A friend of mine mentioned to me a number of years ago how difficult attending church was for him when he went through a rough spell in his life. He was going through a divorce and was exceptionally lonely. 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 into 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?”
A sermon based on Psalm 1.
It’s a tough question for a pastor, of course. But it’s a real one. And unless we deal with the real questions of life from time to 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 each one who walks through the doors of this church. I wish I could counteract the self-doubt and fear. I wish I could magically heal any relationships that are broken and leaving a destruction in their wake. I would love to take each teen struggling with their sense of self-worth and reassure them that life does indeed get better. I wish I could make all of the financial hardships disappear, and have new jobs for all those who want them. I am not Aladdin’s genie or Harry Potter or Gandolf, and I am certainly not Jesus. I am a simply a parish 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 holy Scripture? How are they nourished even in the midst of hard times?
I suspect many of us have a tendency to make things much 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 pretend to not see him because we’re not sure what to say. We hope our teens will figure it out along the way and we’re not quite sure what to do to help them. We live on the sidelines in our relationships and in our spiritual life, afraid or unsure of how to act, uncertain of what is next.
Henry David Thoreau lived less than twenty miles from here at Walden Pond when he penned some of his most famous words: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He published them just six years before this church was founded. And yet in spite of the 169 years since, it seems we still live behind masks of our own forming; 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 tend to think that we are more 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 messed up things that happened back thousands of years ago, in many ways it’s not so different from 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.” All of it comes down to just that: love. God and your neighbor. Love them without fail. Love them without worrying about yourself first. Love them even when it’s not convenient. Love.
Yet we do not fully love. Either because we don’t know how or because we are hiding behind desperate masks. Or because we’re afraid of what it might cost us.
I do not know why we don’t love as we should, but I do know that loving God and loving our neighbor becomes unnecessarily difficult when we choose to look 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. To wither.
“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 God’s call to love. We are blessed if we love God, if we desire to follow God’s yearnings for us and if we show love to those 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 there is the important reminder: we need to take that first step. We cannot expect change without moving toward what we long for ourselves. We need to lower our 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.
That’s what I want to say most to Miley and Skylar this morning as they come to the waters of baptism. There will be times in life when you will need water for your soul, so come and find it in the presence of God. Come before the Almighty and offer the love that you have, no matter how incomplete you may think it to be. Come and find refreshment. God is always here for you.
And how would I answer my friend’s question about how to bring life to those of us who are hurting? I’d say this: God’s deep desire for you is the fullness of life that you seek. All of us will lumber along at times in our lives in attempts to both declare that love and show it. Yet keep trying because it is the only way that we will draw closer to that stream of living water. It is the only way that any of us will flourish.
So, friends, come. Come 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 put down our masks and be vulnerable and share in the life God that longs for us to have. It is here that we can experience God’s unconditional love.