November 1, 2020
We baby boomers have seen a lot of changes in our lifetime. We grew up on black and white TV's with tiny screens and lots of snow. Now it's at least 52 inch flat screens in high definition. Computers took up whole rooms and only major industries had them. Now our phones have more capabilities than those gigantic computers had. Speaking of phones, the only mobile phones we had growing up was a phone with an extra long cord that would reach into the other room. Our music was AM radio or the hi-fi with records, 45's or LP's. Now you say Alexis, play “I like to move it” and there it is. Changes.
Our Psalm today talks about changes. It is a long psalm and Amy read just portions of it. We didn't read the verses about the troubles the psalmist recorded; lost and wandering in a desert wasteland (4-9), forced to dwell in a place of deep darkness (10-16), sick to the point of death (17-22), caught in a tumultuous storm at sea (23-32). But we did hear about how God can take those troubles and change them into blessings. “(God) turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs;” verse 35.
And that's kind of what the gospel lesson is about too, changing what we think we see, what we think we know, into something completely different. Today's reading is known as the Beatitudes. Jesus was pronouncing blessings that come from what the world would see as curses. Poverty, sorrow, hunger and thirst, persecution, verbal abuse... you are blessed when these things are your reality! Really? They don't sound like blessings, do they?
The Jewish community understood that being blessed meant enjoying material wealth; the rich were righteous and so blessed; the poor were sinners so cursed. Not so in the new kingdom Jesus came proclaiming. And while I've grown up knowing this dichotomy all my life, I'm not sure I like it. I like the idea of good things happening to good people, not the other way around. But how often do we see the good suffer and the liar and thief prosper? We've had these discussions in confirmation class and in our Tuesday morning bible study. When we do, often the idea of karma comes up. Karma is defined as action, work, or deeds. It has come to refer to the principal of cause and effect where good comes to you from good actions and bad from bad. That sounds really fair. And we'd all like to believe that our good would bring God's blessings of comfort and prosperity and good health. Listen to these lines from the Psalm, “(God) blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased, and he did not let their herds diminish.” That sounds good, God's blessings abounding. But he goes one, “Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow.” Present prosperity is never a guarantee of future success, not a promise that troubles won't touch us either as individuals or as a people.
We as a nation are facing another national election with strong feelings on both sides. Like Israel at certain times in their history, we as a nation have been richly blessed with prosperity, with natural resources, with intellectual gifts to name a few. And yet in the midst of all this prosperity, a tiny virus has affected every person in this country; closing down stores and restaurants, bringing loneliness and pain to residents in our care facilities, unemployment, distance learning, postponed seasons. It has divided us physically and politically not to even mention the thousands of deaths. This virus reminds us-- as Psalm 107 does-- we humans are not in total control. How God is using this time in the desert isn't always clear. But there have been unexpected blessings. Distant worshipers joining us on Sunday mornings, new levels of cooperation for businesses and individuals, more compassion, and reminders of what is really important in life.
We completed the Presbytery-sponsored series on the history of race and Christianity this week. One of Sarah's closing statements on Wednesday caught my attention. She said that only twice in the twentieth century did the Church come together to condemn a society that was denying the truth of Jesus. Once was in Germany when the national church went along with Adolf Hitler. The church made a statement called the Barmen Declaration. That stated that God alone is Lord; not Hitler, not the government--and that all people are created in God's image. Our Presbyterian Church recently approved another creed added to our Book of Confession. The Confession of Belhar came out when the South African Church made white supremacy a part of their doctrine. The confession says, “God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.” That's kind of what Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes, God is the god of the mourners, the meek, the persecuted. They are blessed, not because they are esteemed or happy, but because God is often found to be nearest to those, to us, in our times of greatest need. As we mourn the losses we face; our private sorrows and trials as well as our national woes and worries, remember that God is the God of those who mourn. God is the God of those who face persecution, and sickness and poverty and sorrow and pain. As lost as we might feel when we are facing these thing, remember that we are no farther from God in these times. Might we find the blessings Jesus speaks of in the very things that cause us to weep? Might we see glimpses of God's kingdom in the journey through COVID-19? Might we receive God's mercy as we show mercy to those who have different stories than ours? Might we find hope even in the results of a divisive election?
You see, it's okay if we don't understand all of God's workings; okay if we can't see what's at the end of the election or the virus or the sorrow or even what tomorrow might bring. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who wrote of his connection to God in many books. Kris Marshall shared his message on her Facebook page this week, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
God blesses us, not by taking away the challenges of life, not by giving us all the answers to our questions, or by even changing our desert into an oasis. We are blessed because God has promised to be with us, to bless us in our spiritual deserts. Psalm 107 is the story of trials and restoration; of doubts and faith. The Beatitudes teach us that Jesus has turned our personal and communal trials into blessings, our doubts into hope. We are witnesses of God's work in the past and we place our trust in God for our future. A future that will not be doomed if the elections don't go our way. A future that is not blessed only if we are prosperous. A future that will be filled with changes but a future that we trust is in God's hand because God walks with us through the valleys and in the garden. Face the future, the changes ahead with courage, faith and hope. God is with us... we are blessed. Amen.
Hymn: God of our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand