Rev. Seth Patterson
October 8, 2023
Scripture: Psalm 80:7–15
What nourishes you?
What do you need?
What is lost if you stop?
These three questions have been ricocheting around the walls of this community for the last few weeks. The first two—What nourishes you? And What do you need?—were introduced a few weeks ago on Leadership Day when this church’s six boards, Deacons and two justice groups met to collaborate in the vision work of this community. These two questions have been repeated in other small groups in the subsequent weeks. Great meaning can be made from these two moments of self-inquiry. The questions were asked specifically about our life in this church community, and they can also be helpful in moments of discernment in other parts of your life. There is no single answer for any of us, but what begins to bubble up for you.
What nourishes you?
What do you need?
These questions function almost like a moment of prayerful contemplation. Prayers often fall into these two categories: gratitude for what nourishes us or a plea for what is needed. What emerged for you? Was it a fully formed answer, unhesitating and bold? Or was it more like a sparkle in the periphery of your heart, a sense not yet formable into words? What nourishes you? What do you need?
In the sometimes disjointed and contradictory literary ecosystem we call the Bible, the Psalms are the place where these questions are most often wrestled. (Also, Psalm is apparently pronounced without the ‘L’ sound. That feels weird in my mouth after a lifetime of saying PsaLm, but I will endeavor to say it with the silent ‘L’) Psalms were originally prayers or songs or poems or something else entirely that has been lost in history. They are not instructive or conclusive. They are instead expressions of our collective humanity in the face of the unknown. They are poetic and musical, more art than fact and can reveal to us deep truths through their expressions of longing, joy, loss, hope, fear and restoration.
Psalm 80 is our scripture today and it reflects the longing for restoration that comes out of loss. Here the Psalmist remembers what once felt whole and fruitful, connected and thriving. This is a small section of the larger Psalm. Let us take a breath and open our hearts, souls and minds in the reading of this very human prayer of yearning:
Restore us, O God; let your face be light, that we may be helped. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted us. You cleared the ground, and we took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with their branches sent as far as the sea, and roots stretched to the River.
Remembered is the feeling of growth, of cultivation, of the hope that comes from fruitfulness. God saved the People from captivity in Egypt and planted them in their new home like a transplanted vine. Like trees they took root and spread their branches wide.
How does this fit into our first two questions of the day about nourishment and need? Where are you planted and growing? What fruit are you producing? Where do your roots lead and how do they connect you to sources of life? For what purpose do your branches stretch out into the world? What nourishes you and what do you need to continue being nourished?
And then what is lost if it all went away? At a planning meeting a week ago, Plymouth’s Racial Justice Initiative (shortened to RJI) asked this very question and it sparked some of our most fruitful discussion. What would be lost if RJI ceased to exist? While this institution is entirely supportive of this work continuing and the wonderful members of RJI hold deep commitments, we are also aware of the downturn in interest in racial justice work at Plymouth and in the wider culture.
We talked at length in pairs and in the larger group about what would be lost: a piece of our community focused on racial justice, a member of our leadership structure that helps keep this work in vision, members of our community that continue to learn, advocate, be present and hold relationships inside and out. What would be lost is a sense that working on behalf of all people is a core value of this place, that decolonizing our own community is faithful work, and one of the very Purposes of Plymouth is to “Further social, economic, racial and environmental justice.” Thankfully, we decided to continue our work (and if anyone would like to join us, please talk to me. You can be someone who helps us remember that justice for all people is our calling).
“What is Lost?” feels like a helpful companion to the first two questions. It is important to know the stakes. What could happen if we are not nourished, if we don’t get what we need. This is where this Psalm turns next. It names what it feels like to have all be lost. It goes on to say: Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it…have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted. It has been burned with fire; it has been cut down…
The Psalmist identifies what has been lost by the perceived withdrawal of God. Of course, God never actually abandons us, but it can certainly feel like it sometimes. When things get difficult, when things go wrong, when things are burned by fire or cut down we may feel as if we have been abandoned. It can feel like God has left us to the ravaging boars from the forest.
So, if this feeling of abandonment feels so real and God is also always present, what do we do with this? What if it is not God that abandons us but we disconnect ourselves from that source of ceaseless love and life? Maybe what is lost is not God, but our own connection to God. What becomes lost when we stop acting as God’s hands, feet and voices in our world?
Loss is inevitable. Nothing lives forever, nothing can be sustained in perpetuity. Loss is woven into the fabric of our very being. And we so often exacerbate this loss. Life is hard enough without the ways we make it harder on each other. There is the cycle of life and death, of beginning and end built into this thing we call life—and we can make it worse by our actions.
What is lost when we decide death/war/violence is the answer to the question of what to do next? What is lost when we decide our own material comfort is worth the degradation of our earth? What is lost when we decide our own present is more important than the future of our children and grandchildren? What is lost when we build walls, hold firearms, hoard wealth, oppress, marginalize, underestimate? What is lost when our own desires replace God and our actions abandon the source of love and life?
Perfection is not possible—making mistakes is also foundational to our humanity—but it seems worth remembering that our actions are important. Our decisions make a difference. Our presence means something. It matters when we withdraw from God.
It matters when we withdraw from community too. Every bit of time, talent and treasure is important in this community. Every bit of presence and action, every smile, handshake, conversation (brief or sustained) is important. Every bit of participation is fuel to this community’s life and future. Your words and actions are valuable here.
If loss is inevitable, if God is always present and it is part of our humanness to withdraw from God at times, then how do we return to nourishment and filling our needs? How does this Psalm reconcile this? Psalm 80 ends by saying, Restore us, O God, let your face be light, that we may be helped. The Psalm’s plea is for restoration, for reconnection, for another try in a new way. It is to create anew from what had been, not somehow become the past once again. In the cycle of life and death God’s promise is that there is also restoration, rebirth. Paradoxically, what is lost can also allow us to find something anew. There is loss when we withdraw from God and amazing possibilities when we reconnect and work for restoration. This is again in our hands, our decisions, our actions matter.
That which nourishes us is a gift from the source of all love and life. What we need also is given from that boundless well. What is lost when we withdraw ranges from the inconvenient to the catastrophic. And the Psalmist’s plea for restoration is always possible when we choose to return to the ceaseless and boundless source of love and life. May we do so together.