Second Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2019
Your child works hard and makes A’s because he wants to get into the best college. His test scores are tremendous, and he is near the top in class rankings. He deserves it. Yale - no, rejected. Stanford - no, rejected. You read of a scandal in the paper. Wealthy parents spend hundreds of thousands to bribe the way in for their kids. Their kids are wonderful young people, but did not earn that admission; yours did, and didn’t get it.
You fear the gangs, the crime lords, and the murderers who run rampant in your country. You’re afraid your 6-year-old child will grow up to be a criminal or a victim. Neither the police nor the government in your country are any help. So, you join throng of people who want to escape the deadly chaos and step into American freedom. You walk across Mexico to the American border. But, when you try to cross the exact thing you feared happens. Your child is taken from you and you are put in one cage and your child in another.
Struggle - so many people in so many different life situations struggle. In our own church, we see people struggling with death as loved ones are taken from us and all we have is memory and grief.
We see American Christianity in a struggle for survival. Disagreements over questions of LGBTQ inclusion rip through the Methodist Church, and through ours. We look at all these issue - wealth disparity, border security v. Christian compassion, personal loss, and assaults on the church. These struggles feel like threats, like attacks on our way of life or even on our very lives. And I have not mentioned personal struggles you may be facing.
Struggle is an odd place to begin when Psalm 27 is our passage. Psalms were songs sung in worship in Old Testament days, in the days of Jesus, and in our day. One of my favorite Christians songs when I was in seminary was the text of Psalm 121 set to music and performed by Susan Ashton.
What’s the message in the song, Psalm 27?
“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” (v1)? What do we hear? “My adversaries and foes ... shall stumble and fall.” (v.2b).
Is cancer your adversary? Is poverty the foe who threatens you? If Psalm 27 is your song and you sing in worship today and believe in God as David sang and believed in his day, then Cancer shall stumble. If Psalm 27 is true, then poverty shall fall.
“Though an army encamp against me,” David sings in Psalm 27:3. Though an army encamp against me, “my heart will not fear.” We join David, singing along, claiming his words as our own. We sing, “Though war rise up against me, yet we will be confident.” We are confident in God and confident in our confession of faith in God. Dark times may come, but we face them knowing God’s got this.
Here’s the problem. The phrase “dark times” is a nebulous, undefined thing. It’s vague, even meaningless. But the struggles I named at the outset are real. For that mom whose son has knocked himself out to get A’s only to hear Yale and Stanford and Southern Cal and Princeton all say “no” it’s real. She knows he might get into another school, but to him, it feels like the world is crashing in. How does she help him cope in a world so clearly unfair?
For the mom, fleeing violence in Honduras only to be thrown into a cage and called an illegal immigrant in Arizona, the stakes are even higher. How does she protect her child when she is powerless and there is no safe place in the world for her to go?
And what about in your life? Singing Psalm 27, cancer is your adversary and the adversary stumbles and falls. Except it didn’t. You prayed and cancer claimed your wife or your mom or your child. That faith we confidently proclaim did not produce your desired outcome. Now what?
Walter Brueggeman, a scholar who has written quite a bit about Old Testament theology, identifies lived experience and lived faith. Lived experience violently collides with our first faith statement. Our first faith statement is “God, is good. God is in control. Thus, things in my life will go well.” That’s our sterile word of belief. But then life crashes in and does so in very specific ways. In one family, conflict between mother and daughter is so severe, years of estrangement ensue. In another family, a son signs up to serve his country and dies in the war; age 19. In a church, the beloved pastor has brain cancer and has to step down when the congregation thought he would lead them for another decade. Another church breaks its members’ hearts when it splits over a political issue even though the members agree on what they believe about Jesus.
These struggles call into question the confident words of faith we want to sing along with David. We want to be bold. We know Good Friday ends on Easter Sunday. Yes, we can see how bad that cross is, but we know it ends with resurrection. We know it ... until we’re actually stuck on that Friday. In that moment of utter loss and bone-wrenching pain, it’s tough to believe Easter will ever come. It gets to be hard, if we’re honest, to believe God is really there. Or, if he is either he’s not powerful, or he’s not good. That’s how it can seem we will feel the full force of the specific pain we’re trying to endure.
Don’t lose heart. Read all the way through Psalm 27. David, the confident singer of verses 1-6, shows the same uncertainty in verses 7-12. Lived experiences yields lived faith.
The singer, in verse 8, sings, “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Why pray this prayer? David, the singer, is worried God might hide His face. David has had days he looked to God and could not see God. All he could see were those who threatened him.
His anguished prayer continues. “Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation” (v.9). He has had those days. He has felt God’s anger, and worse, God’s absence. He’s pleading, God please don’t leave me.
How do we pray, when we feel like God has left and we are powerless and alone?
Psalm 27’s tension is resolved in the final two verses. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord” (v.13-14)! How does the singer move from uncertainty to this grounded faith that concludes the song on a high note?
I think the way David did is to remember the future. I know that works for me, once I takes my eyes off my struggles and do the work of remembering. How, you should ask, does come have memory of the future?
· I recall specific answers to prayers. The God who has answered prayer in my life will do so again. Answered prayer.
· Through its indescribable beauty, the created world, nature, testifies to God’s presence and goodness. The God who made this world good is still creating. The Testimony of Creation.
· On retreats, in times of prayer, in times of solitude, I have felt the tangible presence of God. As vast God is, the creator of all things has taken a moment, on occasion, to reach out to me.Some call these mountain top experiences.
· God has given us a testimony - the Bible - and in it, we meet Him. The God who inspired the Bible still speaks through it. The Testimony of Scripture.
· In the Bible, I read that resurrection is promised by one - Jesus - who has already done. The God who resurrected His Son will do so again, resurrecting you and me, his adopted children. Resurrection.
· God promises to be present in the world through the Spirit and through the body of Christ - his church. As flawed as we are, God still speaks through The Testimony of the Church.
These witnesses - answered prayer, creation, mountain top experiences, scripture, resurrection, and the church - tell who God is by reminding us of what God has done. When we take in all God has done, then we can be assured that God will act in the days ahead of us. The grief, the anxiety, the frustration - we feel these things in our lives. That’s why our worship is an active act of seeking God. No matter how hard our individual struggles get, we sing the words of David. “One thing I asked 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, to inquire in His temple” (v.4).
The seeker shall not be frustrated. God has a promise of eternity in His kingdom, a kingdom of love and fellowship. And God promises that no matter how rough life is here, God walks with us. The seeker shall find God. I can’t promise how life will turn out. But I believe that when we seek, we find God, and finding God is the very best we can hope for.
Whatever is happening in your life right now, seek the face of God. Our church is here to help you do that. The promises of scripture are here to help you find your way to Him. Seek the God who loves you, who is waiting for you with open arms.