We recognize the Psalmist’s longing for God because we long for God too. Lent is a time of spiritual reflection, practice and change. But no one can make us change. If we are going to make our way to Jerusalem we must take responsibility for our spiritual lives. Let us pray. Come Holy Spirit come. Open to us the meaning of your word and the presence of the spirit you have breathed into each of us. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
The story is told of a minister who was visiting an unfamiliar town to preach one evening and he asked a little boy he met how to get to the Post Office. After the boy told him, the minister said, “Why don’t you come to church tonight? I’m giving instructions on how to get to heaven.” After thinking a minute, the boy replied, “I don’t think so. You don’t even know how to get to the Post Office.”
There is a fair amount of skepticism about the direction of organized religion in America today. Diana Butler Bass, a good friend of our congregation writes in her most recent book about the rough time organized religions have faced over the past decade. Bass argues that the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandals caught headlines and led to lawsuits and a lack of trust in organized religion. For most of the past decade, our denomination, as with most mainline Protestant denominations, has wrestled with the role of sexual orientation in the church, whom to include and then how to divide property. The rise and fall of fundamentalism and the religious right, especially with its prominent role in the 2004 election, alienated many younger Americans. This fall, a Pew Research poll disclosed that 1 in 5 Americans now have no religious affiliation.
And yet, we all have a spiritual core. The 19th century philosopher Williams James suggested that there were two types of religion, institutional and personnel. While one’s connection with institutional religion might wane, personal religion never goes away. We can drop out of worship and leave church but our longing for God remains.
The author of Psalm 42 found himself involuntarily separated from his institutional religion. Psalm 42 was written during the Babylonian exile where the Israelites had been taken from their beloved Jerusalem, where the Psalmist had worshipped in the Temple.
We talk about Lent as a wilderness time because Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. But generations earlier, the Israelites spent 70 years separated from the things they cared about most.
The Psalmist was among them and longed for God, but instead of giving up, the Psalmist took responsibility for his faith. He decided that what was most important was his relationship with God. Instead of feeling sorry for himself he chose to focus on the memories of when God was in his life. How God was with him near the Jordan, in what would today be Lebanon, on the Mountain. He remembered the spirit in nature, in waterfalls and waves. He remembered God’s love with him during the day and through song at night. And the memories sustained him and so the Psalmist concluded that he would look to the future and make his life a prayer to God.
Lent is a time to take responsibility for your faith life. If you not sure whether your life is necessarily better with God in it than without, I believe you’ll discover you will thirst for God if you give God up. If you are eager to draw closer to God, make use of the time you have to invest in your spiritual life. For there may be times later on when you travel or move or when you are at a place in life where it’s difficult to make it to church, and in those times we rely on our memories. Memories of when we were able to worship in the House of God. Or when we found God on a trip amidst the waves or hiking on a mountain. Or when we sang a song and felt alive with God. Or when someone held our hand and we felt God’s love.
Today is the final Sunday in which Pope Benedict will serve as Pope. He is fond of saying that one of his favorite theologians is St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine loved our lesson for today. It is said that Psalm 42 was read when Augustine was baptized on Easter Sunday in 387 a.d. As the quote on your bulletin suggests, Augustine believed that all human beings have an innate longing for God and that we ultimately don’t find satisfaction until we develop some understanding of our relationship with God.
Yet I think there is some danger to our tradition being at time overly reliant on Augustine. Augustine was argued, among other things, for the fallibility of the human condition. He saw a sharp distinction between the corruption of humanity and the goodness of God. In recognizing the failures of humanity, he thought, we see that in we are in need of God’s grace. In that, Augustine is helpful when we find ourselves too reliant on human idols to find our meaning. But when so many people today are not finding meaning in the ways human have organized religion, being negative about humanity doesn’t help.
There were contemporaries of Augustine who lifted up another view. They argued that humans are more capable of making choices. Many of these views were rejected by the early church as leading too easily to idolatry. Fair enough. But through these ideas we can at least appreciate the human capacity to be guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit in making choices. That there is much to learn about the creator from the creation.
We learn about our longing for something greater than ourselves that only God can supply, but also about the value of the choices made by humanity. God is responsible for the gift of the Holy Spirit but we are responsible for listening to the Spirit. We need to affirm our creation as spiritual beings by taking responsibility for our spiritual life. That means choosing to engage the spiritual life of Lent.
Psychologists tell us we all worship something, if it’s not God, humans will put something, money, movie stars, politicians, sports heroes, ourselves, at the center of our universe.
And yet as I talk with people from a variety of backgrounds it is clear to me that there is nothing that can really take the place of God. Sports or political heroes and movie stars are only on stage for a time. Financial assets and property cannot feed you on a deep level. And we cannot satisfy ourselves spiritually. We can fill our lives with businesses, but eventually we find that it’s lonely at the top. We can try and medicate ourselves, ignore our need to connect or run away from our creator, but we feel empty and lost. Life goes along fine and we are happy to get along without God, but eventually something happens where we realize we are not completely self-sustaining. We find ourselves needing care or learn that someone we care about is sick and we find we have a longing for God. They say that “there are no atheists in foxholes and few atheists in hospitals.” When we realize that the things that we take for granted or care about most are out of our control we turn to higher powers. While we can stay self-focused for a long while, eventually our thirst for God will cause us to look outward to a deep reflection about the meaning of life, the reason we are here, what happens after we die? These questions all lead us to God.
The Psalmist faced a choice in Babylon, allow the circumstance, isolation and peer pressure to diminish his faith, or take charge of his spiritual life. In his case, there were memories that sustained his hope before his people made their way back to Jerusalem to rebuild the kingdom there.
As we talk the Lenten Road to Jerusalem, each of us must decide if we are going to sit on the side or walk the path. The path Jesus offers is not easy. But it leads to living water that can quench your thirst for something meaningful. Once you choose to engage your faith, you become a builder of the kingdom of God. The church needs more of you. You help build the kingdom when, like the Psalmist, you share what sustains you. You help to build the kingdom when you join the church, like the eight individuals who are joining Bradley Hills this morning to grow spiritually and to help others grow. Like the Vanderver family who had a vision for a spiritual presence at the church through our Covenant Hall windows. You build up the church because when you practice finding God in yourself you learn see God in others. When you choose to allow yourself to be found by God you find what we all are looking for.
I have spent the past three days in Ohio with our four year old. As with his brother, a special trip just the two of us on the airplane to visit my family or friends back where I grew up. It’s been a fun few days. We slept in my old room together, we walked in woods where I walked as a child, went to the pizza place where I went any lunch I could as a youth, and read through the same books we read as children. We read from the same 1910 copy of the Old Mother West Wind stories we listened to as children. The activities with Brendan brought back deep spiritual experiences of mine as a child. They connected me with my spiritual core. And they made me feel responsible. Responsible to him, to my parents, to God, for sharing what had been so important to me.
Our faith lives are similar. When we reflect on those things that are spiritually important to us, we learn take responsibility not only for the past but also for the future. To make sure the church that was there for us is here for others tomorrow. To make our life a prayer. Because we are not the only ones who is longing for the presence of God. And if you choose to drink of the living water of Christ this Lent, you will find your next choice is who to share it with first. May it be so. Amen.