A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 28, 2022
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Psalm 27 is a psalm of comfort. It is a psalm of strength, a psalm of trust. It’s a psalm that unflinchingly recognizes that bad things happen to good people, that you can lose everything, and yet – in a way, with God, it is impossible to lose God’s presence.
And it is with that sense of God’s underlying support that we are able to keep moving forward. This psalm describes for us the source of our daily life’s purpose and strength.
Here’s the thing: often, I think, we hear stories of folks who seem to have surely known what wanted them to do, and had the courage and focus to stay on that path and something about those stories makes it seem as though those are things that only happen to people who have “special opportunities”. We who get up and go to work, well that’s not something we have to work on, or worry about. And that’s wrong. Faith, courage, strength – they’re all part and parcel of every Christ-following life.
Look at how often we read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War 2 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. We admire his bravery, but it’s really hard to imagine ourselves in any situation like his.
Or think about the woman in the middle portrait on the bulletin – Lucretia Mott, was a Quaker leader, important in the work for the abolition of slavery, then active in working for the rights of women – all in a time when a woman speaking publicly was unheard of. A wife and mother of six, in her spare time she helped found Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. We admire her, but for most of us, doing all those things, being that influential is simply beyond our experience, and – I’m afraid – that perception makes her reliance on God’s support out of our reach as well.
Then there’s my third example. In many ways, she’s also famous, but famous in a different way. She never moved in national circles; she lived her whole life in one town, dying where she was born. Her name is Gertrude Chandler Warner; she’s the author of the original Boxcar Children series for children.
I never met Miss Warner, though I served the church she attended. She was devoted to helping her community, her church and her world. Her life, I believe, is an example for what any of us might do with our lives, whether we’re in Putnam or Middletown.
Miss Warner started as a first grade teacher in 1918, and taught until 1950. I met plenty of her students when I lived in Putnam and uniformly they thought she was a wonderful teacher. When she’d been teaching for maybe ten years, she wrote the first Boxcar book, and then, in the 1940s, re-wrote the story to make it more suitable for early readers. But the whole of her life, her bravery, is not that people still read her books, though they do. It is in the way she lived her life, just as bravely as anyone who is famous today, but in a homelier way, a way much closer to how we can live, how we do live, our own lives.
Listening to God, Miss Warner was an active member of the Congregational Church of Putnam, where she taught Sunday school and was the Church Clerk. She volunteered for the Red Cross and other organizations.
When, in the early ‘60s, the state of Connecticut sought better ways to help the residents of the dreadful state training schools, Miss Warner helped change the attitudes of people and opened the opportunities for regional centers. In short, she was doing what any of us might have done if we’d been in that time and place. Individual, daily, acts of bravery and focus. Each of those activities took a certain focus, a determination, a sense that there were things to do.
Psalm 27 is something of a magnifying glass, a reading that helps us see more clearly just what we are, or are not, doing with our lives. We need focus. Without focus, we can still do good things, but they’ll not have the effect they might, if we took the time to focus our efforts.
Someone once (probably more than once) asked me how I managed to flunk out of the University of Florida in just three semesters. I started my first year with high scores on the Florida Placement Exam, admitted to Florida as a special scholar. Three semesters later, I had a 1.0 GPA and a one-way ticket to Parris Island SC to be a Marine. Why? Well, that scholar status got me a pass into the stacks of a seven story university library.
My last semester, I’d go there in the morning and read my way through the stacks, one book after another…. none of which had anything to do with my courses. I read everything, but with virtually no focus. I probably learned a lot, but none of it furthered my goal, insofar as I had a goal. I had no focus, no purpose to my reading.
Sometimes it seems as though we’re living our whole lives with the same lack of focus as I had in that library; Psalm 27 is a way of finding the track and staying on it, because it constantly calls us back to God’s hope for us all, that what we do, how we live, will reflect our grounding in a life of love, justice and mercy.
That clarifying focus is everywhere in the Bible – here, it says, is what really matters. Here, it tells in one story or another, is what happens when you lose your focus. Here’s a path for you. Here’s a promise that our failures don’t mean we get kicked off the boat, fired from the team. God does not forsake. God helps us keep our focus.
There are hard decisions before us, challenging choices about what we should do, times when we’ll have to risk it all to do the right things, to take the right path. This psalm assure us that, as we take this seriously, God will be with us, encouraging us to step up and take the courageous step.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child