Saturday, July 30, 2016

“Finding a Home” - July 31, 2016

Psalm 107

            The Bible is full of refugee stories. 

Abraham was a nomad.  Isaac and Jacob and their families were nomads.  At one point, there was a drought that left Jacob’s flocks starving and he had to send his sons to Egypt to try to buy grain to sustain his family.  That was how the Israelites made their way to Egypt, where they were at first welcomed but later enslaved.  Centuries later, their descendants escaped slavery and for a generation they wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land, where the people living in the cities and the farmlands did not want them.  The result was war.

The book of Ruth takes place long after that, but it is about a woman who fled hunger in the land of Moab with her mother-in-law, who came from Bethlehem.  Her grandson, David, would become a political refugee when King Saul drove him out of his territory.  David’s descendants would become kings but then would also be exiled and live in captivity in Babylon and Nineveh.  Another descendant would, as a little baby, be considered a threat by King Herod and be taken far away, back to Egypt, to escape an attempt to kill him.

The Bible’s commentary and record about the refugee experience is that of the people who were homeless wanderers at some point, not the governments whose policies kept them moving, and the expression of relief and thanksgiving that God was watching over them in their troubles and worked to bring them to a place that they could call “home”.

“Some wandered in the desert wastes,
            finding no way to a city in which to dwell;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then in their trouble, they cried to the Lord,
            who delivered them from their distress,
and led them by a straight way,
            till they reached a city in which to dwell.” [Psalm 107:33-38]

            If homeless people were never guided to a place of safety and refuge, very few of us would be here today.

The winter of 1710 was a rough one in Germany and Holland.  It was so cold that the ocean itself turned to ice in the port of Rotterdam.  It was made worse by a French invasion the previous year, which had destroyed a good part of the harvest and left people to starve.  So when the Rhine River froze solid, it provided a highway for a steady stream of hungry peasants who overran the Dutch ports, trying to get to England, away from the warfare.  The English took in a few boatloads, not knowing how many people were on the way, and established a refugee camp in Greenwich, near London, that soon became dangerously overpopulated.  The English government tried unsuccessfully to return them to Germany and then, as a fallback plan, loaded them onto ships and sent them to New York and New Jersey.  They were basically dumped off with the agreement that if they cut down enough trees for the Royal Navy’s needs, nobody would bother them for back charges on food and transport.  That’s how one branch of my own family got here.

            Resistance to newcomers is nothing new either.  Just like the governments in Rotterdam and London and New York kept people moving along, the people of the Bible were often made unwelcome.  However the Bible’s witness is that the Lord frowns on those who increase their suffering.

“When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
the Lord pours contempt upon princes
and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but the Lord raises up the needy out of affliction,
and makes their families like flocks.” [Psalm 107:39-41]

I don’t want to dwell on that part.  That’s a sermon for people in Washington more than Phoenixville.  I want to concentrate on the work of the Lord on behalf of those who are trying to find a home and thanksgiving that they do eventually settle, because that is a process that we are actively involved in, and one that is cause for celebration in the midst of concern. 

I hope we continue to remember that children are often on the run from drug cartels in Central America and that we do not forget people crossing the Sahara or the Mediterranean because their towns have come under attack, often because they are Christian.  If we don’t keep such people in our prayers, they will be forgotten not only by us but also by others.

Then, too, there are situations closer to hand where we can and do respond directly, not out of political expedience but because it is what our faith directs us to do. 

There are natural disasters that leave people homeless, and when we give to UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, they are helped not only with immediate disaster response but also with help for the long work of rebuilding.  When there were floods in West Virginia this year, UMVIM, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, were among those who helped restore people’s homes to livable condition. 

Locally, there are women who lose their homes when they flee abuse or other untenable situations.  The House, right here in town, gives them a place to stay until they can get back on their feet.  There are times when men need a place to go when they are discharged from rehab or when unemployment benefits have run out or medical problems have pushed them over the edge, and Good Samaritan Shelter helps them through it.  We assist both of those groups in our way.  When there are children involved, St. Mary’s Franciscan Shelter steps in, and there are weeks when it is our turn to provide dinners:

“…hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then in their trouble, they cried to the Lord,
                        who delivered them from their distress…”

The casseroles we cook may not be the cure to everything, but without that kind of help from us and many others, the bigger problems could never be addressed.  PACS and Orion can and do help people who need assistance to stay in their housing when they get behind and could become homeless, and Good Works helps when houses need repairs that the owners cannot handle on their own.

            These responses do not come about automatically.  It is churches like ours and St. John’s and St. Ann’s and St. Peter’s and Grimes and Otterbein and Bethel and First Presbyterian and on and on and on and Synagogue Beth Jacob who get these projects going and keep things running.  It is easy enough to say that the problems of the world are just too great and the problems of individuals are just too messy and, honestly many of them arise from bad choices.  Psalm 107 includes verses that we didn’t read this morning that recognize that. 

“Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
   prisoners in misery and in irons, 
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
   and spurned the counsel of the Most High. 
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
   they fell down, with no one to help. 
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
   and he saved them from their distress; 
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
   and broke their bonds asunder.
[Psalm 107:10-14]
“Some were sick through their sinful ways,
   and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 
they loathed any kind of food,
   and they drew near to the gates of death. 
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
   and he saved them from their distress; 
he sent out his word and healed them,
   and delivered them from destruction.
[Psalm 107:17-20]
The most human response is to say, “You got yourself into it; you get yourself out of it.”  It is to divide people into the “deserving poor” and the rest of them.  Psalm 107 says that God doesn’t do that.  It takes people of faith who remember, thanks to the way the scriptures remind us, that we’ve all been there.  We’ve been there as families and tribes and nations, and we’ve been there as individuals.  We’ve been strangers and we’ve been outsiders and we’ve been without a real place in the world, but the Lord provides. 

Even more than that, we have the words of Jesus, who knew what it was to be without a place to settle, but who promises a home one day that is better than anything we could look for here.  He said,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  [John 14:1-3]
That’s the place to which all others point, where we can finally all settle down in peace and unity and as one great family simply be together where we all belong.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

“A Word about Speech” - July 17, 2016

Psalm 52

Some of the Psalms have headings that tell us a little bit about their composition, and Psalm 52 is one of them.  That reads:

“To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech.’

“To the leader” probably indicates that the information was given to help a musician with its performance.  “A Maskil” probably has to do with the type of music or instrumentation or composition, but we don’t know what exactly it means, just like we don’t know for sure what “Selah” means where it appears in this and other Psalms.  That could mean anything from “Repeat” to “Solo” to “Long pause” to “Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse”.

Psalm 52 gives information that identifies the occasion of its composition: “when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech.’ refers to a time when David was on the run from Saul and was spotted by one of Saul’s shepherds.

“Why do you boast, O mighty one,
   of mischief done against the godly?”
[Psalm 52:1]

he asks.  It is an accusation against a snitch. 

It’s more than that, though.  It’s an indictment of someone who uses the power of speech to harm rather than to help and, by extension, of everybody who gets caught up in the use of language as a weapon.

   “All day long you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
   you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good,
   and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that devour,
   O deceitful tongue.”
[Psalm 52:1b-4]

In an age where torture is identified as “enhanced interrogation methods” and civilian deaths in war are “collateral damage”, where we waver between the terms “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal alien”, the use or misuse of words and speech is an issue that confronts us all the time.

            Psalm 52 is the response of someone on the receiving end of slander.  Saul had become jealous of David when David was his most successful general and the jealousy ate away at him until it became a pervasive suspicion that David was out to undermine him.  When Saul’s son Jonathan, who never surrendered his friendship for David, warned him to run while he could, there were those who whispered against him.  The Psalm envisioned the tables being turned, with people pointing at the slanderer.

“But God will break you down for ever;
   he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
   he will uproot you from the land of the living.
The righteous will see, and fear,
   and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
‘See the one who would not take
   refuge in God,
but trusted in abundant riches,
   and sought refuge in wealth!’”
 [Psalm 52:5-7]

What a mess, with everyone gloating over everyone else!

            That’s the sort of thing that happens when people descend into innuendo and accusation and name-calling.  The title on the Psalm talks about one person being badmouthed by another but before long wider groups are being drawn in.  That’s a problem we face, too.  Frederick Schmidt, who teaches Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, recently commented on how people have been talking to and about one another publicly of late. 
“It is difficult to know whether the language of derision is more common in absolute terms, or whether modern media has simply provided it with a larger and more accessible platform.  But it is fair to say that it has become a common feature of public discourse.

Name-calling has its obvious attractions:

·         It is memorable and it can be used to label and stigmatize certain views.
·         It creates a sense of partisan belonging among those who use it.
·         It fuels a sense of moral and intellectual superiority.
·         And it makes it unnecessary to craft a sustained argument in defense of the views held by the people who use them.

What is overlooked are its corrosive effects:

·         The language of derision creates and deepens divides.
·         It short-circuits meaningful exchange on issues, impoverishing public discourse.
·         It leads to balkanization. Rendering future exchange, cooperation, and compromise impossible between groups.
·         And it feeds self-satisfaction with one’s own beliefs that forecloses on learning and self-criticism.”[1]

There is an antidote, though.  It sounds simplistic, maybe, but if you can find something good to say, say it.  That may mean swallowing that perfect comeback, which for some of us (here I’m preaching to myself) can be really hard to resist on those rare occasions when it comes to mind right then and there instead of a half an hour later.  It may mean forgetting that comeback no matter when it comes to mind. 

Moreover, when there may be nothing good to say about someone, try saying something good about God instead.  Where people run each other down, the Lord lifts them up.  In all David’s problems, God saw him through.  Doeg the Edomite, who helped poison the atmosphere between David and Saul, is someone whose efforts looked effective for awhile but came to nothing in the end.  As for David, he survived the slander and he survived being outlawed when his reputation was falsely trashed, and he came back to become King David because no matter what anyone said about him, God knew the truth and he could say,

“But I am like a green olive tree
   in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
   for ever and ever.
I will thank you for ever,
   because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful
   I will proclaim your name, for it is good.”
[Psalm 52:8-9]

God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good.  That is something that it never hurts to say and does a lot of good to hear.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

“Judgment” - July 10, 2016

Psalm 82

I realize it’s a little unusual to hold a church fire drill like we did last week, but let me offer a word of explanation that, oddly enough, may have something to do with the Psalm for this week.

Fires do happen in churches.  One of those was Salem United Methodist Church in Allentown and it happened on the second Tuesday of August in 2001.  It was a beautiful, clear afternoon and perfect weather for a roofer to fix the leak in the church roof.  It was only a tiny leak in the copper ridgecap, the size of a nail, but it was enough to let water sneak in and run down underneath the slate roof and along the rafters until it made its way through the plaster of the vaulted ceiling and occasionally onto the head of whoever was sitting in the third row from the back on the Linden St. side.  Fixing this leak was simple.  The hardest part was getting up there.  The repair meant taking a small piece of copper and brazing it over the hole with a blowtorch.  That part would take a few minutes at most.  The roofer went up there and did his job but overheated the copper just enough for the hundred-year-old wooden beam beneath it to ignite.  Even this should not have been a problem if the roofer had had a small fire extinguisher with him, as he was required by the insurance company to do.  By the time he was able to get down to the sidewalk it was too late.  He had the good sense to go inside and let the secretary know to call the fire department and to evacuate the building.  I was four blocks away, heading into the hospital, and got there right after the firetrucks.  The fire spread quickly but was contained to the sanctuary but the rest of the building had extensive water and smoke damage, all to the tune of $3 million dollars before the day was over.  It would be fourteen months before we were back there for worship.

Let me tell you about the roofer, though.  He wasn’t fired, because his father owned the company.  He didn’t really need to be punished, honestly, because he punished himself enough for it.  Over the next few weeks I would see him parked across the street, staring at the mess and the danger area that the police blocked off.  He apologized over and over, and it was not just some stock words.  He meant it.  He wasn’t eating, and he was dreaming about the fire when and if he slept.

About three weeks passed, and it was another beautiful Tuesday morning with a clear sky.  The date was September 11.  About one hundred miles from Allentown another fire broke out, this one not an accident, and not in an almost-empty building.  Most of you remember that day.  The rest have heard about it.

Not long afterward I saw the roofer again, and he looked different.  He said to me, “It could have been worse, couldn’t it?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “It was an accident.”  I said, “Exactly.  You made a mistake but nobody got hurt.”  And he no longer needed to sit and stare.  As for us, we would rebuild.  We even got an elevator.

Meanwhile, there were bigger events on people’s minds.    We were at war but didn’t know with whom.  I still remember the text for my sermon the Sunday following 9/11.  It was the regular lectionary reading for that Sunday, Jeremiah 4:22-26 :

“‘For my people are foolish,
   they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
   they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
   but do not know how to do good.’

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

The prophet spoke about God’s judgment, and what it could do.  We had seen devastation of the sort that many lands live with but that was new to us, and to be honest, we were wishing for God’s judgment to be visited upon whoever had brought destruction and death out of the skies that day.

            When I hear Psalm 82 it echoes Jeremiah but also expresses an unspoken prayer that has been part of so many people’s lives since then, but that we are almost embarrassed to voice:

“Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!” [Psalm 82:8]

That was never the sort of response that anybody at Salem had to the man who burned their church.  He had been negligent but not malicious and he was truly sorry.  This, though, was an act of hatred and carried out on people who had never done any harm to the terrorists.  The attacks of 9/11 brought out exactly the emotions that Psalm 82 embodies, the desire of those who have helplessly endured the ravages of the unscrupulous powerful for God to judge their tormentors.

            Who, in a week where the news has been charged with events like the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, of Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarippa and Michael Krol and Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith, cannot feel the need – not just the want, but the need – for God to take up the judgment of public chaos in the divine court?  That does not come so much from a desire for punishment as it arises from humble recognition that our human judgment often makes things worse.  Look at the bombings and murderous suicide attacks in Medina and Baghdad and Jeddah and Karachi if you want to know how much worse it can become.  We in this country are not alone in this prayer.  Tragically, it is universal.

            It can sound terrible to pray for that, but it's part of praying for deliverance from enemies or anyone who wishes you ill, and that is also part of what may be in the heart of anyone who finds themselves abused in their home or pushed around at work or exploited by the economy or brushed aside.  It can sound terrible, that kind of prayer – and this is key – pushes retribution a step away from ourselves. It places it in God's hands, which is to say it is not in mine.

            To pray like that is to separate justice from the desire for revenge, and that is a difficult division to make.  That's especially important at times when one's insight is clouded, as when the roofer judged himself or when all Japanese people in the U.S. were rounded up after Pearl Harbor or when you realize that the person who constantly takes credit for your work has also been cooking the books.  Justice has to be separated from revenge, and that is a job for someone who cannot be harmed but who understands and cares about those who can be harmed.

           “God has taken his place in the divine council; 
                    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
           ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show

                    partiality to the wicked?
           Give justice to the weak and the orphan; 

                    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
           Rescue the weak and the needy; 

                    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’” [Psalm 82:1-4]

Saturday, July 2, 2016

“Death Turned into Life” - July 3, 2016

Psalm 30

We include a selection from the Psalms in worship almost every Sunday, usually as the call to worship, but I don’t often preach on them, so I’m going to try to rectify that by a series of sermons on various psalms throughout this summer.  Even though they are all poems, there’s a lot of variety in the Psalms.  Some are meant as hymns and prayers for public worship, which is how we generally meet them.

“O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home…”

That is from Psalm 90.

“Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin. 

For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
   and blameless when you pass judgement.”

That prayer is from Psalm 51.

Some of the Psalms are private prayers.  Some reflect on God's work in the life of the nation of Israel.  Taken together, the Psalms lay out the human soul before God with profound understanding of life. They do not shy away from the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

The good:

"The Lord is my shepherd...";

"Bless the Lord, O my soul,
  and forget not all his benefits..." 

The bad:
"My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?";
"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept..." 

The ugly (from the end of that same Psalm):

"O Babylon, you devestator,
  happy is he who dashes your little one against a rock."

Within all that, one recurring theme is God's faithful care in times of suffering and trouble, which brings us to Psalm 30, the Psalm that is appointed for today. It tells of how the poet experienced a moment of teetering at the edge of oblivion and how the Lord pulled him back. "Sheol" was the Hebrew word for the world of the dead, pictured not as heaven where God is encountered in a full and glorious way - that understanding would develop later - but as a land of purposeless ghosts drifting in darkness.

“To you, O Lord, I cried,
   and to the Lord I made supplication: 
‘What profit is there in my death,
   if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell of your faithfulness? 
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
   O Lord, be my helper!’
[Psalm 30:8-10]

The key there is proclamation of God's will to redeem the author from that.

“You have turned my mourning into dancing;
   you have taken off my sackcloth
   and clothed me with joy, 
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
   O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
[Psalm 30:11-12]

In fact, there is the implication that God's will is to redeem all humanity both as individuals and as a whole.

We need that. People go through times in their lives when sadness and struggle or maybe boredom wear them down until they are in danger of becoming ghosts of their real selves. They need to hear that there is more to them than that. They need to hear how God finds them and restores them and saves them.  And like the Psalms speak of both individual and collective experience, their message, too, may be collective because whole nations can fall into times when their sense of purpose is gone, and if they are not renewed with God's vision then unscrupulous and wicked people step in with their own version. 

James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem that expressed how both of those levels of experience came together for him as an African American who lived under segregation and as a believer in a Savior who “came not to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” [John 3:17]

"Stony the road we trod,
Heavy the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?"

Surely the psalmist who spoke of being brought back from the Pit would say, "Amen."

As for us, have we no stories of our own worth remembering and sharing?  Is there nothing of the psalmist in us, too?  The language of the Psalms is not always high and exalted.  Sometimes it is very down-to-earth and simple. 

Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
                         and you have healed me.
[Psalm 30:2]

Have we nothing to celebrate around the picnic table tomorrow?  Have we no message of how God has set us free that is worth a few sparklers?  Then

"Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring, 
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea."