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Faith in the Midst of Grief and Fear

Sunday, March 17, 2019.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

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This weekend I was walking our dog around the neighborhood, and I ran into one of our neighbors.  Louise walks up to me and mentions how discouraged she was by the mass shooting at the New Zealand mosque this weekend, where 50 people were killed by a 28-year-old who appears to have become consumed with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views.  “Is it even possible to put any more hate into the world than we’re doing right now?” she asked with resignation.

In addition to the concerns and fears that we may have about the larger political situations in the world, we all face difficulties, challenges, obstacles, burdens in our own lives and communities.  We face medical situations, relationship breakdowns, financial stressed, losses great and small, and we could go on and on.

We misunderstand the nature of faith if we think that faith will make all of these problems go away. You will still find the occasional religious figure that will tell that if you believe this, or give your money to that, or sign on to this cause, you will be protected from harm.  But most people know that there is no religious injection you can get that will inoculate you from trouble.

But we also misunderstand the nature of faith is we think that faith has nothing to offer whatsoever when we are in the midst of trouble.  Again, there are some flavors of religion out there that describe faith as some other-worldly thing, that has only to do with the sweet bye-and-bye, but that is unconcerned with the messy grind of daily life here on earth, all about getting to heaven and nothing about healing the hurts of earth. It may well be that when younger people reject institutional religion these days, what they are rejecting is religion that wants to float above real life, keeping its hands clean. They intuitively understand that religion that does not have a word to speak to the difficulties of human existence is not worth a whole lot.

Psalm 27 and Luke 13 both give us an expression of faith that lives and moves in the push and shove of life in the public arena, where fear and grief move around.  In Luke 13, Jesus is on his way to the capital city of Jerusalem when some local Pharisees warn him that Herod Antipas wants to kill him.  Now, I will tell you that some of us who are religious leaders would be unsettled to learn that a political ruler wants to kill us. Some of us are still somewhat early in the process of learning that we don’t need to be afraid of the powers of this world.

But not Jesus. “You tell that fox that I’ve got my work to do, and I’m going to do it.”  Jesus is not intimidated by Herod.  Jesus knows that his power source is not to be found in popular approval or political endorsements.  His power source comes from the divine presence that is all around him and within him.  But what is remarkable about this little text is that Jesus is not chest-thumping or strutting about with braggadocio here.  Because in the next verse, he drops into tender grief over the brutality of Jerusalem.

Imagine this.  Jesus is clearly not excessively worried about Herod Antipas, the tetrarch, or ruler, over Galilee.  He’s on his way to the capital city, where he will confront the temple leadership and the power structure.  Given all of that, I would have expected him to say something like, “Jerusalem, I’m coming for you!”

But instead he begins to weep.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill your prophets and stone your messengers, how often I have desired to gather your children together like baby chicks under my generous wings.”  Jesus is not intimidated by the political rulers, but he does not become a bully himself.  He sees through Jerusalem’s violence to the brokenness that lies within it, and it makes him weep.  He moves towards it, willing to accept the attacks it will deal out, and cherishes the city even as he knows it will assault him.

I think that one of the things that enabled Jesus to move like this towards Jerusalem was that he was a child of Psalm 27.  Jesus would have grown up praying and learning the psalms.  And with Psalm 27, Jesus would have absorbed a spirituality that engages a disputatious world with confidence, courage, and joy.  “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh, though an army encamp around me, though war rise up against me, false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.”  The psalmist lives, as do we, in a world of turmoil and turbulence and contestation.  To anyone who would say that biblical faith is about getting away from real life, Psalm 27 is not a spirituality of escape.

But neither was the psalmist saying flippantly, ‘Good luck with all your trouble.’  The psalmist knew – as did Jesus, and as can we – that in the midst of grief and fear and turmoil and conflict, we are not left on our own.  God goes with us into every situation; in fact, God is already there when we show up.  When you wade into the waters of upset – wherever you find them – you never wade in on your own.  “The Lord is your light and your salvation; whom shall you fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of your life; of whom shall you be afraid?”  The psalm begins with these rhetorical questions, the answers to which are intended to be, “I do not need to be afraid of anyone or anything, anymore.”

The Lord’s presence is a kind of North Star for you, showing you where to go and what to do in every situation.  The only difference is that with the Lord, the North Star is also within you. Always present with you, always there to guide you, to shelter you in times of trouble, and to illuminate whatever darkness you may find yourself in. The Lord’s light within us and beyond us cannot be extinguished by anything or anyone; we can recover from anything, we can never be cut off from God’s presence by anything.

When my neighbor asked me whether it was possible to put any more hate into the world, she and I both agreed that, unfortunately, it was indeed possible.  Evil and sin should never be under-estimated.  Because Presbyterians have such a strong understanding of the doctrine of sin and the power that sin exercises in our lives, we have been accused of being rather grim and dour down through the ages.  But Presbyterians should never be surprised to find sin and evil in the world.

Sin and evil and manipulation and fear are powerful realities in our world.  We need not pretend otherwise.  Jesus did not pretend otherwise.  He was not surprised that the Jerusalem establishment wanted to do him in.  The establishment and the powers that be always resist Jesus.  But Jesus did not let that deter him.  He did not let it take away his sense of humor, for he referred quickly to Herod as “that fox.”  Nor did he let it take away his heart of grief and compassion for the unnecessary brutality of the city, as he wept over Jerusalem, the city that he loved and that he watched going over a cliff.  He walked into Jerusalem, even as you and I are walking deeper and deeper into Lent, with his head held high, as though he were reciting the end of Psalm 27: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

To God and to God alone be all the glory. Amen.