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Sermon for June 19, 2016

UCC Beliefs: Searching for God

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
~ Psalm 63
It happens most days, lately. I drop my kids off at school and say a prayer. Please God, let them be safe today. When my older children started their school careers many years ago, I said different prayers. I prayed they would learn. I prayed they would be kind and receive kindness. I prayed they would grow. Now I drop my kids off, remind them to be safe, and as they walk through the doors I pray, “God, please keep guns out of our schools today.”

I thought it again on Friday, when a host of county police, including a K-9 unit and a helicopter, chased four men through the woods of our neighborhood after two car crashes on New Hampshire and Randolph Road. Drugs were involved. Two people were caught, two were still at large. All of this happened during drop off time at school. My first thought was, “Will the schools shelter in place?” That’s what I think of now -- Shelter in place. It’s a warning that violence is at hand. In a explosive world, Shelter in Place signifies the looming possibility of danger and the need for finding refuge from those who would willfully harm human life.

Please God, let them be safe today. I don’t even know if God has anything to do with keeping guns and criminals out of schools. I’m can get so worried for the safety of my children, I’m willing to ask. It’s what we do when we no longer feel safe.  We hear the cry to God:

O God, you are my God, I seek you.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my flesh faints for you.

Like many of you, I've been scanning social media and catching the latest news, trying to make sense of the massacre in Orlando. The familiar mix of emotions that I've felt during previous massacres comes back to me: anger, sadness, fear, and discouragement. I want to fix the problems and run away from them all at the same time. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, like many gay bars, was supposed to be safe space. Owner Barbara Poma opened Pulse nightclub with a mission: to honor her brother who died of HIV/AIDS and to create a safe space for Orlando's gay community. That image of safety is now shattered.

This week, we also marked the one-year anniversary of the shootings of church members and their beloved minister during a Bible study at a venerable church in Charleston, SC. Emmanuel AME Church, like all of our houses of worship, was supposed to be safe space.  Our community havens no longer feel safe. Public schools, college campuses, neighborhood gathering spots like movie theaters, churches, military bases -- they have all been desecrated by violence. That image of safety is now injured. We hear the cry to God:

O God, you are my God, I seek you. my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Life can certainly feel like we are living in a dry and weary land with no water. It can surely feel like we are thirsty for some love and compassion in the deserts of violence; parched for even the possibility of peace. In these cruel times, there are dry deserts that have yet to see flowing waters of righteousness.

The difficult things in life are hard to endure. They can press on the chest like an asthma attack and you can’t find space to breathe. In the midst of them it can feel like you are running through a rain-parched, dusty land, kicking up dust as you look for an oasis of plenty.

For sure, events like the killings in Orlando shake us out of our oasis of plenty – those places where we try to hide and ignore the thirsty cries of the desiccated world around us. Like I said, I get it. I want to hide, too. The issues we know of seem so vast at times, so complicated, so impossible to solve, no matter how many of us seem willing to confront society’s problems.  We encounter systems that we don’t know how to change. We think of issues like domestic abuse, mental health issues, and gun violence. We think of political finance reform and pay-day lending. We think of the pernicious racism, classism, and anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation that still divides our country and is endorsed by leaders from ministers to political candidates. And we don’t know. We don’t know what to do or how to fix it. Are we going to learn to embrace our differences and passions to stare down those evils in our community that make us squirm, run away, or cause fear? Can we learn to hold onto the tension and anxiety of encountering these things together. Can we pray together? Can we act as one?

O God, my soul thirsts for you, for your overflowing love, for the kingdom you promised where every tear will be wiped away, and where our soul’s are slaked in the flowing river that makes glad the city of God. 

I’m thankful the psalmist put our feelings down in poetry. The writer of Psalm 63 knows the dangers of this world. It’s a plea for God to show up and hold us strongly when we wander the driest deserts and we’ve all but given up hope.  Poets have a way of speaking truth in compact and unrestrained ways. This is how poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s deals with our hungry, thirsty, unkind world:
Oh say, poet, what you do?
I praise.
But what about the deadly and monstrous?
How do you keep going, how do you take it all in?
I praise.
Psalm 63 puts it this way:

O God, you are my God.  My lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live.

Here is one thing we affirm today. In the United Church of Christ, we are seekers. We really believe it. We believe that each person is unique and valuable. We want every person to belong to a family of faith where they have a strong sense of being valued and loved.

We believe that each person is on a spiritual journey and that each of us is at a different stage of that journey. Here is the key. We are not individual seekers. We’re not just coming together to have our individual spiritual needs met. We are seekers in community. Each of us is unique and on a spiritual journey, but we journey together. We need each other. To go it alone puts us at risk.

After an event like the violence in Orlando, that's what we have to offer at CCC. We create sacred space where everyone belongs, where all are welcome, where we honor and celebrate people of all races, cultures, ages, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. We offer sacred space where anyone can attend -- with our pains and joys, with our fears and hopes, with our experiences of rejection and our longings for wholeness -- and know that we are embraced by empathy and understanding.

O God, you are my God. I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

I really believe that we inherited a universal instinct to create protected, sacred spaces in which we can heal, reorganize and regenerate the aching fragments around us.

In 1948, The General Assembly of the World Council of Churches developed the idea of “responsible society” as the ultimate goal of Christian action. The assembly wrote:

A responsible society is one where freedom is the freedom of [persons] to acknowledge responsibilities to justice and public order and where those who hold political authority as economic power are responsible for its exercise to God and the people whose welfare is affected by it … For a society to be responsible under modern conditions, it is required that the people have freedom to control, to criticize, and to change their governments, that power be made responsible by law and tradition, and be distributed as widely as possible through the whole community.
That’s what we practice here. Call it responsible society, call it sacred space, call it holy ground, call it democracy, call it community. We become a place where all can practice justice in the ways we share leadership, resources, and common life. We realize that in God, the many are one, each contributing to the others and receiving from others in the unity of God. The fragmentation of each of us seeking God in isolation from the others is opposite to the kingdom. It is not enough to confine oneself to one’s own task: one must contribute to others and receive from others throughout the breadth of the work.

We are creating a Sacred Shelter in Place. With all of our variety, no matter how we got here, no matter who we are, no matter what we believe (or don’t), we belong to one another. We protect one another. We cherish one another. We find ways to help each pother grow and thrive. We commit to the well-being of the other. We work for peace together. In dry and weary times, we sustain each other. That’s relationship. That’s compassion. That’s sacred. That’s God.

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