Feeling constrained? Until we actually experience the God of Love, we are separated and trapped in a narrow place. Come out of your narrow place! God offers true liberty and spacious possibilities.
Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows,
those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what God has done for me.
I cried aloud, and God was extolled with my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened, and has given heed to the words of my prayer.
Blessed be God, because God has not rejected my prayer
or removed God’s steadfast love from me.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Dedication: Calvary Senior Center
This sermon is named “Don’t Fence Me In” in honor of our Tuesday seniors group that sings that song better than Gene Autry. To all of our seniors all over the city, I love you and I miss you. Older people can teach the rest of y’all how to get through just about anything. I realize this flies in the face of popular politics, but it’s true.
Mental Health Awareness Month
At the beginning of this service, John Walko played a dazzling Rachmaninoff Prelude. Born in 1873, Rachmaninoff was traumatized as a child, living through a great diphtheria epidemic. Rachmaninoff’s sister did not survive. Consequently, his entire life revolved around bouts of debilitating depression. His famous Second Piano Concerto was dedicated to his psychiatrist.
I share this because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you are suffering, do not go it alone. Reach up from that dark hole you find yourself in, and allow someone the honor of helping you. Of course, God can do that all alone, but God calls people to serve as instruments of healing. Get over the fear of stigma. You’ve got Rachmaninoff and many more on your side.
I learned our opening hymn, Fairest Lord Jesus, as a child, sitting on the ample lap of my Grandma Midge as my Uncle Leonard led the singing from the pulpit. Every Sunday morning, Leonard chose the first hymn then took requests. From the piano, my third grade teacher, Charlcie Grace, a stride piano specialist, accompanied the assembly. One cold and humid winter morning in Lower Appalachia, my Grandma Midge requested Fairest Lord Jesus.
Charlcie Grace spoke up. “Now, Midge, that’s not a song you sing in the winter. That’s a song about springtime.”
I remember my grandmother’s face growing rather deflated but poetic, and she replied, “But that’s what we need right now, Charlcie Grace, some spring.”
In the movie adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, an outspoken character named Mr. Emerson says:
I don’t care what I see outside.
My vision is within.
Here is where the birds sing!
Here is where the sky is blue!
Every person carries inside a limitless realm, a spacious place of spirit and soul. Rachmaninoff couldn’t find it without professional help. Midge found it by singing hymns with her grandson. How do you access that inner space that was so real when you were a child? It’s still there, and it is indestructible.
The Book of Psalms is an ancient prayerbook full of hymns meant to be sung until Messiah comes, until help arrives, until things get better, until we experience real connection with God. The Psalms describe how the people yearned for the temple, just as we yearn to return to 2515 Fillmore Street. What is the relationship between religious people and fancy buildings? I may never understand it fully, but it’s real y’all.
Today’s Psalm, number 66, was composed by an anonymous writer, who thanks God for the spacious place, a well-watered dominion where all is well. While religions are shrinking, this inner dominion is expanding, like the Universe. Science proves the Universe, but only someone who has experienced God can substantiate verse 16 “Come and hear…and I will tell you what God has done for me.”
I will tell you about how God has kept us, not me but us, “set us on the road to life, keep(s) us out of the ditch” just like Rachmaninoff or Grandma Midge, grounded and alive inside.
Suffering’s Wake Up Call
Perhaps this pandemic is similar to the tests and trials of Psalm 66. We are pushed to our very limit. Not me, but we are being refined like a precious metal. This is not to glorify suffering but to illustrate what theologian Richard Rohr says. “If you have not suffered deeply, you are not awake.” That’s why older people are not expendable but offer real experience and hard-bought wisdom. T.S. Eliot wrote:
The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The once-enslaved children of Israel might not not appreciate the characterization of life as an exploration. They fled slavery only to suffer more, wandering the wilderness searching for the Promised Land.
Black Lives Matter
Likewise today, African Americans are sick and tired of exploring the wilderness between slavery and the American Dream. In times like these, with white nationalism on the rise and the lynchings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Sean Reed in Indiana and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, I am grateful the outward-looking wall of our church reads: Black Lives Matter, just as much as white lives, just as much as young lives, just as much as old lives. The black lives were ended senselessly. They will not see the Promised Land, but the true church of Jesus Christ will not let them die in vain.
The Narrow Place
Psalm 66 praises God despite the legacy of slavery in Egypt, a name that in Hebrew means “the narrow place” or “the place where we are stuck.” There are many ways to get stuck. Sometimes I think that’s all God wants me to learn is how to get unstuck, how to break through the next barrier, how to adapt and how to change, for without change there is no chance of improvement.
The Life of Trees
There are tall cedar trees just out our window. They rustle and creak with the wind, offer a home to dozens of crows. During this lockdown, we’ve grown close. Did you know that when one tree becomes sick, the surrounding trees send out nutrients fro help that tree? This arboreal healthcare is offered compliments of fungus, vast networks underground that direct healing toward the weaker trees. I wonder. Can there be solitary trees, trees that go it alone, trees that don’t need nothin’ from nobody?
The great tsunami of 2011 near Fukushima, Japan wiped an entire forest of 70,000 trees, but one 88-foot tall pine remained. The salty seawater eventually killed the fungus and, after 18 months of living without life surrounding it, the tree could go on. Now, in its memory, a giant statue stands molded from that actual tree. The scaffolding around it, in the picture, has been removed now, but look how it was constructed in that confined, narrow space—necessary to support the upper bloom of branches, standing witness to the competence of God’s creation.
The great San Francisco theologian Howard Thurman once wrote:
It is as if the tree had said: I am destined to reach for the skies and embrace in my arms the wind, the rain, the snow and the sun, singing my song of joy to all the heavens…I do not want to die. I must work out a method, a way of life, that will yield growth and development for me despite the contradictions under which I must eke out my days. In the end, I may not look like the other trees. I may not be what all that is within me cries out to be. But I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing, I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.
Suffering calls us to wake up to a reality with a profound silver lining: deeper union with God, reunion with the Unconditional Love that formed us. The only thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are somehow separate from one another.
Blessed be the One whose dominion we carry within.