Beth Hoffman Faeth May 10, 2020
Scriptures: Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16; 1 Peter 2:4–10
Like many of you, I have been enjoying some time outside in my yard, readying things for a growing season. Typically I do not get to these chores until late in May (if I ever do), and so I am taking advantage of an earlier start by paying some attention to long-neglected garden beds and a particularly unruly raspberry patch. As much as I enjoy working in the garden and getting my hands dirty, the expanse of my yard became too much for me a few years ago, and I covered my vegetable beds with tarp, planning to “someday” get back on track and take the necessary time needed to reap a hoped-for harvest. Someday, apparently, is right now. A few days ago I peeled off the tarp and began to work the earth, uncertain of what I would discover after years of unuse. To my delight there were a lot of worms! Now, there are plenty of things I hope not to find in my gardening endeavors—I am not a fan of bugs . . . at all. And I particularly do not want to unearth any remnant of an animal, and while I have been surprised more than enough times by the presence of a frog, which I handled fairly well, mind you . . . I would need to abandon all activity for the day if I got up close and personal with a snake. But worms are a gardener’s delight, a sign of fertile soil and great possibility. Bring on the worms! For me, however, there is a dirt-laden discovery even better than a worm, and that is a rock. Now, I know that must seem incredibly ordinary and anticlimactic—since rocks are pretty plentiful in our area and for many they are a gardening burden. Yet I know small joy with each unearthing of a stone, for they all find meaning and purpose in my garden. Some are piled simply for decoration, large ones come in handy to create borders and necessary boundaries, the smallest ones are saved to add to my flower pots for drainage. Each rock is unique, some far more appealing than others, every one blessed with its own story . . . objects created by the miraculous churning of the earth, symbolic of strength and fortitude.
Rocks and stones contain a spiritual energy. If you visit my church office you will notice a bowl of stones sits prominently on my table—some polished and some not—and I am fond of using the rocks during worship rituals. While I have not watered my stones like Mary Oliver, I do believe the stones release heat and energy, and, when held and focused upon, one might be more aware of divine presence and the possibility of spiritual connection. Rocks and stones are used often in scripture to refer to the divine source. Depending on the translation of Bible you use, “rock” is found around 140 times and “stone” twice that amount. In the scripture passage this morning, “rock” becomes synonymous with God. Psalm 31 is one of lament. Right now, the world as a whole is lamenting, and each of us might resonate with this kind of passionate expression of grief and sorrow. We do not know the circumstances of the author’s despair in the 31st Psalm, but the writer is pleading for rescue and commends himself to God’s care because he can no longer weather the storm that is his life. In this time of pandemic, many of us are asking questions to which there are no answers, wondering why and how we might persevere trough this time of loss and anxious worry. Psalms of lament comprise about a third of the 150 psalms and are written either as a personal expression of sorrow or a communal one. They follow a predictable writing pattern, beginning with an invitation to God to listen and be present, followed by a complaint, a request and expression of confidence and ending with a vow of praise. Even in the midst of despair, the writer of the lament finds the strength to praise God for God’s steadfast love and consistent presence. The section of the psalm I read earlier is only part of this lengthy poem. What is unique about Psalm 31 is that not only does the writer conclude with a statement of thanksgiving and praise, but expressions of devotion and recognition are interspersed throughout the poem, alternated with petitions of help and rescue. “Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me,” the psalmist cries. “You are indeed my rock and my fortress, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge . . . into your hand I commit my spirit.” Whatever calamity has befallen this writer, he surrenders himself to God’s mercy and care, his rock and refuge. One might imagine here the rock being a giant boulder, unmovable, providing the kind of foundation we are seeking in this uncertain time.
In this era of pandemic, when the world cries out in a collective lament, and when each of us is facing an uncertain future and an unsettling present . . . what is the rock upon which you cling? What is your strength and your refuge?
Two weeks ago, Seth invited us to examine our doubts in this time and incorporate them into a statement of belief, for it is doubt that, when wrestled with, leads us to a place of deeper conviction—even if only for right now. Last week, Paula reminded us that sometimes we cannot see what is right in front of us—even the risen Jesus—because we are stuck in our own story, mired down by our own pain, disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. We need something or someone to pull us into the present to remind us that, even in the bleakest moments, there is blessing. That something or someone is our rock to which we must cling. But first we need to recognize the rock, shimmy ourselves right up next to it and immerse ourselves in its refuge.
Some years ago, a woman in my congregation was struggling with her vocation. She felt called to serve in this particular organization, yet there were obstacles and difficulties with other employees and the board of directors that were blurring her vision and impeding the mission. She was so weighed down by these circumstances it was affecting everything in her life—her health, her relationships, her connection to God. She turned to me for counsel and support. One day I visited her at her office, which happened to be located literally on a river bank, and I had with me my bowl of stones. I invited her to stand with me at the water’s edge, and we talked and we prayed and we meditated upon the peacefulness of that place. And then I handed her a stone and asked her to name one difficulty of her workplace, one burden she was carrying. And when she did I asked her to throw the stone into the river, allowing the miracle of God’s created waters to transform that stone as it made its slow return to the shore. Over and over she held a stone, named the weight and heaviness, and threw the stone into the water. After a few throws I noticed her shoulders move back and relax . . . I witnessed tears of sweet release stream down her face, I saw the deep crease in the middle of her forehead begin to soften. She was letting go of her own calamity. When she was done naming her bag of burdens, I gave her a final stone. Name one thing, I said, only one thing, that you know will not fail you. Name one thing of which you are certain. Name one thing that gives you the strength to keep standing up. Without pause she said, “Resiliency through faith.” Resiliency through faith. I folded her fingers around the stone and I gently squeezed her hand. “Then that is the rock to which you cling,” I said.
Jürgen Moltmann, now in his 90s, a German theologian of the Reformed tradition, developed a form of liberation theology predicated on the view that God suffers with humanity, while also promising humanity a better future through the hope of the Resurrection, and he called his perspective the “theology of hope.” In a reflection written about Psalm 31, J. David Dark uses Moltmann’s words to describe the worldview of the psalmist as he moves from despair to salvation. These words seem so appropriate as we search for meaning in our current global predicament:
“What was impossible before will then become possible. Energies will awaken which before were constricted. A future will be opened which was hitherto closed and inaccessible. Over against the reality of the visible world awaken the possibilities of change for that world, and its transformation into the kingdom of God.” The Psalmist could have chosen to surrender fully to his despair, admitting defeat to the forces that persecuted and tried to suffocate him. But instead he asked for help, he cried out in his distress and he acknowledged the difference God, his rock, could make as God loved him back to life.
There are many, many church hymns and spiritual songs that feed my soul and evoke a powerful response, but without hesitation I will tell you that my very favorite hymn (which Philip will play in just a moment) is “How Can I Keep from Singing?”
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet, though far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging,
Since Love commands both heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
In order to be a part of the creative process that may produce such a world as Moltmann describes, we must know which rocks in our life to release and which ones with which to hold on tightly. The rock to which you cling may be God, or Love, or Hope, or Faith, or the Human Spirit. Never before in your life has it been as important to know that which grounds you. So name it and claim it, my friends. Your rock may be your lifesaver. May our voices boldly rise above earth’s lamentation as we—in the struggle and in the hope—keep on singing.
David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 458.