"WHOLENESS" - Psalm 27
Alex Evans - August 20, 2017
Perhaps many of you are familiar with the cartoon character “Ziggy.” “Ziggy” has been around for several decades. In one cartoon, Ziggy has taken his pet parrot to the doctor because his parrot is frazzled, frenzied, and stressed out to the maximum. The parrot’s feathers are awry, eyes are askew. No telling what has caused this awful state. And then Ziggy presents his parrot to the doctor, saying, “I left him at home all day with the TV turned to CNN.”
Ever since the earliest days of Presbyterianism in Geneva with John Calvin, Presbyterians have always sought to be engaged passionately in the world. We need to stay tuned to life’s issues and events. One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, said the preacher needs to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. God calls us, expects us, to live, love, and serve God in all the complexities and consternation of the world.
But we can also identify with Ziggy’s bird. The news can leave us frazzled, frenzied, stressed out, and deeply discouraged. Hate-filled rallies. Ever-evolving and complex discussions about monuments and symbols that divide us. More news of terror in Barcelona, . . . mudslides killing hundreds in Sierra Leone, . . . and whatever else might have happened in the last 12 hours.
And that is just part of it. All of us carry issues in our own hearts. Loved ones die; . . . worries continue about our children; . . . health concerns leave us exhausted and anxious; . . . fresh challenges demand that we adjust again to the circumstances of our lives.
We have heard already a good message from the Apostle Paul: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, . . . we will all be changed, . . . the perishable body puts on imperishability. . . .Death is swallowed up in victory. . . .Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord because you know that your labor is not in vain.”
Then we have our second lesson that intends to be a healing balm to our frenzied and frazzled lives. Look at the words; listen to 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?
2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
4One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
8“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
9Do not hide your face from me. 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!
10If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
11Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Psalm 27 has been part of the faithful texts of God’s people for more than 3000 years. That is a fresh reminder that the struggles of human life, the heartaches and challenges that we know are nothing new. To be human is to know heartache. To be human is to be challenged – inside and out - all through life.
The psalm begins with two rhetorical questions that point to the primary assertion: “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?”
Is there anything so severe, so oppressive, or so devastating that we are no longer grounded in God’s goodness? Is there anything that is too much for God? The psalm is trying to guide us toward WHOLENESS.
I am friends with Jill Duffield, the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook magazine, which has its offices in our VA Building. Jill actually lives in Charlottesville and was present in the unrest there last weekend. And Jill has been busy this week, writing and sharing faithful insights for the larger church. Here is part of a prayer that Jill wrote:
What next, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, when we are right in the middle of the chaos and the killing and the carnage? We know that justice will roll down like water and that crying and death will be no more someday, but we need to know what to do this very day.
This very day you have made.
Creator God, Living God, God of the new thing, the very good thing, show us where to be and what do to and how to be the light and the salt and the leaven and the love you call us to be.
Precious Lord, take our hands, lead us home to the place you prepared for us and give us rest.
Put us beside still waters and overflow our cups with grace upon grace until it spills into the streets and washes away the evil in our land. Wash us and we will be clean. Made new. Clothed and in our right minds. Together.
We seek to keep trusting in God’s presence and promises; and we seek to be instruments of God love and promises in all we do. That is the way toward WHOLENESS.
I wonder if you have seen the hit movie, DUNKIRK. The movie is based on the military operation that took place in Dunkirk, France, during the Second World War in June 1940. As the Germans rolled across France, thousands of British soldiers were trapped on the shoreline at Dunkirk, desperate to get across the English Channel and to safety. The story is remarkable because, among other things, hundreds of English citizens got in their personal boats and went across the channel to pick up the soldiers and bring them home.
In the movie, great attention is given to one civilian captain, played by Mark Rylance, who is so very focused on this particular mission – save as many soldiers as possible. He navigates his boat across the channel on this mission. He has a duty and a calling to get there and get these soldiers home.
This kind of fortitude and focus – and faith - is what Psalm 27 intends to give all of us.
Read and say, with me, the first verse again: “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?”
When this becomes part of us, we know how to live.
Then what follows in the psalm is a long list of possible concrete and realistic threats. When evildoers and adversaries gather around, when enemies encircle, when war rages, Yahweh is there and Yahweh prevails! Despite all the things that can disorient us, “God remains the orienting presence” - that is how our friend and Bible scholar Jim Mays puts it in his commentary. Despite all the frazzle and frenzy, the complexity and confusion, the hurt and heartache, both around us and within us, the psalm wants to keep us focused and faithful – “we live in the house of the Lord all the days of our life.” God will take care of us “in the days of trouble;” God will “conceal us under the cover of his tent;” God will be there with care and presence always. Life – no matter what happens – remains grounded in the presence and promises of God.
So with the promises of Psalm 27 undergirding us, with the truth of Psalm 27 giving us a foundation, we know how to live – with fortitude and focus no matter what comes our way.
One of the most formative moments in my life as a pastor happened in my first church in South Carolina. I was called to the hospital to be with an elderly couple - very devoted and longtime members. The woman, Margaret, was facing emergency surgery. I found the couple in a hallway just outside the operating room. The couple had been married more than 60 years. She was lying on a gurney; he was standing by the gurney holding her hand. They were moments away from taking her into the prep room for surgery.
As I approached, we held hands and I prayed – prayed for the doctors and nurses, for medicines to work, for her good care. We prayed at that moment knowing that life is precious and we belong to God, no matter what happens. At the end of the prayer, the man looked at his wife, and Margaret spoke to me and to her worried husband. She said this: “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” And then she said, “I am ok; I am neither worried nor afraid.”
As it turned out, the complications were too many in that surgery. Margaret died that day. We all knew it was likely. But it was those final words that she spoke that were so very powerful and inspirational to her husband and to all who hear this story. No matter what happens – “The Lord is our Light and our salvation. Whom shall we fear?” These words intend to give us a fortitude and a focus for all things, because God’s love prevails, and nothing can separate us from God.
That experience with that dear couple continues to inspire me. Where did that affirmation come from for Margaret? It came from her life of striving to trust God and live well as God’s servant. It came from a life of reading the Bible and serving in God’s church. It came from her devotion to worship and work as a disciple. It came from affirming God’s promises and presence all through life, no matter what came her way.
What we are called to – day in and day out – when life is good and when life is bad, . . . when the sun is out and when it slips behind the moon as it will do tomorrow, . . .when the enemies are encamped around us or when we are high on God’s rock – “The Lord is our Light and our salvation; whom shall we fear? . . . We believe in the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord, be strong; and let your heart take courage. Yea, wait for the Lord.”
The recent week has indeed been full of complex issues. There continue to be so many conversations about our culture’s hatred and symbols. All of this generates great uncertainty about our society. Can we find a way to move forward together?
Perhaps the most meaningful moment in the past week for me was the prayer service on Wednesday with our dear friends at Third St Bethel AME, and others who gathered there. I am so grateful for those from Second who could attend. I departed that service sensing some light penetrating the darkness of these times, some hope sprouting amidst the hatred.
Our Jewish Rabbi, friend Michael Knopf, part of the clergy group against racism, whose very grandfather was killed in Europe by a Nazi sniper, spoke some powerful words of trusting God and serving God. We had other words about love and peace instead of hatred and violence. We prayed. We sang. We hugged. We tried to embody what generations have long dealt with. The Lord is our light and our salvation. When evildoers assail us, when challenges mount, we strive to move forward TOGETHER. We trust in God. We seek to serve God. “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”
All of this – this psalm, this desire to stay together, to trust God and serve God – this is about finding our way to WHOLENESS.
Clearly, we have a long way to go toward WHOLENESS. We cannot let violence take center stage. We cannot let hatred and divisive symbols dominate our time. We are called to be people for faith, hope, and love. This is what our friend Brian Blount wrote this week: “We must raise our voices even when we think we have little to say. We must move our political representatives even when they seem reluctant to move. We must stand when it comes our turn to stand.”
Here is the deal: Psalm 27 is gospel truth for all of us. “The Lord is our light and salvation; whom shall we fear?” This truth intends to take root in each of us – we open our hearts to God’s grace, we grow in trusting God and serving God. We seek to live by faith. Faith is a new act each day, even each hour, always at war against confusion, and heartache and discouragement, and setback. But just like the psalmist, and in the face of deep pain and despair, and the worst challenges that come our way, we orient our lives toward God – in whom we trust and hope, and for whom we live. We seek to become, and keep becoming, the trusting, serving, loving people of God. This is who we are; this is the way to WHOLENESS.
Julian of Norwich was an amazing and faithful person from the 14th century. Julian says this: “the Lord did not say ‘you shall not be troubled.’ Nor did the Lord say ‘you shall not be travailed;’ nor did he say, ‘you shall not be distressed.’ But the Lord said, ‘you shall not be overcome.’ Therefore it is God’s will that we take heed these words and that we be ever mighty in faithful trust in weal and woe. For loves us and likes us and so wills that we trust God (and serve God). And all will be well.” And all will be well.
May God guide us all – deeply and faithfully – especially through difficult times – toward WHOLENESS. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O God; help our unbelief. By your Spirit deepen our trust, our love, our life following Jesus. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on August 20, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.