Behind this terror, this destruction. They knew there was more to life that what we can see. They could hear the voice of the God who Created… and is Creating. The Source of all life, the Love at the heart of everything echoing through the ages. Inside the flood, the darkness, the fear. We hear a voice that will never be drowned out. One that will never be defeated or destroyed. A voice that will never be silent. One that promises strength. And brings with it peace.
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.
This Sunday we were pleased to have as our guest preacher Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee, the first Butler Chair in Hermeneutics and Homiletics (Interpretation and Preaching) at Vancouver School of Theology. Today Jason kicked off our sermon series on "The Psalms and the Life of Faith" with the following sermon.
At St. George's we're beginning our worship and sermon series on "The Psalms and the Life of Faith" that will run through the whole week of August. It's sure to be an interesting series, with two great guest preachers book-ending the series.
If you aren't too familiar with it, the book of Psalms is found in the Bible, and is the book containing prayers, hymns and meditations of the people Israel, the precursor to both contemporary Judaism and Christianity. It's something of a compilation songbook, containing the treasured poetic pieces read and sung in worship. They range from praise and giving thanks to God, to laments, anger and distress directed at God and others. "Psalm" itself means "praise."
Many are said to be "of David," implying King David as the author, as David in known by the tradition as a musician himself and lover of music. While this may be possible, it is likely that the Psalms are from a variety of authors and editors, as it contains pieces from all parts of Israel's history. They have been a fixture in Jewish and Christian worship since the beginning.
The Psalms have been a treasured spiritual resource for Christians and Jews for centuries. One reason that this is the case is because it seems to contain the whole breadth of human emotion. The great 4th century theologian Athanasius once wrote that "in the words of this book the whole of human life, its basic spiritual conduct and as well its occasional movements and thoughts, is comprehended and contained. Nothing to be found in human life is omitted" (Ad Marcellenium). It's a sort of "greatest hits" of the human experience that speaks deeply even to our own centuries later. They were mostly meant to be sung, not read. Even now, Reformed Christian traditions like the United Church of Canada often have parts of their hymn books devoted to the Psalms, and a Psalm is always read in worship (not always the case at St. George's).
Not only is it a "greatest hits" of the human experience, it also represents a sort of "greatest hits" of theology and the Bible. The great reformer Martin Luther once said that the Psalms "might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible" (Luther's Works, 35:254) and the other great reformer John Calvin said that "there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of eternal salvation" (Commentary on the Psalms). The Psalms, in effect, are a kind of summary of the story of the whole Bible in relation to God--you find their themes everywhere else in the scriptures.
And that's why we're diving into them this month, in the hope that the same Spirit that has spoken through them to our ancestors in faith might do the same for us. Take a moment to read our texts leading up to Sunday service. Enjoy the poetic language, the metaphors, the vivid imagery. But, perhaps more importantly, listen for where they are speaking to you, your life, and our world. "Find in it also yourself," as Martin Luther once wrote, "as well as God himself and all creatures" (Luther's Works 3:257).
The Psalms have been treasured as the prayer book of the Bible and world spirituality for three-thousand years. This worship series on the Psalms moves through a selection in a way which reflects how the life of faith is actually experienced—from stability to crisis, and then through to new life. Join us throughout the month of August as we explore the life of faith as patterned by the Psalms in prayer, music and in song.
Psalm 1: “The Two Ways” with Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee, Sunday, August 2th
The first Psalm opens the whole book by affirming that there is a trustworthy, though surprising “Way” to live life abundantly.
Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is the recently appointed Butler Chair professor of preaching and biblical interpretation at Vancouver School of Theology. Jason is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church USA and joins us all the way from North Carolina where he pastored Boone Methodist Church.
Psalm 113: “Psalms of Orientation” with Rev. Ryan Slifka, Sunday, August 9th
Psalm 113 affirms that life and the world are good, reliable and stable. The world is shot through with the divine and a place of awe and worthy of deep reverence.
Psalm 69: “Psalms of Disorientation” with Rev. Ryan Slifka, Sunday, August 16th
The psalms of disorientation admit that life is not as well-ordered as a simple naïve faith may pretend.
Psalm 27: “Psalms of New Orientation” with Rev. Ryan Slifka, Sunday, August 23rd
Psalms of new orientation see that life in the world is not safe, and is filled with heartache and danger. Yet, these Psalms trust in a brighter tomorrow based on past experiences.
Psalm 148: “Living in Praise and Trust” with Ingrid Hartloff Brown, Sunday, August 30th
The psalms as a whole are not meant primarily to be sung in worship. Rather, we are invited to come to worship in order that we might sing the songs in daily life. We may live lives of deep courage, conviction and hope in the face of life’s troubles.
Ingrid Hartloff-Brown was formerly Associate Pastor at Eagle Ridge United Church in Port Coquitlam, and is a candidate for Ministry in the United Church of Canada
The following sermon was offered as part of the celebration of life for Shirley Stewart, who passed on July 4th after a short but intense battle with cancer. Shirley had a long-time connection to St. George's, and had a deep love for singing--especially classic hymns. Shirley will be deeply missed.
July 23, 2015
Memorial for Shirley Stewart
"How Can We Keep from Singing"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Our scripture passage for afternoon comes from the book of Psalms. Which is the song and prayer book of the bible. It’s stood at the center of Jewish and Christian worship for thousands of years. Which we still sing and say today.
The 30th Psalm is not just any prayer, though. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance. “I extol you, O Lord,” it says,” for you have drawn me up.” “I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” “You restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit.” “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And “You have turned my mourning in to dancing.”
While this is one of my favorite of the Psalms, I have to admit that it is a strange text to be reading for a Memorial Service. Any Memorial Service. Because when it comes to the death of a loved one, offering praise and thanksgiving for deliverance is probably the last things on any of our minds.
I met Shirley Stewart three times. A couple times at church—before her diagnosis. And once late last month. In the hospital room, only days before she died. While the psalmist may have seen recovery, and may have the light of day break into the darkness of a seemingly endless night, Shirley did not have such a privilege. We are not able to see beyond the point of our own deaths. We go down to the pit. But we have no way in seeing a way out. Either when we die. Or when our loved ones die. The singer of this psalm may sing joyful praise with confidence. But how can we sing this same song? It’s hard to hear reassurance that things will get better for us. When in death, the face of God remains hidden.
But it was a curious thing when I went to visit Shirley that last time. When I walked in to her room she was asleep. She was on oxygen, intravenous and all those other things that come with an illness like hers. Since she was sleeping, I wrote a note for her saying I was there. I went to leave it on a pile of books by her bedside. Which I assumed were there to pass her time in the hospital. What I noticed, though, was that it wasn’t just any pile of books. It was a pile of old hymn books. After a polite *cough* *cough* to see if she was in a deep sleep, her eyes opened. I apologized, telling her that I didn’t mean to wake her up. And then we got to talking a bit. I asked about the hymn books. And Shirley told me she was having trouble deciding which hymns would be sung at her Memorial Service.
We got to talking some more, and I learned about her passion for music. About how she loved singing. And that she loved the church choir at St. George’s, and at Kyle United Church in Saskatchewan. And just about every person I’ve talk to has mentioned how much she liked singing. And how much hymns meant to her. Especially the old ones.
There’s this sense that, for Shirley, music was her closest connection to the divine. Singing brought her close to God in a way that other things didn’t. And singing no doubt helped carry her through life’s struggles—from multiple sclerosis. To cancer the first time. And then to this final time. Even though Shirley did not have the privilege of seeing what awaited her beyond death, she faced her own death with such dignity, such calm, and such courage. Even when she couldn’t sing any more, even the idea of singing could still bring her such joy. And lift her up. Even in the midst of such troubles.
Truth be told, neither the singer of these songs, nor I knows what—if anything—lies for us beyond death. For us, or for Shirley. As the Apostle Paul writes, “we see as through a glass darkly.” But in the Christian tradition we continue to sing these songs of praise even in our darkest times, not because hope in the face of death is common sense. Or that we have airtight proof or irrefutable evidence. Or even just because the Bible tells us so. We do so because we have encountered a mysterious love and a grace that has carried us through the worst of times. A redeeming love. An unbreakable love. And because we have met this love, we believe that it promises to carry us, to hold us, and to never let us go. The same love that carried Christ to the other side of a cross. Even when we go down to the pit of death.
Brothers and sisters, gathered friends and family. We can stand here today, even in the midst of our own pain, and sing songs, give thanks, and offer praise, even in the midst of our hurt and our sorrow because we have seen this love in the flesh. This is the love that touched and shone forth in Shirley’s life. And continues to shine forth in our own in times of darkness. One that is already at healing our pain. One that is pulling us out of our deepest pits. One that is at work turning our own morning in to dancing. And so we entrust ourselves in life to God’s love and keeping. As we now entrust Shirley to God in death.
Because in life. And in death. And in life beyond death. God is with us. We are not alone. So how can we keep from singing? Amen.
 From Robert S. Lowry’s famous gospel hymn “My Life Flows On,” which was the beautiful solo following the sermon performed by our musician Eve Mark: “My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing: It finds an echo in my soul -how can I keep from singing?”
This past Sunday (traditionally known as "Good Shepherd Sunday"), we hosted John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23 as our worship texts. John's gospel is where Jesus' title of "The Good Shepherd" comes from, whereas the King James version of the 23rd Psalm is one of the best known biblical passages in the West:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
As I mentioned in my sermon, it's almost impossible to say anything new about this text. Yet, while reading it, I was reminded of a story the author Anne Lamott wrote about in her book Traveling Mercies. Lamott recounts in this book a time of her life that was particularly hard--a time of struggle, cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse. At this time, Lamott became pregnant with the child of a married man, and chose to have an abortion. Lamott's story, while also heartbreaking, seemed like the 23rd Psalm in action on the ground.
The sermon was essentially about how the Psalm is a summary of the good news of the Christian Story: that God is with us and for us. The final line of the Psalm that says "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" might be better translated (as Eugene Peterson does in the Message translation) "goodness and mercy shall track me down. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes in the Message of the Psalms: "It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurt. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy." It is God's goodness that comes to us where ever we are. God's presence matters--and can transform even the worst of situations.
Here's the longer passage from the Lamott book:
“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.
[After going to church that weekend...], I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said ‘Fuck it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’
This week, I pray that goodness and mercy will track you down--where ever you may find yourself.
This sermon was offered at the Memorial Service held for John Millar Buick, a long-time participant in the St. George's and Comox Valley Communities. A copy of the service bulletin can be dowloaded by clicking here.
April 25th, 2015
St. George's United Church
"Help from the Outside"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Being a minister is a strange thing. Because you’re often asked to say something about a person who you either don’t know or don’t know very well. And this is the case with John. I only ever met John once. And it was a week or so before he died. So, truth be told, when it comes to words about John, you are all far better authorities than me.
But services like this aren't for the dead. They are for us--the living. And certainly, memorial services are not occasions of joy. But they are, in our tradition, services that proclaim hope in the midst of our sorrows. And that's what I'm here to do.
One of the most meaningful things for me comes out of not knowing someone very well. It’s that you get to meet that person through the people that they love. I’ve been able to listen to you tell me about John. Your feelings, your experiences, and your stories about his life. And that is a unique gift.When Ruth and I were planning this service together, she told me all about John’s life. About how he was born in the southern interior, and how much he loved it there—why would you vacation anywhere else? And how much he loved the Valley when they moved here. And about how he especially loved walking from one side of town to the next. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalm. When you live in a place like this, or the Southern Interior of B.C., when you lift your eyes, they’ll eventually find some majestic hills (or the mountains). Every single day. What a gift. One I’m sure that John relished.
In this Psalm whoever is saying these words as they look up at the hills is less impressed, or awestruck than he (or she) is scared or desperate. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” they say. “From where will my help come?” We don’t exactly know what the problem is. But for this person there is little hope. Hemmed in by hills on each side, there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out of the valley of despair. So she (or he) looks off on the horizon beyond the mountains. Beyond the immediate troubles. And hopes against hope that this isn’t the way it has to be. Even if the evidence says otherwise. There’s got to be a way out.
When Ruth suggested this Psalm for John’s service, I couldn’t really see the connection at first. But now I do. By the time I met John it had been a long, steady decline. There’d been chronic pain. He had trouble remembering who anyone was. He had little control over his body. And no way of caring or doing anything for himself. “I look up to the hills, from where will my help come?” We’ve all felt the same. Insert your trouble in here. We long, rightly to escape from them. We long to be free. To get out of the messes we find ourselves in and move on. But, as in John’s case sometimes there is no obvious way out.
But perhaps it isn’t about finding a way out. “My help,” it says, “comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Rescue comes not as an escape from trouble. “God will not let your foot be moved;” it says. “God will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper, your shade that shades you from the scorching sun, and the icy cold of the moon at night.” Here God comes not as the ejector seat. Rescue comes not as a way out. But a divine way in.
The promise of this story is not an escape from the struggle or hurt of daily life. The promise is that there is a love that is so deep, so vast, so wide, and powerful that no matter who we are, or where life takes us, it can never let us go. Whether we are the ones in the hospital bed. Or standing beside a hospital bed. Whether we are the ones in the grave or the ones at the graveside. The promise from this text, is that for John, and for you, and for me, is that we can live not in fear, but live life with courage. Even if there is no way out. Because God is always making a way in.
Friends—brothers and sisters. Today is a challenging day. It is a day of heartache and sadness. It’s a day of grief. There is no way out of our own fears. And, yet, we can somehow say the words “hallelujah” and mean them. Because “our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” May God keep your going out and your coming in from this time on. And for evermore. Because in life, in death, and in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.