(a sermon for Sunday, July 22; Third in a Series preached at East Congregational Church UCC, Concord NH, based on Psalm 131)
Sometimes in the course of our daily lives, we receive what might best be described as an “attitude adjustment” – and very often, it comes to us whether we want it to happen or not!
I remember one such adjustment in my own life – it was toward the end of my first year of seminary, and I had to attend some sort of student and faculty reception; if memory serves, it was to “meet and greet” the graduation speaker that year. And so, along with a couple others of my classmates, I’d walked up to my Old Testament and Hebrew professor – Dr. Stephen Szikszai – to say hello and to meet this man. And Dr. Szikszai, God rest his soul, greeted me from halfway across the room with this rich and booming Hungarian voice that students at Bangor had long both respected and feared: “Ah! Here ist vun of my Hebrew scholars now – Meester Lowry!”
Even today, I cannot begin to describe to you how that hit me: he called me Hebrew Scholar! Michael Lowry – seminarian, pastor, and …Hebrew Scholar! I’ve gotta tell you, that sounded pretty good! And I do remember to this day what an immediate ego boost that was – I’d had no idea that Dr. Szikszai thought of me that way; I was a pretty good student, I guess, but Hebrew scholar? Hey, this was great! But of course, the thing about a comment like that is that you don’t want to be all puffed up about it, and at least appear humble, so I just said, “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that…” In retrospect, I guess my feeble attempt at humility didn’t really come through, because to this Dr. Szikszai replied, “Dun’t get carried away, Meester Lowry. Being a scholar does not make you smart!”
Alas, the glory was short-lived, but it was oh, so sweet!
I laugh about it now, but in truth, that little “attitude adjustment,” one of a great many I’ve suffered over the years, served as an early reminder to me that in the vocation of ministry, as in all of life, you should always be careful to “hold on to your ego,” so not to get carried away with yourself!
Truthfully, I suspect we’re all familiar with the notion that it often takes falling flat on your face to recognize the fact that you’ve set yourself up too high to begin with! What we’re talking about here is the human condition and, spiritually speaking, our propensity to sinfulness – to put a finer point on it, this is what can happen to any one of us when humility is displaced by self-centeredness; when the same pride and aspiration that moves us forward in life all too easily becomes arrogance and blind ambition.
In truth, however, this is only a small part of a greater concern; that is, what happens when life becomes so busy, so congested and so convoluted that our hearts, our minds, our very souls risk becoming cluttered and restless; so much so that we may well forget just who we are, and most crucial of all, just whose we are; the end result being that we’ll often turn away from the one we need the most to live.
What I’m saying to you this morning is that sometimes we all need a spiritual attitude adjustment, and that’s what our psalm this morning is all about.
With only three verses, the 131st Psalm is one of the shortest of the Psalms (at 2 verses, only the 117th Psalm is shorter), and in terms of familiarity, probably one of the lesser known – but when you realize what it’s saying and how it’s said, it packs a wallop. In fact, the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said that though this was one of the shortest of psalms, “its truth [took him] the longest to learn.” And this is because this little song that’s found toward the end of the Book of Psalms seeks to do a big thing: to get you and me back in sync with the one who created us, who loves us and who holds for us a true and enduring purpose in living.
The Rev. Eugene Peterson – he’s the man who created the paraphrase of scripture, The Message, from which you often hear me quote – he refers to this particular passage as “a maintenance psalm,” and says that it is as “functional to the person of faith as pruning is functional to the gardener.” It gets rid of the useless and harmful cultch of our lives that might look good to those who don’t know any better, and in the process “reduce the distance between our hearts” and the heart of God! In other words, this psalm seeks to help us get rid of the kind of attitudes that lead us to believe that life is “all about us;” to instead find our life’s meaning in a quiet trust of God himself.
This brief psalm is a confession and affirmation all in one: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” Now, at first read that doesn’t sound too bad; at worst a call to a bit more sincerity and modesty. But then consider how the New International Version of the Bible translates this same first verse: “My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty.” Or the Good News Bible: “Lord, I have given up my pride and turned away from my arrogance.” Or how about The Message? It reads, “God, I’m not trying to rule the roost, I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.”
Do you get what’s being said here? Keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds, because trying to be more than you are and something you’re not will inevitably lead to trouble!
Now, right now you may be thinking that this seems a bit of a contradiction where our understanding of scripture is concerned – after all, aren’t we called to great and do marvelous things? Doesn’t Jesus himself tell us to make disciples of all nations, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty and to welcome the stranger? Aren’t we led to believe that there’s nothing greater or more marvelous than to be a light unto the world; to do justice and love kindness?
All true – but as the rest of that verse in Micah is quick to remind us, there’s also that matter of walking humbly with God! What this psalm reminds us is that we can easily confuse God’s call to live as witnesses to the world with trying to take on the whole world ourselves! Because when you take on that role, it’s a very short jump from glorifying God to glorifying self! And when that happens, some attitude adjustment is most certainly in order. I’m reminded here of a poster I saw years ago, on which were printed these words: “Do not feel totally, personally, irrevocably responsible for everything. That’s my job. Love, God.”
Yes, friends, we are called to make disciples of all nations, but only in the company of our Lord who has promised he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. We are supposed to let our lights so shine, but understanding that the light is not of our own making but placed within our hearts by God in Christ himself. We are called to walk humbly with God – it is not in our job description to be God, any more than it is to find purpose and glory solely on what do for ourselves – our job, our calling, our very purpose, in the words of our psalm, is to put our “hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.”
So much stress and anxiety, all the physical, emotional and spiritual turmoil in which so many of us find ourselves mired, so much restlessness and sadness that pervades our very souls, all because we’ve never really grasped that it’s not up to us to do it all; only to do what we can, be faithful in doing it, and trust in the Lord always. This is the affirmation piece of this psalm: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” “I’ve kept my feet on the ground,” translates The Message. “I’ve cultivated a quiet heart. Like a baby content in its mother arms, my soul is a baby content.”
I love that verse: for those who only see masculine images for God in scripture, here’s a wonderful and powerful image of God as a woman – in this instance, a caring mother who holds and comforts her child, keeping it safe, and calm and quiet in every circumstance. As far as I’m concerned, this is the perfect picture of a God who, whenever we feel overwhelmed with life’s circumstance and chaos, whenever we tend to fly off in our own direction and get nowhere in the process, who comes to answer our cries and give us a calm and quieted soul for the living of these tumultuous days with faith and joy. In other words, on the outside I might be a 50-something man with grey hair and bad knees, but on the inside, spiritually speaking, I’m just a child in my mother’s arms!
And that makes all the difference.
Friends, just outside of the little town of Island Falls, Maine (very near to where our family’s camp is located), at the end of a rather rough, dirt road, there’s a foot path that leads a mile through the woods to a rather non-descript clearing right where First Brook and the west branch of the Mattawamkeag River come together. Somebody’s built a makeshift bench there out of a couple of logs, and attached to one of the trees is a homemade wooden box, inside of which is a guestbook for visitors to sign, along with a well-worn copy of the Bible. The place is called “Bible Point,” and it happens to be a national historical landmark, because this was the specific spot where Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, used to come as a young man to fish, read scripture, and to pray. It’s true: in fact, years later, Roosevelt would write that it was, in fact, those quiet times spent there in the northern Maine woods, in communion with the Lord “and the wonder and beauty of the visible world” that guided him forward in every way.
There’s also a plaque that was placed there back in 1921 which reads, “Stranger, rest here, and consider what one man, having faith in the right and love for his fellows, was able to do for his country,” followed by a reference to what Roosevelt’s favorite verse of scripture, that reminder “to walk humbly with …God.”
We all need that reminder, friends. We all need a bit of a spiritual “attitude adjustment” from time to time, so that we do not occupy ourselves with things too great and marvelous for us; but rather so that we might find for ourselves that quiet place to fish …or to sail, or to walk, or to read, to listen to music, or play music, or simply to sit in the quiet, in a solitary place with God …so that we might begin to have a truly calm and quieted soul; having divested ourselves of the all the clutter of living and the noise of self-importance, renewing a deep relationship with the Lord, taking refuge like a child in his loving embrace, and finding all our hope in his presence and power.
Good advice for a summer day, I’d say. As another psalm tells us, also words to live by: “Be still and know that I am God.”
And may our thanks be to God!
Selah, and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry