St. George's United Church
August 23, 2015
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” the twenty-seventh Psalm begins. “Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” The twenty-seventh Psalm is a song of deep, unflinching trust. The singer of this song is without fear, she can withstand anything, because of God’s great mercy and protection. “Though an army encamp against me,” she says, “my heart shall not fear.”
But when I was living with this text this past week I realized something. It looks a lot for her to get to this place. Because it seems like the last thing she should have is confidence. She has plenty to be afraid of. Because she’s surrounded on all sides by those who wish her harm.
With this Psalm we kind of have to skip to the last third to figure out the trouble. At verse 7, we have something of a flashback in this Psalm. It comes in the form of a prayer, one that reveals what the trouble is. “Teach me your way, O Lord,” the Psalmist pleads, “because of my enemies.” “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,” she says, “for false witnesses have risen against me. And they are breathing out violence.” Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. Lies might though. She’s on the receiving end of falsehoods, rumors and innuendos. Her reputation is being destroyed. She is living, as the great Old Testament scholar James Luther Mays says, in “an environment of falsehood.” She’s living a life completely defined by other people’s opinions and distortions that there’s no truth to be found for miles. She’s so saturated in untruth that it’s like being buried alive—each little crack of daylight disappears with each new pile of dirt from the shovels of her enemies.
To begin a Psalm with “God is my light and salvation” and “of whom shall I be afraid?” is either stupid or naïve. Considering the fact that she’s got plenty to be afraid of. Because she has enemies who are about to drown that light she’s got in a flood of falsehood. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
But… there is a place for the Psalmist where a light shines through the cracks of anxiety. The Psalmist doesn’t have much to be confident about. Surrounded by enemies, drowning in lies. And yet… she finds shelter. She finds sanctuary. In God’s temple.
“One thing I asked of the Lord,” she says, “one thing that will I seek after.” Even in the face of all her enemies and their lies, there’s something she’s inexplicably drawn to. The one thing I’ll seek, she says, is “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.” Here we have this scene with the Psalmist remembering her experience in the temple in worship. In the temple, she’s encountered this deep mystery. And she’s encountered the truth. She has stood in. She’s gazed upon it. And she’s grown in knowledge of it.
And what’s more, it’s a place of vulnerability. In the divine presence, this glimpse of sacred beauty, There is safety. There is a sense of calm, and security. Though there’s nowhere else that she feels safe, it says in here God will: “hide me in his shelter.” God will “conceal me under the cover of his tent.” God will “set me high on a rock.” God has “lifted my head up,” she says, “way high above the enemies all around me.” And “If my mother and father forsake me,” she says, “the Lord will raise me up. In God’s presence in the temple, she feels truly unafraid. Truly safe from her fears.
Where her world outside is characterized by danger, falsehood and lies, the temple is characterized by beauty, by safety, and by truth. The temple is a sanctuary. It’s the only real place in her life.
The only real place. And truth be told, the church hasn’t always had the best reputation for being a place of the truth. Not only the face of hypocritical Christian politicians and televangelist scandals. Too often, church has been a place where we have to hide the truth about ourselves. Put on the Sunday best and a big smile. Worry about your kids acting up for fear of being on the receiving end of some dirty looks. Don’t stumble for worry you might be the subject of the latest gossip session.
A few months ago I was eating at the soup kitchen and there was a young woman across the table from me, in her early twenties. We got to talking and she proudly shared that it was her one-year anniversary of being clean. One year of not using heroin. She stood up from the table when she was done her lunch and used a few profanities to describe how good the soup was. Her friend burst out laughing and said, “don’t you know this guy’s the pastor here!” And this woman was so embarrassed! She kept apologizing to me for her language. She just told me that she’d been a year off heroin and she was more worried about me hearing her say a few bad words! She assumed that “pastor” or “church” meant that you couldn’t be yourself. A place to keep up appearances. A place of untruth. Rather than a place of safety, truth, and grace.
But despite the sometimes bad reputation the church at its best is like the temple in this Psalm. We had a conversation at one of our church council meetings responding to the question “why the church?” What makes church unique, something you can’t get anywhere else? One of the answers was “it’s a place where we can be ourselves.
The great American preacher Will Willimon tells a story about being the guest preacher at a large African-American church in the American South. He arrived at eleven o’clock, expecting about an hour of worship and to be out by noon. He didn’t end up preaching until nearly 12:30pm, after six hymns, gospel songs, plenty of speaking, praters, hand-clapping and more singing. Worship didn’t end until 1:15. And he was exhausted.
He asked the minister “why do black people stay in church so long? Our worship never seems to last more than an hour. His colleague smiled and then explained. “Unemployment runs nearly 50 percent here. For our youth, it’s much higher. That means when out people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, “you are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing beause you do not have a good job, you do not have a fine car, you have not money.”
“So I must gather the, here once a week to get their heads straight. I get them together and here in church, though the hymns, the prayers, the preaching and the community say “that is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty. You has bought you with a price and loves you as his chosen people. It takes me so long to get them straight because the world perverts them so terribly."
Despite the sometimes bad reputation the church at its best is like the temple in this Psalm. A place where we can can be ourselves. Where we can let down our defenses. Take off the masks that we wear in everyday life. Be accepted for who we are as we are. And then named and claimed by God as God’s own. Then sent back in to the world with the kind of confidence that says “the Lord is my light and my salvation—of whom shall I be afraid?”
How about you? How many of you here have had the same kind of temple experience as part of this community of faith? And in coming to this place, gathered with this people, this community of faith. You find shelter. You found safety. You find truth. You can be yourself without worry. And you’re being sent back in to your world with the strength and determination to stand up to and deal with the trouble you face. Or maybe you’re in the midst of that trouble. Maybe this is a time in your life where you are overwhelmed by worry, and surrounded by fear. Where you’ve felt like you’ve been wandering around in some kind of spiritual darkness with light nowhere to be seen.
Either way—you’re in the right place. Because the church at its best is a place of hope, faith and courage. A place of laughter, love and liberation that calls us in, builds us up and sends us out equipped to face whatever struggles we have in our lives with strength and courage. Because we’ve got a light in our lives that nothing, that no one can—that nothing—can ever take away.
So friends. Though trouble may be all around. Wait for the Lord. Be strong, take heart. Lift your heads high, give thanks to God in this temple today. With shouts of joy. Because if God is our light and our salvation. Of whom shall we be afraid? Surely we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Thanks be to God. Amen.