The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
April 30, 2017
Plymouth Congregational UCC of Fort Collins, CO
Psalm 116: 1-4 and 12-19
Won’t you join with me in prayer? God of all of the movement in our lives, I pray that the words I speak and the meditations we share will all be good in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Many scholars identify Psalm 116 as something they call a “Psalm of Reversal.” One such scholar writes in the Women’s Bible Commentary, “The mood of the book of Psalms moves back and forth from assurance to doubt, from contentment to pain, from joy to despair and back again. But those who speak from peaceful secure, and prosperous settings in life often have different things to say to God and different ways to say them than do those who are in the midst of crisis, trouble, pain, or struggle. A significant portion of the book of Psalms consists of songs of reversal…sung by survivors who attribute their present wellbeing to God’s intervention in their lives…acknowledging that their survival is a gift of Grace from the hand of God.”1
In my preparation for this sermon these past weeks, what stuck with me from my research is this idea that many of the Psalms, like#116, are Psalms of Reversal sung by survivors. The grain of blessing in this is the idea that God’s blessings are not linear or unidirectional. Rather, like life itself, God moves with us both when we feel like we are going forward and when we are stuck in reverse.
Have you ever taught someone how to parallel park? On one of my first dates with my now husband, I taught Gerhard how to parallel park back in Georgia. I knew that we were on the right track after even that task went well! In parallel parking, we are only successful when we are as grateful for the reversals as we are for the forward movements. We cannot only go in one successful direction without also accepting that reversals and changes of direction are also forms of success and surviving. Only when we learn to go in reverse with determination, with precision, and with God’s help can we find our comfortable and well-spaced parking space in life. Today’s Psalm is a Psalm of celebration for God’s help in that successful parallel parking exercise of life. Today’s Psalm is a Psalm of a reversal -- a situation turned around in healing and hope.
Psalms are by definition communal, liturgical, ritual, songs and poems that came from worship settings used by the ancients of our faith and their ancestors to say to us: “No matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey of GREAT Reversals, there is a Psalm/ a Song and a way to speak to God for you. REMEMBER, “…those who speak from peaceful secure, and prosperous settings in life often have different things to say to God and different ways to say them than do those who are in the midst of crisis, trouble, pain, or struggle.” Unlike Parallel Parking, there is no wrong way—the Psalms are our assurance of this. The Psalms and their diversity of moods and tones remind us: You are a survivor; I am a survivor, we are survivors by the grace of God.
If the world “Psalms” were a verb (to Psalm), it would mean, “to express oneself in fullness and authenticity before God and with the support of your community.” Our goal then as church is to Psalm effectively and regularly. How are you Psalming today?
The core message of our Psalm 116 is one of survival and reversal. “You have loosened my bonds. I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.” These words have the same fundamental feeling and purpose as the famous anthem and declaration by Dianna Ross and others who popularly sing, “I will survive… as long as I know how to love… I know I’ll stay alive…I’ve got all my life to live and I’ve got all my love to give. I’ll survive. I will survive.” As long as I live by God’s grace, I will be a survivor in all things. Is this your Psalm today? How are you surviving by love in this life of reversals? Anxiety and hate don’t work for successful survival—regardless of how we are tempted by culture and our friends to rely on them. Only love and grace can bring true survival.
“Those who speak to God from a place of assurance and hope have different things to say and a different structural way to say them than those who are in pain, crisis, loss, tragedy, confusion, denial, or graduation and retirement.” We are entering tomorrow, May Day, into the great month of reversals and changes. The month of May is the month when the world and community turn upside down in Fort Collins and towns like it every year. [Remember the feeling of being a student and what May meant.] The assurance that comes to us first is that while we may have different Psalms to sing and different ways to say a prayer to God at different points in our lives of reversals and changing directions, whether in crisis, love, pain, or pleasure… there is no wrong or inferior Psalm. All Psalms like all prayers and different needs for God at different times of life are created equal.
Our Psalm today is a Psalm of a survivor. “What shall I return to God for all of his bounty to me?” It is a song of gratitude and grace and hope to God from someone who made it, someone who lives, someone who is a survivor. Think of this as the Biblical version of Destiny Child and Beyoncé’s “I’m a survivor. I’m not going to give-up! I’m gunna make it. I will survive. I won’t give up.”
Psalm 116 is Beyoncé’s Psalm—as a survivor who has embraced God’s great reversal in her life. Psalm 116 is the Psalm of the Survivor. I love this part of the Bible for exactly this reason: There is a Psalm for every season. God is a non-linear God who is with us in the times when we cannot even seem to find God in our lives, when we are celebrating, when we are surviving, and when we have survived—survived an unfulfilling or political job, survived a divorce, survived an illness, survived the death of a child, survived depression, survived whatever it is we are faced with by God’s presence and grace. God is a God of Great Reversals—life is not linear leading to Stepford Perfection! The same scholar I quoted earlier also writes in the Women’s Bible Commentary, “[The Psalms] represent the full range of human emotions in conversations with God. In all but a few cases, these deeply human (DEEPLY HUMAN) utterances are addressed directly to God.”2
Many of us who grew-up in the church were led to believe that the Bible was monochromatic. We have all seen or heard of churches and times in history where and when, in the name of Christ, the Sacred texts were complicit with the ways and methods of the political Church, the Bible stories became silent bystanders to abuse, and Scripture became a bland affirmation of what we already new and experience as life without responding for our need for God’s assurance of survival. Today, we reclaim the text as our survival guide.
In fact, the Bible screams out with you in pain, jumps with you in joy, questions with you in times of discernment, asks the universe for salvation with you when you feel like all is lost, and lifts up to God Psalms of Reversal and gratitude when the world turns and God shifts in new and totally radically wildly unexpected ways! Expect the unexpected, Christians. God is a non-linear God of Easter.
What sort of great reversals are happening in your life right now? Moreover, how have you prayed, sung, or otherwise engaged God in those reversals. By reversals, again, I mean those big shifts both good and bad in life—or sometimes both—the full range of human emotions. Retirement, graduation, promotions are all reversals (shifts) that require prayerful joy and careful discernment. I would offer that the Psalms might act as a resource and a guide in all of that. I would even say that it is the reason for religion, for church—to be together in vulnerability, authenticity and to reclaim the stories of survivors of the past for our needs here and now.
In this Eastertide, this season after the story of the resurrection and before the ascension, we celebrate, in many ways what I think of as the Season of Survival—survival even past the point of death and at the doorstep of the unknown sky of possibility. That is why the creators of the lectionary have given us this particular Psalm for today.
One of my greatest mentors, teachers, and my and your last associate minister, The wonderful and compassionate Rev. Sharon Benton, was published in 2013 in a book of liturgy called, From the Psalms to the Clouds: Connecting to the Digital Age. This was a publication of the Pilgrim Press of the UCC of some of the best and most creative liturgy writers from across our denomination. The book is billed as a retelling of the Psalms and worship resources for our time. Sharon is one of the major contributors to that book like how was a major contributor to many of our lives, and it was this book that she chose to leave on her desk when she left her office for me to move into as her mentee and successor.
In that book, she wrote a Psalm of her own for Eastertide that I believe responds to Psalm 116 with words of our time and meaning for today as we all discern, celebrate, and wonder how to be survivors in God’s world of reversals and all forms of human emotion.
From Rev. Benton:
From deep within our tombs we hear you call, O God: Rise up!
Rise up from death into new life.
We have found new life in this spring season, In children joyfully squirming among us,
In each deep breath we breathe.
We have found new life in people’s struggle for Just government throughout the world,
And in nations’ continued support Following natural disasters.
From deep within our tombs we hear you call, O God: Rise up!
Rise up from death into new life.
We follow your voice in our hope to overcome Illness, grief, addiction, fear.
We follow your voice in our hope to heal your creation, Make whole our connection to all that is.
From deep within our tombs we hear you call, O God: Rise up!
Rise up from death into new life.
Resurrecting God, you call us to follow Christ, To rise up from our tombs that hold us in death— But you do not expect us to do so alone.
It is you who fills us with life beyond all our daily deaths. It is you who strengthens us to bring life to others.
It is you, Holy One, who we hear call within our tombs: rise up! And so we do. We have. We are here. Amen.
-The Rev. Sharon Benton
God of Great Changes, Reversals, and Survival, Like our Psalmist says this morning, we will praise you before your people this day for all of the ways that you are with us in our lives of survival. Help us today to bring you gratitude for grace, thanksgiving for healing, and hope for surviving even the most dire and scary times of life.
Bless, O God, today the hearts and souls of those for whom we pray with the same rooted hope, the same determined and ageless sense of your workings in and through our lives… bring them courage, give us strength, we pray God.
Non-linear God of Reversals bring your strength to…these your beloved who are looking for survival of different circumstances:
[Names of those for whom we pray]
Non-Linear God of Peace… we offer likewise gratitude for the survival shown by saying the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: Lord’s Prayer
1 Kathleen A. Farmer, “Psalms,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol Newsom and Sharon H. Ringle, edit. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 147.
2 Ibid, 145.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Hal preaches on Psalm 24:1-6 for Environmental Sunday.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
When I hear the resurrection story from Matthew’s gospel I think I should be wearing a crash helmet and safety goggles. Of the four gospel resurrection accounts, Matthew’s version is the loudest, most bombastic and dangerous, with its earthquakes, lightning fast and dazzling white angel and guards quaking till they faint dead away. It explodes into our imaginations. Matthew narrates his version of the Jesus story with wondrous signs in amazing Technicolor, 3-D and Surround Sound because he wants us to grasp the cosmic implications of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. A new star appears in the heavens to announce his birth and mysterious Gentile visitors, wise wizards from the far east, come to pay this special baby homage. At the moment Jesus dies, Matthew tells us that not only is the curtain of the temple torn in two but the earth shakes, rocks are split in two, tombs are opened and saints of God spill out of them to go walking around Jerusalem even before Jesus’ resurrection! A Roman centurion, one of those least likely to heed the signs, cries out “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Matthew is making sure we get that Jesus brings God’s change for a world in desperate need of change! Change not just for the children of Israel, but for the entire world, the cosmos! Jesus is the Messiah fulfilling the ancient prophesies ushering in God’s Kingdom of love and justice for all people. All is changed irrevocably because Jesus ! All is made new! And we are left breathless with the very dramatic revelation of the good news! Christ is Risen! And you say....Christ is Risen Indeed! Amen!
While the special effects are magnificent and not to taken lightly, I have to admit that there are some subtler moments in Matthew’s story that shake me to the core. There are the moments in the opening lines when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, possibly Jesus’ mom, get up in the dark before sunrise and quietly journey to the tomb looking for their beloved Jesus. They come to anoint his dead body in the proper ritual way. Imagine that journey....the foundation of their world has crumbled....the cornerstone of their lives has been pulled from its place and smashed. My guess is that they are too tired, too numb, too sad to even think about the future of this movement Jesus has started. Nothing matters anymore except to be with him one last time. I have been on such journeys of grief and I bet you have too.
The women reach the tomb just as the all heaven breaks loose with signs and wonders. Then there is the moment of silence after the flash of lightening, the crash of the rolling stone and the thump of the guards slumping to the ground unconscious. I imagine that even the birds are startled into silence. Perhaps the women cough and sputter as the earthquake dust settles and clears, sparkling in the morning light but making no sound. It is utterly still except for the pounding of hearts pounding. And into the stillness, out of the darkness of the tomb, the angel says, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus....”
“Looking for Jesus...” In the midst of all the noise of proclamation the angel speaks the simple truth, “I know you are looking for Jesus...” The phrase haunts me. I have been looking for Jesus all of my life. What about you? In fact I would call my search a habit. Something I do repeatedly time and again, particularly at Easter. I can only think of one Easter in my life when I missed church. Even during the years when regular church-going was not my thing, I was in church on Easter looking for Jesus. We may love the Easter egg hunts and new clothes and big dinners with family and friends, but the real habit of Easter is looking for Jesus. Matthew would tell us in all his signs and wonders that’s because we are looking for God and the life of God’s Kingdom, God’s realm. Isn’t that the place of our deepest curiosity....what is this mysterious thing called Life? Isn’t that why we return habitually to Easter year after year? Looking for new life....looking for Jesus?
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.” Jesus, the man of Nazareth that they knew, crucified because he non-violently confronted the political and religious powers of his time with the love, compassion and distributive, restorative justice of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified,” says the angel. Crucified because he never shied away from Life. Crucified because he lived and preached the wholeness of the Kingdom of God in the very midst of life...with family and strangers, eating and drinking, healing the sick and telling stories to enemies as well as friends, in the midst of controversy with the faith community he loved and conflict with the death-dealing empire of his day.
And the angel continues, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.... indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” He is not here in the halls of the dead, in the dark and moldering confines of a tomb. Jesus is alive and going ahead of you to Galilee, the place where you lived and traveled with him all those years. Galilee, where you live! Jesus is raised and going ahead of you back into life! Go to Galilee, where you live and there you will see him!”
So we make it a habit each Easter to leave our everyday lives and come to church looking for Jesus. But the angel tells us....”He has risen! Go back to your lives...there you will find Jesus, the proclaimer of God’s realm on earth!” The interesting thing about the word “habit” is that it’s original meaning from the Latin was not repetitive action, but was “a place where one dwells, lives, inhabits.” Our habit must be to look for Jesus in all places we inhabit. He is there hiding in plain sight. In ALL that life brings us: family, friends, learning and work, times of challenge, times of celebration, journeys of grief. And in the confrontation with death-dealing empire power, for we, too, live in times when peace is sought by the world’s powers through warfare rather than the sharing of resources, when the fear of scarcity is used as an excuse to make the richer richer and the poor poorer, when human beings seek dominion over the gifts of creation rather than stewardship of creation’s gifts.
My friends, God’s resurrection of Jesus was and still is the resounding NO to empire’s attempt to control through death and scarcity, to create peace through violence. God’s resurrection of Jesus is the resounding YES to Life and to us as co- creators of God’s realm on earth. Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Christ, is with us in all the beauty and the mess: at the egg hunt and the family dinner; in caves obliterated by bombs and in the hospitals where people suffer needlessly from chemical warfare. Children, Jesus is on the playground with you at school. Grown-ups, Jesus is at work with you. Jesus is in the complicated corridors of our nation’s congress. Jesus walks with us here in Fort Collins in the conversation and the conflict of community building. Wherever life takes us the Risen One goes before leading the way because of the power of the living God. We are called to shout NO with God to death and YES with God in Christ to abundant life!
Now that is worth celebrating with a few special effects! Amen.
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.