Grace and Grumbling

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Our text this morning from Luke is one we may have first heard as early as our time in toddler’s Sunday school classes or children’s choir.

When faced with such familiar texts, we may be tempted to read quickly and rush pass— to not take time needed to look under linguistic stones and up in trees for a different perspective or new meaning. We can be tempted to think we’ve heard everything about the scripture that we need to know in order to understand how the nature of God is revealed in passage. This is a dangerous practice and one we should try to avoid at all cost. Instead we should try to challenge ourselves to climb trees, to look at the familiar text from a different perspective. The challenge for us is to imagine we are hearing these familiar texts for first time, with expectant ears and hearts ready to be changed and challenged.  Friends, I challenge you to hear something new in our familiar text from Luke 19:1-10.

Luke 19:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One[a] came to seek and save the lost.”

Once again who Jesus chooses to have a meal with causes the crowd surrounding Christ to grumble. After all, tax collectors are hated. Without question the taxation system which Zacchaeus is a part by virtue of profession and association is corrupt and socially abusive. No wonder the crowd grumbled, Zacchaeus worked in a system run by the oppressive and corrupt Roman occupiers. It can be easy to hold people to the stereotypes we’ve casted them in or to former versions of themselves that they’ve long out grown.

If you were in the crowd that day, would you grumble? I say this not to be too harsh on the crowd, because who knows, I would have probably grumbled to. The crowd struggles to see the whole picture- to see that Zacchaeus is so desperate to see Jesus, that he climbed a tree, which is not a dignified action, in order to see salvation in Christ. The crowd is so confused about Jesus stopping to single out one, that they grumble about Jesus getting too cozy with an “evil” tax collector, who may only be evil because of their harsh stereotypes. Jesus interacts with another lost sheep and the crowd grumbles. Who do we grumble about and who are the ones which Jesus hangs out with that baffle us? Who have we villainized in our minds? Are there people who we may keep from seeing Jesus?

The name Zacchaeus even translates into “clean, pure, or innocent,” but the crowd only saw Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector and therefore automatically assumed Zacchaeus is just an evil character. However, a closer look at the text tells us otherwise. The verb didōmi used in the Greek is in present indicative action form—translating closest to I give, as in he is already doing so. Zacchaeus is already giving half his possessions to the poor, more than what is required. Not that Zacchaeus is the perfect representative of humankind. Even though Zacchaeus gives and donates half his wealth, he still participates in an evil system that he is likely not going to challenge or change, but being a tax collector is also his job and how he survives.

Where the crowd meets Zacchaeus with grumbling, Jesus meets him with grace. Jesus made time for one person while on the way to redeem all. What amazes and surprises me about this text is Jesus had the eyes and mindset to look up. He took time to stop. To notice. To see Zacchaeus for more than who he was. To invite himself into the home of a tax collector. An invitation that Zacchaeus joyfully accepts, (if Jesus invited himself over to my house, I’d want to tidy up first.” To call up and say, “Zacchaeus, YOU come down.”

Theologian and professor, Karoline Lewis writes about the importance of being individually spotted and called down to be among Jesus. She observes, “Never underestimate the power of “you,” especially in the second person singular. We know how “you” feels. Like you are the only person in the world. Like someone is paying attention. Like someone means it and means what they say. And, what “you” feels like when you hear it from God.” Our text today creates a pause for us to accept the smallness of our human vision. God sees so much more than I see when I look at people. God’s eyes for people are richer, fuller, non-bleary, and grace-filled.

Today, we celebrate Remembrance Sunday, or All Saint’s Sunday. We take pause and remember people who showed us a little more about what following Jesus looks like. We remember the saints we love who have passed away over the last year as well as those who are our spiritual heroes, like a few of my favorites, Rachel Held Evans, Harriet Tubman, and Mister Rogers. In our scripture, Jesus’ vision of who Zacchaeus is goes past the grumbling crowd’s stereotypes and gets to the heart of what Jesus notices about the chief tax collector. A favorite “Mister” Fred Rogers quote speaks to this. Rogers says, “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing–that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”

Sometimes, however, we seem to forget this about the driver who cut us off on interstate 81 in the morning. Or the ones who have political signs in their yards promoting candidates we may not agree with, and those we don’t necessarily see eye to eye with about politics. And yes, even those whose theology we do not agree with. Those who we quickly stereotype. The neighbor across the street or on the other side of the globe with a different culture and religion, and the person whose life experience is so vastly different from mine that I simply cannot understand, no matter how hard I try. Lest we forget, each one of these is created in the divine image.

But friends, Jesus shows us what this looks like. Jesus reveals ways to shatter long held and ill-casted stereotypes we imprison people to.  Jesus shows us a better way and how we might start striving to begin practicing holy appreciation.

Where others saw someone they considered a shady tax collector; Jesus saw Zacchaeus.

Where neighbors defined a woman by her questionable reputation; Jesus saw a spiritually thirsty person.

Where society saw a rag tag group of fishy smelling fishermen; Jesus saw friends and companions.

Where society calls diseased lepers unclean people who needed to be cast aside; Jesus saw people in need of love and healing.

Where others see lonely outcasts, and those who society may deem as too different to be fully accepted; Jesus sees people who should be welcomed at the table and have a place in God’s family.

Where people see others only through limited lenses and casted stereotypes; Jesus sees the whole person.

Where we only see people’s flaws as reasons to grumble; Jesus offers grace.

Where we may see a disgraceful sinner; Jesus sees a potential saint.

Jesus stops and takes time to notice the individual. Even as Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be put on trial and put to death, Jesus takes time to look up, to see Zacchaeus as a person and not a villain casted stereotype, and to take time to visit Zacchaeus’ home. Time after time, throughout scripture, Jesus ignores labels and addresses the person. Including us. Despite the things we have done or not done, Jesus loves us. Jesus sees beyond our flaws and those parts of ourselves that we don’t like very much. Jesus likes Zacchaeus and us just the way we are. The challenge for us is to cease our grumbling and see individuals as Christ does.

Friends, how can we begin to do the hard and humbling work of truly seeing and noticing others as God sees them? Can we begin to see potential saints where before we only saw disgraced sinners? This is a difficult challenge but it is certainly one worth taking. Will you join?

To close, here’s an excerpt from Mexican theologian Magdalena Garcia’s reflections on Zacchaeus: “And so a question remains for us to ponder;

Who are the real despicable people, we wonder:

The ones who honestly perform a hideous task?

Or the ones who hide meanness behind a pious mask?” Amen.

 

Unsettling Hope and Gratitude

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Before we come to this morning’s scripture, I invite you to think about whether or not you agree with the following quote. And as a disclaimer, you can disagree, the quote doesn’t come from Jesus. Meister Eckhart says, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Do you agree or disagree? I’ll read again, “if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

I invite you to think of the most grateful person in your life. I cannot hear the word gratitude and not think of my Nanny. She ardently, lovingly, and faithfully always writes a hand-written thank you note whenever anyone sends her a gift or does anything helpful for her. I’m convinced that because of my Nanny’s habit of writing long, expressive thank you notes, I still write thank you notes today, in a world where snail mail seems to be disappearing. My Nanny lives a life of gratitude no matter what she faces. She also teaches me that while being grateful is important, it is not all of the equation. Expressing gratitude can be a beautiful starting place for expressing love. Friends, I invite you to keep this idea and Meister Eckhart’s quote in mind as we explore our scripture lessons this morning.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 17:11-19 Common English Bible

29 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

11 On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, 13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” 19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

Disturbing hope. This is how the Common English Bible translation chooses to title Jeremiah’s letter to the Israelites in exile. Jeremiah’s hope in today’s passage is worthy to bear the paradoxical titles of disturbing hope and/ or unsettling hope. I have never been exiled. I’ve never been forced to live among people who wrecked my life. Because of how I grew up, I can’t completely comprehend and relate to the fear, unsettledness, and chaos the Israelites must have felt when they heard Jeremiah’s words. I can only imagine how counter-intuitive it must feel to settle among the people who essentially ruined your life and forced you to leave your land and comfort? How counter-intuitive it must feel for the exile Israelites to build homes, to plant crops, to pray for Babylon’s peace and for the welfare of those who forced them into exile, to married and have children and to go about their lives. How unsettling. Friends, would you want to build or buy a house right next to someone who has been cruel to your family or someone you might consider your enemy? I would not.

And yet Jeremiah’s words in today’s scripture contain a glimmer of hope and small seeds of reasons for gratitude. The exiled Israelites are encouraged to thrive where they are. They learn during the exile an entire generation will pass and it will more than likely be their grandchildren who return to the beloved land of Israel. Hope, even though it is unsettling.  Later in chapter twenty-nine, we encounter a reminder that ultimately God has a redemptive plan for the exiled Israelites. Even after 70 years of exile, God lays out a promise, which is probably the most quoted verse of Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans for your welfare, to give you a future, and a hope.” Jeremiah’s words encourage the Israelites in exile to live their lives, to be witnesses where they are, to plant, marry, build homes. To make the best of their lives in times of unsettling hope. How might God be inviting us to be grateful exactly where we are today, even if we find ourselves in the midst of unsettling hope?  How can we praise God with a thankful and loud voice despite where we are?

Our gospel reading this morning points to idea of gratitude when mixed with love equals transformation. We are told the ten men kept their distance, a distance which their skin conditions dictate they keep. As if the physical pain of their skin disease was not enough to endure, the emotional toll and isolation adds to their burden. These men could not get close to anyone. They could not hug, even if they craved physical connection. They could not live with their families, even if they craved community. Because of their skin disease they had to humiliating cries, “Unclean! Unclean!” if anyone even started approaching them too closely.  Not only are the men plagued with a horrid, isolating skin condition; they are complete outsiders in society, unable to even go into the temple. Imagine the emotional toll of such a lifestyle, it would be de-humanizing.

Yet despite the men keeping their distance, Jesus saw them, as they cried out to him. He didn’t avert his eyes, choose to ignore them, and pass them by. He didn’t care if they were deemed “unclean” by society. He responds to their pain with kindness, healing, love, and mercy. Those who the world deems unworthy or invisible, Jesus saw and spoke with. He meets the ten men with a cascading waterfall of grace and offers healing. One of my favorite Bible blogs is: journeywithJesus.net. Theologian and blogger Debi Thomas hits the lectionary ball out of the park every week in her essays on weekly texts. I commend her blog to you. She writes about the profound shift the men encounter as Jesus heals them, saying:

“When Jesus heals their skin condition, he doesn’t merely cure their bodies; he restores their identities. He enables their safe return to all that makes us fully human—family, community, companionship, and intimacy. In healing their withered skin and numbed limbs, he releases them to feel again- to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease steals from them. In order words, Jesus enters no-man’s land- a land of no belonging and invites ten exiles home.” Why not run back and give praise and thanks? I don’t want us to be too harsh on the other nine men who were healed. After all, it had been the first time in a long time these men were able to rejoin their family and communities.

Yet it is the Samaritan, the foreigner who runs back shouting loud praises words of thanksgiving. Outsider or foreigner in Greek, literally translate as “one with different genes.”  The Samaritan man was not only an outsider because his disease, he is an outsider because he is a Samaritan. Yet nine men were healed, one man was healed and completely transformation. “What does his otherness enable him to see that his nine companions do not? He sees that his identity- his truest place of belonging- lies at Jesus’ feet. He sees that Jesus’ arms are alone wide enough to embrace all of who he is—leper, foreigner, exile, other. A beloved and known child of God.” The one man with nothing left to lose, and everything in the world to gain runs back to Jesus. Only the one taking nothing for granted falls in love, the one who longs to find a home for his whole self, receives salvation.

“His gratitude is the kind that wells up from the deepest caverns of his yearning and sorrow. His the kind that takes nothing for granted. His is the kind that notices who rare, how singular, and how gorgeous grace is when it comes to the borderlands and says, ‘come on in. yes, you. You.’ His is the kind that finds God’s inclusive welcome stunning.” (Debi Thomas, journeywithJesus.net.) The Samaritan man discovers what can happen when gratitude becomes a beautiful starting place, and spills over into expressing love. The healed Samaritan’s story contains more than thankfulness lesson, it invites and points to a true transformation which takes place. A true doxology of praise.  A grateful life.

Do we fall on our face at Jesus’ feet and give thanks? Do we seek to live lives of praise and thanksgiving no matter what? Maybe if we consider the places we’re the outsiders, alone, isolated, or scared and sit with our deepest longings and heart’s desires, maybe then we could see how much we need Jesus to open the door and welcome our tired and isolated souls home.  Maybe then we will run and excitedly explain to others who we worship and who works to transform our lives.

Like the man who returned to Jesus, do we openly point to where God has transformed our lives and shout our praises? Do we send our thank you notes? No matter what side of the coin you landed on with Meister Eckhart’s quote- “if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough,” do you stop and express gratitude?  Saying thank you might not be the only prayer.  Those two words may only serve as a gateway to relationship with Christ, but those two words sure are a powerful place to start. Amen.

Who Sits at Your Lunch Table?

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Text: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Luke 15:1-10

The past several Sundays, we have been taking a closer look at Jeremiah and Luke’s gospel. I’ll confess, as I read and studied Jeremiah’s words this week, it became clear how Jeremiah earned his nickname, the weeping prophet. After all, Jeremiah had a hard word to deliver to the people of Israel, a call to repent, to remember God, and to change. People never like to be told they need to change. In today’s text, God allows Jeremiah to see the impending destruction, the results of Judah following other gods, of the people breaking their end of the covenant with God, and the coming armies and danger which will occur as a result. I’ll also confess that there are lots of possible nooks and crannies to explore and get lost in throughout Jeremiah’s words today, and we are not going to have time to address all of those.

Our passages at first glance may seem to be in conflict with one another, but Jeremiah texts shows us how deeply we need repentance and grace in our lives and Luke’s text takes this idea of God’s grace a step further, illustrating the extremes Christ makes in order to find the lost and eat with sinners.  I invite us all to hear these words of scripture

Jeremiah sees a coming chaotic reversal of creation. It is as though the people Jeremiah speaks to continuously choose to wallow in evil and foolishness. One might imagine parents giving a child new clothes, sending the child outside to play and telling the child to keep clothes clean. As child goes about their day, it starts raining. The child sees a puddle on their way home and decides to try and jump over it, but instead slips in the puddle. Not only do they slip in the puddle, they decide to stay there to play and roll in the mud. Once the child is found by angry parents, the child says they only slipped in the puddle, however the parents point out you didn’t just slip in the puddle, you stayed in the puddle. (credit: Pulpit Fiction) It is as though Israel didn’t just slip in the puddle, they stayed there, rolled around, they wallowed in foolishness and turned away from God, they played in puddle and then rolled around some more. It is easy to visualize God’s face palm.

In God’s frustration, God laments and states the people are, “skilled at doing evil and inept in doing good.” God continues and calls the people saw/kawl which in Hebrew means a fool, or foolish. For, “a fool says in their heart there is no God.” The people Jeremiah prophesies to, live godless lives, and turn to false gods from other nations.  God shows Jeremiah what happens when foolish people turn away from God and God’s mercy. Jerusalem will be met with an intense wind and danger as the Babylonian armies bring war and destruction. Harsh words, indeed.

Yet there is however, a small glimmer of hope, all won’t be destroyed forever. Even in this coming Babylonian destruction, God mourns with people and for people. God laments saying, “My poor people” or in Hebrew bat ammi which has wide range of translations from beloved to sinful or wounded. God remains compassionately angry and holds people accountable. Jeremiah sees that all won’t be completely destroy forever, even though the rebellious actions of the people pierce God’s heart. The people’s choice to have no close relationship with God- hurts. The words are a call, frustrated plea and challenge to do better. In their foolish hearts, they could do better. How does this resonate today? What can we do better as God’s people?  Do we get out of the puddle or wallow in it?

Then on the other side of the coin, our gospel lesson from Luke, takes God’s relentless challenge for God’s people to do better, a step further as Jesus seeks to show the Pharisees who grumble about who Jesus decides to share his meals with, a better way. These familiar parables reveal God’s determination to not leave us to our own devices and destruction. God takes a tremendous risk, becoming flesh and living among us, to seek and save the lost no matter how stupid and skilled at evil we sinners are, individually or cooperatively.

Even the lost, and people who are skilled at doing evil and foolish can be redeemable in God’s eyes. God works to redeem creation, to save the lost no matter how thoughtless and skilled at evil we are. God desires to help us out of the puddle. God yearns for a reversal, for repentance and for us to recognize our need for mercy. God seeks to transform our evil into good and stupidity into wisdom while challenging us to participate in God’s radical welcome—to stop grumbling and celebrate each and every time the lost become found. The call to do better is always there. God never completely gives up on people. These parables are timeless examples of God’s grace. The coin and the sheep do nothing, they are simply found. While others may see sinners as totally at fault and blame for their lost-ness, Jesus shifts to the amazing effort that God is willing to do to claim and celebrate those who are found.

How might we do better at welcoming back the sheep who were lost, but who might have been lost in different ways from us? Those who are rejected or swept under the rug by society. Aren’t we all in some way lost, the sinners and the self-proclaimed righteous who grumble when other sinners get to eat with and be with Jesus? The righteous who can become blinded by their own perfections and by their own self-made images of god.  As Anne Lamott points out, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” Don’t they realize they are lost too?

As pastor David Lose, observes, “Might the man or woman who is addicted to substances and working to take steps towards recovery be lost? Might bullies and the lonely be lost?

“Might the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around football games and dance recitals be lost?

Might the career minded man or woman who has made moving up the ladder the one priority be lost?

Might the teen who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost?

Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement be lost?”

God is actively searching to bring all to the table. Christ came for all types- lost, righteous, sinner, insiders, and outsiders. God is relentless, stubborn, insistent, and tireless in God’s redeeming work. God searches for all. All have a place at Jesus’ table.

Eating in Jesus’ culture was highly relational. As one pastor observes, “Eating isn’t catching a quick bite at the local coffee house and moving on. Eating — that is, sharing table fellowship — is a mark of camaraderie, acceptance, and friendship. And so in eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is demonstrating a deep and abiding acceptance of those society has deemed beyond the moral pale.” Eating with sinners means encouraging his followers to do the same. Jesus shared table fellowship with all people, Pharisees and sinners alike.

Sometimes, the counter balance between good and evil take place on grand stages, in world events, court cases, sometimes this plays out in small ordinary places…like school cafeterias. I can only think of a few things more anxiety producing than walking into a cafeteria at a brand new school and not being sure where to sit or which table may welcome you. My guess is we all know what it is like to be alone at lunch or to witness someone who is lonely at lunch. You may have heard the story that came out of North Carolina about a young high school freshman who after sitting alone for a few days was joined by several upper class members of the football team. All the football players wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone and was welcomed. Several schools around the country have adopted a movement called, “We Dine together” which works to assure that no kid sits alone at lunch. To make sure everyone has a place at the table.

Church, might we have a “we worship together, we fellowship together, we serve together” movement? So friends, take a moment and imagine our church as a lunch table—are we welcoming? Do we go the extra mile in showing hospitality? Do we sneer at people who aren’t like us? Do we engage in outreach and make room at the table? Do we join in the communal rejoicing when the lost become found? Are we so excited that Christ, the Good Shepherd, seeks after us when we are lost, that we are understanding when Jesus brings a new sheep to the table? Is there always room at the table, do we slide over to make room? Do we branch outside ourselves and share table fellowship with those who society may deem unworthy? Do we seek to share food and resources? How is Christ calling us to do better?

Friends, the good news is Jesus Christ eats with sinners, Jesus welcomes sinners, God in Christ will seek after the lost with relentless energy, and will rejoice when lost are found. Later we will sing a beautiful hymn, “For Everyone Born,” listen to some lyrics, “And God will rejoice when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace- for everyone born has a space at the table. “Jesus doesn’t draw boundaries of relationship; all are welcomed at the table. There’s always room to be welcomed at God’s table, so let us seek to rejoice with and welcome all. Amen.

Psalms of Summer: Psalm of Searching and Knowing

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Psalm 139

This Sunday, we conclude our Psalms of Summer sermon series by exploring Psalm 139. A Psalm which periodically occurs in our lectionary, but hardly ever in its entirety- you may notice why as I read through the psalm aloud. I’m calling Psalm 139, a psalm of searching and knowing, but the psalm might be described more accurately as a “fearfully and wonderfully made” psalm, as both fear and marvel are unveiled throughout. The Psalmist invites readers to live in the tension of being fearfully and wonderfully known by God.

I was eleven years old and visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins, who lived just outside of Philadelphia. My uncle had taken my cousins, sister, and I into the city to see the sights and after visiting our final stop the Liberty Bell, we headed to train station bound for my aunt and uncle’s house. We had some time to kill before the train arrived and in that short amount of time my overly independent self somehow wandered off– easily distracted by a book store in the station. Happily, oblivious to the crowd of strangers who filled the busy Philadelphia station, I read books with no fear. Until I looked up and could not find my family. Heart racing and disoriented from not knowing where I was, I was unsure of what to do. It felt like hours but probably was only a few minutes until I heard my uncle’s voice behind me.  It turns out my Uncle Jeff knew where I was and was watching me from a far the whole time, keeping a watchful eye on my wandering preteen spirit. He knew where I was when I didn’t know where I was. It is wonderful to be known.

Who is familiar with the Where is Waldo books? Every page of a Where’s Waldo book is filled with scenes of action, crowds, and lots of details which make finding Waldo a challenge You have to know Waldo, what he looks like, that he has brown hair, glasses, and wears a red and white striped shirt and beanie cap; in order to even begin to find Waldo. But even as you may remember Waldo is often quite hard to find. Yet, we can imagine God as an all-star Where is Waldo player. God intricately and deeply knows all of us. The Psalmist acknowledges God is everywhere, omnipresent, even in the darkness and even in depths of Sheol, God is everywhere. God always knows where we are and can pick each and every one of us out of the crowd in a chaotic world. How wonderful it is to be known by God.

Friends, we are reminded in today’s scripture that we worship a God who knew us before we were born and who was there to hear our birthing cry. A God who claims us in baptism, and is always present with us as we journey through the ups and downs of life. A God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, and who knows our thoughts before our thoughts form words. The eye which watches the sparrow watches over and knows us. The shepherd has no anonymous sleep, each is fully known, welcomed, and love. Being truly known equals being truly accepted by God.

How wonderful to be fully known by God. One might translate the first part of Psalm 139 as one pastor did saying, “Lord, you know when I pull up a chair and when I stretch my legs. You know what’s on my mind before my train of thought has even left the station. You search out my path like a hound dog sniffing out the trail head, and have fluffed the pillow before I’ve ever even laid down. You know all my maddening and endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies. I am an open book to you. You complete my sentences. You know me better than I know myself.”

German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote the poem, “Who Am I?” while he was imprisoned for his resistance against the Nazis. In the poem Bonhoeffer mediates upon the difference between what others say about him during his time in prison and what he feels about himself on the inside. While many saw Bonhoeffer as a pillar of strength and faith amid extraordinary hardship—Bonhoeffer himself saw a restless, yearning, and fearful, as though a sick and starving bird in its cage, barely alive. In the poem he asks, “Who am I? This man or that other/ Am I then this man today and tomorrow another? / Am I both all at once? An imposter to others, / but to me little more than whining, despicable weakling? /…. They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.”

Can you relate? Have you ever felt as though you don’t know your own true self anymore? Have you ever looked into the mirror and not recognized your reflection?  But Bonhoeffer goes on and concludes the poem with a type of Psalm 139 knowledge and proclamation: “Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am yours.” How wonderful it is, when we do not even know ourselves, to be searched and known by God.

Psalm 139 challenges us to remember that our truest selves are deeply known to God. Yet we are also invited by Psalm 139 to live into the tension of being fearfully and wonderfully known by God. So on the one hand being fully known, loved, forgiven, and accepted as we are by God is profoundly marvelous and wonderful. But while on the one hand being known by God is wonderful, on the other hand, it is a terrifying thought. What if Waldo doesn’t want to be found? I’ll confess there are some times in life when I don’t want to be found. Maybe you have spaces in your lives where you’d rather fence God out of, maybe you have times you’d rather not be known. Being known, being truly known, and fully known means being vulnerable. How many of us what to be completely vulnerable and known completely by anyone?  Being known by God really known, means our masks come down, we are fully exposed, and hemmed in, this thought is terrifying—there is fear in being fully known. The Psalmist reminds us that God sees it all- sees our messy houses, anxious thoughts, into our loneliness, our blemishes, and scars, our true intentions both good and bad. God sees the people we are in traffic and when no one else is looking.

Friends, this is terrifying because our raw selves aren’t always pretty. Even in the Psalm, David exposes at his core that he wants his enemies dead. If we are being honest with ourselves, do we really want God to know the first thoughts in our heads about those we consider enemies? These are the verses that don’t show up in lectionary. David is indignant about the evil which rebels against God. He honestly lays his angry heart out again to God, praying for God to do away with his enemies. Before asking God to, “see any wickedness within me and lead me to the right path.” Even if we don’t want to be found and known by God, God sees us fully. Yet we can have some comfort in knowing that yes, we are searched, but nothing will be found within us that isn’t already known by God and embraced by God. How wonderful to be known fully by God, yet how terrifying to be known fully by God.

C.S Lewis writes about how God relentless sought after him before his conversion to Christianity and how he felt as though he could go nowhere to hide from God.  Lewis writes, “You must picture me alone in that room…night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of God whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me…I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.” Yet Lewis eventually comes to terms with the God of Psalm 139 writing, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and God’s compulsion is our liberation.” Being fully known by God, though terrifying, can also be liberating.

To close, I invite you to pray through portions of Psalm 139 with me. I’ve adapted this prayer from Engage Worship website…. “Ever present God, You see, accept, and love me at my very best and at very my worst. You know when I am full of hope, energy and enthusiasm and you know when I am anxiously struggling to see a way forward. You know when my faith is alive, buoyant, and bubbling over, and you know when I am filled with dread, doubt, pain, and trying to run full steam ahead on an empty tank.

O Lord, you search me and know me, you know my thoughts often clash with one another, that I am sometimes full of certainty and other times, more times than I’d care to admit, full of disbelief. At times full of trust, and at times full of questions. Sometimes caring thoughts, sometimes selfish thoughts. Sometimes peaceful, sometimes anxious. And you know too my mind wanders, sometimes visiting dark cobwebbed filled corners. Sometimes crying out to you to stop all the evil in the world by wishing evil for my enemies. O Lord you search me, you can find me easily in a crowd, and you know me, even better than I know myself. You see me in the darkness and light, and you understand, you care, and you long to lead me towards life. You offer me grace as I try to daily follow you.”

How wonderful and how fearful it is to be truly known by the Almighty and Everlasting God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

WHY?

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Text: Lamentations 3:19-33, 2 Corinthians 1:3-7

The day started out as a sunny Tuesday morning, like any other day. I remember looking out the window and day dreaming, thinking how horrible it was to have to be stuck in my tenth grade English class on such a beautiful morning. A teacher from across the hall runs into our classroom in a panic and tells my teacher to turn on the TV. We turn on the news just in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center and spent the rest of the day in a scary confused daze as we watched hours of live news coverage.  The day ended and we realized life as we knew it would never be the same.  September 11, 2001 would always be remembered as a day of tremendous tragedy. Why? How?

A loved one receives a life-threatening diagnosis. Why? How? A child continues to be bullied so much at school that they feel worthless, alone, and unloved. Why? How? Thousands of people become displaced and homeless after natural disasters or acts of political violence. All their earthly possessions destroyed or taken away from them.  Why? How?  A man who once fought for our country now lives on the streets and begs for money just to have a simple meal. Why? How? Yet ANOTHER gunman enters a public place and ends the lives of 20 people, injuries over two dozen, and changes the lives of survivors forever. And hours after yet ANOTHER mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. WHY? HOW?

In times of great suffering and loss, sometimes the only words we can murmur in our shock are why and how. The book of Lamentations is titled, “’ekah”, in Hebrew, which directly translates into “how?”  Though the book of Lamentations was penned thousands of years ago, the author then, as we do today, looked at the world in crisis around them and lamented to God, and asked how such an awful catastrophic event can happen. Jerusalem, God’s great city, had be destroyed.

The Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar, had forcefully invaded Jerusalem, deported its leading citizens, and had used military might to oppress the remaining survivors. Those who were left in the city were homeless, hungry, hopeless, and left with the memories of the traumatic defeat which lead to Babylonian occupation. The Babylonians had destroyed everything in Jerusalem, including the peoples’ homes, businesses, and at the very center of their identity, their places of worship. The book of Lamentations may even be viewed as the act of trying to remember how to worship God in the aftermath of tragedy.  The book is a recollection of the peoples’ struggle as their identities are taken away and they are in the process of trying to remember that worship continues even in the midst of ruin. Friends, can you relate? What is weighing on your worn soul this morning? What is making your spirit heavy? Ya’ll, my soul is TIRED of waking up to news of yet another senseless act of violence. This has got to stop.

After such horrific events the author of the text asks the question, how could this happen to God’s beloved city? You may be familiar with the expression, “when all the stars are in line,” which means everything in life is going smoothly. In the Ancient Near East, astrology held an important place in the lives of the people. The word, “dis-aster”, translates into “bad stars.”  In situations such as the Babylonian occupation, September 11th, bad health diagnoses, and every other deeply painful suffering we are all faced with in life, our way of thinking may shift, we may become so disoriented we do not know up from down, and our stars are anything but in line. There may be a breakdown of confidence in God and in the world, such responses to traumatic experiences are common.

People are left asking, how a thing like this could happen and are not sure where their stars a line but know they are anything but neat and orderly. In times of disaster, everything in the world becomes off centered and disorienting.  The question of ‘how could this happen?’ is one which still rings true in our lives during times of suffering.

In times of unspeakable disasters, we may also ask ourselves, “Is there a word from the Lord? Or “Where is God in all this mess?” “Did God allow this to happen?”  Asking tough questions are an important part of living in suffering and lamenting to God is not a bad thing as we try to pick up the broken pieces after faced with trauma. We cannot pretend to have perfect answers to these tough questions but we do know that when our suffering and our hopelessness is very real, we are in deep need of comfort. Maybe you have had days where you really just needed someone to offer you a hug, listen to you lament, see and acknowledge your soul’s deepest pains, or just be present with you in your suffering. The author of today’s scripture laments to the point of their soul being weighed down and burden with sorrow, but note verse twenty-one, “But this I call to mind, and therefore have hope, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” In times of suffering and disorientation, our hope may come and go, but God is always with us.

After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, I imagine many preachers rewrote their sermons for the week. One of my former professors, Dr. Craig Barnes, was serving as pastor at National Presbyterian Church in the heart of Washington DC at the time and preached these words to his congregation on the Sunday immediately following September 11th:

“God is in the midst of the city.” He is not sitting indifferently above and beyond the horrific destruction we witnessed this week. Perhaps you saw the television interview of the distressed woman who lamented, “Where was God when the planes crashed into those buildings?” I can answer that: in the midst of the city. God was in the offices that collapsed down upon each other as the towers crumbled. He was under the rubble where the dead and wounded lay buried. God was in the planes filled with terrified passengers that called to warn us of what was happening or to say goodbye to their families. God was in the midst of all that pathos. As the cross of Jesus Christ proclaims, God can always be found in the places of suffering. He is there not simply to comfort, but to lead us to resurrected life. “

God is in our midst, even in our laments. God sits and mourns with the victims of senseless gun violence in El Paso, and Dayton. In our scripture passage, the author’s cries, praises, and questionings, though deep and coming from a place of intense pain may also point to a God who suffers with, who empathizes with, and who is deeply pained by the destruction of the people. Friends, God is a comforter when we need comforted. When we are at our darkest and most vulnerable place, God sits with us and “the Spirit helps us in the weakness and when we cannot find words to pray, the Spirit of comfort, intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words.” God is present in all situations of our lives.

We are reminded in today’s scripture that God’s compassion and mercy never fails, they are new with each morning. When we awake each day, God is with us and even though we constantly sin and make mistakes, God’s mercy never runs out. In our scripture lesson, the speaker acknowledges that, “the Lord is my portion, and all I need; therefore, I will put my hope in the God.”  God is faithful and good, even in our lamenting, God stays by our side and grants us the strength we need to endure hardships.  God cries with us when we cry and shows us compassion when we need it the most. God cries out with us and through us in the aftermath of yet ANOTHER mass shooting.

Our New Testament scripture implores us to remember that God, is a Comforting God and does not abandon us in our times of struggle and suffering.  I was reading an article last week about bridge escorts. If you have a fear of heights and driving over bridges you may sympathize with those in Maryland who drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake Bay daily. The Bay Bridge at its highest point is one hundred and eighty-six feet in the air. The bridge has caused many panic attacks and wrecks as drivers become so petrified; they stop their cars halfway up the bridge. If a driver is frozen with fear and does not want to drive his or her car across the bridge, there is a station at the beginning of the bridge where drivers can pick up a bridge escort, who will drive their cars over the bridge, comfort the terrified passenger, and drive the car safely to the other side of the bridge.

Friends that is what God does for us. God is always with us. Like the bridge escorts, God meets us in our fear and meets us where we are. God helps us through our fears and gives us comfort. God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we have received from God. Comfort abounds through Christ and leads us to new life, and the Holy Spirit enables us to comfort and console others. Because God comforts us, we should seek to comfort those around us who are hurting. Sometimes we can comfort others through a smile or hug, other times when words fail us, all we can do is lend a compassionate, listening ear and be present with the person. Sometimes, we can comfort our neighbors by offering them a cool place to rest during an intense heat wave, by giving them snacks and water. I was thrilled that members of First Presbyterian and our community saw a need and jumped to address it…to bring comfort.

In the poem, “I am there”, poet and Pastor James Dilet Freeman challenges listeners to recognize God’s constant presence in our lives, even if God may feel distant to us.  Hear a portion of the poem, “When you need me, I am there, even if you deny me, I am there, even when you feel most alone, I am there. Even in your fears, I am there, even in your pain, I am there. Though you fail to find me, I do not fail you. Though your faith in me is unsure, beloved, I am there.”

Do you need a comforter? If so, remember that no matter what you are experiencing or how much you are hurting, our Comforting and Compassionate God is with you constantly, even if you are in the midst of a ruined city. Either a physical ruined city, an emotional ruined city, or a spiritual ruined city. God is there working through brokenness with a desire to restore hope. Friends, wherever you are, God is there. Amen.

Psalms of Summer: Psalm of Comfort

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Psalm 63

Prayer: God open our ears to hear your word to us, without distraction or judgment. God open our minds to see you in new ways. God open our hearts to be changed by your actions in the world. God ready our feet so that once we have heard and been changed, we may follow You as we continue on this journey. Amen.

As I mentioned last week, the Psalms are a collection of poems and songs which cover a wide range of emotions from doubt to joyful praise. Last Sunday, we took a closer look at a Psalm of Lament as we looked at Psalm 10 and how God shows up and meets us in our doubts. Today, as we continue our Psalms of Summer sermon series, we will explore Psalm 63, a psalm of comfort. As I read our text this morning, I invite you to think about a few questions which I’ll touch on later in sermon: What are your favorite images of comfort? Have you ever tangibly been comforted by God? What does it mean to be comforted by God? When you think of God’s comfort, what images come to mind? I invite you to listen now to the words of Psalm 63.

The words of Psalm 63, a Psalm of David, may have been written or at least thought about when David was hiding from one of his many enemies in the wilderness of Judah. If you can imagine, the wilderness of Judah is about as pleasant as it sounds. If you somehow found yourself on one of the many survival shows on TV, you would not want to be dropped off in the wilderness of Judah. It is hot. It is dry. It is without living giving water. You would bake pretty quickly in the sun’s intense heat. Though I do not think I would survive well, a human can survive for a month or more without eating but only at the most a week without water. When you are in the wilderness your body rebels against you quickly and you long for water and nourishment.

Friends, we all need water. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why David proclaims his soul deeply thirsts for God and his flesh faints as though in a dry land where there is no water. If you go too long without water and become dehydrated, it is a disorienting and painful experience. Your muscles do not work like they were designed to and your head spins. Without our Lord in our lives, we can also become disoriented. Being in the presence of the Lord and resting in His wings reorients us. Perhaps you have been in or maybe you are currently in your own wilderness today. Perhaps you feel as though your relationship with God is a little dried up. Yet in these moments of longing and desperation, our faith in God has the opportunity to stretch in ways we did not think were possible.  It is often in such moments when we like David, come to terms with our complete and total reliance on God alone. It is in such moments when we turn to God for comfort and assurance.

The Psalms are rich in water imagery. There are two images of God’s comfort in our text today and the first is God’s comfort like relief of water when we are in dry lands. Our Bodies crave water. Water is important. Last week, I woke up on Tuesday with laryngitis (which bad for a preacher who likes to talk).  I wanted to recover as quickly as possible, and I knew drinking water was essential in order to heal.

Water brings us comfort and relief. After being dehydrated, water restores our bodies. There are several ways Psalm 63 reminds us that God alone is our Life Source and Living Water. The very opening lines of Psalm 63 confess our dependence on God. David’s very soul thirsts for the Lord. His longing for God is deep. Do we also have a deep longing for the life-giving power of God? Often times as we go throughout life, we may seek after and thirst for temporary things. We turn to things that may satisfy us temporarily but eventually will leave us with an unfilled longing. Unfortunately, sometimes we even turn our backs to the Lord and seek after these things.

Yet, ultimately God is our living water, and our true life source. When you stop and think about it, there are so many ways throughout our daily lives when we depend on God. We depend on God’s forgiveness and to be our constant help in need and our guidance throughout our lives. Even though David is in the scarceness of the wilderness, David knows God is his helper and comfort.  He knows ultimately God is with him therefore David’s lips glorify the Lord and he rejoices even amidst the oncoming threats of his enemies.  In the presence of God, we are able to find comfort, satisfaction, and security.

There are many beautiful images of God’s comfort.  In the second image of comfort in today’s psalm, the psalmist writes of being sheltered under God’s wings. As we are sheltered under wings, we become protected from wind, rain, outside elements, and predators. Sheltered and protected under the wings of God, the psalmist is able to sing for joy.  One of my favorite images of being comforted by God is similar to being sheltered under wings, but I love the idea of God’s comfort and love surrounding us like a blanket. Throughout our lives we use blankets to wrap ourselves up in. One of first things a child might experience is being lovingly wrapped in a blanket. Blankets are something we use in every season of life. Blankets comfort us and reminds of love others. When I was a baby, my Nanny made me blanket, which I still have and remember her love for me every time I see it. This is a prayer shawl blanket was made by my home church in Hartsville, SC before I came to Winchester to be with you all.

So have you tangibly felt God’s comforting presence? When you think of God’s comfort, what images come to mind? I decided to take an informal Facebook poll and my friends didn’t disappoint. Some felt as though God physically held their hands during illness, others resonated with the image of climbing up into God’s lap after the death of a loved one. Others felt God’s comfort through the kindness of others, through friends who directly comforted and brought meals and supplies to them in times of need. One mentioned receiving a card from a friend with the words they needed to hear, exactly when they needed to hear them. One of my friends from seminary, Melissa Morris, a pastor in PA said, “I directly feel God’s comfort as though I’m one of those oil covered duck who are being cleaned during the Dawn commercials. I know there are two very gentle but very active hands holding me as I’m continually washed clean by water. The less the duck struggles, the quicker the hands do their job. The more we surrender and trust those hands to do their job, the better we are.” I love this image. We can feel God’s comfort in worship through songs and when we feel the prayers of others praying on our behalf when we are unable to pray for ourselves.

The words of our scripture today remind us that it is the Lord who acts first in our lives and we are invited, challenged, and called to response. Because of who God is, David realizes he is invited to “bless the Lord as long as I live” and as God’s people, we are invited to do so as well. Because of who is God, we are able to lift up our hands and call upon God.  Because of who God is, we are able to come together and worship. Because of who God is we can rejoice in the shadow of God’s wings.  Because of who God is, we are called to bear witness to the work of the Lord in our lives. Because of who God is, we are called to comfort our neighbors with God’s love.

When it comes to teaching and studying the Psalms, one exercise that is sometimes helpful is re-writing one of the Psalms in our own words. Dissecting the psalm line by line and re-writing can be a spiritual discipline and provide new insights. I love the version of Psalm 63, a Christian blogger, Sylvia Purdie, wrote especially with children in mind. She interprets Psalm 63 writing:

O God, my God, my friend,
I am looking for you, I need to find you!
I need you like I get desperate for a drink on a boiling hot day.
I need you when I am hiding
from people who are trying to hurt me.
Save me from lies, rescue me from danger!
I have seen you sometimes out of the corner of my eye –
you are light and kindness and glory.
I have felt you in church as love fills the air,
it’s great to sing and praise and celebrate!
All my life I will love you,
O God, my God, my friend.
And now you are here, you found me!
You lead me to a party, all my friends waiting for me,
plenty to drink and eat, a feast of my favorite food –
I am full of joy!
And when it is time for bed
I snuggle up with you, like you were soft as soft,
gentle wings over me through the night.
And tomorrow, and every day, I will hold on to you
and you will hold on to me,
O God, my God, my friend.

Friends, when we feel as though we are in a dry wilderness, God is there, holding us close, walking beside us every step of the way. Because of who God is, God seeks to comfort us. God’s powerful, protecting, presence, and compassion surrounds us day in and day out, comforting us in the shadow of loving wings. Even when we feel as though we are in the wilderness. God seeks to comfort us when we need it the most. Friends, how have you tangibly felt God’s comforting presence? Remember that comfort, and share it with others. Amen.

Psalms of Summer: Psalm of Doubt

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Scripture: Psalm 10

Over the course of three Sundays (next week, and August 11th), we will look at three psalms for a summer sermon series I’m calling the Psalms of Summer. Psalms is one of my favorite books in Bible, perhaps because the rich poetry speaks to my English major heart, perhaps because the Psalms are rich in imagery and emotion. If you are searching for a new spiritual discipline, I’d suggest reading through the Psalms. One of my seminary professors once said, if you don’t know how to pray, start reading through the Psalms, because in the psalter you will encounter every type of emotion from the pentacles of joyfully worship to the lamenting valleys of emptiness, grief, and doubt. Today we’ll look closer at a lament psalm, a psalm of doubt. Doubt can make us uncomfortable, but is important to talk about. Hear now these words from Psalm 10

WHY God? The Psalms can ask some hard questions. I’ll confess, several times last week, I thought to myself, “No wonder Psalm 10 doesn’t appear in the lectionary!” I can at least assure you that people of faith have been asking these same questions for millennia.  For instance, the Psalms, have been the prayer book of the Jewish people since well before the time of Jesus. Christians, too, have prayed through The Psalms in every generation and on every continent.  In the Church we’re likely best acquainted with psalms of praise, psalms of trust, and psalms of rejoicing – which isn’t surprising since those are the ones we do tend to lean on most often in worship – but did you know that a full 40% of our biblical psalms are actually psalms of lament? Lament, though a universal emotion, doesn’t preach as well as joyful praise. Monks read through the Psalms as a spiritual discipline and act of Morning Prayer. I actually find it really quite brave that monastic communities pray through the psalms – all of the psalms – regularly, gathering for prayer multiple times a day to lift up these ancient words.  They’re not picking and choosing their way through the book the way we sometimes do, selecting the sweeter, gentler words.

Those who commit themselves to praying through the entire Book of Psalms learn very quickly that they are going to have to let it all hang out with God.  To pray from the depths of pain, and the heat of anger sometimes, rather than simply offering up the kinds of pious-sounding words we think God wants to hear. Friends, we don’t always have to pray all the right words or even have un-shakeable faith to pray and engage God in conversations—-there is room for doubt, emotions, anger, grief, shouting, crying, and wondering. There is room for all that in our conversations with God…we don’t have to use our best Sunday language.  The Psalms not only encourage; they require from us deep honesty in prayer.  They don’t shy away from asking hard questions of God – a whole lot of tough, tough questions. Even though these questions are hard, there is a benefit to asking them.

In his book, “Having Words with God: The Bible as Conversation,” Karl Allen Kuhn writes, “There are probably a number of reasons why the psalms of lament are not all that popular among us. One reason might be that these psalms speak to situations of pain and distress, and we would rather focus on what we consider positive and uplifting in worship. Another likely reason behind their unpopularity is that in these psalms the psalmist sometimes speaks to God in a manner that we might find offense.” In our Psalm today, David, the psalmist in his anxious distress, basically cries out, “Hey God, wake up! These guys are after my neck! If you don’t do something, I’ll die!” Kuhn also argues that when we neglect reading and studying the psalms of lament, we risk neglecting the permission and even the calling to cry out against injustice and evil in our world, and to do so with the expectation that God will hear and act.

Our text today calls for God’s justice to be revealed in an unjust world. The Psalmist, mourns the actions of the wicked and pleas for God to get moving! The Psalmist cries out, “Don’t you see all the bad things going on! Where are you, Lord?!” In this psalm of lament, the writer seems to be in a dark place spiritually and in a place of doubt. Can you relate?

Our doubts do not equal unbelief. Though sometimes, we think there’s no room for doubts in our Christian faith.  We want all the answers to our deepest faith questions tied up in neat little bows.  After all, doubts bring forth uncertainty and fear, and shouldn’t we have all the answers? Can you think of people of great faith today who also have their own unique questions, doubts, and uncertainties? I can think of many! Many scholars believe King David wrote our Psalm today and he certainly wrote a number of doubts in Psalms. Is there room for doubt in our walks with God? As Christians, we often live between the spheres of great faith and great doubts, sometimes journeying from faith to doubt in a matter of seconds.  Is this an acceptable way to live out our Christian faith? How does God respond to our doubts? Shouldn’t we always have our faith all together? Friends, I don’t think so.

When we profess our faith in God and when we are claimed by God in our baptism does this mean all our doubts and questions magically go away? Doubt can still creep in on us like a slithering snake, even when we are young. I will confess, in my walk with God, I have had times of doubts, it is hard to see pain and injustice in the world. I’ve had times when like the Psalmist, I’ve thrown up my hands and asked, “Why, God?! Where are you, Lord?” You may have experienced such doubts in your own lives. As a community of faith, we come together to worship God, but individually our faith journeys and times of doubt can be as different as our fingerprints. We can doubt the way God shows up, we can question if God truly cares for us and our life circumstances. Doubts can be painful and cause fear, especially when you feel like you are going through your doubts all alone.

Yet in verse 14, the Psalmist sees a glimmer of hope, “But God, you DO see!”  God seeks to bring about justice for the orphans, the helpless, and those who are oppressed. We are never left alone with our doubts, God meets and encounters us through doubts. Friends, God sits with us in our doubts as we cry out, WHY?!

As Christians, we are never told having faith would be easy. Yet, through processing faith and doubt, we learn more about God and how God chooses to relate to us with each new day. Pastor and writer, Frederick Buechner writes, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. Faith is on-again-off again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith, they keep you awake and moving.” Doubt can challenge, stretch, expand and tinker with our faith in God. Doubt can cause us to delve deeper into studying scripture, asking deeper questions, and crying out in earnest and uncensored prayer.

Doubt can even be a doorway to spiritual growth. Faith gone unchallenged may not have room to grow. Growing may hurt, but growing pains can also make our faith real and stronger. Ultimately, faith isn’t about having all the answers or correct theological models, it’s about all the ways God is reaching out to us, guiding us through our questions. It’s about praying authentic prayers, reaching out to God for guidance, and asking for God’s help. It’s about relying on God’s strength in our weakness. In his book, Dangerous Wonder, theologian Michael Yaconelli writes the power of God meeting us in our doubts, he observes, “Give me a Jesus who meets me in the rushing, crashing waters of my questions. Let me stand precariously close to the dark and menacing skies of doubt, so I can hear the fierce and gentle loving voice of my Jesus who drowns out my fears and stands just beyond my questions with open arms.”

Friends, we can yell, scream, and cry out to God in times of doubt and suffering, and God will reach out to us and sit with us as we yell and scream doubts. Friends, if you are at a period of doubt today, even as a person of faith, know God is with you in your doubts.  Know it is okay for you to have questions. God will not turn a blind eye to our doubts and questions. We worship a God who sees each and every one of us and meets us all where we are, doubts and all. Amen.