Friday, February 21, 2014

Sermon From 2/20 on Psalm 46

               Let us pray: Dear LORD God, who is our refuge and strength, be with us as we seek a more perfect understanding of you today.  May my words illumine and not cloud your message as we seek to understand you, oh LORD of Hosts.  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
            This passage for today brings a word of comfort. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” I grew up singing the first two verses in Sunday school.  Similarly, I could name half a dozen songs that use the beautiful words, “Be still and know I am God!” These verses and phrases are familiar, like a well-loved blanket that can keep us warm through cold winter nights. However, the familiarity can sometimes make it hard to see the power of the message provided.  This psalm is not merely a song of comfort, this is a song of hope for a better day, a strong belief that God will not let one fall, despite the chaos that can engulf one’s life.  It is an assertion that through God, we can find refuge from all sorts of anxieties that can plague our lives. God can be our refuge and strength, in times of both external and internal struggle.
            The psalm begins with the bold acclamation that “we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea”.  The earth and the mountains are both images of the permanent, images of the things that bring order and comfort to our lives.  In this passage these fixtures are being thrown into chaos.  The chaotic waters of the foamy sea threaten to destroy everything. Those things that are important threaten to collapse in front of our very eyes.  But the psalmist asserts that God is our refuge and strength and will be a present help in trouble. 
            Another image this psalm uses to express this threating chaos is the image of nations in an uproar, and tottering kingdoms.  This is an image of government instability and high death tolls.  People are dying in battle, and all that the government does becomes questioned.  Everything is in flux, and it feels as if chaos is about to overcome nations.  Yet, when God utters God’s voice, the earth melts, and there is a restoration of calm.  It is asserted that the Lord of hosts is indeed with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge. Though the mountains feel like they are about to shake and crumble into the sea, though it feels as if anarchy and chaos are right around the corner, God is our refuge. 
            The war imagery of this psalm is expanded further.  The psalmist invites others to come and behold the works of the LORD.  God is not merely a safe haven, something to be turned to for comfort.  God is the one who can make all wars cease, and the one who can destroy the implements of destruction.  God is powerful.  Out of this imagery comes the phrase, “Be still and know that I am God.” It may seem like an odd phrase to come after an image of world peace, but it is not simply about being motionless and basking in God.  The Jewish Publication Society’s translation carries the full impact of the phrase.  It translates the verse as “Desist! Realize that I am God!”  This is not about simply finding time to step away and contemplate God, it is about stopping in the middle of the chaos and coming back to the divine.  Chaos may appear to be imminent, but rather than feeding into the fear of that chaos and being swept up in it, we are called to stop and take the time to center on God.  God is the one who dominates both the nations and the earth, and God has the ability to carry you through.  Though chaos may be looming, God is a refuge on whom we can rely. We just have to stop and refocus. 
            It is assumed that this psalm was probably written before the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were cast out into exile away from their land.  That is because this psalm asserts that God will protect God’s holy habitation, which is the temple in Jerusalem.  But there is no historical way to know if this was written before the Israelites were cast away from their land or afterwards.  But I wonder what an Israelite would have heard when this psalm was sung in exile.  Their temple, their beloved city of Jerusalem seemed all but gone.  They were strangers in a strange land, and everything that had once seemed permanent and stable was destroyed.  Yet, God was asserted to be their refuge and help.  God would still be there to help them in their times of deepest need.  God was still in the midst of their city, their beloved Jerusalem, and maybe, just maybe, the Israelite could return home.  In the midst of the turmoil and pain that surrounded their current situation, there was hope. They could look to God as their refuge.
               Our world today looks almost nothing like the world of the ancient Israelites.  In the US, we do not worry about bows and spears, or the chaos of the sea.  We use planes, and worry about bombs and guns. But we do share the common experience of fear and anxiety.  And we have documented the crippling effects that fear and anxiety can have on humanity.  We may not be as afraid of the literal world crashing down around us, but many are fearful of their own worlds caving in on them.  Panic attacks cause some to feel as though they are on the verge of death.  PTSD causes others to be transported back to their most traumatic experiences, and even their sleep can be invaded by the worst nightmares.  What does it mean for them to find God to be a refuge in this arena of chaos?
             My fiancĂ© is a combat veteran of the war in Iraq.  Soon after he came home from war close to nine years ago, he was diagnosed with PTSD.  He experienced the chaos of feeling himself transported time and time again back into the trauma of war.  I do not know many details of his early struggles with the disease, but he spent years reliving his experiences, both in his nightmares and in his therapist’s office as he went through exposure therapy.
            In the midst of his turmoil, he connected with an old friend and found himself attending the meetings of a new monastic community that focused on contemplative spirituality and centering prayer.  There he found a greater ability to connect to the life giving Holy Spirit, the river that makes glad the city of God. He was able to learn techniques that allowed him to not only calm himself in moments of frustration, but also learned how to stop and shift his focus onto God. He learned what it meant to truly be still and know that God is God.  Through his psychiatric treatment he found strength to beat back the chaos, and through his monastic community, he found a way to make God his refuge.  He isn’t cured, but he has found hope and renewal.  He is coming out of his own exile, closer to the Holy Habitation of the Most High.
            His story is unique, but his search is something we all face at one time or another.  Some of us may experience anxiety disorders, while others experience anxiety caused by specific stressors.  Either can feel overwhelming at times, and we may worry that the seemingly permanent things in our lives might devolve into chaos.  We may fear that our lives will never be peaceful again, that we will be overtaken by the sweeping waves of the seas as they shake our very cores. It can often be difficult to stop and refocus upon God, relying upon God as a refuge.  And relying on God as a refuge doesn’t mean that the situation will clear up.  The waters still roar and foam, causing the mountains to tremble.  The nations are still in an uproar.  The Israelite is still in exile.  My fiancĂ© still has PTSD.  But things do slowly improve.  Maybe not right away, but when the vision shifts to God, God can begin to become a true refuge, providing us with strength in these times of trouble. It’s a slow process of learning to stop and shift focus. 
            The good news is that this process is not done alone. There is a river whose streams can make glad your inner city of God.  The Holy Spirit is always with us.  Even in those times when we are blind to God’s call, when anxiety has us by the gills, there’s still an advocate for us.  We still have the Holy Spirit to guide and protect us.  Even if we cannot recognize it, even if the chaos is overwhelming, God is our refuge because the Holy Spirit is God.  The LORD of Hosts is always with us, the God of Jacob is always our refuge. 
In the midst of the chaos, there is hope.  God can bring us from our place of anxiety to dwell fully in God’s holy habitation.  It’s a slow process and we may feel that we have been in exile forever, but things can change.  God can break the implements of the wars that rage inside us.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Let us pray: LORD, life giver and lover of all, we pray for those who experience anxiety and times of distress. We pray that your presence may be known to them and that they might be strengthened to be still and know that you are God. We pray also for those who have begun the path of continual refocus upon you.  We pray that they may someday arrive at your holy habitation, no matter how long their journey may be.  Lord, help us remember that you are our refuge and strength, and we can turn to you in all of our times of trouble.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why do we go to church?

This is the question that has been on my mind for a while now.  Why do we go to church?  What is the point of gathering as a community on Sunday mornings for a service of worship? 
It's easy for me to get caught up in the details of what I love about worship.  I grew up going to church and have always felt the need to attend worship services.  But we live in an age where many did not go to church as a child or never felt connected to a church community.  There are others who take Sunday mornings as precious family time or a time to relax with a paper and a cup of coffee.  They can find God through moments of sabbath relaxation.
So what are we really to say when asked why worship services are important?  Can't we find the spiritual in many realms, not just the Sunday morning service? Can't we connect with community in a variety of ways?
I have spent time trying to figure out why Sunday morning worship is important to me, and why worship services in general are important. 
I am a person who likes to live in a rhythm. My routine may alter on a daily basis, but there are moments in my days and my weeks that are set in stone.  Worship is one of those things that I guard. For me, there is something about scripture, sermon, and sacrament that speaks to my innermost being.  There is something real that happens in those spaces. In my teenage years, church was the one place where I could get my mind off my own needs and focus outward on something that was bigger than me.  That was freeing. 
As a seminary student, I get caught up in different worship practices, some that I like and some that I loath.  I can easily find myself analyzing rather than engaging.  I find myself drawn out of worship to ask questions like, "Why would they use that hymn?" and "Did they really mean to do that?" I still find that space with God, and I still worship, but I get caught up in the mundane.  Worship is familiar and I can come into it knowing exactly what will happen.  It is as familiar to me as grocery shopping.  The layout may change from time to time, but I know what to expect and I always come out with the things that can nourish me.
I wonder what a person who had never been in a worship service might actually notice. They might have an analysis going on their head about the worship service, but they would not automatically know what was happening next.  Even things as familiar to me as the Lord's Prayer might be new.  What would they see?  Why would they want to be there? Why would they go to church?
And the why is often very different than the what.  People come into church for a variety of reasons, but mostly they come searching for some sort of meaning.  So what would they see?  What would they see in a building laid out like a concert hall with a praise band and a casually dressed, conversational preacher? What would they see in a large cruciform cathedral with a large choir, a roaring organ, a large altar party, and a celebrant adorned in a chausible?  Neither is better than the other, and the adornments may neither draw someone in or push someone away. 
What the person is searching for is meaning, for some sort of answers to a number of life's questions.  So the real question, the question that seems so basic it almost gets forgotten when approaching this topic is this: What is our message? 
Do we present Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior, or do we present Jesus as the head of a corporate body of Christ?  Do we get caught up in personal sin or do we search diligently to corporately bring about Kingdom moments in a fragile and broken world?  Do we live personal salvation or corporate salvation?  The answer should be yes.  Both are necessary, but I think often churches lean one way or another.  It's not wrong to speak of a personal savior, nor is it wrong to speak of a corporate body.  But to live into the Church is to keep both the personal and corporate in conversation. 
The person coming to the worship service is seeking.  If someone is feeling isolated, too much individualistic talk may create the impression that we are supposed to seek on our own. They may need to hear the message of living into the body and being accepted by and connected to the community.  If someone feels like they are losing themselves in the crowd and are trying to gain a better sense of identity, they may need a message of a personal Christ. 
So why do we come to church?  Why do we get up and gather together into a worship space?  Why don't we just find the spiritual on our own?  I think that the message of a personal Christ is true and still speaks, but the idea of the corporate Christ has been pushed away.  We can individually find Christ, but it is much easier to live Christ in community.  We worship together so we can bond together in our connection to God.  It is that bond of humans seeking together that can transform and inform life in ways that could never be done alone. I think that is why we come to church, and why worship services still matter. Praise bands and thurifers are just window dressings to an experience that brings a unique community together to corporately celebrate Christ and give each other permission to dream of their own role in the coming Kingdom.