July Sermon: One Thing Remains

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,  for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;

who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever;

who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever;

who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever;

who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever;

the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever;

the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever;

It is he who remembered us in our low estate, for his steadfast love endures forever;

and rescued us from our foes, for his steadfast love endures forever;

who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever. – Psalm 136 (selected verses)

Over the past seven months, five people who have been part of my life in some form or fashion, have died. Some were victims, others took their own life, some simply had bodies that could no longer fight illness. This number doesn’t include the ones in our midst here at Peakland UMC who have also claimed the promise of the resurrection. Every time one of these beloved friends has passed, I think the same thing: we are too young for this. In reality, none of us are ever ready for the death of a loved one, of a classmate, of someone we haven’t talked to in years. It still stings, it still hurts. We think about the things we should have said, the things we could have done. Experiences we’ll never share again. Memories now that only we carry alone. With death comes the death of all of those things we had hoped and dreamed for someone.

At the end of 2016, our Bishop, Bishop Lewis, put out a challenge to the conference: to read the Bible, together, in a year. This first round is reading the Bible from cover to cover. Most folks who have a theological education – or who have read the bible cover to cover – will tell you that reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is not the way to do it. Well, at Annual Conference, the Bishop mentioned that 2018 will be the year we read the Bible chronologically. After having read large amounts of the Bible over the past year, to read it for a non-academic or non-work function has been eye opening. In fact, it is because of her challenge, and my participation that we have today’s sermon. I encourage you to join us in this challenge. It’s not as scary of a commitment as you may think, and if you want to know more, I would love to talk about it with you.

The reading challenge currently has us in the midst of the Book of Isaiah, but it was as I got to the end of the Book of Psalms, I could feel a lightness. A weight being lifted off of me. It’s the moment that inspiration for this sermon hit. Everything suddenly clicked and started to make sense, or at least I started to feel better. It was as if all of the conversations I had been having with my friends, all of the books I had been reading, all of the prayers I was having trouble praying, they all of a sudden started to surrender and be at peace. God doesn’t always work this way. But when God does, it’s magic.

Here’s the thing: I had filled my life with busy-ness and did everything I could to occupy my mind and life instead of finding time for the Spirit and I to wrestle in the midst of grief, the hurt and the confusion. It’s much easier to fill our lives with scrolling Twitter, binging House of Cards on Netflix, or exercise than it is to sit in the quiet and commune with the Spirit.

I was trying to keep myself occupied with reading. If you know me, you know that I am often reading, so it’s not a big surprise. But that night in particular, I couldn’t stop these thoughts in my head. They weren’t voices. It was the Spirit of God. I was being moved towards something that I couldn’t avoid. That movement of the Spirit as I was getting ready to sleep, was God telling me to let go.

So this morning, I want to journey into the Psalm for a little bit with you, with the hope that the Spirit would move in each of us. The Book of Psalms is a collection of five books, said to mirror the first five book of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Scholar Hermann Gunkel’s work is primarily in the Psalms and he notes that there are five types of Psalms: hymns, communal laments, royal psalms, individual laments, and individual thanksgiving.

Psalm 136 falls under the “hymn” category.  Psalm 136 begins with a call to praise YHWH in some form. The text, as you heard and some of you read along, is a list of all of the ways God has been faithful throughout all of creation. There are reasons that YHWH should be praised, whether it be attributes, actions, or things that happened one time. There is always a reason to call out and give praise and thanks, not just once, but continuously.

Psalm 136 in its entirety recounts the way that God moved the Israelites from slavery to freedom; from the parting of the Red Sea, through their journey in the wilderness and beyond. The psalm describes the wonder of YHWH’s works and actions. This word, this word that describes reliable helpfulness is hesed, hesed is a word that is difficult to put into English words.  It can best be described as loving-kindness, mercy, or loyalty.  Hesed is not something that you feel, it is something that you do. There have been issues translating this word because it is a word that describes something hard to describe: one of the ways in which God works in our midst.

Since the election in November, I have noticed in personal and professional relationships that people have become more sensitive. Maybe you’ve perceived this, too. No matter what party line a person toes, no matter who they voted or did not vote for, I have noticed an “on-edge” feeling that is like a low bass note. Vibrating just below the surface. It’s like two plates rubbing against one another, the earthquake is just below the surface, and we don’t know what moment will set it off. I’ve set it off. It’s been set off in me. It’s there.

At a time where everything is searchable and accessible in just a few clicks on our phones and computers, it is hard to not feel like the water is about to boil out of the pot.  These are just distractions. They play into our busyness. They make us feel important.

One thing I have seen on TV – and I’m sure most people do this in their homes – is that on Thanksgiving Day, people will go around the table, or the room, and say what they are thankful for.  We do this in place of saying “grace” or blessing the food.

I asked around the office, and these are things that people are thankful for: family, those who hold on even when we push them away, God, this church, friendships that are genuine, supportive, and grace filled, fellow staff and the people here were all answers shared with me.

I also asked around on facebook, where you know people love to share their innermost thoughts: thankful to have not gotten malaria, humble beginnings, marriages that are partnerships, where both people are equal, generosity of strangers, macaroni and cheese, God’s unending grace. The list goes on and on, and I am thankful for my friends near and far, and for this community, for sharing with me those things that mean so much to them.

One way I try to express my gratitude is when I’m chosen to say grace at dinner with my family. Being the seminary graduate, prayers usually fall on me…imagine that. After all, I’m a professional. I get paid to pray. Whenever it falls on me, which is 9 times out of 10, I always make sure to thank God for the farmers who planted and harvested the crops. For the workers of the fields, and for those who helped to prepare the meal, whether it be a chef at a restaurant or someone at the house. I always try to remind others, and remember myself that there are many hands that go into making it possible for me to have the food in front of me that I do.

It is easy to forget that there are people who work in the fields to provide us with produce, especially when we can go to Kroger or Food Lion and have it right there whenever we want it. We are fortunate enough to have been born in a time and place where that isn’t the worry that we have every day. For many of us, food security isn’t an issue.

It is hard for us to remain faithful to God whose love is always steadfast when we are in pain. It is hard for us to remain faithful to God whose love is always steadfast when someone told our biggest secret in the middle of a book club to people who were never meant to know. It is hard for us to remain faithful to God whose love is always steadfast when we get the test results and we know it’s only a matter of months, or we’re facing major surgery. It is hard for us to remain faithful to God whose love is always steadfast when our children just won’t stop complaining and our limits are pushed. It is hard for us to remain faithful to God whose love is always steadfast when the people sitting beside us in the pews don’t know what demons we are wrestling with on a daily basis.

It is hard for us to remain faithful to God whose love is always steadfast when absolutely everything else around us convinces us that we are not good enough and not worthy of such faithfulness.

We’re not the first group of people who struggled with remaining faithful to God. If you read the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, you know that the Israelites story is a story of struggle. They cried out to God and God provided water in the midst of the desert from the rocks! Even the rocks knew who God was and God turned them into streams of life. If the rocks get it, why can’t we?

I want to share with you today the offering on our worship table. In June 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported on the Department of Labor’s Annual “Use of Time” survey.  Here were their findings. The average person does the following things every single day: 510 minutes a day are spent sleeping. 456 minutes a day are spent working. 150 minutes a day are spent watching TV. 75 minutes a day are spent hanging out with friends. 40 minutes a day are spent texting. 17 minutes a day are spent exercising. 66 minutes a day are spent eating. 60 minutes a day are spent doing housework. 60 minutes a day are spent with our children. 9 minutes a day are spent in some form of community service.

Do you know how much time per day is spent intentionally resting and taking sabbath? Do you know how many minutes per day are devoted to worship, Scripture reading, prayer and time with God?

Five.

Five minutes per day.

I want to go back to the moment I mentioned at the start of my sermon. The moment when I let go of all of things that were holding me down. We like to be busy. It’s easy to be busy. So much of our identity, we think, is derived from our busyness. We feel important. The hard part comes when we take time to stop. To breathe. To look up at the sky instead of down at our phones or the ground. To see the world outside of a 5 inch screen.

Since that moment in my bedroom – where the books weren’t readable, but my soul was, I have been finding ways to be intentional in finding rest. Whether it’s journaling, keeping my phone in another room on silent, or driving out of town to enjoy a meal and conversation with a friend. Rest doesn’t have to be physical rest, though for many, I think we need it, but rest can look like so many things.

Rest was modeled to us by the one we use as the model for how we should do life.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus would often take time away from the crowds. In Chapter 1, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days – praying in the silence, in solitude, fasting and meditating on Scripture. Jesus did this before he began what we would call his “public ministry”; which are the details of his life we read about most often in the Gospels.

Later on, in the very same chapter of Mark – which Pastor John talked about earlier – Jesus arose in the middle of the night to walk around Capernaum, to pray. Jesus found time to to retreat. To pray and to connect with God. He would leave the disciples and reconnect with God. Reconnect with what his ministry was. He would actively seek out ways to step away from the crowds and the demands of ministry and he would rest.

I have a challenge for you: what can you do to turn those 5 tiny stones, into 9 stones? What can you do to take it even further and make it 40 stones? How can you remain faithful to the God who has never given up on you? What can you do to remain faithful to the God whose steadfast love endures forever? What does your garden, your mountaintop, look like? What will it take for you to put the cell phone down, pick up your Bible or heck – sit in SILENCE and listen for the still, small whisper of God? That small whisper may come in the form of a book, or a podcast, or meditative music. What is important is that you make space for God, just as God has made space for you. That is my challenge not only to you, but to myself. What will you do take care of yourself in such a way that you are being faithful to the one whose steadfast love endures forever?

Let us pray: Holy God, your faithful love toward us never ends! It is as sure and dependable as the sky over our heads. We praise You! May Your Spirit be at work among us as we leave this place, opening our eyes to the light of Your presence in our everyday lives. To You alone, Faithful Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, be all glory and honour, now and forever. Amen.

Sermon Video if you want to watch and listen!

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