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Psalm 146, as interpreted by Nan C. Merrill
It is, I’ll grant you, an odd collection of scripture readings, and I cannot blame this particular oddity on those anonymous creators of the Revised Common Lectionary.
No, I am the one who cobbled these readings together: one because it came to me when I was thinking and praying while driving to spiritual direction last Monday; another because, as I prepared for a deacons’ meeting Tuesday evening, it seemed to reflect both the tumult of our times and our need for God’s refuge, strength, and stillness; and the third because it arose unbidden from deep down in my spiritual memory, a bittersweet echo of doctrinal wrestling and judgmental wounding, a humbling reminder of all the ways we church people can hinder the transformative work of God.
If we are going to be honest with one another, if we are to pursue what makes for peace and what Paul calls “mutual upbuilding,” I need to tell you that when I first considered and then decided to preach from these scriptures it was because I thought we all needed a serious talking-to: an admonition to remember and care for the “lost” or different-minded among us, a warning against letting perceived haste or caution, single-minded advocacy or comprehensive deliberation (or fill in the blank yourself) become stumbling blocks along the way as we try to follow Jesus.
As I talked to quite a few of you throughout the week, I was reminded of the stories I was told in my early days as your pastor: stories of unanimous votes taken on controversial issues, stories of a prophetic church acting boldly, again and again. I was reminded, too, of what I learned later: That in each case the votes were unanimous because those who disagreed had already left the congregation, believing either that they could not feel at home here or that they would no longer be accepted given their differences of opinion or theology.
(It is here that I need to say that legal circumstances and protective confidentiality require me to be unusually vague throughout the remainder of this sermon. Most church members and friends know what I’m talking about; if you do not, please ask someone. Visitors, too; please ask someone what we’re dealing with and someone will explain—while giving no names or details. The situation we’re talking about is not secret, but the safety and security of those we seek to protect requires the utmost discretion. I apologize for any confusion, and I hope all of us will be able to receive the gist of the message whether or not we understand what prompted it. In the end, the message is not about the situation itself but rather how God’s people live together through challenging times, how Christ’s church navigates the waters of difference and disagreement, how we discern when to ignore all our customary processes, and then, if we do so, how to restore some sense of well-thought-out decision-making and full participation. It’s about how to create and sustain a loving and caring environment that nurtures our efforts to be faithful together, when it’s hard enough to be faithful alone.)
Through all the meetings of the past couple weeks, the text messages and the emails, the phone calls and the private conversations, my concern about the impact of our decision on our congregation increased. My conversations told me some of you were upset, and I wondered how many others might be feeling hurt or lost or judged or suddenly out of sync with their beloved church community. After all the hurry-up-and-decide-immediately, after all the hurry-up-and-get-ready and then several days of indecision and uncertainty and a growing list of unanswered questions, I was both relieved and grateful when developments slowed down last week and things were put on something of a hold.
Because it seems to me that we need a little stillness 1, an invitation to know that God is God and we are not. We need a little stillness, the better to listen to each other. We need a little stillness to listen for the word of the Stillspeaking God and attune ourselves to the way of the Spirit. It seems to me we need a little stillness, time to look around and see who’s missing from the conversation, who might be feeling left out or left behind. We need a little stillness, it seems to me, so that we might fully acknowledge and embrace our roles as tender shepherds who refuse to lose even one dear one, who will leave everyone and everything behind and go out into the darkness and discomfort of different opinions and hard feelings to bring each one back into the fold of love. We need a little stillness so that we might renew our resolve never to put a stumbling block or a hindrance in front of another or cause another pain.
And, yes, we need a little stillness because our lives are more than church, and those lives are anything but still. The seas roar and entire cities and islands are devastated by hurricanes. The earth shakes and buildings collapse, destroying lives and hopes and dreams. Commanders-in-chief of nuclear weapons call each other names like a couple of naughty schoolboys, and the world trembles in fear. Elected leaders play politics with people’s lives, and the same president who said there were good people among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville attacks African American professional athletes with obscenity-laced tirades.
We need a little stillness because, closer to home, stress is our daily bread. Life is so busy and we are so tired. We need a little stillness because our children need to be sure of our love. We need a little stillness because bodies get old and sick, upending our plans, shaking our faith, and testing our love. We need a little stillness because relationships take time and energy and we feel we never have enough of either.
It was ever thus, apparently. If you put any stock in the psalms—an investment I highly recommend—you get the impression that way back then life was a messy mix of beauty and trouble, praise and fear, connection and loneliness, gratitude and desperation, worship and worry. Way back then, when things started to go a little off, people got all worked up and freaked out. Way back then, long before anyone had ever heard of mindfulness, wise ones counseled stillness and calm, reflection and rest, trust and peace, dependence and praise.
God is our refuge and strength, the Psalmist says, a loving Presence in times of trouble. Therefore—that is, because God is with us, because God is for us, because we put our trust in God, because God is our strength, because we can see God’s love in action, bending the arc of history toward justice even when there are setbacks—THEREFORE we will not be afraid—even though the earth is changing, even though nations are at war and peoples are left in ruin. Because God’s love is present in the midst of all things, because God’s love is at work even through humanity’s worst, we need not fear. We can take heart because God is with us.
And so, my friends, it is with us—in our personal lives, in our church community, and across the world.
Though hurricanes wreak devastation, we can behold the love of God working through volunteer rescuers and relief workers. Though an earthquake kills hundreds, God—working through thousands of Mexicans wielding buckets and shovels and clawing through debris with their bare hands—will not rest until all are rescued or accounted for. Though fast-moving events and hastily-scheduled meetings may leave some of us feeling lost and confused or even angry, we will redouble our efforts to pursue together what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. We will stop what we’re doing and go in search of even one who is hurt or left out, just one who disagrees or is unhappy about how things have been done. We will not come home until we have found them, until we have made peace—and then we will return singing songs of praise. Because the realm of God is not meetings and quick decisions, the realm of God is not doctrine or details or personal preference. The realm of God is justice and peace and joy in the Spirit.
So let us take time to be still. In the midst of short timetables and hurt feelings, let us take time to love. As we consider all the unknowns that lie ahead, let us take courage in God’s heart of love; let us trust that we will be given what we need when we need it to meet the challenges; let us find strength in the one who gave his life that all people might know life abundant.
Let us be still and know that God is Love.
Let us be still and know our love for one another.
Let us be still and know that God is.
Let us be still and know.
Let us be still and pray.
Let us be still and trust.
Let us be still.
Let us be.
1 This theme was informed by a beautiful sermon of Mary Luti’s called “A Word About Tenderness.” You can find it here: https://sicutlocutusest.com/2012/09/12/a-word-about-tenderness-a-sermon-on-luke-151-32/#comments