Speaking of God's Faithfulness

Psalm 40:1-11.
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Are you as tired of it as I am? I am sick of unloving, irresponsible, unthinking church leaders taking the public spotlight, and giving us Christians a bad name. Why does the media allow so much time for the crazies of this world? It’s one of the main reasons so many people have soured on religion, because we listen far too much to the ridiculous fundamentalists. Ian Gurvitz called them “relignoramuses.” Thank God Pastor Terry Jones called off this insane Quran burning in Gainesville, which was endangering people around the world. “The guy's a walking advertisement for atheism.” (Ian Gurvitz) He doesn't speak for us as Christians or for us as Americans. We refuse to let him speak for us.

But when will we begin to speak for ourselves? When will our witness and the witness of other thoughtful Christians begin to be a more noticeable voice in the world? When will we find our voice?

Yes, we are nervous to speak of God. One, we know too many examples of those who pegged God wrong through the ages. We don’t want to be associated with the zealous fundamentalists. Then too, we understand the power of the wordless witness. Actions speak louder than words. In one of his celebrated sermons, theologian Paul Tillich described a WW1 Swedish nurse named Elsa Brandstrom, who cared for prisoners in war camps. She fought against the brutality of guards and against cold, disease, and deprivation. She fed the hungry, offered drink to the thirsty, and gave strength to the dying. Tillich said he never had a conversation with her, but she made God transparent in every moment. Are we making God transparent in every moment? That is not possible unless we are truly centered in God.

The psalms are helpful in centering us, in giving us language to speak to God and about God. “Not all religious talk is a good witness and not all good witness involves talk.” (Tom Long, p.25 Testimony) But I am convinced that we broad-minded, peacemaking, careful Christians have left Christianity weaker because of our inability to testify to God’s goodness, to witness to our abiding faith in Jesus Christ, whom we do believe to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We can affirm that while at the same time having utmost respect for our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, who are also God’s children. Those of you who were with me last night in overflowing crowd at First Presbyterian will attest that Christian, Jews, and Muslims can celebrate God’s goodness and love together, committing ourselves to a bit of discomfort for the sake of unity and peace. We do not have to be half-hearted about our Christian faith, in order to be full-heartedly open to those whose tradition is different from ours. We simply must learn to express our faith in ways that do not demean others. The imam was not ashamed to say to us that Islam is a wonderful faith, the best faith he said. We too can be equally enthusiastic about ours.

Dorothy Day, found of the Catholic Workers Movement, said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Prominent Old Testament scholar and student of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann once said, “The word with which we praise God shape the world in which we shall live.” C.S. Lewis once said, “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.” (quoted by Tom Long, p.33 Testimony)

Last week’s psalm celebrated the goodness of God in rescuing the Israelites from land of slavery and taking them to the land of promise. This psalm is a celebration of God’s goodness in the life of an individual, who promises to tell the glad news of deliverance to the whole congregation. Hear now the testimony of the psalmist.

Psalm 40:1-11
New Revised Standard Version

I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust,

who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.

5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God,

your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

none can compare with you.

Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.

6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.

Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

7 Then I said, "Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart."

9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;

see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.

10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me;

let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.

Now that you have heard the testimony of the psalmist, I invite to consider your testimony of the week. How has God blessed your life in the last seven days? What strength have you been given in the midst of your troubles? From what miry bog did God rescue you? Where have you seen the steadfast love and faithfulness of God? I’m going to ask you in a moment to turn to your neighbor and make God the subject of your next sentence. You know too often we are the subjects of our own sentences. I got a new job! I am so discouraged. I am feeling better. I, I, I. What about if we started talking about life with God as subject? So, yes, do turn to a neighbor God has strengthened me by…God has ….God has renewed my hope by….. God has blessed me by…. God has been my rock by…..

That is testimony, making God the subject of our sentences. Seeing life as shaped primarily by the Lord, not by us. This faith life begins with gratitude for God’s gifts. This faith life is sustained by delighting in doing God’s will. It is renewed by resisting false gods of money, sex, power, and success. It is a daily act of placing trust in God.

The last couple of weeks have been rather stress-filled for me, as I internalized the pressure of this move, thinking it was mine to lead, mine to guide, mine to navigate successfully – every last detail of it. And Friday, as I was trying to write this sermon, it hit me that it had become all about me, not God. I was becoming the subject of all my sentences. When earlier in the process, I had reveled in the blessings of God in gifting us with a new place to worship, now I was stressing over the responsibilities born by ME, myself, and I.

But one of the best things about being a preacher is that every week, I am forced to temporarily withdraw from activity to slow down to listen to God. I have to enter the cave of my bedroom study – want to or not. Much as I can distract myself by answering the phone, responding to another email, going to reheat my coffee for the fifth time in one afternoon, God enters in as I pray and study and changes me, re-orients me.

That’s why I will say to you that the best gift you can give yourself, your family and friends, even the whole world, is to spend more time reading scripture and prayerfully pondering how it relates to your own life. Take the Psalms – 150 of them, if you manage to read one every day, you will have read them all. Then challenge yourself to write one paragraph of response. Not every chapter of the Bible speaks as clearly as others, so if you read one that makes no sense to you, study harder if you’re inclined to research or move on to another and don’t worry about it, if you’re not. Take the Gospel of Luke, our Gospel for this year. Read one story each night or morning. Think about the life of this Jesus, whom you have chosen to follow, whose name you claim when you say you are Christian, whose body you mysteriously ingest when you come to this table. Take the book of Philippians, a wonderful epistle of Paul. Think about what Paul means when he says, “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel.”

Find in these stories of God’s people, your own story with the Lord. Read the stories of early Christians and the troubles they faced with courage, how they kept peace in their households, how they showed hospitality to strangers, how they shared things in common, how they set themselves apart from a culture which worshiped the power of the emperor.

Read about God’s people – the Jews – how they heard the voice of God saying, “Go to a land you do not know” and they went. How God called them to do things they thought they could not do, but received God’s reassurance, and so were able to say, “Here I Am, send me.” Read about how they received Ten Commandments and how they and we have tried to put God first, have no idols, respect the name of God, keep the Sabbath, honor parents, love other human beings by respecting life, possessions, sacred commitments, truth, and boundaries.

If we are not studying the Bible, worshiping, serving and listening to the reasonable voices of people in other faith traditions, then we are just as likely to be misguided in our understanding of true Christian faith as Rev. Terry Jones. We might not be so dangerous as he who sought so much media attention, but we do often have the attention of neighbors, co-workers, family members and friends. We all do and will witness to something. Nearly every day we testify. We testify to the greatness of a football team or to the power of a new cleaning product or the convenience of wonderful new feature on our computer. Do we give the same energy and purpose to our witness to the One who made us and stayed us from the beginning until now?

Our lives must be shaped by the truths of the Lord of heaven and earth, not the falsehood of public opinion, which increasingly is fractious, rude, and disrespectful. We cannot call ourselves Peace Presbyterian Church unless we are living according to the character of the Prince of Peace, who came to save us. How much of your day, are your thoughts being shaped by the Prince of Peace, the God of your salvation, whose steadfast love and faithfulness hold us fast? Or are your attitudes being shaped by Hollywood, the television media and the false reality shows? The reality of God and the authenticity of Christian faith is on the line in our day. Many people simply do not see good reason to believe. Be their good reason.

Learning to speak about God comfortably is for many of us like learning a foreign language. It requires practice and it helps if we start with people who understand our discomfort, who are struggling with us to speak this language. So that’s why every Ministry Team at Peace begins with a Word-Share-Prayer time. It helps us practice the language of being Christian in this world, not just be passive, non-theological church members. We can learn to talk about our relationship with God, as well as talk to God, in community. God is worthy of our witness. Speak out the truth about God. Look at what God has done for us, as we moved faster than Presbyterians are usually able from one worship location to another. God has given us new life, Peace Presbyterian. Let us re-commit ourselves to telling the story of God’s goodness.

I want to close with prayer, adapting the words of the psalmist:

10 [Help us not to hide] your saving help within my heart, [Lead us to speak] of your

faithfulness and your salvation;

[May we not conceal] your steadfast love and your faithfulness

from the great congregation.

11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from [us];

let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep [us] safe forever.