You are God’s People (Sermon)

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Ps. 31

In the 11th century, an unknown medieval writer, probably a monk or nun, copied and illustrated a document that we call the Harley Psalter. What’s amazing about this work is that for all 143 psalms… (it is incomplete)… there’s at least one illustration, sketched plainly in brown ink. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect from a medieval psalter, most of which are illuminated in bright colors. But sometimes these simple illustrations are incredibly profound.

The illustration for today’s psalm, Psalm 31, shows clusters of people, standing around on things that look like clouds. Perhaps like trying to walk around in a field of cotton candy. The only solid thing is a castle, which an angel, or perhaps Christ, stands outside of, helping souls out of the net which has been secretly set for them.

The only solid thing in the picture otherwise full of wavy lines is the castle: steady, full of straight lines. And for those of us who look at it from the 21st century, it is the most recognizable object; the most normal thing in a picture full of strange figures and clouds.

Something normal, in a sea of trouble. In a world that feels distinctly unreal, not normal.

There is no normal. That’s a sentence I find myself saying out loud a lot lately, when it’s so easy to make comparisons between the world as it used to be two months ago, and the world as it is now. For most of us, things have changed quite a lot.

Maybe in big ways. Maybe homeschooling your kids, something you didn’t sign up for this year, or ever.

Maybe working from home, or not working at all.

Maybe nothing much has changed, except you can’t run errands anymore, or go see friends or family.

The world has changed, and there is no more normal.

This morning’s lessons are a bit strange to read in a time when we’re so unmoored. When we live in a time where the world doesn’t seem normal at all, the certainty expressed in every single reading today is almost disconcerting. Stephen, even in the face of death, refuses to give up his faith. Peter talks about our role as cornerstones, as God’s people. Christ talks about our place in the kingdom of God, and his relationship to the Father.

But amidst all this disconcerting certainty, there’s some room for doubt, some room for feeling so far away from normal, whatever that is.

Our psalmist sounds so very certain to begin with: “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge”.

But this confidence is riddled with the desperate plea for help that comes next: “Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me”… God, I need your help right now.

“My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies” … I feel so very vulnerable right now… please help me.

Things are really bad for our psalmist. And perhaps you don’t feel like you are “forgotten like a dead man, out of mind”, but maybe you do. Maybe all of this is just too much—too much quiet, or not enough. Too much time to think, or too little, or too many things to worry about. Too much that isn’t normal. Too much uncertainty around when things might ever become ‘normal’ again.

But grief and pleas for help are not the only things that the psalmist names. In Psalm 31, the psalmist has this persistent, annoying confidence that despite this grief and trouble, that God will protect them.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,

for you are my crag and my stronghold; *

    for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Our psalmist takes for granted that God is, in fact a strong rock. That God is righteous. And that God is capable of making things better.

Our psalmist is very clear about who they are placing their hopes in: you, God, are my crag and my stronghold.

We need normal. We need something routine. Something regular that we can rely on.

We rely on the seasons to change, for winter to melt into spring, for spring to usher in summer, and the bountiful harvest that feeds us, and gives jobs to so many. We rely on fall, and a chill in the evenings, and we count on a winter that will be cold enough to reset insect populations and pollen.

We rely on things to be normal in order for our world to work. In order to eat.

But things aren’t normal, are they? Work looks different now. Eating looks different now. Even the weather looks different now: just a few days ago, it was reported that the western half of the United States is suffering from a monumental drought that has lasted twenty years.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the world hasn’t been normal for a long time, has it? Twenty years of drought? An economy brought to its knees by a virus originating in bats and pangolins? And so, we find ourselves in the midst of a time when we suddenly have to notice how bound up we are in each other. How much we rely on each other for food and conversation and company. How much we rely on having enough yeast, or flour, or toilet paper, or meat in the first place. How much we rely on everything functioning optimally at all times.

And so when it doesn’t, whether it’s through a drought or a virus, it can feel like we’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty.

So perhaps that’s where you are right now: in a sea of uncertainty, beset by questions.

We are the figures of people, wandering through the clouds, the barren net-filled landscape of the illustration from the psalter. We are standing on ground that feels like it might dissipate.

One of the things I find most interesting about this illustration is the fact that all of these figures… these figures who we might feel a lot like right now, are mostly looking at the castle.

They’re looking at their strong rock, a castle which keeps them safe, who is their crag and stronghold.

They are looking at the heavens which parted, when Stephen could see Jesus sitting in glory at the right hand of God, even as he is about to be stoned to death.

They are looking at the cornerstone, the stone that the builders rejected which has become the very head of the corner.

They are looking at Jesus Christ, who says to us, Do not let your hearts be troubled, for I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, friends. The world has changed, and we must now change along with it. We must allow our hopes and desires, and our very normal lives and ways of being in the world, to be changed by the needs of this time.

But one thing remains our constant. One thing remains our crag and our stronghold. Upon one rock can we place all our hopes, our grief, our fears, our questions: and that is the rock of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us, and who loves us, and who says do not let your hearts be troubled.

Friends, what has not changed is this: that we are still God’s people.

“Once you were not a people,

but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy,

but now you have received mercy.”

Friends, we are God’s people. We are God’s field and vine. And in a world where very few things seem normal, I hope you know that you are loved by God, that you are redeemed by Christ, that you are guided by the Holy Spirit. I hope you know that YOU ARE God’s people.

And in this strong rock, and in this castle—in life or in death, in joy or fear, in health or sickness, in hope or sorrow—we are safe. For once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You are God’s people.

Sermon Audio

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