|photo by purple javatroll / flickr|
A Mother told me this funny story that really happened. She had a little box of Scripture verses shaped like a loaf of bread on the kitchen table. And as she sat with her little boy they would take out a Scripture verse and read it and talk about it. One particular morning the little boy took out a tiny card that read: “I will trust and not be afraid.” That afternoon she took her son to see the movie “Oliver Twist.” In the film there is a very scary scene when everything on the screen is very dark and someone is being hanged—and is twisting in the wind. Little Davie stood up in the darkened theatre and said out loud: “I will trust and not be afraid.” And he sat down and wet his pants.
This has a familiar ring to me. How about you? We come here on Sunday and it is easy to believe. We say together: “I will trust and
not be afraid.” And then reality intrudes. You get in your car and go home. And you turn on the TV. Looks like all hell is breaking loose. You hear about ISIS and terrorism. Too many 21 year olds coming home in boxes. Some scandal in Washington. Or your back hurts and you have to go to the Doctor. Or maybe you have a fight with somebody you love. Or you get up one morning and the blahs hit you in the face. You read the Obituary column in the back of the paper and you notice underneath too many of those pictures—they are the same age as you—ooh. A child breaks our heart.
|photo by Fred Dawson LRPS/ flickr|
And our response? You know. You know. We’re like little Davie—we say we trust and will be not afraid—and when all these scary things hit us in the face we begin to think: Where is God? Reckon this stuff is really true. Doesn’t seem like it most days. We all wonder don’t we. Will we make it through all this stuff. Where is God?
It happened to the Israelites. They had been dragged hundreds of miles into exile. And they hated that strange place. Strange food. Weird customs. And their kids were beginning to date some of the Babylonians. They wanted to go home. And one day after years of exile their prayers were finally answered. So they made the journey back across the desert until they got home. And what did they find? A mess. Before the Babylonians had left years before they had destroyed just about everything. It looked like Alleppo must look. People, those that had been left--were living in these bombed-out places. The fields where they had grown luscious crops—were just covered in stones and weeds. Why even the Synagogue was mostly destroyed. And they began to mutter: Where is God? Why did this happen? Or worse—where do we go from here? Like little David—they too trusted and thought they believed—but hmm. Not so sure.
So this is the setting of our Scripture today. Found in Psalm 56. It was written either during those terrible exile days or in the post-exile days when they went back home to nothing but enormous disappointments. And in this gloomy time this is the word God sent. Will you listen?
Read Psalm 56. It’s a prayer. A prayer to Almighty God.
In 1-4 it is a cry for help. You may have heard the story about this guy who fell off a cliff. And he grabbed hold of a vine and just dangling and he'd looked down and it was a long way down there. And so he prayed: “Oh God help me! Help me!” And a booming voice spoke and said: “I will help you. Just let go of the vine and I’ll take care of you.” He looked back down. No way. And he looked up and said: “Is there anybody else up there?”
“Be gracious …O God…for people trample on me…all day long foes oppress me…and then again: my enemies trample on me all day long. And in the middle of this he wrote: “O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you…In God I trust…I am not afraid.”
So from then until now we have this trust-faith problem. We’ve got all this stuff going on—but God, we are going to trust you. But guess what? That is not the end of the story. It never is.
For in verses 5-7 all trust we find in 1-4 disappears. And uncertainty takes over.
Translated he wrote: Is there anybody else up there? Scary time. “All day long they seek to injure my cause…even my thoughts are against me…Lord, they stir up strife…they lurk…they watch my steps. They hope to have my life. The writer ended this section by praying: “O God!” We’ve prayed it too, haven’t we? We don’t know what to say about all this stuff that looks like we’re going to drown in. Like them we say: “Oh God!” Or maybe: “Is there anybody else up there?”
I think what the Psalmist was trying to say that if you are a person of faith—doing all the right things—trying your best to color inside
the lines—you bump into all these problems. There is something we call: prosperity gospel. And people are following this message in droves. Some of these churches on TV are so big that it looks like Clemson playing football. Except it’s Sunday. The music is up-beat. Everybody on the stage is pretty. The Pastor is handsome and has a lot of hair. Beside him with long blonde hair—usually—is his beautiful wife. And he stands up smiling from ear to ear. He says: God wants you to be rich. God wants you to drive a big car and live in a house like I do. (Which by the way has 6 bed-rooms and a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi.) Just follow the steps I give you, he says…and you will be swimming in success. Just give your money—as the plates are passed—God is going to take care of you.
|photo by Amber Case / flickr|
And out there under the balcony is a little girl who just got divorced. Her ex doesn’t pay regularly for her and the two kids. She doesn’t know what she is going to do. Maybe the Preacher, she thinks, is right if I just give and pray God is going to take away all my problems. On the second row down front a man just heard two days ago that he has cancer. And he is scared out of his wits. He hasn’t even told his wife—because if he tells her it is going to seem even more real. And the Preacher with his Brooks Brothers suit on—saying God is going to make you successful. And then there is Mary. Mid-way back she is worried to death about her son. She told her neighbor: “You know I thought when he grew up it would be simple and not so complicated.” “Ha” she says.
There is a whole lot of religion that’s like this. Follow me, they say Jesus said, and everything will be fine. Just fine. And if you are having trouble—well, there must be something wrong with you and your faith. You just have to believe. Where do they get such a message? That Preacher never preaches on Psalm 56 and if he does—it just zeroes in on “I will trust and not be afraid.”
Just come on down here and join this church and everything will be fine. I don’t think he preaches on Job either. And there is not a Cross in the house. Because it is a negative symbol.And all the songs have to be upbeat.
Well, we can just go home now and be depressed. Except we haven’t finished reading the Psalm.
Verses 8-13 give us the rest of the story. For here we find a reassertion of trust.
Listen. Listen. I love the way The Message puts it. It’s Eugene Peterson’s translation. And this is the thing that kept the light burning for those in Exile and those that stumbled back home to all those ruins. Listen.
“”You’ve kept track of my every toss and turn through the sleepless nights., Each tear entered in your ledgers, each ache written in your book.” Now back to the NRSV: "My enemies retreat when I call on you…because deep in my heart I know that God is for me. In God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?" I love the ending verse: “For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.”
Do you see what is happening here? He doesn’t brush aside all the hurts and troubles and bad lab reports and terrible headlines. No. They are always part of life and none of us will get out of this life without some scars. But God gives his people hope.
Frederick Buechner once said that Paul wrote about Faith hope and love but the greatest of these is love. And Buechner says: If Paul was writing today he would say: Faith, hope and love—these three—but the greatest of these is hope. I think he is right.
This is what kept them going. Hope. A trust in God that no matter what happens—and it will be a lot. But even then we will not be afraid because God is with us. It isn’t because we read the Bible through in one year. It isn’t because we give and we should. It isn’t because we are smart and know how to work it out. No. It’s a grace that comes to us when we need it.
I heard Alex Haley tell this story one day. He said when he was a little black boy growing up in Henning, Tennessee that he would get so down. And one day with his head down sobbing at the kitchen table, his Grandmother put her hand on his shoulder and said: “Alex, we don’t know when Jesus will come—but he will always come on time.” And that’s what we need to take home with us when we leave. And we may go back go some hard things—but we do not go alone. Despite it all—Jesus will always come on time. God is here.
Several years ago my brother and I decided to take a cruise together. Just us. We’d never done anything like that. And so we went to the Caribbean with a whole lot of people. And every night we would go down to the auditorium where they were doing Karaoke. It was a hoot because all these people who couldn’t carry a tune got up and just slaughtered some song. But once in a while there would be someone who really could sing.
In the middle of everything—people would yell out: “We want Bill. We want Bill to sing and we want him to sing: “I Believe I Can Fly.” And out of the darkened theatre there would come this fifty-something man. Fat and not too good looking. Hair thinning. His face looked like life had not been good to him. But he took the mike and he began to sing. And it was beautiful.
"I used to think that I could not go on
And life was nothing but an awful song
I'm leaning on the everlasting arms
If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there's nothing to it
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly ."
And the crowd would go wild and give him a standing ovation.
Every night without fail—as the drinks would be served and some of the people there were more than tipsy—somebody would yell out:” We want Bill and we want him to sing: “I Believe I Could Fly.”
And Bill would waddle up on the stage and begin too sing. Maybe he was singing for himself. Maybe he was singing to that crowd—some half-drunk. I saw some people wiping away tears. Maybe he was singing to us all: “I Believe I Could fly…I believe I could fly.”
Long ago people hanging on by a thread—found this stubborn hope. It kept them going through exile and wars and death and failing crops and a Holocaust when they lost 6 million of their loved ones. But on Sabbath—they would trickle in year after year—crisis after crisis—and sit down—believing maybe, maybe, despite it all, they could fly after all. And the thing that kept them going was that little verse that we all need to hang on to. “I will trust and not be afraid.”
|photo by evil nick/ flickr|
(This sermon was preached at the Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC,
February 19, 2017)
--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com