Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sermon: "Soul Rest" (Psalm 116)

The Reverend Francis Norton woke up Sunday morning and realizing it was an exceptionally beautiful and sunny early spring day, decided he just had to play golf. So... he told the Associate Pastor that he was feeling sick and convinced him to preach for him that day.
As soon as the Associate Pastor left the room, Pastor Norton headed out of town to a golf course about forty miles away. This way he knew he wouldn't accidentally meet anyone he knew from his congregation. Setting up on the first tee, he was alone. After all, it was Sunday morning and everyone else was in church!
At about this time, Saint Peter leaned over to the Lord while looking down from the heavens and exclaimed, 'You're not going to let him get away with this, are you?'
The Lord sighed, and said, "No, I won't."
Just then Pastor Norton hit the ball and it shot straight towards the pin, dropping just short of it, rolled up and fell into the hole. IT WAS A 420 YARD HOLE IN ONE!
St. Peter was astonished. He looked at the Lord and asked, "Why did you let him do that?"
The Lord smiled and replied, "Who's he going to tell?"
The greatest joys in life are meant to be shared, are they not? What good is experiencing a great joy if that joy can’t be shared?
I often listen to the “Off to School Request” on 91.5 KUSC. People email the radio station to request their favorite classical song, and each morning at 7:15 they play one. The message from the person who made the request often states that the person has waited a long time to hear their favorite music.
And I think: why don’t they just stream it? You can go online and listen to almost any song instantly. You don’t have to wait for the radio station to one day play your request!
But I realized that, through the magic of radio, thousands of people all across southern California - and many others listening online throughout the world - will all be listening to your favorite music together, at the same time. It becomes a shared experience. And being able to share that happy experience makes it that much more meaningful.
Great struggles also need to be shared. If I’m experiencing a time of great struggle, it’s helpful if someone sees what I’m going through, hears me when I cry out, and acknowledges my situation. I don’t need them to share in the struggle itself - I don’t need them to experience the same struggle, the same sorrow, the same oppression - but I do need their care, their love, their support.
Crying yourself to sleep at night, alone, is very hard. You do find some comfort when there’s someone else there to at least acknowledge the difficulty of what you are facing, and in some way accompany you through that difficult time.
This need to share our struggles as well as our joys is one of the reasons why so many people are so active on social media. People today are longing to be heard. They’re longing to be seen. They’re longing to be noticed. They’re longing to share their joys and their sorrows.
Whether something really good is going on in their life, or something really difficult, they need others to acknowledge and perhaps validate what they’re going through.
This is the situation to which Psalm 116 speaks. It’s as if Psalm 116 was written directly to those living in the 21st century.
Just listen to what the Psalmist says in the first verse: “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice.”
He has heard me...
It reminds me of one of the songs our praise band has taught us, a wonderful song called “Hold My Heart.”
“One voice in a sea of pain - Could the maker of the stars hear the sound of my breaking heart…I can’t see but I’ll take my chances just to hear you call my name… to hear you call my name…”
You ever feel that way? Someone - anyone - just hear me, hear my voice… notice me…
That’s how the psalmist felt. I’m not sure what the psalmist was going through; we get a hint in verse three, where the psalmist says: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” Something bad was causing the psalmist to experience “distress and anguish,” but the psalmist cried out to God, and God listened.
“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice.”
Many today are experiencing their own distress and anguish. Many today are struggling.
Remember Victoria Pratt, the judge I mentioned last time I preached? She was aware of this. She wasn’t always able to render verdicts that were favorable to the defendants who appeared before her. But she did always let them know that they were heard, that she saw them as human beings struggling with the issues they faced. And for many of them, that made a difference.
Even with an unfavorable verdict, they had a positive experience with a judge who heard them, noticed them, and recognized the struggles they were dealing with… and when she could, she helped them find a better path.
People are facing all sorts of difficult issues in their lives. Student loans, divorce, single parenthood, school exams, unemployment, skyrocketing rent, racism, homophobia, lack of acceptance, family conflict, news headlines, climate change, crime, declining health, inadequate health care, immigration, loneliness, envy, body image, traffic… Oh, my gosh! The list goes on and on.
We’re stressed out, we’re tired, we’re anxious. Sometimes, we don’t even have the energy to voice how stressed out, tired, and anxious we are.
Yet even when we can’t find our voice… when our prayers are nothing but sighs… the Spirit prays on our behalf, and God hears.
God hears your voice, no matter how small or weak. If it’s just a whisper, God hears. If it’s as silent as a thought, God hears. If it’s nothing but a sigh, God hears.
And because God hears, God is aware of what you’re going through.
One more thing I will add before moving on: God hears us, but do we hear God? Our world is a noisy world. Our lives, our minds, are filled with noise. How do we take the time to listen to God? How do we make space in our lives - space in our being - for God? Do we find a time and a place every day to silently wait upon the Lord?
The Lord hears you, but how will you ever know that you’ve been heard if you aren’t listening for the Lord? The Lord sees you in your weakness and your struggle, but how will you ever know if you aren’t listening for the Lord?
Some people cry out to God and then complain that God never responds, yet they never tried quieting themselves and listening for God’s response. God doesn’t always come in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire. Sometimes God comes in that still small voice, that sound of silence that is found within.
I think that often, we listen for God, and we hear only silence, but that’s because God is listening to us. So if we silence our own lives, we can hear the sound of God listening to us. I think that’s pretty cool! Maybe you think I’m a little strange for thinking that’s cool, but I think it’s cool that we might be listening to God, only to hear God listening to us!
Either way, I’m going to do my best to listen to God, to wait upon the Lord. Because of the noise and the busy-ness of our world and our lives, that isn’t always easy. But I know that:
  “Those who wait upon the Lord
   will renew their strength;
   they will fly up on wings like eagles;
   they will run and not be tired;
   they will walk and not be weary..” [Isaiah 40:31]
That’s from the book of Isaiah, but I think the psalmist discovered that truth as well. When God hears us, we get strength. We get strength just from knowing that God is listening, that God is noticing us. If God did nothing else but listen, that would be good.
But of course God goes beyond that. God responds. God acts in other ways to give us the strength we need.
In verse seven, the psalmist says: “Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.”
Return, O my soul, to your rest…
I think we could all use some “soul-rest.” We may think we can just keep going and going and going, but even Jesus sought rest for his soul on numerous occasions. He often went to a secluded spot just to spend time with God, and experience some soul-rest.
Have you gotten your soul-rest lately?
Soul-rest comes from spending time with God. We say we spend time with God, but do we really? … You ever go out to a restaurant with someone, but they spend the whole time looking at their phone? And you think: I might as well be eating by myself.
Is the time you spend with God like that? Are you there, but not really there? Are you present, but not really present?
When Jesus went to a secluded spot, he went all by himself. He didn’t take along any work to do. He didn’t even take a scroll of scripture, at least as far as I can tell. There was a time for reading scripture, but there was also a time to just sit and listen… and rest one’s soul.
Often, crowds followed Jesus, and he found it hard to find that time of soul rest. But one time, he found it on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, during a wild, terrible storm! The disciples were panicking, but Jesus was sleeping through the storm!
If we can find our soul-rest, then when the storms come, we, too, will be at peace. But we need to train ourselves in this. We need to spend time meditating on God’s word, we need to spend time just being aware of God’s presence, and we need to learn to trust that no matter what happens, God is our refuge and strength, and that, yes, we will face fires, and yes, we will face floods, yet in every circumstance, our souls can find rest in God.
In every circumstance, our souls can find rest in God.
Take a moment, and let this all sink in.
God is with you.
God is present.
God’s presence embraces you. Can you feel it?
Whatever you are facing, you aren’t facing it alone. You may be experiencing something good in your life. You may be experiencing some difficult trouble. You may be experiencing a combination of things.
God is there with you, experiencing it alongside you. God hears and knows your frustrations. Through it all, God is there. And whatever happens, God is good.
At the end of Psalm 116, the psalmist says: “I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” Sometimes it feels as though we are walking in the land of the dead, as if we ourselves are dead, dead to what really makes us alive. But the psalmist - because God has heard their voice - is walking in the land of the living. The psalmist is able to get on with their life.
The psalmist is able to say: “I’ve been heard. I’ve been validated. I may be walking through a dark valley, and it may seem that I’m all alone, and it may seem that no one understands or cares… and yet, God hears me, God sees me, God knows what’s going on within me, and God walks with me. I walk before the LORD - God is right behind me - God says to me, ‘I’ve got your back.’
“I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.”