Just before the sermon today, I want to share a couple of timely opportunities for your engagement. Because sometimes, perhaps you’ve had this experience, a whole bunch of things come together and give you this sense that something important is happening, that maybe God is doing something significant and timely. And I feel like that right now.
On short notice, I realized that friends of our church, Jenny and Nate Bacon, were going to be in town. Jenny and Nate are part of an order of Jesus followers among the world’s urban poor. We support their work financially through Reservoir’s partnerships fund, which gives 10% of your giving to Reservoir to the Bacons and others throughout the world. So I’m hosting a lunch for Jenny and Nate in the ministry center living room at noon, if you’d like to talk with them about their work in Guatemala, but I felt like given all the news we’re hearing and seeing in the States about people asylum seekers from Central America at our Southern border, I felt like we’d all appreciate hearing from the Bacons for a moment today.
Because I know that the stories we’re hearing and the pictures we’re seeing of the conditions at our country’s Southern border are heartbreaking. We see masses of asylum seekers, and people living in just deplorable, inhumane conditions. And we hear a confused, and fear-filled, divisive, dehumanizing national response.
And you know when we hear stories, or see these things on our computer screens, and feel there is no hope and nothing we can do, that is a spiritually unproductive experience, right? Or when we think this is just ammunition for one side or another of a partisan political battle, that’s not the most spiritually productive experience either.
I find that unchanneled anger or defensiveness or helplessness becomes despair or apathy or resentment or fear. And I don’t know about you, but I want better in my life than despair or apathy or resentment or fear. And I think Jesus wants better for us as well, wants to help us engage in hope and faith.
And it has been struck me this week that God is doing something along these lines. There are a plethora of ways that we are part of a movement to love and welcome and accompany vulnerable immigrants in our city and region and beyond.
So let’s have Jenny and Nate join us and chat for a moment, and then I’ll share some opportunities to engage and we’ll pray as well. Jenny and Nate Bacon, welcome back to Reservoir.
[no transcript – brief interview begins at :30 and ends at about 15:00]
Three other ways you engage if immigration is part of your story or you want to accompany and serve our immigrant neighbors:
Pastor Lydia and I are both part of a campaign to make sure immigrant residents of this state can safely and legally drive in this state, a campaign we’ll share more about in the weeks to come. For now, you can pray for us, but we’ll share more ways to be involved in the weeks ahead.
This Thursday night, we’re hosting the quarterly gathering of BIJAN, which is a network of faith communities and individuals who are working to reduce the escalating harm of our immigration system in these times. This organization is not run by or sponsored by Reservoir, but it has connected me with some beautiful ways to get to know and support more of my vulnerable immigrant neighbors. If you’d like to learn about or participate in this work, the info for Thursday’s gathering is in the program.
And on Saturday, we’re co-hosting a daytime Know Your Rights workshop here at Reservoir to empower immigrants and their allies to know the full rights they have as residents of this city and state and country. You’re welcome to come, if that’s relevant to you or your friends and family. That information is in your program as well.
Alright, well here’s where we’re going today. You may have noticed that with the matters I led us into at the start, our country is not of one accord. Tempers are hot. Conflict is high, in the political and public landscape of our times.
And you also may have noticed that with the late June Democratic debates, presidential election season has officially begun.
Which means that for the next sixteen months, we’re back in campaign season. Lots of ads and debates ahead. We’ll be hearing more, not less, from our current President Trump, and from the couple of dozen people who are looking to take his place. If our last presidential election was any measure of this, this will not always be fun. I am feeling this massive powers to predict the future just now. More public conflict ahead.
Most of us also think we live in times of public threat. We’re scared about the future of our world. If you’re offended by the Trump administration, as I am, you likely think that he represents some of the white supremacist nationalism that has been growing in the Western world. Which is threatening, on so many levels. And yet ironically, this populist nationalism has grown because its supporters also have their own sense of feeling threatened by all manner of change afoot in the world.
Lots of us feel threatened.
And then privately, of course, many of our lives are also marked by seasons of conflict and threat. We have our own relational and economic and existential troubles that stress us out.
What I want to ask is does all this public and private conflict and threat guarantee us stress and misery? Because it seems like it does!
But on my better days, I’m finding again and again that it doesn’t have to be so. There are ways God can help us find our moorings and not just survive in times of stress and conflict but engage and flourish and thrive.
I want to point us toward some help in this today. We’ll start with today’s psalm, this public prayer from the Bible. I’ll read it and then point some stuff out, and that will take us to one other scripture in today’s readings, and some really powerful and practical help for flourishing.
Psalm 52 (NIV)
For the director of music. A maskil of David. When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: “David has gone to the house of Ahimelek.”
1 Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
2 You who practice deceit,
your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor.
3 You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
4 You love every harmful word,
you deceitful tongue!
5 Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living.
6 The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at you, saying,
7 “Here now is the man
who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his great wealth
and grew strong by destroying others!”
8 But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
for ever and ever.
9 For what you have done I will always praise you
in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
for your name is good.
I love praying that psalm. I’ve been told I sound kind of dramatic when I read Bible out loud. I’m not trying to perform or anything. I am trying to have fun. But more than that, I’m paying attention to the meaning of the words and letting myself go there, letting this map onto and shape my experience. This is what it means to pray a psalm. It’s how we join Jews and Christians who for thousands of years have made these 150 public poems a prayer book, a way to connect our whole selves with a living God.
I say praying that psalm, not just reading it, because this is what the psalms do – they expand our notion of prayer. They let us bring all our thoughts and feelings, all our experience out in the open, stuffing nothing down.
In this case, the psalm gives us permission to call to mind a person of authority who does harm – could be a boss, could be a parent, a teacher, could be a president – whoever fits the mold in your experience. And the psalm invites us to talk trash, to voice our anger, in the presence of God.
We’ll talk more about how important this is later, but for now I want to note that it feels good. Praying these words doesn’t relieve me of my anger or agitation, but it does leave me lighter, free-er, a little more focused too. It’s really good.
Now you probably noticed, there are a couple of big shifts in the psalm I want us to pay attention to. The first is when we commit our enemy to God. The first four verses address the enemy – you are a bad person. Why are you like this?
But then in verse five, the prayer keeps speaking to the enemy, who’s probably not there and not listening. But the prayer commits the enemy to God. God will take care of you. You can’t keep acting like this forever, because your evil will catch up with you in this life, or – at the very least – you’re gonna die. And your reputation will be known. People will tell the truth about you. And they’ll laugh.
There’s something powerful about truth telling and laughter. People who use power badly, people who do harm to others, bullies and tyrants and bad actors with any amount of power or influence, want to be feared or admired, or they want to get their way in secret. So they hate being exposed, and they hate being laughed at. So there’s something powerful for us about exposing and laughing, even when they can’t hear.
There’s also something about entrusting people’s fate we can’t control to a good and just God.
I was praying with a few friends recently because one of us had experienced a harm and was shaken by it, and my friend who was praying said to Jesus: Jesus, I think you’d call people who do XYZ, and she named the ways this person had done harm to our friend, and she said Jesus, I think you’d call people who do that vipers. And I don’t know what to do with people like that, but I believe you do, so I trust you to protect and heal my friend, and also to handle that person acting like a viper.
Some of us have this idea that faith is always supposed to make us nicer. And that prayer is either about us making announcements to God that God already knows and hoping God will make us nicer, more docile.
Now nothing wrong with nice sometimes. Being nice to our family and friends and strangers can sometimes makes the world a happier place.
But faith is a lot more than this. Faith in Jesus, and a practice of prayer, is about power that transforms our experience. It’s about staying human and engaged and hopeful in the face of everything we see and experience and feel in the world. It’s about finding our way back to wholeness and power and love every time something breaks us.
And sometimes that starts by naming the truth in the presence of God. So this psalm helps us do that.
But then there’s one more shift, maybe the most dramatic one in the psalm, right in the last couple of verses.
“But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God.”
I like just saying that. I am like an olive tree.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an olive tree, but I know flourishing trees – strong, rooted, large, abundant. In the case of the olive tree too, it’s at the center of the nutrition and economy of the Ancient Near East.
Through metaphor, the poet is saying all this. I’m strong, I’m rooted. I’m important, useful, beautiful. God has made me alive and well and so, so good.
Where’s this coming from?
For a tree, we know it’s sun and soil and water, leaves and deep roots.
But what about for the poet?
The tradition ascribes this poem to the ancient King David at a particular time in his life. He’s not on a meditation retreat, or on a spiritual pilgrimage. He’s not on vacation or in a yoga class. He’s not in silence or worship in the temple. Great as all those things are, they are not available to David.
He just got out of a cave.
David is running away from his father-figure mentor who’s trying to kill him. He’s being harassed and threatened by his country’s head of state. He has no legal defense, no civil rights. His latest stop on the run is hiding out in a priest’s house, where his location has been given away to Saul, a betrayal that will lead to a massacre of his protectors, with a guilt-ridden David just escaping.
This poem, this prayer, is not born out of times of peace or ease. It comes straight out of the most intense experience of conflict and threat.
And yet, David can pray: I am like an olive tree, flourishing in the house of God.
Where does this strength come from? What roots and nourishment lead to this experience of calm and wellness and purpose? Where can we get all that?
Well, we see at least two things here, and then a third we’ll circle back to.
The two things we see here are gratitude and hope.
Gratitude used to seem like a soft discipline to me. The luxury of the happy or privileged. But a great book I read by Diana Butler Bass a couple of years ago helped change this for me. The book is called Gratitude, and she finished writing it while she was absolutely dismayed by the direction of the country and the world she lived in.
But she wrote about the power of gratitude to make us stronger, more resilient, more grounded, better people in all circumstances.
I do pastoral visits with detainees in ICE detention. These men are under levels of threat I can not imagine experiencing. They live in crowded cells, they eat lousy food, they have no freedom. They don’t know if they will see their friends and family in this country ever again. And if they are deported, they don’t know if they will have a job or even a life in the country from which they fled.
So when I started making these pastoral visits, I was like: what are we going to talk about? What do I have to offer?
But as I’ve kept going, and as I’ve prayed, and as I’ve developed relationships, I’ve found one of the things we always do, without fail, is we do gratitude together.
We always talk about the things detention can’t take from them – their loved ones, and the bonds they have with them. Their future, no matter where it occurs. The people they’ve struggled to become. Gratitude tells my friends there that they’re part of a good story, despite what’s happened to them.
Gratitude strengthens us. It reminds us of the best of our identity and experience and resources. There’s research on this, apparently, which is what persuaded my wife Grace to add statements of gratitude to our evening dinner times in our house as well. Because we want to raise kids that see that they’re part of a good story, despite whatever happened today. We want to raise flourishing adults who are rooted and resilient.
And frankly, we want to be parents who are rooted and resilient and notice the best in our world, how God is always more than enough for our needs and for what we’re called to do. And none of that just comes naturally, at least for us. But regular gratitude helps get us there.
The psalm doesn’t end with gratitude, though, it moves from there to hope. And hope, and the engagement and action that hope produces, are another powerful tool for our flourishing during conflict and threat.
Like gratitude, I used to think hope was an ethereal, feel good luxury. An escape from hardscrabble reality.
But I’ve realized that’s not my experience. My experience is that when I have grounds for hope in a better tomorrow, then I am more resilient. I can hold on today, and I can even work for that better tomorrow. And I can do so with more joy in my heart, and more generosity to the people around me too.
And maybe on a related note, I’ve noticed that when I’m in conflict, or when I’m experiencing a threat, one of the first things to go in my mind and my heart is hope. And despair, a lack of hope, has never done me good. It’s never given me strength.
Bryan Stevenson talks a lot about this. Stevenson wrote the super-best-selling book Just Mercy, and is one of the leading civil rights and racial justice figures of our generation. And almost every time he speaks, he encourages people to hope. Because hope gives us freedom and motivation to act with courage.
This is where the psalm ends, with a grateful David saying, “I will hope in your name God, for your name is good.” In David’s culture and faith, a name representing character and identity. So saying: God, everything you are and everything you represent is good, so I will hope in you.
So David, flushed out of his first hiding place in a cave, and then discovering that his second hiding place with a group of priests won’t be safe as well. That the most powerful leader and all the forces of that leader’s government are out to crush him, at that moment, David says: God, everything about you is good, and I will hope that you will be good in my life and in my times.
It takes some audacity to be people of hope. There’s plenty of reasons to not hope when we’re facing conflict and threat, whether that’s public business that assaults and threatens our conscience, or whether that’s our own private pains and turmoils and stresses.
To cultivate hope each day is audacious, but it’s powerful.
To say again: God, you made this universe, and you made this earth, and you made it all so good, with more than enough for us all.
To say: God, your very nature and being is love, and you extravagantly enjoy and delight in me, and my family and friends. And you have a fierce and lavish and generous love for each person under threat that I side with today, and you God, have a fierce and lavish and generous love for each person I resent or hate, or count as an enemy.
To say: God, you would advance the flourishing of all your beloved creatures today. And maybe there’s only so much that I can do, maybe that’s small, small, small, but God, fill me with your spirit of love and hope and strength, that I can live and act with generous love today toward myself and my loved ones, and the strangers I meet, and the people I work with, and the people in public life I encounter and think about. And God, make me a part of your flourishing love and justice work today.
To stir hope like this is audacious, but it’s powerful.
And it’s the only way that we can be people of love and grace and truth in hard times, and it’s the only way we can do hard things.
I dare say that Jenny and Nate Bacon would end their work tomorrow and settle in to a California suburb somewhere if they did not keep growing this hope in God.
I certainly would never go back to that detention center again, if I couldn’t do so with hope. It’s too discouraging, every part of it.
Each of us, our lives are too important, and the hard parts of them too hard, the good work we’re called to do is too hard, to face without hope.
This is why it was exciting for the early followers of Jesus to find that in the person of Jesus, they had stumbled across a world-changing source of cosmic hope.
There’s a second scripture in your program I’ll read just part of, another old poem or song put into the New Testament letter called Colossians.
Colossians 1:15-23 (CEB)
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,
16 Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
18 He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
There’s this really cool work with the word first in this poem. The writer says what if Jesus, this person born into a poor Middle Eastern family in the Roman colony of Judea,what if that Jesus is also the firstborn in all humanity. The first person, the first among the living, the first among the dead. Older, more privilege, more powerful, most wise than any person who has ever lived.
What if in Jesus, this person, all the fullness of God is alive in this person.
This Jesus has brought all people, all things into relationship, to bring about peace and wholeness and flourishing for us all.
That’s the mind-bending, mystical hope of the faith, that Jesus is at the center of all history, all people, all reality, and that Jesus has brought all of God into union, connection, oneness with all of creation.
And our opportunity as part of that creation, is to make that visible. To see that and to bring that into being.
This is a world-changing source of cosmic hope.
I mentioned earlier with the psalm that it feels good to tell the truth about people acting badly. And that is really important, to talk back to our news feed, to talk back to the politicians that make us promises or try to scare us, and when we think they’re lying, to say: that’s not true. Even if we’re not there, to just say it to ourselves, that centers us again. It gives us power and possibility to not just go along on someone else’ ride.
To talk back, even if it’s just in our heads, to the claims behind the stories and the art and the work we encounter all day, and to name what is or isn’t true, best as we can tell, is to have power to not make someone else’s bad story our own.
Well, the Jesus story gives us this pretty powerful mode of truth-telling that isn’t just reactive to everything else we encounter, but that is centering and is proactive.
We can say that politics and presidents and celebrities and companies and schools and all the people in charge in all those places are important, but they’re not the center. And all my problems and stresses are real and important, but they too are not the center.
At the center of reality today, an impossibly good and loving God has begun this process of making all people and all things good and beautiful and one and whole.
There’s no person or thing I’m going to think about or see today that isn’t part of that story. That God doesn’t love. That God isn’t wanting to make beautiful and good and whole.
How can this love and presence that holds all things center me today? How can Jesus who is renewing all things anchor me today? How can Jesus who sees and knows and loves all people and things give me hope today? How can this hope fuel me today?
This is the power of the faith I’m here to encourage you in.
We’ve mentioned particular ways today to love our immigrant selves and our immigrant neighbors in this hope. I’m sure that’s good news and timely for many of you.
But obviously, no one set of actions is for everyone. We share some conflicts and threats, but we all have our own too, and we all have our own work to do. So for all of us, I leave you with the encouragement to:
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Daily work with your tools:
centering through truth-telling and spiritual perspective