You’ll often hear a minister say at the beginning of a sermon or message from Psalm 19, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Why would a rational person say such a thing? The answer is personal for each preacher but I can tell you for me it is a way to remind myself what I am doing here. The message exists at all to expand on the love and understanding of God, plain and simple. If I simply wanted to be a professional speaker, I would have continued my long-ago career in showbiz, or I could have entered into the wacky world of politics where it seems some say whatever pops into their heads these days. There is ego involved when standing in front of a bunch of people, it’s true, but how much ego depends on the day, the scripture and the message intent. For the most part, I preach because it is part of my training as a Pastor, because you let me and because God has given me this vocation, which is a gift. I am so blessed to be Pastor and I want you to know I truly experience that. It is also true that it is would be presumptuous of me or anyone else to think that what I have to say is worth listening to! Like most people I know, I’m a person who is fallible, makes mistakes and sins! So, in a way I have absolutely no right to be here and yet, here I am solely due to God’s Grace. For that, I begin with “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
God redeems! God redeems you, me and the others who are outside our doors - the “others” who have absolutely no interest in entering into our sanctuary. Some are atheists and some are simply called “Nones” which is church lingo for people who do not have a church nor an interest in being at church. No church, none. They are also beloved and cherished by our Creator. We don’t have to do anything to keep God alive and loving, God is love! Sometimes we wring our hands and worry about the continuance of the church because we’re afraid God will disappear. Ain’t gonna happen. God is way bigger than our fear of losing sight of God. You know that song we sang at the beginning, “Gather us O God, God is spirit, soul and mind. Gather us, O God. One in union now with you.” That song is a reminder that we are always in union with Creation. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that don’t we?
I like to remind myself of God’s presence by wearing a cross around my neck and the older I get, the bigger the cross needs to be! I also say the Rock, Redeemer thing at the beginning of Sunday messages because it’s a humble offering to God. It is kind of like a song, some artwork or a fresh baked apple pie offered to God. God doesn’t care if the offering is perfect (and thank God for that!) Of course mine is nothing compared to the experience Stephen had, in the Bible text from Acts today, who expressed his love of God in the throes of martyrdom. Imagine if you were Stephen and you actually SAW God and Jesus standing right beside God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. How great would that be?
However, his truth about this experience got him into a passel of trouble with the more traditional people of faith who did not believe him and did not want to hear his testimony. The scripture says “they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him;” These were not pebbles they were throwing. These were big stones meant to knock him down, out and permanently silence him, which they did. Why? Because “the Powerful Authority” did not want to hear what he had to say about his experience of God.
Though we most often throw metaphorical stones here in America to silence people for having views that are different than our own, it was not so long ago that a young man in the U.S. was tortured and killed at the hands of self-appointed anti-gay authorities. Born December 1, 1976 in Wyoming, Matthew Shepard, was a soft-spoken, kind young boy. Only 19 years ago in 1998, two guys Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted Matthew Shepard and drove him to a remote area where he was tied to a split-rail fence, beaten severely, and left to die in the cold of the night. His brutal and gruesome death at 21 years old has become one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history and eventually led to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. To discriminate against people for who they are or what they believe is something, according to this passage, God does not want us to do. It ain’t Christian, folks.
The Psalm 31 reading for today is about seeking God as a refuge during difficult times. I have not ordinarily included “refuge” in my opening with “rock and redeemer” but really ought to. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t faced difficult times do you? Recently, one of our beloved parishioners Dot Christo lost a brother to cancer from which he struggled to overcome for a long time. He passed away on Wednesday night and we send prayers of love to them. At times like these, God is our refuge – where we can cry, talk, even yell and get angry. God is as big as all of our emotions and then some. God “gets it.” Think about this, if God is the Creator of all things then God has existed since the beginning of all feelings, all situations and all relationships. God is not in the business of directing your every move however! You have been given choices to make and the freedom to move about in your world. What a gift and what a great responsibility. When life gets too complicated or difficult you still need to make choices for yourself - but God is there for you too, so pray. Pray to God or Jesus or to the Holy Spirit, or all three - It’s all good because it’s all God. I can imagine Stephen in the Acts account remembering this part of the Psalm after he was hunted down like an animal and stoned: 5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. 16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. Acts reports this is what Stephen prayed even as he was dying a cruel and painful death.
Would anyone care to share a moment they have had turning to God during a period of difficulty, this morning? We want to hear your witness. (If not, ok I’ll tell mine) In August of 1990, we were on the cusp of The Gulf War, for operations leading to the buildup of troops and defense of Saudi Arabia. These military actions lasted till August of February of 1991 under the Presidency of George H. W. Bush. Coincidentally during that time, I was as pregnant as one can be and my husband of the time kept leaving us and coming back, that’s just who he was. It was a very sad time and I was scared, because I was thinking, we were on the verge of a world war and here I was bringing a baby into the world with an absentee and abusive husband. To me it was like the end of the world and I was befuddled as to what to do and how to move forward. I remember watching TV news of the troops being deployed when I felt I had no choice but to get down on my knees and pray to the One who would listen. It was amazing, that very moment of prayer actually turned my life around, though the prayers were simple. Gratefully, I did not perish in a world war that never happened but I had that baby, raised her pretty much alone and she has become a wonderful young woman. I am so grateful for her and know that even in the throes of grief and anxiety, God was there to hear my prayers.
Now, I realize that some might say I was just lucky or that prayer has never helped them to overcome adversity. I get that and I do not doubt that is true. I only know, at that moment in time I was desperately lost and needed someone to hear me. I needed to get back in touch with the One who created me. In my fear and grief, I had lost my way and lost my connection to the powerful energy and spirit in life that I call God. Did God, through Jesus, stick a big hand in and change everything around for me? I can’t say. What I can say is that at a moment of despair, recognizing The Creator as my rock, refuge and redeemer was a motivating factor to get my life back on track. I cannot speak for anyone except myself but I can certainly relate to Stephen in the Acts reading. My prayer this day is that all people feel the presence of God, especially during a moment of despair. May God bless you mightily, today and always.