Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Not long ago, a young friend of mine found himself standing alongside a winding country road in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a cold winter’s night. Earlier that day, they had discovered that a friend of his girlfriend had died, so it had been a long and confusing day. Shaken and unsure how to deal with this tragedy, friends had started to gather in the young woman’s hometown an hour away. My friend decided that he would go, too – at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning when he couldn’t sleep. He didn’t tell anyone he was going; it was late so he just decided to go.
In a borrowed van and with little charge left in his cell phone, he took off for the gathering of friends. Somehow in his delirium, my friend got lost and found himself on a winding country road. He turned on his cell phone’s navigation app and then became aware of just how little charge his phone had left. Feeling desperate to get to where he was going, and knowing how quickly navigation uses up a battery’s charge, he decided to drive faster. And then came an unexpected, sharp turn in the road, and the van careened off its path and rolled in the ditch, landing upside down.
My friend managed to get out of the vehicle. Standing there in the wide open space, he saw no sign of life, just trees in the distance, stars in the sky and a van that was rendered useless. He had absolutely no idea where he was. In desperation, he called the friend of a friend and asked, “Can you help me?” In that moment, he felt so utterly alone and afraid. More than just the tragic circumstances of that day, he felt the existential reality of being alone in this world. It’s something we all know, something we all experience sometime in this life.
Somehow they were able to track him down, and a police officer came and delivered him to the group of friends.
One of my favorite authors is Barbara Brown Taylor, and one of my favorite quotes from her goes like this:
“…salvation is not something that happens only at the end of a person’s life….”
“Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.”
–Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith
My young friend experienced a divine spaciousness that night, a rescue from an abandoned country road, a door that opened when all he could perceive was a wall. “This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.”
A few minutes ago, we read Psalm 16. If you want to grow closer to God, spend time with the Psalms.
Psalms are prayers, poems, intimate conversations with God. With an economy of words, their meaning is dense, and it takes time to absorb them. Although today’s reading was printed like prose in your bulletin, it doesn’t really do justice to the capacity of the words. The Psalms are like a container. They hold words whose meaning can sometimes be found in literal interpretation, and other times in metaphor. Each visit to a Psalm can find nuance that brings new meaning.
I first came upon this Psalm some years ago when I was reading through the Psalms. Sometimes I do that – just pick a Psalm and start reading until something resonates, and then when it does, hold it there and let it soak in; let it work its way inside me.
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;” I read.
“I have a goodly heritage.”
It’s quite likely that those words were written for someone else with something else in mind, and yet they speak to me, and they’re mine.
About 20 years ago, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann noticed something about the Psalms. They tend to fall in one of three categories which he called, Orientation, Disorientation and Re-orientation.
Orientation Psalms are those which describe life when things are going well, when things are going the way we think they should, when life is working. Today’s Psalm describes that kind of life. “You are the source of all that is good and needed,” the Psalmist is saying. It’s a confession of faith. “You are God, and in you I have all that I need.”
But life doesn’t always go well. There are unexpected hardships and obstacles, disappointments and failures, curve balls that we can’t explain away. And so for these times, we have the Psalms that speak of Disorientation. “Save me, God,” we cry out. The Psalms of lament are numerous. Something like two-thirds of the Psalms fit this category. In this container, we find words of distress, but also words of hope. “You will save me, God. Come near to me now.”
The Psalms are a conversation between us and God. The Psalms are words we use to cry out to God, to praise God at times, and to thank God. It is dialog, and although it seems to be only one-sided, when we sit with them and hold them, when we sing them and let them do their work on us, we hear God’s response.
The third kind of Psalms are the Psalms of Re-orientation. These are the Psalms for the second half of life, one might say, the Psalms that speak to us when we’ve already been through hardship, and here we are again. We know that we’ll come through, that God will pull us through. But we also know that we will be changed in the process. We won’t return to the way things were. There will be a new normal. Life will thrive once again, but it will be a new life, a different life. Our Psalm today talks about “the pit.” “The pit” is a sad and lonely place, it’s a place we don’t want to be. In the book of Genesis, Joseph’s brother put him in the pit because they were angry with him. They were so angry with him, they wanted him to die, to be out of their lives. And so there he was, cut off from life – powerless and forgotten.
At times, we find ourselves in that place, as well. Isolated and alone, forgotten, lost – like my young friend on that cold winter night. Whether because of illness, or the breakup of a relationship, loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or a mistake that’s been made – we can find ourselves in that desolate place, “the pit,” where we are cut off from community and from our livelihood; we might even feel cut off from God.
In the early days of the church when the first Christians were trying to make sense of what God had done in Jesus, they looked to the Scripture and they asked, “What did we miss?” Those early Christians believed that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection God was doing a new thing. So they went back to the Hebrew Scripture, and they looked for signs of what God had been up to. They especially went back to the Psalms, and they asked, “How does this make sense?” When they experienced the resurrection, they thought of Psalm 16:
My whole being is glad, and I rest secure,
For you do not give me up to the grave or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them and people from all over the world heard the story of Jesus in their own language, Peter stood up to interpret and to calm the chaos. He took these words of Psalm 16 and placed them in the mouth of Jesus:
For you won’t abandon me to the grave, O God,
or let your faithful one decay.
You have made known to me the ways of life…”
There in Jesus, they found the promise fulfilled. There in Jesus who had been crucified on a Roman cross – when it looked like all had been lost – God showed the heart of God. God reached down and brought him out of the pit. God said ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life. God reached into the grave and brought him up and placed him on a high, broad place. In Jesus, they saw the faithfulness of God. They saw the fulfillment of the confidence expressed in this Psalm.
Today we are recognizing Pastor Paul Almquist as Pastor Emeritus. Pastor Almquist served churches in North and South Dakota, Illinois, South Minneapolis, and then here at Minnetonka where he served as senior pastor for 11 years. Although he has done some stints with interim ministry and coaching in other places, he has continued to be part of this community.
Today as we’re giving thanks for Paul Almquist’s ministry, it’s a good day to look back and take the long view. I think Pastor Paul would agree with the Psalmist:
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.”
The heritage is not so much about physical things or material goods, not about human accomplishments, but about his portion and his cup, about loving God and trusting God with his life.
Over the past few months, the pastors from Minneapolis have had several cottage meetings with people from Minnetonka in order to get to know each other better. One of the themes that I kept hearing was about Paul Almquist’s preaching. He has the gift of storytelling. One woman smiled as she said, “Pastor Paul could find a way to connect any story to God.”
The stories that Paul Almquist told gave witness to a God who loves us too much to leave us in the pit. The stories he told gave witness to a God whose way in the world is life. Through his stories, he helped his listeners live with their eyes open so they could see what God is doing here and now, even in a world with pain and death.
None of us can see the future. We do know that life offers no guarantees, and faith is not a protection from all that is hard or uncertain. But we know that God is with us, and God is for us. And with the Apostle Paul, we believe there is nothing in all of life or death – not hardship or distress, not persecution or loss of a job, not illness or loneliness, not fear or danger – that will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The Psalm that we read today is a confession of faith. I invite us to confess that faith now. I have simplified the words a bit, but on the screen is the essence of the Psalm. Would you pray now with me…
Keep me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
You alone are God.
All good comes from you.
I bless the Lord for guiding me.
My whole being is glad, and I rest secure,
For you do not give me up to the grave
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
Help me to believe, O God. Let me sing of your faithfulness. Amen.