Scripture Reading - Psalm 56
Psalm 56 (New Revised Standard Version)
1 Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me;
2 my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many fight against me.
O Most High, 3 when I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me?
5 All day long they seek to injure my cause;
all their thoughts are against me for evil.
6 They stir up strife, they lurk,
they watch my steps.
As they hoped to have my life,
7 so repay them for their crime;
in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
8 You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?
9 Then my enemies will retreat
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.
10 In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
11 in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me?
12 My vows to you I must perform, O God;
I will render thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered my soul from death,
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life.
This past week was the first time this year I was able to get out to the beach. Ben and Michael were away for the day, and the dog needed a walk, so I leashed her up to her long line and off we went. Of course, I do what I always do when I walk along the beach - which is look for interesting bits of rock and seaglass to add to my collection. I used to just stuff my findings into my pockets, but I’ve started to take a bag with me as I gather together interesting shapes, textures, and colors.
Now I’ve heard that if you live on Chebeague long enough, you’ll start to amass such a collection that beachcombing doesn’t necessarily hold the same appeal after a while - maybe that’ll be true for me but probably not, because ever since I was a little girl at the beach by the house where I grew up, I collected bits of rock and shells and seaglass, and somewhere I still have a jar of beach treasures I found as a kid.
I think of beachcombing as an adventure - you never know what you are going to find - if you will find that elusive bit of blue glass - or something even rarer...perhaps a bit of beach pottery with the design still showing...or a heart shaped rock. Even green or brown or white pieces still prove to be an exciting find - gathered up and marveled at. Each piece was once lost - undiscovered, forgotten, buried under sand or cast out far at sea - but is now found, gathered, saved, and treasured.
In the same way, God searches for, finds, and gathers us up - saves us. One of my favorite ideas in the Wesleyan tradition is that of prevenient grace - God’s grace that works in our life before we are even aware of who God is. It is the idea that it is God’s action in our lives that draws us into deeper relationship - not our own initiative - and that it is God who gathers us together into the Body of Christ, where the lost is found and healing is possible.
The psalm we read this morning points to this offer of hope and healing and the idea that God accounts for us and delivers us. The psalm is one of the ones we know was written by David, at a time when he was fleeing for his life and ran in the heart of enemy territory to escape King Saul - to the city of Gath which was controlled by the Philistines...and was Goliath’s hometown. Not exactly the safest place for David to be - recalling that David had defeated Goliath, the Philistine’s champion, with a stone and a sling. The psalm is David’s prayer to God when he is literally cut off from his people, surrounded by enemies, threatened by all sides - and yet knows that God will still deliver him - save him - from the hands of his foes.
The image that stands out to me from the psalm is from verse 8, where David says to God, “You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” The image on the front of our bulletins this morning is from Elaine Heath, former dean of Duke Divinity School, who currently is working on a project called the Garden at Spring Forest - a place of rest and renewal and intentional Christian community. Members work on the farm and are committed to the ministry of hospitality, prayer, and justice.
As they were working on their land, they found an area in the forest where someone decades ago had dumped many bottles and jars. Instead of getting rid of them, they cleaned up the area, washed what could be salvaged, and created the arrangement you see on the cover as a reminder of this verse. Elaine Heath writes, “The bottle in this passage refers to ancient funerary bottles in which mourners would collect tears. God mourns with us in our losses and pain, noting every tear and grieving with us. The lights in our arrangement represent divine presence with us in our grief.”
She continues to share that later during the year, her community will create a Tear Bottle trail as a type of prayer labyrinth designed for lament, incorporating these jars as part of that display.
God accounts for our tears - guards and gathers them for safekeeping - and delivers and saves us...for David concludes his prayer with: “You have delivered my soul from death and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.”
God provides a safe place for healing and restoration - gathers us together into the body of Christ - because God sees each of us - God has brought each of us here - God keeps account of each of our tears and struggles and heartbreaks - and God brings us into community together as a safe place for healing, for mending what is broken - gathering us together as a beachcomber gathers glass and treasures to create something beautiful out of the brokenness.
And yet, even as we praise God for the safety we have found in God, as we praise God for the blessing of community - we know that there are so many in this world who are not safe...whose tears God may notice...but go unnoticed by so many because of the cycles of violence, hurt, and harm perpetuated by the powers and principalities of this world....until crisis comes. We saw that in heartbreaking detail this week with the two mass shootings in Mosques in Chistchurch, New Zealand, and the ways that white supremacy has been globalized and exported. There was also a school shooting in Brazil this past week, where two young men killed seven students at a K-12 school - in an attempt to imitate the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The violence we see and the rhetoric of hate - and its increasing acceptance in our American culture - has as global impact.
These are the events that make headlines, but there is so much that never makes it to the news - the fear that many minorities live with every day - particularly African Americans - of being harmed for the color of their skin, or that Muslims and Jewish people deal with because of the way they worship. There are the domestic violence disputes that wound spirits and bodies, people who are shunned by family and friends because of who they love or who they are, people who are lost to their addiction, children and families fleeing violence who have no place in to call home, people who live in places torn by war and conflict - there are so many who are not safe -- and God sees and accounts for each and every tear and longs for this world to become a place of peace and healing and wholeness for each and every person….each and every community...for the whole entire world.
God calls us as a church to be a place of safety and healing - this is part of why our congregation has undertaken the process of discernment around becoming a Reconciling congregation to make clear our embrace and welcome of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and their families - because so many churches have not been safe places for them. It’s part of the reason we’re drafting a welcome statement that states that we will be a place for all people - welcoming those who come through our doors to create a safe harbor of healing - a community that can shelter and restore us before we are sent out into the world to offer that same sense of welcome - shelter - and healing - to those around us. My prayer for us as we take this Lenten journey together is that our own healing will not only be for us personally, but that will lead us toward communal and global healing as we live more fully into being the Body of Christ, a place of “safekeeping”, a safe space for all.
Our next song together will offer an opportunity for prayer and reflection - Sanctuary - the word literally means a place of refuge and safety - and as we sing it together, consider the people in this world who do not live in safety - either physical safety or emotional safety….and as you think of those people, come forward and place a piece of seaglass into the jars up front here as a way of being in prayer for them...as a reminder of the ways God gathers their tears and heartbreak into bottles...and as a reminder of how we are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to be agents of God’s healing love and grace...a living sanctuary.
Let us remain seated as we sing together….and as we sing, come forward as you are led to do so to offer your prayers for those people who need God’s hope, love, and safety in this world.
*Hymn - Sanctuary (FWS 2164)
Lord, prepare us as your people - gathered together as the body of your son Jesus in the world - to offer safety and sanctuary to those we meet. Work in and through us to be agents of your healing love, both in transforming our hearts and in working for the transformation of our communities so that your kingdom may be made real among us and in our world. We pray this in the name of your son Jesus, Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.