“Light and Salvation”; Psalm 27; February 21, 2016, FPC Holt

“Light and Salvation”
Psalm 27
February 21, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 21 SLIDE 1 - FPC Holt SanctuarySanctuary, it’s a word that sometimes is functional, the way we point to the room we are sitting in right at this very moment; sometimes historical, as the word was used to identify a place of refuge in which people could have protection; sometimes referring to spaces that enable us to feel a sense of peace and connection with God; and sometimes this sense of sanctuary comes not from the feeling of the space itself, but rather the particular intention of the people gathered together in that time and place.

Throughout history, religious people of all beliefs have gone to great lengths to experience this sense sanctuary, an experience of God’s presence. Like the Psalmist, there is an intrinsic desire in us to “live in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] lives.” Some seeking this experience using their life savings to travel thousands of miles on pilgrimages to places that their tradition have identified as holy,  from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Stonehenge in England, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. There are also personal pilgrimage destinations, where others you’ve known have experienced God at work in their lives:  perhaps the church in which your grandparents were married, the place your church family goes on mission trips, or the camp that your youth group has gone to year after year. There is something in these places that draws us near, beyond what the place itself could offer us, a sense to experience what others have before us, that is, sanctuary.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 12 - Church SignFor many of us, this church is one of those places, a place where we have experienced the presence of God, sensed God’s light and been awashed with God’s salvation, where we have engaged in worshipping God, and where we have sensed God at work in others.  If you have been around here for a while, and I know some have 50 years on some of the rest of us, this space is more than just this space in this moment, it is also where you and your children were baptized, the place you held Christmas Eve candles alongside your family and church family, where you married your beloved, where you were anointed with oil and ash year after year, and the place where you mourned and celebrated the life of loved ones. Some of you even helped to build this very building, deciding what sanctuary would look like to all of us these many years later. But this space is so much more than this roof and these walls, it’s a summation of the experiences had here, and the enduring sense of God’s presence in the midst of it all.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 17 - GalaIn “The Power of Place,” historian Thomas Bender writes, “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 19 - Holy SpiritIn other words, this sense of sanctuary comes not from without but within, the sense invoked in us, the hope stirred, the wholeness felt. For us, the strongest of these  “inner resources” is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the places in this world that from an objective perspective might seem ordinary into the extraordinary, opening our hearts and mind to God’s presence in and among us wherever we may be.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 20 - Isabella in AisleWhen you sense this sort of peace and healing in a space it’s tempting to want to somehow bottle it up, keep it safe and protected from any who might somehow alter this experience. But if our intention is to follow the Gospel, to welcome all into an experience of Christ, this sense of sanctuary is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. Sanctuary is a place set apart from the rest of the world, but it is not a place we should set at a distance from any of those who are seeking that same sense of God’s presence.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 21 - Body of ChristIf we truly believe that we as followers of Christ are the body of Christ, welcoming more into our midst won’t diminish God’s presence, but increase it, as each individual with all of their unique gifts, challenges, joys, and struggles enable us all together to better be the full body of Christ.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 22 - Layton WilliamsLayton Williams, Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago speaks of what this greater inclusion looks and feels like from her perspective as a woman who is bisexual. She writes, “Often I think that the church treats queer people like a Frankenstein arm that has been stapled on to the body of Christ. ‘Queer people haven’t always been a part of the body,’ the thinking goes, ‘but we’ve included them by letting them get ordained or married in our sanctuaries.’”

She continues, “ Let me tell you something: we are not a Frankenstein arm. We are a true part of the body. Many parts, actually. We are the toenails and kneecaps and lungs and beating heart. And the church has not added us on; we have always been here. God has included us from the beginning.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 23 - HandsBy being fully inclusive of the entirety of the body of Christ we give greater credence to the safety and wholeness that we have experienced, for what is safety that is unsafe to some, and how are we to have wholeness as the body of Christ if we choose to sever or ignore any part of ourself?

Like the Psalmist, we can see “the goodness of the Lord” revealed “in the land of the living.” Christ’s hands and feet at work through all people who seek God’s will. The greater the diversity there is among us, the better we are able to know the fullness of God, who created each and every single one of us in God’s image.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 24 - 1 Corinthians 3 16In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we read of God’s presence in and among us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

When we embrace our own ability, as the body of Christ, to be a living sanctuary for God’s presence to be known and felt, we expand the reaches of God’s kingdom here on earth: God at work in and through each of us.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 25 - Acts 17 24-25In Acts 17:24-25 we read, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 26 - PrayerGod does not need human made shrines, temples, altars, or even churches to be felt in this world, but will meet us in the spaces where we seek God’s presence. It’s important for us to realize this distinction: God is here among us because of the intentions of our hearts and our own receptiveness to God’s Word, witness, and work in our midst. That is what makes this space we inhabit into sanctuary, rather than just another room in just another building.

Building these buildings and calling them churches can serve an important function.  Our human designations of sacred space point people to places where presence of God is sought and the body of Christ is alive. In that way our human made sanctuaries are signposts in our journeys, postcards saying “wish you were here” sent out to those who are searching.

As those who have experienced God in our midst, we are the ones tasked with making sure all who seek God may receive their own invitation into the light and salvation of God’s sanctuary. May we ever endeavor to welcome all into the sanctuary we have experienced. Amen.

“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.