Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” I was struck this week by those opening words from Psalm 90, which invite us to pan back from our current situation for a moment to consider the long view. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” Long before COVID-19 demanded the world’s attention, long before social distancing and shelter in place orders were the norm, long before any of us had made our appearance on this planet, for that matter … “Before [even] the mountains were brought forth…from everlasting to everlasting” God has been God. “Our refuge and our strength” as we heard last week from Psalm 46. Our loving Shepherd, in the words we just said together from Psalm 23. And here in Psalm 90, “our dwelling place in all generations.”
But you may have noticed that this powerful statement of faith came with a cry for help: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!” The psalmists were nothing if not honest in their prayers, and sometimes honesty requires lament. I sent out to you via email this week a link to a song of lament. Its refrain keeps coming back to me as I read the news, or hear of the latest person in my own circle or yours that has gotten sick, or lost their job, or even lost their life: “O Lord, will you restore us, and grant us your salvation?” The tone is similar to these words from Psalm 90: “make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.” (Psalm 90:15) And as we consider those on the front lines right now, the superheroes offering us healthcare and other emergency services, the brilliant minds researching treatments and vaccines, surely we can echo the psalmist’s plea: “prosper the work of our hands.” Let their efforts be rewarded, Lord. Help those best equipped to get this situation under control to do so quickly. Help them to help us all. “O prosper the work of [their] hands!”
Prayers of lament. Prayers of petition. Cries of desperation even. They’re not only timely and appropriate, they are absolutely necessary. God wants our honesty. God expects us to be concerned about others. God can handle whatever we need to say to him right now. So please don’t feel you need to hold back in your prayers. Say what you need to say.
At the same time, there is more happening around us than illness and danger, even now. There is more happening within us than fear and heartache, even now. Those opening words from our second text from Philippians might have sounded a little jarring at first in our present context – “Rejoice in the Lord always?” Seriously, Deb? Today? Couldn’t we save that verse for the other side of this crisis? But did you know Paul wrote those words from prison? From a prison cell in Rome - hardly optimal conditions for rejoicing – the apostle Paul wrote these words to the congregation back in Philippi: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
The peace of God, surpassing all understanding, guarding our hearts and our minds…
As we wrap up our Lenten series on spiritual practices, I’d invited you to share with me some of the things that are guarding your hearts and minds at this time, keeping your spirits up. I’d asked you to tell me what’s helping you feel connected to God– whether longtime practices or newer disciplines - and I was pleased to hear from several of you throughout the week.
Some of you are taking frequent walks outdoors, finding both the movement itself and the beauty of God’s creation clears the noise from your minds and helps to restore your souls, so that you can pray.
Some of you are finding comfort in books of prayers, both old and new.
Others find music helps you to pray. I know several of you, like me, appreciate daily gifts of music from the Pray As You Go app. One of you introduced me to a whole new repertoire of sacred music by a group called Liturgical Folk, too.
One of you carries Brother Lawrence’s “Practice the Presence of God” in your handbag, sampling a page or two whenever you need an attitude adjustment throughout the week.
Some of you are writing letters and cards to stay connected to brothers and sisters in Christ.
Some of you keep our lists of congregational prayer requests close at hand so you can pray for each other specifically and by name.
A lot of you are reading, and I loved the suggestion to read or reread the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. What a beautiful world for any of us to visit from our homes right now. Marvelous adventures coupled with powerful reminders – through the great lion Aslan, who is a Christ figure – powerful reminders in those stories of God’s protection, and God’s love.
One of you shared that you pray early in the morning while you’re still lying in bed, starting the day in those moments of calm, getting your priorities in order before the rest of the day begins.
One of you calls to mind the verse “Be still and know that I am God” as a breath prayer, saying the words to yourself as you inhale and exhale, whether in routine acts during the day to help you refocus, or while having difficulty sleeping at night. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Others of you are keeping important questions front and center. Questions like: What am I grateful for today? What expectations can I let go of today to focus on what’s really important? Who can I connect with today? Where can I find or create beauty?
And whether or not you responded, I imagine you’re all doing similar things to keep you grounded. Every spiritual practice bringing us comfort right now, every act of connecting with God in this strange time fits beautifully with Paul’s words to the church at Philippi at the conclusion of our 2nd Scripture text today.
I can think of no better way to conclude than to read them again as an encouraging charge for us all: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you." Amen.