Psalm 137 is one of the most disturbing passages in the whole Bible. Its closing line is what bothers me most: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” An outburst like that seems out of place in the same book where Jesus teaches us to bless those who persecute us and forgive those who have sinned against us.
Some have suggested that the psalm, so full of anger and hatred, shouldn’t really have a place in the Bible now that Jesus has come, that it’s made obsolete by Jesus’ gospel of love and forgiveness. The problem is that God reveals himself to us through the entire Bible, not just those parts that suit our taste. II Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” There are certain practices in the Old Testament that we’re no longer bound to do now that Jesus has come. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul said that women should keep quiet in church, but we no longer have to refrain from eating certain foods like pork or shellfish. Those restrictions were one way the Israelites set themselves apart from other nations, and now all nations are one in Christ. We no longer prevent women from speaking in church. Those restrictions were accommodations to social norms of the time. But the anger that the psalmist expresses is as real today as it was 3000 years ago. The only difference is that now instead of having to resort to rocks and spears to avenge anger, there are missiles and tanks and car bombs to use against enemies.
One thing that can help us understand this psalm is to remember that although the Bible is inspired by God, it was written by and for human beings. One characteristic of the Bible that makes it so valuable is that it deals with every human emotion, from lust to greed to pity to romance. The Bible has been called “the book that reads us.” It not only tells us about God, it also tells us about ourselves. As we learn about who we are from the Bible, we can also learn something about the way God relates to us.
Psalm 137 shows us what kinds of things we can bring to God in prayer. Many of us think of prayer as something we can only do when we’re in the right frame of mind – our souls have to be fresh and scrubbed and filled with pure, clean thoughts. Maybe that’s why many of us pray so little: we’re rarely in the right frame of mind. We try to put away all our anger and hatred and pettiness before we come to God so God can see us at our best, and we find that so often, when we sit down to pray, we’re just not ready.
Now, that’s a noble goal, to try to be our best before the Lord. But one wonderful thing about God is that God invites us to come before him just as we are. We don’t have to have our spiritual house in perfect order before we can pray.
In the 137th psalm the psalmist makes no pretense that he has any kind thoughts toward those who burned his home, raped his sisters, and carried his nation into exile. He doesn’t pretend to keep his sense of humor when his captors make fun of his most deeply held beliefs by forcing him to sing sacred songs intended for God as light entertainment to help them wile away the evening. No, the psalmist doesn’t try to put a pleasant face on his feelings. He’s totally honest with God. He would love to see the things most precious to the Babylonians, even their children, thrown headlong against a rock.
Sometimes we have to voice our rage before we’re able to forgive. As one writer put it, “Grief and sorrow that go unspoken may break the heart that hugs them tight.” (Herbert Anderson, All Our Sorrows, All Our Griefs) And where better to take that rage than to Almighty God? God allows us to bare our meanest, most vicious side to him. After all, God created us and knows our deepest feelings. We can bring God our most human emotions confident that God doesn’t reject us. God doesn’t turn us away because we’re made of flesh and blood and not perfect angels.
It’s important to note that the psalmist didn’t actually go out and organize a posse to murder Babylonian babies. He told God how he felt, but didn’t act on that bitter feeling. He cried out to God for vindication, and left it in God’s hands. About 100 years later God did deliver the Jews from captivity. The Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go home to Jerusalem. But Cyrus, King of Persia, was a relatively gentle conqueror by the standards of the time. He didn’t murder babies. He didn’t ravage Babylon like the psalmist wanted. God did deliver the Jews from captivity, but in God’s own way.
Another thing this psalm tells us about ourselves is that forgiveness isn’t something that can be forced too quickly. It would be a lot easier to accept if the psalm ended on a note of forgiveness, if we could see some peaceful resolution in the heart of the one who wrote it. But it doesn’t resolve itself that way. It ends on a note of bitterness and resentment. Sometimes anger has to run its course before we’re able to forgive. And this psalm stops before it ever gets to the point of forgiveness.
To those who have never lived in exile, who have never felt the cold grip of the oppressor, who have never felt completely powerless over our destiny, such unresolved anger may be hard to understand. I find the bitterness of the psalm, well, embarrassing because it’s just not proper to be so angry. But not everyone in the world has the luxury of forgiving easily. This psalm is a link with those who live in situations that seem hopeless, those whose only relief in suffering is to cry out their complaint to God who hears. Although these cries of an exile may sound harsh to us, they resonate in the ears of a Palestinian who has been deprived of her homeland and is rearing a fifth generation of children in a refugee camp. The words of the psalm may be the words of an Honduran father whose child was killed by in a gang war. These words could be those of a woman in Syria who has been enslaved by ISIS and forced to be the wife of someone who has murdered her family. These could even be the words someone in your neighborhood who is held emotionally captive by an abusive spouse.
Most of us have so many things that preoccupy us that it’s easy to overlook the kind of suffering and oppression that goes on in the lives of others, especially those who are separated from us by an ocean. When you have a job to hold down, a family to rear, bills to pay, there’s not much time or emotional energy left to give much thought to people whose situation is very different from yours. This psalm is our link with those whose only hope is in raising their cries of anger to a just God. It’s one way that we who are free from oppression keep from seeing our freedom as something to take for granted. It does something to our prayers to realize that they’re heard by the same God who hears the anguished cries of those who have been abused, that our prayers are mingled in the ears of God with those who have been put down and degraded.
In Christ we have the assurance that he will come to make all things right, to deliver this world from all pain and suffering and oppression. We know that in him there is nothing that can overcome us. But God doesn’t expect us always to have a smile. There are times when smiles aren’t appropriate. It’s comforting to know that between the promise of the resurrection and its fulfillment on the day of judgment, we can come to God with our most human emotions, even our most precious hatreds, and God will hear us. God meets us where we are. That’s not always where we want to be, but not even our anger, our grief, our hatred can keep God away. He hears us and draws us to this table, where we partake of his healing grace along with all who have ever called on God’s name. Come. God meets us here.
Jesus has a way of getting to the heart of things.
Someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Like so many families, the parents’ death had exposed the fault lines in the family system. The estate had become the focal point for deep-seated sibling rivalries. How the assets were distributed had become a matter of principle, and it’s only right to stand up for principles – especially if you have something to gain.
So this principled man tried to enlist Jesus in his cause. He knew that Jesus is all about justice and fairness and what’s right, so obviously Jesus was going to back him up so he would get what was justly, rightfully and fairly his.
But Jesus would have none of it. Jesus wasn’t going to arbitrate between degrees of greed. He was on his way to Jerusalem and a cross. He had far more important things to do than to get caught up in a dispute over who should get how much of a windfall. How the estate was divided may have been a matter of principle to the man, but Jesus knew it was a distraction from what really matters. That’s the danger of money.
Studies have shown that very wealthy people give away a smaller percentage of their income than people who don’t have much money. Granted, if someone who has an income of 10 million dollars gives away 1%, they’re giving more money than someone who has an income of $10,000 and gives away 10%. The rich person who gives 1% gives away $100,000 whereas the poor person who gives away 10% only gives $1000. But the poor person is going to feel the impact of that gift more than the rich person. It’s going to be more of a sacrifice. Jesus made that point one day when he pointed to a poor widow putting a few cents in the temple offering. He told the Pharisees that her offering, given from her need, was greater in God’s eyes than a large amount of money given by someone who would hardly feel its loss.
A study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tried to find out why there’s that difference in giving between those who have very much and those who have less. Its conclusion was that lower-income people are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others because they are more attuned to the needs of others. The greater the gap between those with large sums of money and those who are poor or struggling, the harder it is for the wealthy to relate to the less well off. When a person’s income is closer to those who are in need, they tend to take the attitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But as the income gap widens, those at the top lose touch with those at the bottom. Another interesting study by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that only a small percentage of the charitable giving of the wealthy actually goes to the needs of the poor. It’s mostly directed to other causes like cultural institutions or universities where gifts often return the benefit of recognition by one’s peers with such things as naming privileges or access to other influential people.
As Jesus began his ministry, he told the people of his hometown of Nazareth what his mission was. He said God had anointed him “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18). He invites us to join him in that mission, but he warns how easy it is to let our possessions distract us from what really matters.
Jesus told of a farmer who had great success. His fields produced more than his barns could hold. Being a responsible man, he made plans to expand his barns to hold all the wealth he had acquired. Like someone whose life goal is to make lots of money so they can retire early and enjoy life, he sat back when he’d finally arrived and said to himself, “Ah, I’ve made it. Now I can enjoy the fruits of my labors.” And who could take issue with him? Nowadays we’d say he’d accomplished the American dream. He’d worked the system fairly, and he’d been rewarded. He was satisfied and fulfilled. But for all his success, in God’s eyes he was an idiot. God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Usually we picture that as a deathbed encounter with the lesson being, You’d better live right today, because you might be hit by a bus tonight. But sometimes God, in God’s mercy, demands our soul of us long before our death. God encounters us, demands our soul, and gives it back to us, redeemed.
I have a friend named Bob who worked very hard and became an officer and a large stock holder in a local bank. His bank was bought by one of those regional banks, and he received a sum of money that set him up for the rest of his life. Still only in his 50s, he was faced with the same question as that successful farmer: What is to become of all that I’ve worked so hard to achieve? He worked on his golf game, took some great trips, and bought property in the country. He also started studying the Bible. He joined the church. He became involved in a prayer group. In response to that spiritual quest, he felt his soul was being demanded of him. Bob turned his considerable executive skills to helping the poor. He was instrumental in forming a public-private partnership that tore down one of the most depressing, crime-ridden housing projects in the city and replaced it with a mixed income community that gives poor people not only a roof over their heads but also dignity. He became active in a community center sponsored by the city’s churches, went on its board, and helped it raise significant money to expand its services. He became very active in our congregation. He taught fifth grade Sunday school, was a confirmation sponsor, and was chosen to serve as an elder. Bob was a trusted friend of mine, and when we were discussing plans for the future of the church, he would always raise the annoying question, “How does this help the poor whom Jesus came to serve?” When God demanded Bob’s soul and asked, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Bob’s answer was, “They’re yours, Lord.”
God doesn’t have anything against wealth per se. When God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, God promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where they would prosper and flourish. Along with that wealth God also gave them the gift of the tithe, the command that they return one tenth of their wealth back to God so they wouldn’t forget where their wealth came from. The tithe was God’s way of reminding the Israelites that even their skill and their intelligence that produced wealth were gifts they hadn’t earned. God told Israel to tithe so their possessions wouldn’t possess them, so they would always put first things first.
That’s not a bad formula for us. The benefit of a tithe, or giving away a certain percentage of our income, is that it keeps us focused in the right direction. It’s a reminder that the other 90% that we keep also is a gift to us from God and that ultimately our relationship with God is what matters, not how much stuff we have.
Like the farmer in Jesus’ story, we’re prone to think that we deserve all the credit for our success, that it’s something we did on our own thanks to our skill and our intelligence. But it’s interesting that when Jesus tells the story of the rich farmer, he says “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” He doesn’t talk about the man’s skill or his diligence or his moral character. He’s rich because the land that God had given him prospered.
Andrew Carnegie, who wasn’t a religious man, recognized the transience of wealth. Granted, he didn’t live a shabby lifestyle, but he’s famous for observing that “The man who dies rich is a failure.” He said he worked harder giving his wealth away than he did earning it. Warren Buffett, who’s also not very religious, recognizes the same thing. He doesn’t work so hard at being a philanthropist. He has bequeathed his fortune to the Gates Foundation because of their track record in making a difference for the poor and disposed of the world. Buffett knows he’s not totally responsible for his success. That’s why he doesn’t oppose paying taxes because he realizes that for all his brilliance as an investor, he couldn’t have achieved what he’s achieved without the infrastructure of public services and a wisely regulated marketplace.
Philanthropists like Carnegie and Buffett and Gates aren’t necessarily motivated by faith, but they know that there’s something about the human spirit that wealth can’t satisfy. Jesus invites us to give away everything we have, even ourselves, just as he gave himself for us on the cross. That still leaves plenty of room for the great political debates of our day about the proper role of government, the burdens of taxation, and the place of regulations. But if we ask those questions with the accumulation of wealth as our highest ideal and not in pursuit of the common good, then we’re as foolish as the man who asked Jesus to arbitrate his greed.
When Jesus warned
that man about the perils of wealth, Jesus was on his way to the cross. He
invites us to go to that cross with him, where all our principles, our values,
our achievements and our possessions are nailed with him. We give all those
things up to the cross, and what he gives back to us is life, a life that is
committed to those things that don’t forsake us when our soul is demanded of
us. Jesus invites us to join him in his work of peace and justice and love and
righteousness and those things that last. He doesn’t invite us to join him so
we can maximize ourselves. If we have wealth to bring along and contribute to
that work, so be it. But don’t let your possessions, your principles, or
anything else distract you. What he wants is you, and he’ll give you what you
need so that you’re rich in what really matters – rich toward God.
 Judith Warner, “Helping Hand?” The New York Times Magazine, August 22, 2010, pp. 11-12.
Do you adults remember when it dawned on you that you were going to grow up? I’m not talking about those playful fantasies we had when adults would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we replied, “A pilot,” or “A teacher,” or “A baseball player.” I mean that awareness in your gut that one day you would no longer be a kid.
I remember when it dawned on me. I was in the sixth grade. I was lying in bed one night and it hit me that the time was coming when I would be on my own. There would be a time when I would no longer live with my parents. I would be responsible for my own decisions. I would have to provide for myself. It was scary. I wasn’t ready for all that. How would I know how to be an adult? Into those worried thoughts floated the voice of my father talking on the telephone in the next room. He was talking business. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but the sound reassured me. The next morning he would go off to work to provide for us. Mom would have breakfast on the table and make sure I got to school. It wasn’t time to grow up yet. Tomorrow I could still be a kid. My parents were still watching over me, and when it came time for me to leave home, they’d make sure I was ready. So I went to sleep.
It’s an age-old story. One generation nurtures and guides the next so it can claim its future. Each generation does its part then hands what it has done over to those who come behind. What they’ve worked for no longer belongs to them. It belongs to those who follow. God promised Israel through the prophet Joel that the day is coming when everyone will see the world differently, when old and young will see visions and prophecy and God will restore the whole creation to wholeness. It’s that vision of a world that isn’t defined by scarcity, and our expectations aren’t constricted by human limits. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, that new era has begun, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we’ve received the power to live into it. The future that we pass on to our children isn’t just one more loop in a cycle of life and death that repeats itself over and over. It’s a future that changes the way we live now because Jesus has shown us what he is preparing us for, a glory beyond all comprehension that shines back on us right now.
Of course parents have the front-line responsibility for preparing children to receive the future God has prepared for them. When parents present their child for baptism, one of the questions they’re asked is, “Do you intend your child to study [Jesus], know him and be his faithful disciple?” Parents start teaching children about God from birth. One way we speak of God is as a loving parent. Eventually a child will learn that we pray “Our Father who art in heaven.” But before we learn that God is our Father, we’ve experienced the love of our fathers or those who are like fathers to us. Before we know God is like a mother, we’ve felt the love of our mothers or those who care for us like a mother. Parents are the first teachers about God. They are the first ones who prepare their children to claim the promises that God has for them in Christ.
But parents quickly learn they can’t do it alone. Once I was talking with the mother of young children at a church supper. Her family had been sporadic in their participation in the life of the church, but lately they had been showing up at church regularly. She wanted to explain to me why we were seeing more of them. “My husband and I decided it’s really important for our kids to know about God,” she said. “We have a pretty strong faith, but we realized we can’t do it on our own. We’re so grateful for this,” she said gesturing to the people who were gathered for supper. “We want them to be part of this.”
People who work with children and youth, Sunday school teachers and youth advisors, don’t always know the powerful impact they have on kids. In a church I once served I got a phone call one day from one of the elders. He was getting near retirement, and he had a trust fund he wanted to deplete. He told me he was going to give it the church, but he wanted it to remain anonymous. The gift was $40,000 a year for ten years to support the work of our Sunday school teachers. Because of his generosity our teachers received training in the summer before the new school year began. We were able to pay the expenses of youth advisors on retreats and mission trips. We bought furniture and supplies and technological equipment to enhance the learning in our Sunday school. One of the stipulations of his gift was that we also help the Sunday school of an African American church. So with the help of our executive presbyter, we approached an African American Presbyterian church in a depressed part of town and entered into a partnership. It started with our Sunday school teachers attending training retreats together. It developed into our participation in starting a Kids Café after school program at our partner church. It grew into an annual joint worship service at the zoo. The partnership expanded into shared cultural events like jazz concerts for the community. Our sessions went on retreat together. And do you know why this person chose to use his wealth in this way? Because of Sunday school teachers. When he first approached me about making that gift, he told me what an impact his Sunday school teachers had on him as a child. He called them “ministering angels.” And he was grateful for everything Sunday school teachers had done for his children and grandchildren. Here’s a perfect example of someone putting his treasure where his heart is, and God taking that treasure and multiplying it beyond what anyone expected. Two generations later we were receiving the fruit of seeds that were planted by Sunday school teachers who would never know, at least in this life, what a powerful impact they had.
But nurturing the next generation to receive what God has prepared for them isn’t something we can delegate to parents and Sunday school teachers. Children don’t stop learning when they walk out of their Sunday school classes into the church corridors. The church is the household of faith, and everyone in the house is a teacher, whether we know it or not. Everything we adults do tells children, who are more observant than we know, something about being a disciple of Christ. What you say to a child as you leave the sanctuary today, what a child observes about the way you welcome a stranger, what they overhear you saying about someone when you don’t think they’re listening – those are all lessons about what it means to belong to the family of God.
Children and youth are watching everything we adults do. They want to know if this church is a place where it’s worth investing their passions. And children and youth are passionate. They need to care deeply about something. They need to give their lives to something. Woe to us if we teach them that Christ’s church isn’t a worthy place to invest themselves. Woe to us if don’t engage their passions. We adults can get so possessive of our traditions and our proprieties and our quarrels that we lose the passion for the gospel, the thirst for embracing the world that is the reason we’re here. If our children look at us and decide this isn’t a worthy place to invest their passion, it’s like we’ve put a stumbling block in front of them. And do you know what Jesus says about those who put stumbling blocks before the little ones who believe in him? “It would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s how seriously Jesus takes what we teach our children!
This congregation has made a big investment in children. Today we recognize the Eastminster Preschool. We welcome its staff and commission its new directors. We invest a lot of time and resources in the school. Whether they worship here or not, we want every family to see that something different is going on here, something that reflects the beloved community that Jesus has drawn together and gives children a look at how God intends us to live together.
But, you know, all the benefit of reaching out to children doesn’t fall to the kids or their families. The whole church benefits from investing in children and youth. We need them to teach us how to enter the kingdom of God.
A number of years ago Carol and I were co-pastors of a church in a small town in central New Jersey. There was an adult community nearby called Rossmoor. Rossmoor is one of those communities you move to when the children leave home and you’re still active. It has everything for the active senior life – a golf course, tennis courts, a clubhouse. It even has a church, a pretty little free-standing building that looks like it was imported from colonial New England, with its own pastor and governing board and mission outreach. But many of those Rossmoorites, as we called them, would drive the five miles over to Cranbury to go to church. In fact, Rossmoorites were some of our most faithful members. If you asked them why they drove all the way into town, many of them would say, “Because of the children.” They could go all week without laying their eyes on a kid, but they needed to be with the children on Sunday. They especially loved the coffee hour. I often worried about it, all those kids scurrying around old folks with canes and unsteady on their feet. But the senior citizens wanted the children there. In fact, they would put out cookies that acted like bait. The children gave them life and reminded them what they needed to be like to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those retired people knew their Bible. They knew that Jesus said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” They needed the children. They needed them to teach them how to be humble and trusting. They needed them to show the way into the kingdom of heaven.
Isn’t it amazing how God works? Children need adults to teach them and provide for them and prepare them to receive the promises of God. Children need adults to hold them and nurture them as they grow up, to guide them to the promises God has prepared for them. Children need adults to plant the seeds that will grow into treasures they will hand on to those who follow them. Yet we adults need the children to teach us what kind of heart we need to enter the kingdom of heaven. We can’t cross over into the land God has prepared for us unless we become like them. Isn’t it wonderful how God binds us together, one generation to the next? Isn’t it amazing how we learn from one another how to grow up and claim the promises that God’s Spirit has poured out on us all?
9-8-19 — The Story That Shapes Our Lives — Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch
In the early years of his retirement my father organized decades of family photos into a dozen loose leaf binders. After he and my mother died, I loaded those binders into my car and brought them back to Pennsylvania. For six months, I used my spare time to digitize them so they would be accessible to all the members of the family. The binders were piled up in a corner of my study. After I finished with one binder, I’d move it from the “to do” stack to the “finished” stack. About six weeks into the project I had a surprise as I opened the next binder in line to be digitized. Instead of a collection of photographs, when I opened this one I saw a page in bold print that said, “A Memoir for My Heirs by Rufus Gilbert Lytch.” I turned the page and discovered that instead of pictures, it was a collection of type written pages, arranged under headings like “Childhood,” “War Years,” “Marriage and Family,” and “My Career.” There are over 260 pages of memories and stories and reflections. Some of them I’d heard many times around the dinner table. Some answered lingering questions like, “Why did we make that move when I was six years old?” Some filled in things that couldn’t be spoken. I had heard his war stories, but these memoirs filled in some of the parts he had left out, some of the horrors that led, in Dad’s last years, to his diagnosis of PTSD. Some stories were completely new to me, like the one about his first girlfriend. He wrote a preface saying that he recorded all those stories because he wanted his great grandchildren, who would not be born for another 20 years, to know who he was. He admitted that he left some things out. There were some episodes in his life that didn’t fit in with the story. When I finished reading his memoirs, I knew even better the man I’d known my whole life. Here was his story as he knew it, the narrative that shaped his life, that guided the way he reared my brother and me, how he cared for my mother, how he claimed his place in the world.
Every life is shaped by a story. We don’t all take the time or the energy to write it down like my father did, but we human beings make sense out of our lives by fitting them into an ongoing narrative – not just the narrative of our individual lives, but the ongoing story of the whole world. The prophet Habakkuk was struggling with what to do when the story that he had built his life on didn’t seem to make sense any more. He cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!” and you will not save?” He had lived his life trusting that God was good and just and caring, yet this is what he saw: “The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” What do you make of your life if you’ve based in on the story of a God who can be counted on to uphold what is good but all around you the bad seems to have the upper hand?
God answers that question in chapter 2. “Write the vision,” God says. “Make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” That vision is the continuation of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people. The story starts when God created human beings out of dust and entrusted us with the care of creation. The story continues when God chooses Abraham and the people of Israel to be the ones through whom God made himself know to the world. The story tells about exodus and how God delivered God’s people from slavery and defeated their oppressors. It is the story of David’s glory and the wisdom of Solomon. It is the story of God’s promise of a Messiah who would establish goodness and right and peace forever. God tells Habakkuk not to abandon that narrative. That is the story that shapes his life, a story of love and hope and peace. The competing story is a small one. That small story is what he sees all around him. It looks like wickedness and perversion and violence are the real story. If that’s the story that shapes his life, then he will live by cynicism, a “Who cares?” attitude, a goal of getting whatever he can however he can get it. That’s not God’s story. That’s not the story of the One who scattered the stars, sparks love in the human heart, and shows his power by standing for the poor and the oppressed the downtrodden. God’s story is the one that lasts. That’s the one that shapes us into the people God made us to be.
Within the larger narrative that shapes our lives, we follow lots of smaller ones. When we go to the polls to vote, we choose our leaders based in part on whether or not their opinions are shaped by the same narratives we use to shape ours. For instance, if you understand the story of illegal immigrants to be one of bad hombres who are flooding into our country to destroy our civilization, you’ll be inclined to vote one way. If you understand the story of illegal immigrants as one of hard working, enterprising people who contribute to America’s labor force, you’ll be inclined to vote another way. If you see gun control as part of the story of government trying to strip us of our rights to protect ourselves, you’ll be inclined one way. If you see gun control primarily as part of the story of trying to make America safe again, you’ll be inclined another way. If you see same sex marriage as an illustration in the story of America’s moral decline, you’ll be inclined to support certain candidates. If you see it as an example of America’s ongoing commitment to equality for all, you’ll be inclined another way.
Or think how we are shaped by our understanding of the story of our family. When a husband and a wife understand their marriage as the story of two people who share experiences and values, and which will not end until death do they part, then a marriage can endure lots of challenges. Mistakes and disappointments and fights can be incorporated as incidents in a larger story of working through hard times and emerging stronger on the other side. Marriages fall apart when spouses begin to realize that the story isn’t working, that the narrative is pointing in a different direction, that the one you loved can’t fit into the story of your life after all.
When Paul greeted the Christians in Thessalonica, he addressed them as the church “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He said that he boasted about them to other churches for their steadfastness and faith during all their persecutions and afflictions. The church is those whose lives are guided first and foremost by the narrative of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Our overarching story, the story into which we fit all of our other life stories, is the story of Jesus Christ. It is the story of the one God has sent to continue the story that sustained Habakkuk, the one who shows us how to live as participants in the story of what God is doing in the world. On the cross Jesus demonstrated what perfect love is. He draws us into that love and puts to death the evil, wicked part of us that is shaped by those small, false stories that beckon us and cause us to do things we are ashamed of. Those are probably the things my father chose not to record in his memoirs. Those are not the things that define us. Our mistakes and our failures happen, but they don’t define us. Our story is the story of the one who raises us with him into eternal life and makes us part of that grand story of transforming creation in love and justice and peace.
As he ascended into heaven, Jesus said, “I am with you always.” He is not an absentee landlord who watches passively over us. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he is with us, participating in our story, taking the incidents of our lives and weaving them into his grand narrative. Becoming part of his story means that we don’t just follow rules to make sure we qualify to be snatched out of this world and escape into heaven. We know that our lives matter because we matter to God. Knowing they are part of that story leads some people to do heroic deeds. Mother Teresa lived among the poor in Calcutta. Millard Fuller gave away his fortune and started Habitat for Humanity. We can think of people, right here at Eastminster church, whose lives we’d like to emulate because they make such an impact on this world God loves. But living into the story of God’s love for creation doesn’t have to involve heroic deeds. Receiving each day with a prayer of gratitude, looking for those places that you can reveal a glimpse of Christ’s love while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, living today as a prayer offered up to God, those are ways we can glorify God by letting our lives be shaped by God’s narrative of love and grace.
Knowing that we belong to that story allows us to complain to God, to shake our fist at God, to cry out to God like Habakkuk did, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” The psalmist tells us that God gathers our tears in a bottle. God takes what happens and folds it into the ongoing story of life and hope. We never know the details of the story line that lie ahead, and we are continually reinterpreting the story that has already occurred. But we know where the big story is headed. That’s why Paul closes his greeting to the Thessalonians by saying, “To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This morning we install and commission those whom we believe God has chosen, through the voice of this congregation, to lead Eastminster as we claim our part in the story of God’s work here in East York. Those elders, deacons and trustees have accepted the call to lead us as we pray, study scripture, listen to one another, and discern what is going on around us and tell the story of what God is doing here and now. We are going to make a promise to pray for them, encourage them, respect their decisions, and follow as they guide us. Like the Thessalonians, this is a church in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are living out his story, the one that shapes our lives.