Sermon February 28 Lent II ~ Psalm 27 Rev. Betsy Hogan
How do you muster up courage? Prepare yourself to plough ahead, give it a go, take it on, make it through? Whenever I think of someone mustering up all their courage, from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads, what I think of is an afternoon long long ago – probably Easter, could have been Thanksgiving, but definitely a holiday.
Because all our holidays, my family, when I was little, were spent with this kind of expat gang of Chemistry professors. All these men who were hired all at once in the late 1960s at McGill and Concordia in Montreal – all of them far away from their own families, all of them the same age, and all of them had daughters. Only daughters. All at the same times.
And so all we girls grew up together. And had all our holidays together. When, while our parents were doing whatever it is that parents do when they’re all together, we girls would be more or less left to our own devices.
Which devices included, inexplicably but often, me and the other oldest of us creating with whatever we could find, and then guiding the rest of them through, a thrilling and spooky haunted house.
I have no recollection of how or why we started this haunted house creating tradition, but what I DO remember is one particularly spooky incarnation that happened to be located in the basement of the house we were in. And so we older girls invited the younger girls to begin this thrilling experience… by first walking down the basement stairs.
Which they all did with great anticipation. Except for one. Katie Butler, who would have been about four or so at the time. And who – I will never forget this – instead of just following everyone else down the stairs, she planted herself at the top of those stairs. And she did not move until she had proclaimed in a Very Brave Voice to anything spooky that might be lurking below: “I am Kathryn Butler.” Over and over. “I am Kathryn Butler.” I think of her every time I have to be quite brave.
And who knows why she landed on that particular plan of action – remember who you are… – but it worked. One step at a time, she got herself down those stairs. And though she certainly wouldn’t have known it at the time, and neither did I or any of the rest of us, it was also gloriously and perfectly biblical.
Remember who you are. When you’ve got to muster up courage, when there’s got to be something solid to stand on – remember who you are. And remember whose you are. It is at least a starting place.
But, then what. The 27th Psalm that we just heard it really is almost the ultimate expression in our Bible of how to muster up our courage. How to face down fear and defy despair and get our feet back under us, by remembering who we are and remembering whose we are.
Because who are we? We are those for whom God IS. We are those who believe there IS Godness -- and that Godness is goodness in the land of the living. Goodness in the actual world. Goodness that’s real and at work and a light and a shelter – and even if, even if, even if, we will not be dismayed.
That’s who we are. And if like the writer of Psalm 27, we need occasionally under duress to quite firmly and intentionally REMIND ourselves of that – well, then we’re no different from the Psalmist himself and no different from anyone else before or since.
On Friday, during the really quite fraught waiting for the latest episode of The Premier and Dr. Strang, which everyone pretty much knew was going to come with another day of high numbers, one of our elders happened to mention to me Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The German scholar and theologian who had literally secured a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York that got him safely OUT of Germany in the 1930s – but who chose to go back when the Nazis began establishing control over the German church, in order to participate with his colleagues in the Christian resistance.
Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested and incarcerated in a concentration camp. He was in fact executed at Flossenburg camp just weeks before the end of the war. But his letters and papers were saved, and one of the things they revealed was the extent to which Psalm 27 had been central to his steadfastness and his resilience both before the war and during it, including during his imprisonment.
Because Psalm 27 is not metaphor. It is not symbolic. We can read it as metaphor, we can read it as symbolic – of course we can. In fact, that’s exactly what makes the words of the Bible turn into the Word of God with a capital W – it’s exactly the fact that their literal meaning CAN expand and embrace and transcend the particular to keep making meaning quite beyond the limits of where that particular ends.
But the power of Psalm 27 derives completely from the fact that what’s being faced down here, on the page, the literal words, is real.
This is real fear, of real danger, from real enemies, with real weapons, threatening real violence. This is the Psalmist truly afraid, under siege, hiding behind pillars and crouching in corners and sheltering in attics, and how did this even happen? How did this world get so terrifying? And now what?
And it’s in the inescapable realness of what the Psalmist describes, that the actual power of these words is located. Because this is the moment standing at the top of the stairs, mustering up courage. Remember who you are.
And the Psalmist reminds himself: I am one of those for whom God IS. God IS the stronghold of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?
But it’s not quite enough. So again. I am one of those for whom God IS. And in time of trouble God will give me shelter. And I will not be dismayed.
And is it enough? It's not. Do it over and over. Remember who you are.
There’s a reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer went back to Psalm 27 again and again and again, while he sat in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp waiting for the Nazis to hang him for his resistance. Because sometimes it TAKES again and again and again. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. Muster up that courage. Again.
But, then what? Wait. And, then what? Wait. For God.
There is almost nothing else more frustrating than that last line of Psalm 27, except... that when we're those for whom God IS, then YES we can muster up our courage and YES we can face down our fear and YES we can defy despair and YES we can remind ourselves over and over and over again who we are and whose we are –
Because... when we're those for whom God IS, then we know – God's already there and it's really just a matter of eventually noticing it.
Which might sort of feel like waiting. Or it might feel a LOT like waiting. In a kind of static disempowered way that's just about marking time. Like I find that my understanding of the calendar has begun to devolve into a series of dates, each marking the point at which a new set of us in our province are going to begin receiving vaccinations.
I've literally never been so aware of the relative ages of various people in the congregation in all my years of ministry. Quite apart from being hyper-focused on which of my children's beloved elders are on this or that side of the magical age of eighty.
But that's not the 'waiting' in Psalm 27. It's not static, just marking time. That word in Hebrew for waiting is actually alive – it's 'expecting', it's 'anticipating', it's the child waiting on Christmas morning, it's 'readiness'.
It's waiting to notice, to grasp, to see, what's already there.
What must it have been like, the elder who mentioned Bonhoeffer to me on Friday mused aloud, during the flu pandemic in 1918. When there wasn't the technology, the online access to groceries, the means to actually more or less manage in real isolation, to WAIT as it were for revelations of enough goodness to keep people solid.
And I can't imagine. Because hardly had Friday's press conference ended, when thanks to Twitter I didn't have to wait one second more for the goodness of Godness to be revealed alive and at work in our midst, lifting my spirits and bolstering my courage and making me feel like we're good and we're strong and we'll do this.
There was a photo someone uploaded to Twitter. Of a line up around the block, and it was minus fifteen with the windchill on Friday – but there was a photo of Haligonians lined up around the block at the new Convention Centre to get asymptomatic tests done. Like THAT, after that press conference.
And why? Because that's how much they care about you, about me, about us, about each other. Full stop. And that is a beautiful thing. That photo on Twitter made me burst into tears. It was COLD on Friday afternoon. And we all knew the temperature was going up on Saturday. They could have put it off, but they didn't. That lineup was breath-taking. That was goodness, it was Godness.
And within hours, via Twitter again. The Old Triangle and Durty Nelly's taking a serious hit – announcing they won't open on St. Patrick's Day. Their busyest day of the year. That wasn't a business decision. That was a sermon. I could preach about love your neighbour for HOURS and never approach articulating its meaning so perfectly as that decision to close on St. Patrick's Day. In a way that makes me want to burst into tears all over again.
Remember who you are, Psalm 27 says, over and over like a four year old steeling herself for a spooky spooky haunted house. Make your feet firm and muster your courage –
And just wait. Are you going to feel it? The uplift you need? The slow growing realization that the spooky spooky haunted house was made by bigger girls, yes, but they actually love you? And they just want you to have fun?
And make your feet firm and muster your courage, and just wait. Are you going to feel it? The uplift you need? The slow growing realization that you matter to people who've never met you, but they'll stand in the cold and make hard sacrifices because they care about you? And want you to be safe?
Can you feel it? It's real. Rejoice and give thanks, because it's real. Amen.