Sermons

SUNDAY, MARCH 29
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 91:1-6, NIV

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A few weeks ago I was at the home of a parishioner who had recently had surgery and was facing another one.  When I asked what had gotten her through it, she said, “The 91st Psalm.  Every day, the 91st Psalm.”

Since you’ve just read the opening of the 91st Psalm, you know which one it is.  But don’t feel bad if otherwise you’d be unable to identify it.  Many people think their pastors know the Bible by heart and if you just give us the verse, we’ll know what it is, but I had to go home and look it up like a normal person!

What I didn’t expect was that the 91st Psalm would not only be perfect for those going through a health crisis, it would also be perfect for our current crisis situation:  You will not fear … the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at noonday.  

The images of God are amazing: shelter, refuge, fortress, shield, rampart.  These metaphors for physical buildings are the inspiration for many hymns ~ a mighty fortress is our God.  But the main image is incredibly personal: God as a parent bird, sheltering us beneath powerful, protective wings.  The image is also found in Psalm 36:7 (“People take refuge in the shadow of your wings”), 57:1 (“I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed”), 63:7 (“Because of your help, I will sing in the shadow of your wings” (italics added), and even Matthew 23:37, as Jesus longs to gather the people of Jerusalem “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”

Which image of God gives you the most comfort today:
Shelter, refuge, fortress, shield, rampart, parent or another image?
(There are no wrong answers!)

Is it okay to admit when we’re not okay?
Are you okay?

In his song, “Truth Be Told,” Matthew West writes:

I say “I’m fine, yeah I’m fine oh I’m fine, hey I’m fine” but I’m not;
I’m broken.
And when it’s out of control I say “it’s under control” but it’s not,
And You know it.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to admit it
When being honest is the only way to fix it.

Can we be weak together?  Can we be broken vessels together?  Can we all fit under the shadow of God’s wings?  Of course we can!  He has BIG wings.

So I’ll start.  I’ll admit that I have had times this week when I was not feeling that I had it all together.  I mean, I thought I did, but then my belt broke.  My favorite belt, that I’ve had for 18 years!  And I was so upset.  (Please don’t send Pastor belts, he does have another belt.)  And then a CD got stuck in my laptop.  Now these are not big things, but my level of upset-ness over them was HUGE.  And it sounds weird to try to apply a Scripture to these situations: “The Lord says, ‘Do not be worried and anxious.’  ‘BUT I CAN’T GET THE CD OUT OF MY LAPTOP!”

I took Psychology in college so I knew this meant I was stressed.

But I am also a Christian so I knew it was time to pray.  Probably overdue.  But God does not charge a late fee.  And I prayed for calm, and I actually got it!  As a bonus, I got the CD out of my laptop.  (Who knew God paid attention to those things?  Okay, I should have known that.)  And while God did not heal my belt, I was able to accept it and move on with my other belt.

Has any little thing really gotten to you in the last week?
How did you handle it?

Then I went to pick up breakfast across the street and I spoke with three people, all under 25, who were also stressed.  And later that day I spoke with a person at the post office, and another from UPS, and a friend on the phone, and a few people online in different countries, and they were all stressed.  So I came to the conclusion that everyone is stressed, which seems terrible but is actually a good thing to know.

God is going to need to spread those wings really wide.

When I was in elementary school (Mom, you’re going to remember this) there was a bee that used to chase me every day after school.  Yes, the same bee.  Don’t ask, I have no idea why this bee had it in for me.  One day I ran into a stranger’s house and a teenager was kind enough to believe me and he volunteered to walk me home.  I felt safe in the shadow of his wings.  No bee was going to get me!

The reassurance of that voice, “No bee is going to get you when I’m around!” is what we hear from God when He promises to protect us:  “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day.”  In the words of Chris Tomlin, “Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other.”

I’m pretty sure that bee is gone now; he’d have to be at least in his 50s, and the lifespan of a bee is 122-152 days.  So even if he exercised and ate yogurt, I think it’s safe to say I’ve outlasted him.

What is the lifespan of a fear?

When we “dwell in the shadow of the Most High,” we enter the gates of a mighty fortress.  We find refuge
and shelter.  We sleep safely beneath comforting wings.  Our outer conditions may not change, but our inward conditions do.  We remember that God is protecting us in eternal ways, and that even if every single thing in our house breaks, even if we break, God will take “all these pieces, broken and scattered /
in mercy gathered / mended and whole.”

It’s okay not to be okay.  Jesus was once broken too.

And God wept.  And God loved.  And God redeemed.

May we sing in the shadow of his wings.

Amen.

SUNDAY, MARCH 22

I spoke with an officer on the street yesterday, thanking him for what he and his fellow officers have been doing to keep us safe.  Then I asked how he was coping.

The officer told me that he was doing okay, but that he had been doing a lot of thinking.  He said that he felt the crisis was changing the way we feel about everything.  For example, now we are realizing that much of what we have is not essential, but that the essential things are often at home in the form of our loved ones.  He said we’re all learning to appreciate each other a little more.

Have you noticed anything that’s changed for the better?
Are you remembering anything good that you had forgotten or overlooked?
For those who have more time on their hands: what are you looking forward to doing in the weeks ahead?

I admire this outlook.  He’s not the only one to see it.  As of tonight, our “enforced Lent” will deepen as we are asked to stay at home except for food and exercise.  Ironically, only a few weeks ago our Sunday Scripture was “Religion does make us very rich, if we are satisfied with what we have. So then, if we have food and clothes, that should be enough for us” (1 Timothy 6:6 and 8, Good News Bible).

We do have food ~ most of us have stocked up, and I’ve gone around to see if certain things will be staying open.  Wendy’s, Hot Bagels, Stop & Shop, Cornucopia, Dunkin’ Donuts and more will remain open for takeout, pickup and/or drive-through.  We won’t starve; in fact, most of our favorite foods will still be available.  (I did have a “first world problem” this week at Stop & Shop as I said to myself, “Now I know it’s serious, because they are out of my favorite flavor yogurt!”  There were hundreds of other flavors.)  And I trust that everyone has clothes!

If anything, we are currently seeing an abundance of people who want to help and not as many people who need help.  This may change, but for now it’s an amazing blessing ~ hearing from so many people who are saying, “Just tell me what you need.”  In our own church, this has included everything from grocery drop-offs to backyard cleanups.  The same stories are unfolding around the nation.  Over and over we hear the refrain, we’re all in this together.

I know many people are watching way too much news, and reading too little of the Good News.  But the Good News is so much larger, and so much stronger.

Rebecca shared that the Scripture on her mind this week was “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”  Fear is a virus more contagious than any disease.  In the words of Zach Williams, “fear is a liar ~ he will take your breath, stop you in your steps, rob your nest, steal your happiness.”

What are your greatest fears in this crisis?
When you are afraid, what gives you the most calm?
(Examples: prayer, Scripture, music, chocolate, calling a friend.)

But Jesus offers us perfect love.  Almost every appearance of an angel or the resurrected Christ in Scripture begins with the words, “Don’t be afraid.”  We tend to grow fearful whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, as Peter did when he was walking on water.  His mistake: he looked down!  But remember, just before this he was walking on water.

If you’ve driven past our church this week, you’ll likely seen our new sign:  “COVID: Christ Over Virus, Infection and Death ~ Heal Our Land.”  Leeland offers a spontaneous monologue toward the end of their version of the song “Way Maker:”  “His name is above depression.  His name is above loneliness.  His name is above disease.  His name is above cancer.  His name is above any other name ~ listen, listen.”

If you have a piece of paper and crayon/pencil/pen/Sharpie/marker handy, write Jesus on the top half of the paper, and anything ailing you at the bottom.  His name is above all of our problems, all of our worries, all of our fears.

We can’t be scared right now.  Jesus tells us that it doesn’t “add a cubit” to our lives.  (Time out as I Google “cubit.”)  Okay, I’m back!  A cubit is the length of a forearm, but the Scripture is a metaphor:  “Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan?”

Last week one of our parishioners shared the statistics of Sunday’s sermon with a co-worker, who accused me of “spreading false calm!”  Statistically, as of Saturday night, there are 493 cases of the virus in Suffolk County out of 1,493,000 people.  I’ll let you do the math this week!  The measures our government are taking are for our protection, and they are meant to keep the virus from spreading.  But there’s no need for panic or fear.

Is optimism still possible today?
Can a person be a pragmatist and an optimist?
What story or event, no matter how small, has given you hope this week?

With Jesus, there is no such thing as “false calm.”  Calm is an inner peace, “not as the world gives … but the peace that passes understanding.”  Calm is not the absence of fear, but the acknowledgement and the conquering of fear.  We recognize that times are tough, and they may be about to get tougher.  We also know, adding two words to the popular phrase, that “we’re all in this together … with Jesus.”  We’re in the desert with Jesus.  We’re walking on water with Jesus.  We’re crucified and raised with Jesus. We are part of his story; He is part of ours.  This is my story, this is my song.

Let’s all take a deep, collective breath.  Now let’s ask ourselves, “What can I do today to spread calm, to ease fears, to comfort and encourage?”  Perfect love casts out all fear, and Jesus loves us perfectly.  The more we feel loved, the less we feel fear, but also the more we love, the less we fear.  May the One who conquered sin and death conquer our fears as well, and replace them with serenity.

Amen.

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