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Seeing the Goodness of God in this Land of the Living

Psalm 27

Epiphany +3 , Common Lectionary Year A.

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Introduction
Scripture audio
Sermon audio

This is Bree Newsome. On June 27, 2015, just weeks after Dylann Roof had shot, killed and injured worshippers at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, Newsome climbed the flagpole outside the State Legislature in Columbia, SC, and took down the Confederate Flag. There’s a video you can still find on Youtube. In it you can hear the police threatening to arrest her, and she acknowledges them, tells them she is okay with that. As she is descending the pole towards the waiting police officers, you can hear her talking aloud. She is saying,
“The Lord is my light and my salvation,
whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life,
of whom shall I be afraid.”

In an interview two years later with Vox, she says, though, that she was afraid. She knew as a black woman, that this deliberate act of non-violent civil disobedience
could be dangerously “life-altering.”To prepare herself, she tells the interviewer that she spent the day before riding the wave of fear by praying, reading her Bible, listening to Gospel music. And “in the moment [coming down the flagpole] I was just praying, and calling out loud to God.” [1] “God is my light and my salvation,
whom shall I fear”

I’ve always wondered if this Psalm is more than the scholars say it is;
they classify it as a “triumphant psalm of confidence and trust,” [2] but, I’m thinking it’s something different.
We all know the story of the little engine that could….
huffing up the hill, saying aloud, “I think I can, I think I can”?
Like that… I think this Psalm is a song for courage,
a mantra we use to say aloud
what we desperately want to believe:
“God is my light and my salvation…. whom shall I fear?”
as we are about to meet the very thing we do fear.
Bree Newsome, it seems that day in 2015,
used the Psalm just like that.

And rightly so.
Because, as soon as the opening mantra of the Psalm is sung,
the singer’s lyrics catalogue pretty much everything
in this land of the living,
that should provoke fear in the best of us:
an army encamped around,
liars and evildoers maligning one’s integrity,
war, privation, injustice,
personal foes and enemies, wanton evildoers
even the abandonment of a child by its parents.
it’s all there!
And yet, also there,
like a persistent drum beat,
or a repeated major chord interrupting the minor tone,
the singer keeps looking, turning her eyes
back, up, forward, anywhere,
to search out God, her Rock, her fortress,
her salvation, her Light.

At first, the psalmist prays for safety,
to spend her living days safe in the sanctuary of the Holy One;
a retreat, a cloistering, a removal from the fray.
But quickly, this proximity to God in safety
provokes in the singer a more courageous desire;
to lift up her head (above the trenches)
and sing the songs of joy in the Lord,
in the face of all enemies. (v.6)

Something provokes the singer to risk courage.
Something about the horrors of the world perhaps?
Maybe, but a close reading suggests it has
more to do with the singer’s discoveries about the
face, the character of God:
a God whose Dream is for goodness
in this land of the living,
a God who will at every chance,
provoke in us all, and equip us with the courage it will take
to do our part to bend the arc of human society
back towards God’s loving justice.

Throughout history,
this psalm has been a mantra
on the lips of those who face down
hatred with acts of faithful loving,
who face down oppression or repression with freedom of spirit,
who face down hurt with healing,
who face down terror with hope. [3]
It has been called, rightly, a song of peaceful resistance.

… which is all well and good, and inspiring,
but what about us?
How do we go from fearful to faithful?
How can we become capable of seeing
–and singing of-–God’s goodness
in this land of the living?

It’s not easy. But it isn’t impossible.
Some of us have been living with Star Words
for two Epiphany seasons now,
a simple, daily reminder to look at the world,
and ourselves and our circumstances,
in a different light.
Some of you have already sung/spoken
of transformation,of greater wisdom,
of greater capacity to see the gossamer threads of grace
that God weaves through your lives.

And some of us
(Martha Randy being the paragon at this)
have been engaging in that most simple yet powerful of act of resistance there is:
the practice of choosing, every day, to be grateful,
to lift our heads above the negativity of newsfeeds
and darkening horizons of the political landscape,
in order to see, and sing out about God’s goodness in this land of the living.

And here the science supports the Psalm.
Brains are re-wired by daily deliberate gratitude
to experience more positive emotions;
sleep improves; habits of compassion and kindness
become more deeply ingrained;
those suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression
show sustained healing when meditative gratitude is practised therapeutically.
Those who engage in regular doxology
–the sharing of gratitude– are stronger, and more resilient
when trouble comes. [4]

This is what our Psalmist means when she sings
of dwelling in the sanctuary of God’s goodness all the days of our life.
It’s as holy and basic as
daily repeated expressions of gratitude, to a life partner,
in a journal, or a Facebook page.
It’s as holy and basic as
as wishing the check-out cashier a good day, and meaning it;
as refusing to return hate for hate;
as praying for the President, the government,
while taking down their flags of hatred;
as pausing to notice and delight in the pinking of the sky as the sun rises or sets.
And, I dare suggest,
as learning a verse of two of this psalm of courage,
confident that in whatever days may come
in this land of the living,
you shall see the goodness of God,
for
“God is my light and my salvation,
whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life,
of what or whom shall I be afraid?”

[1] https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/6/27/15880052/bree-newsome-south-carolinas-confederate-flag
[2] See a number of editions of the NRSV study bibles.

[3] See Henri Nouwen, Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community. (Orbis, 2005)

[4] Robert Emmons, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can Make you Happier. (Mariner, 2008)

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