Four(ish) years ago I went to a youth winter retreat as an adult chaperone. A few months later, I finally acknowledged God’s call on my life and began the journey toward ordination.
On Sunday, September 11, I preached for the last time as an associate pastor at the place that’s been a huge part of my life for over a decade.
On Wednesday, September 14, I said a “see you later” to the kids in whose lives I have been so privileged to be.
Endings are strange things. Somewhere in the back of your mind you know they’ll be there one day, but it’s always “one day” and never today. And then today comes. And something winds down as another thing winds up.
I am moving on, into another congregation and into new opportunities to serve, learn, and grow. Sorrow and peace intermingle in my heart, producing an emotion whose name I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll be able to clearly define it. And maybe one day I’ll share the story of this transition with you, dear reader. But for now I offer you the text of that September 11 sermon. I pray that its truth encourages you as it does me.
Lord, do not abandon us in our desolation.
Keep us safe in the midst of trouble,
and complete your purpose for us
through your steadfast love and faithfulness,
in Jesus Christ our Savior.
I am a self-confessed Anglophile. For as long as I can remember, the history and culture of England has fascinated me. The first short story I ever wrote was a rip-off of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (but I was seven and didn’t know what plagiarism was). I can listen to all of The Beatles albums repeatedly without getting tired of their music. I can tell you more about the Tudor monarchs than you would ever want to know. Mary Poppins is my all-time favorite movie.
And so I was sad when I heard of the death of Queen Elizabeth II this past Thursday.
The 2020s have been full to the brim with losses of one sort or another, and we’re not even three years into the decade. Whether it’s a foreign monarch known around the world, or something much closer to home, much more intimate and painful – we’ve felt that slicing knife of grief.
These years have been like one long overcast day. The sun obscured by clouds. You can still see. You can still do things. But it feels different. Heavier. You look up at the sky and you know, logically, that the sun is still there. But you wish you could feel it on your face. Wish that life would feel normal again.
God knows, God understands, that longing.
God responds with grace.
And there’s a whole collection of poems and songs tucked inside the middle of this big book that teaches us this truth.
The psalms are the prayer book of the Church, for which we are indebted to the Jewish faith and tradition. Upon their pages we find expressions of joy and wonder, praise and gratitude. We also find desperation and depression, rage and confusion. Every human emotion that we experience flowed from the heart of the authors and down through their pens. They gave us a record of holy wrestling, of seeking and trying to understand, to see, the world around them through the lens of their faith in God. A faith that was sometimes halting, and unsure, just as ours can be. Yet they call out to God. They respond to the movement of God in their lives. Or the seeming absence of movement. The psalms are honest, gut-wrenchingly so. By their existence, by their placement in the larger story of the Bible, we are given permission to feel, to question, to wonder, and to wrestle, just as these ancient poets did.
The psalms also invite us to look up. Toward God. And to keep looking, in a stubborn staring contest with the Divine, until we realize that in the gaze of God, we find that for which we have always been searching.
We see this in our text this morning. Please stand in honor of the reading of Scripture. Hear the word of the Lord.
Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I,
for you are my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy.
Let me abide in your tent forever,
find refuge under the shelter of your wings.
– Psalm 61:1-4 (NRSV)
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
You can see that we’ve not read the whole psalm. That’s because of that word that follows just behind verse four: Selah. An instruction calling for a break in the singing. Stop. Listen. Think about what you’ve just heard.
Psalm 61 is often categorized as a royal psalm. These psalms are concerned with the life of the king, and if you drop down to verse six, you can see that the author specifically asks God to bless the king. It’s possible that this psalm was written by the greatest of Israel’s monarchs, David. However, while “of David” can indicate authorship, it can also indicate poets writing in the style of David, claiming the king as their spiritual and professional ancestor (David Thompson, New Beacon Bible Commentary, 31). Royal psalms were often used in liturgical settings; the may have had a call-and-response pattern to them, reminding the participants of the importance of relationship with and salvation by God, via the king.
Basically, if the king is good, then life is good.
But as with all poems, there are layers of meaning. Angles of application. Clouds to sift through in order to find the light.
Nobody here is a monarch, particularly not of ancient Israel. And so we have take a little step back and selah, think about what truth these words are pointing us to. If we’re not asking for members of our family line to be enthroned forever as sovereigns, and we’re not claiming that the country we’re in today is the same as or has replaced Israel, which we should not ever do, then we have to ask, “What can we learn from the long-ago experiences of this author? What is God saying today?”
This author who is at the end of their psychological, spiritual, and physical rope (David Thompson, New Beacon Bible Commentary, 270).
“Hear me!,” they cry. “Hear me, God!”
Perhaps something you yourself have screamed, hoping to receive something in reply. Some word, some direction, some comfort.
This author received three things from God in response to their cry: protection, perspective, and power.
Protection: “lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” The image here is of a rock set in the midst of a wilderness wadi – a ravine; a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides. A rock high enough to let one climb out of harm’s way, and get back onto the level ground above the wadi (David Thompson, New Beacon Bible Commentary, 270). Because wadis can flood unexpectedly in the rainy season. There’s no shelter in a wadi. You don’t want to be trapped in one. You need a way of escape when all natural avenues are cut off.
The rock that is higher than I. Than you. The place you can go to when the clouds are so thick and so heavy that you wonder if the sunlight has been permanently obliterated. When the job loss hits. When the family member gets sick. When the unexpected comes.
Go to the rock.
When the systems and the structures fail. When everything is unfair. When endings you didn’t seek arrive at your doorstep. When there is no justice – go to the rock.
Go to the rock.
The rock is the God who loves you. The God who is strong enough to be that rock, and gentle enough to envelope you under the shelter of wings as gentle as a mother hen with her chicks.
You are safe in the presence of God.
Perspective: It is only when we have situated ourselves inside the refuge, the strong tower, of the rock, that we can begin to gain perspective. By perspective, I don’t mean denial. I don’t mean slapping on a smile on over your tears. I mean that it is only in that space of retreat, when you’ve got just a little mental distance from the chaos, when you know that God is holding you, that you can start to see as though the sun was shining brightly, even if the clouds haven’t moved at all. That unexpected ending remains unexpected. That loss remains deep and sharp.
But when you are held by God. When you are held by God, looking toward God, something in your soul relaxes. A relaxation that we might call trust.
Christ in Gethsemane is our best example of this. Matthew tells us in the twenty-sixth chapter of his Gospel that Jesus was distressed. Grieving. In agony over the suffering He was about to face. Jesus says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but what you want” (vs. 39b). He sought the safety of God’s presence. He laid it all out before His Father. And in that process He clung to what was true, to the light in the dark, and He saw what He had to do.
Power: Protection, a sense of safety, leads to perspective, or trust. And that trust creates space within our souls for God to give us what we need to take the next step even if that next step is back into the ravine. And it might be, sometimes. It was this power that enabled Christ to “endure the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Safety and trust lead to power, but not the kind of power that our society prizes. No, instead it’s the power to love others as God loves them, especially when they don’t deserve it. The power to believe that God does not cause bad things, does not inflict loss upon people, but God is present in the bad. The power to leave what is comfortable and familiar, to take the leap of faith into the unknown, even if it makes no sense to others. The power to make the wise decision, even if it hurts. The power to sacrifice, and to serve, and to know that the light is there behind those dark clouds, and those dark clouds will never, never, extinguish that light.
Protection, perspective, power.
Boiled down to a single word: presence.
The presence of God is what we need in these tumultuous 2020s. And God is always available to us. We can be with the psalmist at the “ends of the earth” and God is there to guide us home. Our hearts can be “faint” and God is there to revive them. God is the rock, higher than us, the refuge, the strong tower, the shelter, the gentle and comforting One. When things change or endings come or doors close or we are faced with the impossible, we don’t need to scramble for cultural dominance or press for governmental control or seek out a gimmick. We need to go to the rock.
The rock that is higher than us.
The bends in the road and the unexpected happenings, they’re part of life’s rhythm that we never quite catch onto well enough to be able to dance through it. And so we have to go back. Again and again and again and again. Back to the rock.
And there, we may curl up like a small child in the lap of a loving parent, our tears coming fast at first but eventually slowing until we fall asleep, knowing that we are safe. And then we wake in the morning, that parent gazing down on us with a gentle smile. And with our hands held tightly inside God’s much bigger and stronger ones, we’ll be ready to face clouds above or flood waters below.
And so we step. The path before us perhaps revealed only one brick at a time. The sharpness of grief perhaps piercing our chests. But we step. We walk. Hand in hand with the rock.
As we close out our time together today, I want to offer you a blessing. My own words didn’t do any justice, and so I consulted the great source of knowledge – Google. The author of this blessing is unknown, but their words take us into the week with the knowledge that God is ever-present with us.
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
when the shadows fall,
You do not walk alone.
GRACE AND PEACE ALONG THE WAY,
Image Courtesy of Chaz McGregor