By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Psalm 120
Years ago, I read this corny joke. A man was traveling on a plane. He had a fear of flying. Observing his terror, his traveling companion said, “Try to relax. You’re a person of faith. Think of all the promises Jesus makes in scripture. Jesus is with you.” To which the fearful man, quoting the King James translation of Matthew 28:20 replied, “Yes, but his exact words were “lo, I am with you always…”
It is, as I’ve said a corny joke. But it also reminds us that in our world, currently filled with so much chaos, uncertainty, and violence, it is sometimes difficult to sense the peace our faith should bring us. How do we rest secure in God’s peace at those times when the world seems to be blowing up around us?
Hear this scripture from someone long, long ago who knew that experience. He is surrounded by those who do violence with their tongues and with actual weapons of war and he is desperate for peace.
Hear his plea, his prayer from Psalm 120: In my distress I cry to the LORD, that he may answer me: 2 "Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue." 3 What shall be given to you? And what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue? 4 A warrior's sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree! 5 Woe is me, that I am a sojourner, a stranger in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar. 6 Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. 7 I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”[i]
Last week, Trinity began an online study of the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. It is an examination of Psalms 120-134, the “Psalms of Ascent.” So what is a Psalm of Ascent? Well, these were psalms for sojourners; psalms for those on the journey toward Jerusalem and the Temple. Even today, it’s nice to have a good playlist when you head out on a road trip. These were the playlist of antiquity when one made the journey to Jerusalem, the place of God’s holy habitation. Jerusalem was the city on a hill and one had to climb many steps to reach the Temple; up and up and up one went; symbolic of the fact that ancient Israelites believed that God lived in the heavens with his feet dangling through the clouds and resting in the Temple, within the Holy of Holies on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. “Getting to God” was an uphill journey – literally – and it took commitment as it still does today.
Life is a journey with many forks in the road. To journey, to navigate life, requires choices about the path we will walk.
Hear also this scripture about two different ways of living, words from Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, beginning at Matthew, chapter 5, verse 43:
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Throughout this portion of the Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus presents us with these metaphorical forks in the road:
In his book, Peterson examines Psalm 120 in relation to repentance. I wonder: what does repentance means to you? What does it entail? What were you taught about repentance when you were growing up?
Here is what I suspect many of us were taught… That it was related to particular bad things we did, labeled sins, for which we needed to confess, apologize, and make amends if possible. Here’s an example: If I stole a toy from a playmate and my parents discovered it, stealing was a sin. I must confess my sin to God, apologize to my friend, feel sorry for what I did wrong, and return the toy.
However, that understanding of repentance doesn’t capture the full meaning of the word. It is, in Hebrew, shuwb: a word meaning to turn or to reorient. When we repent, we choose to reorient our lives, to walk a different path; a path that leads us into the presence of God. And in coming into the presence of God, we come into a place of peace. In his book, Peterson reminds us how frequently we delude ourselves into believing that a sense of peace and security can come from outside sources: the perfect job, a big paycheck, friends and family who understand us and make our lives easier. We delude ourselves and when those things fail us or disappoint us, we become discouraged and even bitter.
Peace cannot be found somewhere out there. Peace can only be found in the presence of God. But what does it mean for us to enter in to the presence of God today? We’re not ancient Jews who believe God lives inside of a Temple. So for us, to enter into God’s presence involves engaging in various spiritual practices, such as prayer or the reading of scripture. Even more importantly, it means engaging in those practices with undivided attention. We all have observed – and experienced – those times when digital devices divide our attention. We may see a couple at a restaurant for a romantic dinner; one is clicking away on their phone while the other is sullenly swirling their wine in their glass. They are together, but not really. That kind of time together does little to join hearts and minds. To enter into God’s presence requires time to sit and be still and listen; to give God our full attention as we pray or read scripture. You see peace does not come from anyone or anything in the world. That is why our Psalmist has embarked upon this journey to Jerusalem. He knows that peace will only be found when he has entered into the presence of God. In God’s presence, God enters into us and fills us with his peace.
Friends: peace is what we all desperately want right now, isn’t it? We are exhausted and overwhelmed by the violence and the lies and the treachery. We want peace and we can find it by entering in to the presence of God.
On this weekend, I can think of no better example of this than Martin Luther King, Jr. He pursued justice from a place of peace. And how? How could he remain persistent yet patient? He could he be assertive and determined without succumbing to aggression and rage? How could he continue to inspire when progress was so terribly slow? How could he continue to have courage when day after day his life and the life of his family were threatened?
I suspect it was his commitment to those late nights and early mornings that he sat in silence, attentive to the presence of the God of peace. One of King’s most formative spiritual guides was Howard Thurman. A Baptist pastor, in 1944 Thurman founded Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated interfaith religious congregation in the US. In 1953, Thurman became the first black dean of the prestigious Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where he mentored King as King developed his philosophy of nonviolence and completed his PhD at Boston’s School of Theology. Behind King and the many bold marchers in the Civil Rights movement was Thurman, who taught that the success of the movement was a matter of one’s inner spirit being brought into communion with God.
Friends: do not despair in these dark days. Seek the peace that can truly be found in the presence of God; as your heart is joined to the heart of God.
Hear these words from Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart:
The individual lives his life in the midst of a wide variety of stresses and strains. No one is ever free from the peculiar pressures of his own life. Each one has to deal with the evil aspects of life, with injustices inflicted upon him and injustices which he wittingly and unwittingly inflicts upon others. We are all of us deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths, expressed often in the profoundest conflicts within our own souls. The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul… This Island [of peace] is the Temple where God dwells – not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into God’s presence one comes… how terrible if you have not found your Island of Peace within your own soul.”[ii]
Friends: I hope that you can find that Island of Peace where your heart and the heart of God are joined together as one. I would encourage you to experiment with different ways of praying, meditating and engaging with scripture. If you need ideas, please reach out to me. And then, using a journal or just a note-taking app on your phone, notice for yourself what are the spiritual practices, the contexts and experiences that tune you in most deeply to God’s presence and peace. It’s not magic or some deep hidden secret. It is merely about our willingness to experiment with different spiritual practices and then taking time to observe which create the deepest sense of God’s presence and peace.
We all desperately need peace and it will not come from something out there. It can only be found on that island within us where we come into the presence of the God who is peace.
[i] All scriptures are New Revised Standard Version
[ii] Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman; Beacon Press; 1953; pp. 17-18.
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