Sermon of the Week
Courage for Lent: Waiting in the Valley
The fifth of a five part sermon series for Lent. #pcusa
Keywords: Valley of Dry Bones, Out of the Depths, Waiting for the Morning, Resilience, Day of the Dead.
How has this week been for you?
I remember thinking, way back in January,
how fast life has been going
and wondering if it was ever going to slow down.
There were the normal things, the expected things:
my kids are growing up way too fast, for instance.
That’s normal. Kids always grow up too fast, it seems.
For us it was watching them tackle geometry and guitar and lacrosse
with maturity and skill,
remembering the time, not all that long ago
when they were trying to master subtraction and tying shoes…
What is happening? I thought.
If I blink, they might be off at college, you know?
There was that,
and then there was the incessant national stress
that just kept getting faster and faster, wilder and wilder.
Two months ago,
Impeachment and missiles in Iran and Koby Bryant and the Iowa Caucuses
were the headlines in the New York Times.
These things seem to add on to the anxieties of our everyday lives,
and the friends I know
whose job it is to observe and report these sorts of things
were exhausted by all of it.
The smart ones learned long ago about the practice of sabbath
of taking breaks
and it has made them better at their work because of it.
And to add to all of that,
for those of us who chronicle time not just by the secular calendar
but who also follow a liturgical calendar,
a way for us to look for God, moving in the world in a different way,
for us, the movement from Christmas through January as you head toward Lent,
this season of reflection and introspection that we’re in right now
on our way to Holy Week and Good Friday and … maybe … hopefully
the faint promise of resurrection that lies beyond,
suffice it to say these months have been full, and fast.
Add it all together,
and every day has been feeling like a week.
Every week feels like a month.
That’s what it felt like just a couple of weeks ago.
But if you were to ask me how THIS week has been,
I’d probably describe it as something like
trying to lay track while conducting a train,
not only is the train going faster and faster
but we’re in new and uncharted territory,
trying to ensure that the train has a place to go
as we’re rushing along.
That’s hard, man.
None of us have experience with such sweeping cultural change as this.
Maybe that’s a sign of the stability and good fortune we’ve had in this country
largely free of warfare and famine and chaos and the like,
stressors that aren’t-so-foreign elsewhere, unfortunately,
conditions which could maybe mirror some of this that we’re feeling.
It certainly has me feeling more empathy for those
refugees fleeing violent places
or for countries that don’t regularly have enough toilet paper on the shelves.
It has me feeling more grateful for what we all have
as tentative and as tenuous as it has felt of late.
We’re all trying to figure all this out as we go, and nothing very sophisticated:
What do we do about work?
How do we explain all of this to our kids?
Do we have a way to get food? Do we have enough soap?
Do I have a plan for my hair when it grows down to my shoulders?
Ok, maybe that’s not really on my mind these days
and I really should just be glad that I still have my hair.
It isn’t so much that we’re all in a wait-and-see-mode,
because we are all having to do so much to adapt
and then it feels like every change we make gets preempted by something
and we have to adapt yet again.
It’s a lot.
So if my own experience describes you at all, I see you.
I wish I could say that I thought it would all be over soon,
that we could just get back to our lives,
to seeing our friends
to checking in with our loved ones
to rescheduling our dentist appointments and so-called elective surgeries
and letting our kids play on the playground equipment and all the rest
though I think I’ll always try to wash my hands for 20 seconds now, no matter what.
But it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere close yet.
I’ve been cheered up by friends and family members and neighbors
who are doing what they can to keep a positive attitude.
some of them are amateur musicians, and have sent a video of themselves
playing a little song they’ve sung.
They’re generally either really good or hilariously awful.
If you sent me one, I’m sure I thought it was really good.
Another friend is protesting that major league baseball isn’t happening…
opening day was supposed to be this week, after all,
and so he’s started a blog called Fake Major League Baseball
kind of a mock season, complete with box scores and story lines
for every single game, every single matchup…
and wouldn’t you know it, my Royals are already two-games under five hundred.
Thanks, Fake Major League Baseball.
Another friend sent around a picture of the daffodils that have sprung up at our church
a sign of hope, as they always are this time of year.
Our dog seems exhausted these days, mainly because she is getting so many walks.
She’s used to having the house to herself, most of the time.
Where are you finding moments of cheer, moments of hope,
reminders that, while none of this is normal,
that we’re working through this the best we can?
For many of us, we turn to Scripture for guidance.
These ancient stories, written by people who were not strangers
to upheaval and chaos
these stories, we believe, can tell us a lot about God,
and can help us see and experience God here, and now.
We have two really powerful stories before us today
both of which speak to times similar to what I we’re going through.
First we have Psalm 130, which is part of a
collection of Psalms called Psalms of Ascents.
The story goes that they were sung by pilgrims
who were making their way up to Jerusalem
hiking their way to “beautiful, beautiful Zion.”
Because Jerusalem is up on a hill,
one literally goes up to get there…thus, these are psalms of ascents.
But when this Psalm starts out with the words
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Hear my voice!
Be attentive to my supplications…”
there’s more going on there than the bottom of a hill.
The Depths is a good image for us
when we are in water that is too deep, and we’re exhausted from trying to stay afloat,
when we’re seeking solid footing, and we just can’t find it,
when we look up and there is so far to go…
The Psalm starts there,
in those moments where we cry out for some stability, some healing, some hope,
and then affirms that God doesn’t leave us there.
That we are not alone.
Sure, we might wait, and wait, and wait,
more than those who watch for the morning, the psalmist says,
which might not make much sense to us
in this age with dependable clocks and cell phones with alarms in them,
but if you can imagine a sentinel,
responsible for the security of her family,
keeping watch over maybe a small camp
or a city, or a family home
waiting for the danger of the night to be over
once the sun might just begin to peek over the horizon…
it’s that moment that the Psalm is trying to capture.
That moment can feel like everything is happening so fast,
while it is the longest of moments,
a time when you think it will never quite happen…
But take heart, says the Psalmist. Hope in the Lord,
because with God there is love, STEADFAST love, and a future with hope.
Where the Psalm talks about The Depths
our other reading, Ezekiel, talks about a valley,
which is another biblical image for kind of the same sort of place…
James Wallace calls this reading from Ezekiel
“one of the most imaginatively dramatic readings in all of Scripture”
and he’s right:
Ezekiel peering out over a desolate valley,
the memory of his nation, a graveyard,
and God asks an unanswerable question: Can these bones live?
And Ezekiel says what we all say, what I sometimes say,
when I just don’t know the answer
to what comes next,
to just how it is all going to get resolved:
Oh God, you know.
And then something powerful happens:
and God stirs things up, a rattling,
bone to its bone, sinew to flesh,
and we’re offered a vision which is meant to be a reminder
that God not only gives life, but restores life,
that death will not have the last word,
even when all signs of life seem to have been taken away.
Like a little branch that might grow up out of a tree stump
or the fresh flower that grows after a wildfire…
situations that seem lifeless and hopeless,
in God’s time, always have potential.
NOTHING is so desolate that God cannot find a way to spark new life.
One of the most jarring experiences I’ve ever had
was also a great gift to me.
A decade ago, in 2010, I was in Guatemala with some other Pastors
meeting and getting to know some Presbyterian friends there.
Toward the end of that trip, we spent a couple of days near Guatemala City
and it just so happened to be toward the end of October,
and our guide suggested that we go take a walk, to see the town
and we did, down toward the city square,
then down a side street
and up a hill toward where things opened up
and we found ourselves heading toward the city cemetery.
Come on, our guide told us,
lets go up and look around…
which didn’t seem to be the right thing for us to be doing.
We Americans don’t usually go hang out at cemeteries, right,
and many of us find them spooky…I certainly always have.
As a child, I can’t tell you
how many Scooby Do episodes
ended up at a graveyard, at night? Right.
But we got a little closer,
and I saw a flicker of something hovering over the graveyard.
Strange, I thought.
And we kept going up, ascending…
and just then I saw MORE objects floating overhead…
and it took just a second or two to make them out….
they were kites
dozens of kites
and when we rounded the corner
there were kids and parents flying them,
running through the cemetery,
laughing and having a great time.
And there were flowers everywhere,
and groups of people, generations, decorating tombs and crypts
while other family members were playing guitar and grilling food.
It was a grand party. Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead,
or better known there in Guatemala as Dia de los Santos, the day of the saints,
a time for families to spend together,
to celebrate the love they have for each other, and their ancestors.
It was such a wonderful thing for me to experience,
someone who always looked on a graveyard as a somber, sad place,
that with the right spirit, even there
we can find joy, and happiness, and nurture the kind of relationships
that help us find and celebrate LIFE, right, even during our most challenging times.
I spent some time this week wondering how people stay RESILIENT.
That’s the quality we are seeking, really,
the ability to weather these times,
to “bend but not break.”
I’ve actually studied Resiliency.
It is a trait that social workers and public health professionals
and pastors, among others,
seek to nurture and cultivate in people, families and communities.
It starts with seeking to take care of yourself: food, rest, recreation,
relationships with people who make you laugh and
who love you and whom you can love.
Resilient people and communities turn toward each other
when they encounter difficulty,
they seek to help others, and receive help in return.
They attend to their stress, don’t try to do too much,
seek help if they’re in the middle of a crisis.
They find bravery in purpose.
They ground themselves in basic values of goodness and compassion.
And Resilient people often find a larger purpose
that can help them put everything in a different perspective.
For those of us who follow God on the way of Jesus Christ,
that perspective might be a reminder that Jesus tells us not to fear
and reminds us that there is always hope,
because God is working to make all things new again.
And so I invite you to join me
as I am waiting for that morning
when we no longer are sheltering in place
and waking up to news about people sick and worried and afraid
as we are waiting for THAT morning,
may we know that our God is the God
who can turn graveyards into places of celebration
who can give us good courage
and who can inspire us to band together
to work our way through this
with resilient love and persistent trust
in the everlasting care of our God.
May it be so. Amen.
Image Credit: under creative commons license from RawPixel, available at https://www.rawpixel.com/image/432013/mountainous-landscape (accessed March 29, 2020)