient to know how it will all turn out. Personally, I would rather savor the story, even delaying the final disclosure in order to remain immersed in the experience of the adventure. Revelation will come in its own time; there is something satisfying for me in the enjoyment of the journey.
Or how many of you predicted the outcome of all the college football games yesterday? Who knew that the Texas kicker would miss the extra point and Cal would hang on to win 45 to 44? Who had scripted ahead of time Stanford’s masterful victory over 6th ranked USC or Mississippi’s upset of Alabama? There’s an old adage that proclaims that no one can guarantee the outcome in advance, that’s why you play the game. I suppose in this age of fantasy football one could make a fortune if she could predict accurately the outcome of all the games.
Sometimes we are eager for all to be revealed; sometimes we would rather give ourselves over to the journey. Often, we have no control over the outcome of a given story or situation and must patiently await its unfolding over time. We may find ourselves living in hope of a certain something that is to come but find we have no way to guarantee that our particular desire will be fulfilled.
Sometimes we dream. We may have a vision of the future. We may be flooded with imagery of some thing or some place or some story. It may be a revelation, but dreams and visions are not always clear, at least on the surface. They offer curious characters and situations and relationships that we cannot easily grasp. I know over the years some of you have engaged in dream work through this church. I admit that I am not a great or gifted interpreter of dreams. When I have done dream work with clients or parishioners or spiritual directees, I have always begun by asking the dreamer what they think the dream meant. I believe that that is the most fruitful way to enter another’s dream world rather than offering pre-packaged interpretations.
However, with John of Patmos, his vision was written down and distributed to his community. Others picked it up and, strange as it may seem, included it in the Bible. That means, as people of the Book, we are at least invited to consider it. Volumes have been written by scholars and schemers, seekers and dreamers, trying to make sense of John’s vision. More than one purported prophet or eschatologically-oriented community has tried to use it to predict the actual unfolding of the future. This great beast or that bloody battle are indicators that some tyrant or other fierce being is foreordained to bring about the end of the world. In spite of Jesus’ clear instructions to leave end things to God, many a Christian claimant has given over ministry and even life to following the belief that a particular piece of Revelation will lead them through Armageddon to the gates of heaven, avoiding the eternal flames of the lake of fire.
I suppose it is partly because Revelation comes at the end of the Bible that Brian McLaren has chosen to treat it in the penultimate chapter of his book. I actually like that he pairs John’s great apocalyptic vision with hope. I believe he is right about this. More than anything, John’s vision is an offering of hope for the fulfillment of God’s Beloved Community. I know there are lots of beasts and battles, bloodshed and burning, before one reaches the golden shores of the River of Life. But, following McLaren and other scholars, I can see how Revelation offers hope for an oppressed people.
We have considered before how little most of us know about oppression, at least the sort that John’s community was facing. Although it was not necessarily a period of wide-spread persecution, it was a time when Christians were a decided minority. In a polytheistic culture, it was tolerable for Jews and Christians to worship their God, but it was a curiosity that they would limit themselves to only one God when a multiplicity of gods could be so much more useful. I imagine that today we don’t understand their world view any better than ancient peoples understood monotheism. In our culture, we turn exclusively to “our God” and often treat other religions with disdain, both subtle and obvious. As Christians in the USA we don’t really grasp the oppression those early Christ-followers faced nor do we see the elitist attitude we often take toward faith traditions outside our own today.
In addition to the general skepticism and disdain for the religious practices of the early church, there was also the problem of emperor worship, which had social and political implications for Christ-followers. If the emperor claimed to be a god and demanded worship as well as tribute and if the emperor was as mad as Nero or Diocletian, any noncompliance could be met with bloody persecution. So you can see how those first followers of Christ were caught in a dilemma. If they spoke up for their faith they were liable to experience social ostracism and outright persecution. If they kept their mouths shut they were guilty of failing to spread God’s Good News to the ends of the earth. It was not a comfortable position to be in. Today, we may choose to keep quiet about our faith in order to maintain social nicety or not rock the boat or respect others’ points of view, but I doubt that most of us know well the dilemma our ancestors faced in following the faith.
McLaren and others suggest that Revelation functions as kind of code – not code for us to use in deciphering literal end times and the disposition of heaven and hell. Rather it is an allegory about the ultimate failure of all principalities and powers that place themselves in opposition to the living God and the final fulfillment of creation in God’s Beloved Community. We can get hung up on the intricate and gory details of John’s dream. Many have, but in the end John means to offer a word of hope to a people who were struggling to maintain their faith in an inhospitable environment. In the end, John says the powers that be will be overcome and God’s reign will be fulfilled on earth. How exactly that will happen is in God’s hands. It will be accomplished in God’s time and God’s way. In the meantime, God’s people are asked to remain faithful, to put their trust in God, to live in hope for the fulfillment of God’s future.
McLaren writes, “Rather than giving its original readers a coded blueprint of the future, Revelation gave them visionary insight into their present situation. It told them that the story of God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t waiting passively for a future that had already been determined. Faithfulness meant participating with God in God’s unfolding story. God wasn’t a distant, terrifying monster waiting for vengeance at the end of the universe. God was descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 256).
Hear again these words that sum up John’s vision, his great revelation, the way the story ends – “’See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new.’” Then,”The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. “
It’s a complex invitation. On one side we hear the invitation from heaven to come, partake of the wedding feast of Christ and the church. On another we are encouraged to speak up, to invite others to come, share the feast with us. And from a third perspective, we shout to heaven, “Even so Christ Jesus quickly come,” as we long for the fulfillment of our hope that the Beloved Community will become our reality as soon as possible.
As McLaren writes in our Words of Preparation, “What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. That’s why Revelation ends with the sound of a single word echoing through the universe…It is a word of invitation, welcome, reception, hospitality, and possibility. It is a word not of ending, but of new beginning. That one word is Come! The Spirit says it to us. We echo it back. Together with the Spirit, we say to everyone who is willing, Come!” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 256). “…let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Come!
Somewhere along the way I got on the email list for the Children’s Defense Fund. Undoubtedly, I signed an online petition which gave them my email address. I will confess that I do not always read the long, thoughtful postings by the founder, Marian Wright Edelman, but when I do, I am rarely disappointed. Edelman is a remarkable woman of insight, passion, wisdom and courage. Maybe it was synchronicity or maybe the Spirit, but this week’s posting was titled, “From Hardship to Hope.” Given the sermon title, I had to read it didn’t I?
I’m not going to quote the whole piece, but I want to highlight some of what Edelman has to say. I made of a few copies for those of you who would like to read the entire reflection. The focus of this piece is foster children. Edelman writes, “Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution during one of the darkest times of a child’s life, but the average length of stay is nearly two years, and every year more than 23,000 youths ‘age out’ of foster care at age 18 or older without being connected to a forever family. These vulnerable young people are at huge risk of dropping out of high school and ending up unemployed, homeless, or in the criminal justice system.” In her column, she highlights three remarkable young people who have made their way through the system to success and a passion for helping others in that same system.
The first is Amy Peters, a 24 year old law student at the University of Nebraska. Amy entered the foster care system at age 12 and remained until she “aged out” at 19. Amy says, “Foster care is no fun for anyone,” but, because she excelled in high school and was accepted to the University of Nebraska, she was eligible for a state program that provided housing, health care and financial assistance until she was 21. Edelman writes that “Amy knows very well she was one of the lucky ones.”
Sixto Cancel was taken into the system at 11 months after his drug-addicted mother proved unable to care for him. He had been subjected to poverty, neglect and abuse. He was briefly adopted at age 9 by a woman who eventually abandoned him. Somehow Sixto found a remedial education program that inspired him and today he is a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University. Edelman reports that “He’s not complaining when he says that unlike most of his peers he has no parental safety net to fall back on when the going gets tough.”
Though she only spent 4 months in Idaho’s foster care system, Ashley Kuber grew up in a poverty-stricken family. She went to work at an early age to buy clothes and help her family with the rent. I’m sure each of these stories is reminiscent of tales told by thousands of young people in foster care. What is remarkable about these three, though, and why Edelman highlights them is that they all have become active advocates for foster children, working at the state and national level to improve the lot of others still in the system. They did not let the system destroy them and now they are dedicated to improving the lot of others.
In each situation, the story is inspired and informed by hope held and hope fulfilled. Edelman concludes her column with these words, “A common thread among many of these young child welfare leaders is that they found the courage to speak up after being encouraged by an adult and told that they—and their story—were important. By simply opening up your heart, looking a young person in the eye, and speaking an encouraging word you might change the trajectory of that child’s life and give them hope for a brighter future” (Marian Wright Edelman, “From Hardship to Hope,” childrensdefensefund.org).
This is an example of accounting for hope, of sharing those experiences in which hope is held and realized. It seems to me that this is also what the writer of First Peter is asking of us, that we recognize our hope as people of God and followers of Christ; then live into that hope. Of course, the challenge of living with hope was greater for those who first received this letter. They lived with threat of humiliation and persecution for the hope they held. As people of privilege, living in a land in which Christianity is part of the dominant culture, hope may seem less significant.
We talked a little about this in Bible study on Tuesday. We, in the church talk a lot more about faith and love than we do hope. James Boyce writes that “Every reader of the New Testament is familiar with Paul’s triad of faith, hope, and love, and his remark that the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13). But for the audience of this letter, the more important of these gifts is hope; hope is at risk for those who have difficulty keeping hope alive in the midst of their troubled lives (James Boyce, “Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22, May 25, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).
What do we know of hope, how do we hold it, when do we account for it? Hope – “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen; a feeling of trust; to want something to happen or be the case; to want something to be true and think that it could happen; the state which promotes the desire of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or in the world at large” (Google search for “hope”). What do you think? What insight, understanding, story comes to mind when you hear hope? Would anyone be willing to share?
It’s hard to hope when times are tough. That is part of what is remarkable about Edelman’s witness and Peter’s admonition. When the shadows overwhelm and the way through seems impossible, when the despair descends and the future fades, how does one hold hope and keep on keeping on? We sang the old hymn this morning, “All my hope on God is founded” and we will end the service singing, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.” This is the hope for which we are called to account. We claim to believe in a God who holds the future and to follow a Christ who, in compassion, leads the way into that future. We exist in hope that there is more to life and living than we have known and that we will eventually find our way to “God…who seeks to claim [our] heart[s] as home.”
What would it take for us, you and me, to “make…an accounting for the hope that is in you”? For many, hope is a fragile thing. To share one’s hope is an exercise in vulnerability. You can hear the voices. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know that’s never going to happen.” “Come on. Get real.” “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” “Science has shown…” “Tradition teaches…” “You’ll never be anything but…” “Give up.” “It’s just foolish to hope for anything more, anything different, anything better.”
Except, remember a couple of weeks ago when Doug shared with us just the power of such foolishness? Perhaps there is more power in hope than we know. In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffin claims, “It’s hope that helps us keep the faith, despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.” There is such wisdom here. It is in holding hope that we begin to believe that things can be different – different now, not just in some sweet bye and bye. And it is in accounting for hope that we begin to make a difference in this world.
The great black, lesbian poet and essayist, Audre Lorde, facing breast cancer, wrote, “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence…”
So, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us” (Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Sister Outsider). Hope unaccounted for, unnamed, unspoken will die a certain, strangled death. We hold our hope. We name our hope. We work, in gentleness, reverence and with clear conscience to make our hope real.
This is the legacy of those early Christians who held their hope through thick and thin, who accounted for it at personal peril, who lived it until it became reality for them. This is the testimony of Amy and Sixto and Ashley who are out to change the world, borne on wings of hope. This is the life work of Marian Wright Edelman, William Sloane Coffin, Vincent Harding, who died last week, and a whole host of those whose accounting for hope has been in the knowledge “that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.”
I know I am looking to others to help me today. Maybe I have my own struggles growing into the hope I have for myself and for us as people of God, body of Christ, fruit of the Spirit. But given that this week was the anniversary of the birth of Harvey Milk and a postage stamp was issued in his honor, I can’t help but conclude with his best known quote. “I ask this…If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out. If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power…it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you…You gotta give em’ hope…you gotta give em’ hope”
(Quoted in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,, p. 275).
“My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” “How Firm a Foundation,” “All My Hope on God Is Founded,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” these and hundreds of other hymns and songs have made similar affirmations to those of today’s text. They have cried out to God for safety and security and responded with abiding faith that God is indeed refuge and fortress, shelter and protection.
Can you identify at all with the sentiments of the Psalmist? Have you ever turned toward God with just such an affirmation? Have you ever prayed this Psalm? What were the circumstances and why would you turn in this direction? The Psalm seems to arise from a time of personal stress and possible persecution for the writer. It is full of images that refer to demonic foes as well as the exigencies of daily life for a people living in a barren, hostile land. In an earlier time, Frank Ballard wrote of this text, “This is the language not of prose but of poetry, Oriental poetry which,” he says, “may often seem extravagant to the Western mind. We do not move easily among metaphors drawn from nomad life, with possible references to night demons and magic spells. We are not engaged in watching eagles and their young: nor do we walk warily because of the pitfalls and traps that have been set for the careless” (Frank H. Ballard, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 4: Psalms, Proverbs, p. 494).
We may not be altogether familiar with the language and imagery of the Psalms, but in our times of trouble, insecurity, fear and anxiety, how often do we turn to them for hope and reassurance? Psalm 23 is the same genre of Psalm as this one. Without being overly familiar with sheep and shepherding, how many of us can still recite it from memory? How often has it been an anchoring text for a funeral or memorial service or other occasions of grief and loss? Sometimes we just need the comforting word, regardless of its familiarity or factual reliability.
As we considered this text in Bible study, we came up against that ancient Hebrew practice of measuring life’s ups and downs as reward and punishment from God. This is the song of a people who believed they were God’s chosen people. They lived within the bounds of a sacred covenant with God. When they kept the covenant they were rewarded. When they abandoned it, they were punished. But we know this is not true. As we considered last week, stuff happens. The rain, as well as drought and famine, come to the just and the unjust. Viruses happen. Hurricanes happen. Arguments become fights become wars. Families feud. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Some of this we can do something about, much not.
The great British preacher of the last century, Leslie Weatherhead, said of this text, “…men and women, it is just not true” (Quoted in Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16, 10-18-2009,” workingpreacher.org). Such promises as this Psalm contains are neither literally true nor would they be deserved if they were. Bad things happen to good people and vice versa. We have each had our share of trials and tribulations, large or small. It is in the very nature of being human. Jane Strohl writes, “Not only does evil befall us, we constantly act as its agents. Our lives are fraught with fears of all sorts and deceit beyond measure. We worry about our health, our finances, our children’s welfare, global warming, unemployment, poverty, natural disasters, and the burden keeps growing year by year. What, then, can the psalmist mean when he assures us that we are in the care of God’s holy angels?” (Jane Strohl, “Commentary on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, 2-21-2010,” workingpreacher.org). ” It seems to me this is a fair and reasonable question.
Still, we turn to God in our distress and, occasionally, even in our joy. Is there truth to that oft-quoted adage of Augustine about our hearts being restless until they rest in God? Are we talking here about a different, deeper order of life than we recognize in our daily routine? Is there something about this relationship to the living God that is beyond anything we know of relationship in the course of what we call reality? Maybe we ought to open ourselves to a dimension in which the demonic and the sacred exist in ways we only barely understand. Or maybe it’s as simple as acknowledging that we can’t do it on our own. No matter our gifts, talents, skill, wealth, power, perseverance, celebrity or good looks, we need others and, in particular, we need God, the ultimate Other. This ancient imagery of comfort and security can be powerfully appealing from this vantage point.
When I write the “Pastor’s Note” for the Midweek Message, I mean it to be a few paragraphs to highlight past and upcoming events on the church calendar, to thank people for their efforts on behalf of the life of our congregation, to give a brief insight to the coming Sunday’s worship and Adult Spiritual Formation, to encourage you to be here on Sunday and to bring someone along, and to offer a simple blessing – nothing profound or earth shattering.
So I was surprised to receive the following email from a colleague this week. “Pastor, in the midst of your busy season I’m guessing that the weekly routine (like a mid-week message) can seem burdensome. Just know, I needed the excerpt above right in the moment that I read it. Thank you.” What my colleague had excerpted from my “Pastor’s Note” was this sentence, “Psalm 91, our focus text for Sunday, reminds us that we are sheltered under God’s abiding wings, that when we are at our lowest, most vulnerable, God reaches out and draws us into God’s protective presence.”
I wasn’t trying to impress anyone when I penned that line. My colleague is a smart, talented, up to date pastor, wise to the ways of the world. Still, on hard days or in tough times there is hope, comfort, reassurance in this ancient spiritual truth. What struck me about my colleague’s note was the simple, straightforward, heart-felt confession of the need for a sense of God’s sheltering presence. Sometimes we just want to find that place of quiet rest, near the heart of God, to sit there in stillness for a while, to sigh, to breathe, to replenish, to heal. I know I find myself in that position, maybe more than I care to admit.
Again, as we affirmed last week, there is balm in Gilead. There is power to heal the sin sick soul, grace to make the wounded whole. It may not look like the healing or wholeness we imagine we ought to have. Healing is not cure and wholeness is not the absence of concern. It is the capacity to live day by day, moment by moment, in both the fullness of life and in that mystic sweet communion with the one who has made us, loves us and draws us ever closer into the relationship for which we were intended. We don’t lose the world when we find God.
There is much from which the fragile wings of a mother hen or the powerful, outstretched wings of an eagle can never protect us. Not literally. We have developed weapons that will blow a rock fortress to smithereens. We have turned our backs on angels. We have created plenty of enemies of whom we live in mortal fear. We spend enormous sums to become masters of our own security, only to be threatened by new technology or terror we had never imagined.
Where do we turn for simple solace? When we are weary, disconsolate, frustrated, hopeless, where do we go? To the medicine chest, the bottle, to some other obvious addiction, to the mall, to the market, to an underground bunker? Maybe there is still something to be said for eagle’s wings, for the sheltering power of the Almighty, which, in the end, may be nothing more than the capacity to love and to care.
I can’t tell you for certain why, but time and again, I resort to the notion that whatever befalls us, underneath there are “everlasting arms.” Make of that what you will. It gives me a measure of peace, of comfort, of reassurance that ultimate things are not in my control. Of course, I have work to do, a call to answer, compassion to be shared, peace to be made, justice and mercy to be cultivated, but, in the end, it is that humble walk with God that makes all the difference. I don’t know when or how or why, but some day God will raise me – and you – raise us up on eagle’s wings, bear us on the breath of dawn and make us to shine like the sun, bringing us to dwell in the very palm of God’s hands. All I can do is surrender in thanksgiving to that truth, which I feel so deeply in my being drawing me homeward. Amen.