A sermon given at Colonial Church during Lent on March 11, 2018. This was the third of five sermons on the same text.
Psalm 30 (NRSV)
Thanksgiving for Recovery from Grave Illness
A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.
1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
4 Sing praises to the Lord, O you faithful ones, and give thanks to God’s holy name.
5 For God’s anger is but for a moment; God’s favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
7 By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
8 To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Will you pray with me? Holy Spirit, breathe on and in us. Breathe your words of life. Breathe your words of love. We give you thanks. Amen.
Well, good morning! It’s good to see you all this morning. I’m glad to be with you.
We’re right in the middle of three of four weeks of preaching Psalm 30, so if you missed the first two, well, you came just in time! And if you’ve been here every week, then you get to hear Psalm 30 again. Part of what I think is wonderful about this is it’s an opportunity to just demonstrate the ways in which all of us, your ministers, get to approach the same text and encounter it, speak of it in our own voices, in view of our own experiences of God in our lives, and responding to ways in which God invites each of us. I hope even as you listen to each of us that you likewise will hear and listen to God’s invitations in and to and through you.
So today it’s my turn to preach on Psalm 30 (in case that wasn’t yet obvious). I wanted to begin by telling you a story, a story about how my life intersected with the life of this community in the fall of 2004. I was a new seminary student at Bethel. In part, I was at Bethel Seminary to decide if God got to live or if I did…what I mean by that is that the summer before I turned 18, I went on a mission trip to Honduras. On that trip, something broke open in me in a really painful way.
I was in the city center of Tegucigalpa during the America’s Cup and a group of young women from our trip (all young, white, and from the USA) had been surrounded by a bunch of men from the community. I knew enough Spanish to know what was being said. I was terrified and devastated. Somehow, in the course of a conversation as we processed what happened, a friend of mine said, “Well, Sara, you know it says in the Bible, ‘Wives, submit to your husbands.'” I said, “Well, forget that.” She’s like, “Well, it’s in the Bible…”
Now, how we got from talking about misogyny and violence against women to talking about submission of women to men, I’m not quite sure, but for me, the context of that is I’m from a family with a history of domestic violence. My whole life, I had told everyone that Jesus loved everybody, and suddenly I was faced with this big open space asking, “God, do You actually think that half of the population is just subject to the whims of their partner? Because that doesn’t feel like love.”
Now, for me as a young person who had spent her entire life believing in John 3:16 and telling everyone about it, I didn’t know how to reconcile this. I almost couldn’t breathe, like one of those spaces where I’ll just not look at it and it’ll go away, right? But the question was with me. I went off to college, determined to be a really good Christian now. I was kind of a caricature of myself. “Jesus loves everybody. Jesus loves everybody,” but I couldn’t breathe because I didn’t know if Jesus loved me any longer.
Have you ever had one of those moments where you’d been going along in your life believing in the Gospel of Good News that suddenly felt bitter and like an open gaping wound? For me, it was, again, the space that I could hardly breathe. When I went to seminary to figure out if God got live or if I did, it was because I needed to come face to face with this God again, kind of like Jacob wrestling with God. I was determined to do that and to find out if this God of love that I had believed in my whole life was real and what this God asked of me.
It was in this space and my first spiritual formation class that I came across this book. How many of you have read the text The Critical Journey? I have. This book was actually written by two people who have deep connections here at Colonial. One of them was a former pastor here. That’s Bob Guelich, and the other author is with us this morning in our choir, Janet Hagberg.1 When I read that book, I felt suddenly like the Holy Spirit just held me, and for the first time in about five years, I thought maybe I wasn’t the problem. Here’s what I mean by that.
In this book, Janet and Bob outline how our journey of faith is a journey where we traverse different stages of growth, just like we do in our own development as we grow up from being kids. Initially, for many of us, as we come to faith, there’s this awe and relief at knowing that we are loved, that we are accepted, and it’s a great gift. We begin to grow and to experience the life of discipleship, the forgiveness of God, and we begin to become empowered in our faith. We serve. We’re part of these small groups. There’s serving opportunities, mission trips.
We continue in this beginning inward journey where we start to unearth and open up parts of our lives. We go deeper. Now, the thing with going deeper is that, of course, it brings up all the stuff, the beauty and the pain. Then as they discuss, many of us often hit what is known as a wall. I hit mine at 17. It was a space where suddenly I felt like God’s face was absent, this God that I had known and loved before. Maybe it was a God who wasn’t for me. In reading this book for the first time I could breathe because I thought, “You mean, I might be normal? This happens to other people?” Am I the only one here who’s ever had any questions? Yes. That means no. Thank you for that. That would’ve been a really awkward sermon. It would have been okay.
But for me, this was such a gift, this infusion of breath and of oxygen hearing God say to me, “Sara, I’ve been with you this whole time. Oh, Sara, I love you.” To see that not… It didn’t even end there, that I could continue to grow in my faith, that it could deepen even further, that I could go into this space where God, instead of being something that kept me from the pain, God became the source of strength and support to do the inner work around my deepest pains because God’s love could hold me.
For me, you all have been a part of my story long before I was actually here. I call the sermon today “People of Pilgrimage” because, indeed, I believe that we are all people who are on journey. Sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about what that journey needs to look like means everything has to look great. “How are you?” “I’m great. I’m wonderful,” except for my kids. I really would like to get rid of them. I don’t have any, so if you don’t see me with kids, it’s not because I rid of them.
There are these things that we carry, these places of pain. Often, in the church, we do a good job with the early stages where we say, “Praise the Lord. Everything’s amazing,” and it’s true for us until it isn’t, until the questions surface, and we wonder. Here’s one of the things I loved about this book, and it’s accounting. While these first stages are true for us when they are, if we hit that place of question of the seeming absence of God and we don’t deal with it, it still haunts us. That, which was true before, we try to get back to it. “Oh, if only I could just get back to the way it was when I first started.” That’s no longer real in the same way.
The invitation of being people of pilgrimage is to keep going deeper, to keep opening up and discovering God’s love and Spirit can hold us, even in the places in ourselves, we believe are completely unlovable outside of grace, outside of redemption. Isn’t that not part of the promise of Lent that we long for? Resurrection.
We come here now to Psalm 30, a psalm, which is often read and utilized during Lent as we are. It’s a psalm with some famous lines in it about weeping lest lingering for the night, but joy coming with the morning. Although the psalm is ascribed to David, it also says that it took place at the Dedication of the Temple. Well, the temple didn’t get built until after David, so it’s probably a psalm for David or a psalm maybe that was of David that was then utilized when the temple was built.
It’s a complex psalm. It’s one with praise, but rooted also in places of pain, and both Jeff and Carter have spoken of this already. We begin then in verses one through five. There’s a stated intention here to talk about and praise and thank God. This opening alludes to the ways in which God has drawn me up, God has healed me, has brought me up, has restored me. Now, here in verse three, you see it talks about Sheol and the pit in Hebrew thinking Sheol was a quiet dark subterranean world inhabited by the deceased.
It’s not the same as our modern notions of hell replete with fire and demons and the devil and a pitchfork that’s red because it’s hot. That view of hell is a newer theological idea, but it’s definitely this place where we are separated from God, unable to praise God because there is silence there.
We continue in this beginning in verse four. In verse four, the speaker addresses the congregation, the faithful ones, and invites them to join the call to Thanksgiving. Now, here, this moment is about all of the days of our lives, the way that God’s faithfulness isn’t just for a time, but goes over the length of both our lives and the lives of our communities. Now, here in this psalm, we see that David is wrestling asking questions about God’s anger and God’s favor and where does God show up in these spaces.
As the psalm continues and then moves into verses eight and beyond, we see this continued wrestling that occurs, some of which was spoken about by Carter and also by Jeff. It’s in this space where I had known myself believing that God was with me when all was going well. David begins to ask questions about, “Now that I’m in the pit, God, are you here with me?” Part of what I want to talk about with this psalm is this notion that God is with him when all is well ignores the power and the beauty of God’s presence in the darkness, that God is with us both in the mountain tops and God is with us as we go to the places that are painful in our lives, and indeed, this is part of the journey.
I had the opportunity to meet with Janet when I had first come to Colonial, so it’s been two months for those of you who don’t know. It’s not that long. We met, and we were talking about Lent and some of the art that she does. Now, one of those pieces is here right in front of us. This is the one we were talking about. As we were speaking, came to this moment of thinking, “We need to use this piece in the message today.”
Let me tell you a little bit about it. You actually have, in your bulletin, you have a little bit of a writeup about it. This is the pilgrim coat. Now, Janet this piece after learning about a Japanese tradition where people on pilgrimage, meaning people who take a spiritual journey, would go to these different locations, and they would basically would get these stamps of the places where they had been. She wondered, “If I were to depict my own pilgrim coat with the stamps and the turning points of my journey, what would those be? What would they look like?” Here on the coat you see in the middle, it says, “Oh, love. That will not let me go,” and it includes around the edges moments in her life and pilgrimage, the turning points where God had met her and showed up.
Most religions of the world encourage pilgrimages; intentional trips to sacred sites like the Holy Land, Jerusalem, Paul’s missionary voyages, Mecca, shrines, monasteries, temples, sacred rivers, roads, ceremonial or healing sites. The Japanese have a religious tradition of traveling from one temple to another over difficult mountainous terrain. The pilgrims wear short cloth coats called Pilgrim Coats, with a personal theme inscribed on them. Each temple is a stopping point where they receive an imprint of that temple’s seal or stamp on their coat.
Textile artist, Janet Hagberg, reflected on this Japanese tradition and decided to apply it to her own faith tradition by making a personal Pilgrim Coat, representing her long and meandering journey towards God and spiritual wholeness.
She adapted a coat design from Carolyn Myss and constructed a wall hanging depicting her theme “O Love that will not let me go.” Then she chose her equivalent of temple stamps by considering multiple turning points in her life and printing them discretely on the hem of her coat. Once she finished the design she asked friends to help her hand quilt the wall hanging. While they sewed they shared a turning point in their own lives. These stories became additional holy moments of the Pilgrim Coat process. Now you are invited to take your own Pilgrim Coat journey.
We too are people on pilgrimage. We’re people on journey. I wonder what happens when we don’t just make a coat that has the really beautiful moments, but yes, I was a mountain top, and it was great, but the moments like I began with where we hold our breath, where we feel the pain, and what happens to our faith when we believe that God was present with us in those spaces as well? I’m of the belief that as we open up those parts of our lives and invite God in, that becomes the place for the praise and the Thanksgiving that we see at the end of this psalm.
There’s a concept I’ve done some work with called spiritual bypassing.2 Spiritual bypassing is this notion where sometimes we can use our faith to not have to deal with the challenging parts of our lives. Robert Masters writes of it:
Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing, and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobic, blind or overly tolerant, compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development, debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.3
Spiritual bypassing is basically like this: If I take a Jesus pill, I don’t have to deal with the hard stuff. I wonder instead what it means if we be a people who believe that Jesus invites us to a feast, not just a fix-it, not just a cotton candy, not something that’s just light and fluffy, but something with complex layers of flavor profile, we might say, that’s for Daniel, who’s a better cook than I am.
As we do this inner life and journey and as we are in pilgrimage, it’s my prayer that we can see both the parts of beauty, the success, the wonder as part of when God has been with us, but also the places where God has felt absent, the places where we have questions or are holding our breath. Might we be a people who then let the love of Christ infuse those spaces, maybe to let God hold us, actually.
For me, this came in the form of a question. How would I live if I actually believed God loved me? How would I live if I actually believed God loved me? I knew this intellectually. I was the person who would quote 1 John and say, “Perfect love, perfect love, drive out my fear,” and now my work is about breathing in ever more deeply, “Perfect love of Christ, fill me. Perfect love, find me. Perfect love, see me.”
This is a journey. It is a pilgrimage. Like those who have gone in spiritual quests and journey throughout time and centuries, we too are on journey. Some days, those journeys will feel like profound vistas, and some days, it will be like a 15-mile slog through the mud where we’re barely crawling, but it is my hope and prayer that God would give us the grace and the courage to not turn away from the hard places, but to wonder and open ourselves to this transformative love of Christ, to be people on pilgrimage with the God of love whose love has always been ours.
Today, in the second service, we’re going to have an opportunity for you to begin wondering about your own coat, your pilgrim coat, and what would be the places on your coat of the stamps from the moments where God has shown up in powerful ways in your life. Some of those will be these amazing moments of mountain top experiences. Some will be the places where God held you in the midst of the most profound despair and everything in between, but we invite you to join us to make your first stamp, your first passport book on your own coat.
May we be people on pilgrimage. May we be a people who journey with each other as we’re on pilgrimage, and may we be a people of faith who both the highs and the lows, the in-between spaces say yes to the feast of love to which Christ is inviting us. As we conclude this time in our worship together, I want to invite Tracy Mooty to come up and share a prayer. You have it on a bookmark in your bulletin, along with the image that’s before you today from Janet Hagberg. As she comes up, let us pray a prayer of pilgrimage together.
Fellow pilgrims, receive this Pilgrim’s Blessing:
May our gracious God give you eyes to see
the course of your life as sacred;
to know in the depths of your being
that the many sunlit paths
and even the shadowy detours have
mattered greatly as they served to
form the very essence of who you are.
May you take heart as you invite
each journey marker
to take shape in your memory;
each learning, wounding, softening,
healing, breaking, strengthening~
claim them as precious and holy,
as the very fabric of your pilgrim coat.
May this coat, your coat,
woven together by the threads of
your God graced, love-filled story
stir you to thank and praise the One who
through it all
warms, protects, sustains and
leads you home.
~by Tracy Mooty
During the 2nd service, we invited people to make their own Pilgrim Coats and then utilize these questions in order to do so:
Pilgrim Coat Reflection Questions (By: Tracy Mooty)
- What is it like for you to think of your life as a sacred journey or pilgrimage? What do you imagine as you ponder this?
- How do you envision the symbolic pilgrim coat you’ve worn throughout your life? How does it reflect the many turning point stories and messages that have served to guide and inspire you?
- What is one turning point story you’d like to explore this morning?
- How might you describe this turning point experience with words in a brief paragraph? What title best summarizes what you learned? What were the circumstances from which this wisdom emerged?
- How might you capture this turning point experience with images and symbols in a drawing? What lines, shapes, colors, and textures best express all you learned?
- What changed in you or for you as a result of this turning point experience?
- How did God meet you in this experience? Where did you sense God’s presence, provision, power?
- Janet Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 1995).
- The term “Spiritual Bypassing” was introduced in the early 1980s by John Welwood.
- See: http://www.robertaugustusmasters.com/spiritual-bypassing/