One of my seminary professors wrote in a commentary that nobody would be preaching on anything other than the Gospel this week because it is so familiar and so focused on love (you can read it here). And he’s right, given the texts most preachers would be drawn to it. But having lived recently in a desert climate, I couldn’t help but think about the image of a tree planted by streams of water from Psalm 1. I had planned to preach mostly on Matthew’s Gospel this week, but I got overtaken by the image of the tree needing water. And so that’s what I did.
Sometimes life is pretty hard. So I wanted to talk about that today, about what difference it makes to come to church and whatnot. My sermon is on Psalm 1.
A friend of mine has said to me a couple of times how difficult attending church was for him when he went through a rough spell in his life. He was going through a divorce and lonely as all get out. He had to change churches along the way—in a divorce it seems, even in spite of the best intentions of the clergy person, someone gets the church—and so walking in to a new church as a middle-aged single man was hard because not many folks reached out to him. He would be almost entirely ignored during the peace. He would often go to coffee hour and stand by himself while others mingled around him. He’s a gregarious person, mind you, but church was painful.
“People are hurting,” he’d say to me. “How is your church connecting to them? How are you bringing them life?”
It’s a tough question for a preacher and a pastor, of course. But it’s a real one. And unless we deal with the real questions of life from time to time, if not most of the time, then we might as well hang it up and shutter the windows.
I wish I could take away all the pain that is experienced by everyone who walks through the doors of this church. I wish I could counteract the self-doubt and fear. I wish I could magically heal each relationship that is broken and leaving destruction in its wake. I would love to take each teen struggling with their sense of self-worth and reassure them that life does get better. I wish I could take all of the financial hardships and make them disappear, and have new jobs for all those who want them. I am not Aladdin’s genie or Harry Potter or Gandolf and certainly not Jesus. I am a merely a priest.
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,” we heard the Psalmist declare this morning, “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on it day and night. They are like trees planted near streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Who are these ones meditating day and night on the law of the Lord, on the holy Scripture? How are they nourished even in the midst of hard times?
We have a tendency to make things too difficult in our lives. We can see the deterioration of a relationship over months or even years but be unable to take any action until it is too late. We watch someone like my friend who is alone in a pew and just ignore him because we’re not sure what to say. We hope our teens will figure it out along the way and we expect them to do this on their own. We live on the sidelines in much of our relationships and in our spiritual faith, afraid sometimes to act, uncertain of what is next.
Thoreau lived less than thirty miles from here on Walden Pond when he penned the words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They were published a mere 6 years before this church was founded. It seems we still live behind masks, unnourished; we are trees withering and in desperate need of a drink.
“Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on it day and night. They are like trees planted near streams of water.”
We think we are so advanced in our day and age. We’ve got technology and an understanding of the human psyche and civilized notions, and yet we still face a life of difficulties like they did in biblical times. If you read the stories of scripture and the screwed up things that happened back thousands of years ago, in many ways it’s not really different than picking up today’s Sunday Globe and reading it.
We heard the distilled version of the law this morning from Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, which is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” It comes down, all of it, to that. Love. God and your neighbor. Love them without fail. Love them without worrying about yourself first. Love them when it’s not convenient. Love.
Yet we do not fully love. Either because we don’t know how or because we are hidden behind desperate masks of our own making. Or because we’re afraid of what it might cost us.
I read an amazing op-ed this past week from the New York Times, called “Notes from a Dragon Mom.” Emily Rapp writes, “My son, Ronan, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. His eyes are bright and focused. Ronan means “little seal” in Irish and it suits him.
I want to stop here, before the dreadful hitch: my son is 18 months old and will likely die before his third birthday. Ronan was born with Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disorder. He is slowly regressing into a vegetative state. He’ll become paralyzed, experience seizures, lose all of his senses before he dies. There is no treatment and no cure.
How do you parent without a net, without a future, knowing that you will lose your child, bit by torturous bit?
Depressing? Sure. But not without wisdom, not without a profound understanding of the human experience or without hard-won lessons, forged through grief and helplessness and deeply committed love about how to be not just a mother or a father but how to be human.”
She writes about what it’s like to live as a parent knowing your child will have no future, when all of childhood seems geared toward that future on which hopes and dreams are staked. She homes in on the thing that is necessary in life, “the only task … is to love.”
I do not know why we don’t love as we should, but I do know that for many loving God and loving our neighbor seems like an insurmountable task, especially when we are looking in from the sidelines. I don’t know if it is fear or a lack of loving ourselves or pride or some combination of those or other things, but whatever it is, we hold back, and we are dying of thirst. And when we hesitate and don’t move toward love, it becomes easier and easier to stay where we are, to remain closed off, to keep hidden behind the wall, to desperately languish by ourselves.
“Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord,” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are happy if we delight in love. We are blessed if we love God, if we desire to follow God’s yearnings for us and if we show love to each person whose lives intersect with ours. We are nourished and rejuvenated and strengthened and restored.
The first step is in looking beyond ourselves. It is in reaching out to both God and others.
And this important reminder: we need to take that first step. We cannot expect change without moving incrementally toward the goal. As the Chinese philosopher put it, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We need to lower the masks. We must recognize our own quiet desperation and seek God, recognizing that loving God with all our heart begins with an action like coming toward this altar rail or kneeling quietly in prayer or taking a walk in the afternoon sun asking God for guidance.
I cannot wave a wand to make your life—or even my own life—better; I am no miracle worker. But I think in the long run that’s for the better and that we can be made stronger by facing the challenges before us. There have been times in my own life where I have worn the masks and been overcome by fear. There were moments when I felt that I would not make it through the darkness. I wish I could say that I always had amazing faith for those times and made it through unscathed, but that would be a lie. Sometimes I have been the tree away from the stream dying for a drink. I too bumble along at times needing to be reminded that it is about love and ruminating on that love day and night.
So how would I answer my friend’s question about how to bring life to those of us who are hurting? I’d say this: I stand before you proclaiming that God’s deep desire for you is the fullness of life that you seek, knowing full well that I will lumber along myself in attempts to both declare that love and show it. Yet I will keep trying because I know that it is the only way that I will draw closer to the stream of living water. It is the only way that any of us will flourish. So come. Come to this church and to this table because it is here that we can reconnect with God; it is here that we can find comfort and grace and acceptance for who we are. It is in this place that we can finally let down the masks and be vulnerable and share in the life God longs for us to have. Amen.