Sermon for 4 Pentecost Yr B

4 Pentecost Yr B, 20/06/2021

Ps 107:1-3, 23-32 & Mk 4:35-41

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God is with us in the storms of life”

Today both our psalm and gospel complement each other. Both emphasise God’s presence with those who are caught in storms at sea. Both emphasise God’s power over nature to calm, to still storms at sea. 

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 107 the following title: “Thanksgiving for Deliverance from Many Troubles.” The Lutheran Study Bible identifies this psalm as a liturgical psalm, as well as a communal hymn of praise and thanksgiving. (p. 849-850) Communal psalms were sung after being delivered from such times as crisis and life-threatening dangers. 

The first three verses of our psalm are an invocation or call to worship the LORD, exhorting those whom God redeemed, gathered from lands in every direction. As the Good News Bible renders these verses: “He (the LORD) has rescued you from your enemies and has brought you back from foreign countries, from east and west, from north and south.” This may refer to various times in the history of both Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom. It could possibly refer to the exodus when God freed Israel from Egyptian slavery; it may also refer to such times as God leading the people of Israel back from Assyrian exile; or the people of Judah back from Babylonian exile. In any event, it emphasises worshipping God by giving thanks for God’s steadfast love and saving actions. We, like Israel worship by giving thanks for God’s steadfast love and saving actions at work in our community and individually. 

Verses twenty-three to thirty-two focus on seafarers, those who make a living from the sea and end up getting caught in a life-threatening storm. The sea in biblical times was regarded as a foreboding place, a place of chaos and danger, it was a place where many feared to travel. According to our psalm, even these experienced sailors who made a living from the sea “reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end” when the wind lifted the waves of the sea so high that it was as if they reached heaven. Even though they were experienced sailors, in this storm at sea, the psalmist tells us “their courage melted away.” They did all that they could as experienced sailors to save their lives. However it was not enough in this life-threatening storm. So in their fear and desperation they turned to the LORD and cried out to him for help. The LORD answered them, the psalmist tells us, “he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” In addition to stilling the storm, the LORD “brought them to their desired haven.” The LORD was with them in the storm at sea, and the LORD saved them from the storm because he had the power over nature to still the storm. That reminds me of the following movie.

The African Queen tells the story of Charlie Allnut (played by Humphrey Bogart), a hard drinker who runs a small steamboat, the African Queen, through the shallow rivers of East Africa in the early 1900s, bringing dynamite, gin, supplies, and tools to European speculators and miners. He also carries the mail to Rose (played by Katherine Hepburn), a missionary. When World War I breaks out and the Germans burn Rose’s home and church, the British missionary and Canadian boatman flee in the African Queen. 

Their destination is a large lake downriver, where they hope to assist the Allied war effort by blowing up a German destroyer. On the river they face one danger after another. Insects attack. Bullets whiz by as they pass a German-held fort. They fight rapids. With a lot of moxie they survive these tests, but then the river dissipates and splits into a hundred streams. The African Queen bogs down in a marsh. 

With no current to push them along, Charlie and Rose use poles to propel forward, and eventually Charlie has to wade the shallows, pulling the boat by a rope. He shudders when he finds leeches on his back and arms, but he grimly returns to the water, and soon Rose herself slogs through the marsh, hacking a path with a machete while Charlie pulls. Eventually they come to the end of their strength. The boat is stuck on a mudflat, and Charlie is feverish.

He says, “Rosie, you want to know the truth, don’t you? Even if we had all our strength, we’d never get he off this mud. We’re finished.” 

She responds simply, “I know it,” and they resign themselves to death in the wasteland. 

As Charlie drifts to sleep, Rose offers a simple prayer of resignation: “We’ve come to the end of our journey. In a little while we will stand before you….Open the doors of heaven for Charlie and me.” 

But the camera slowly draws back to reveal what the couple cannot see because of the reeds—the African Queen is less than a hundred yards from the shining lake. The camera then transports us far upstream to the river’s headwaters. A torrential rainstorm is sending animals scurrying for cover. Further downstream, the rains have turned the rapids into cataracts. Down on the mudflat a small channel begins to run through the reeds. The channel swells, gently lifts the Queen off the mudflat, and carries it to the lake. Charlie and Rose awaken to the gentle rocking of the boat and a refreshing breeze. 

Reaching the end of human resources can mark the beginning of divine intervention.1 Like the experienced sailors in our psalm who made a living travelling on the sea; and like the disciples, some of whom were experienced sailors; when their experience could not save them; they turned to the LORD who was able to save them. 

Mark tells us that the storm on the Sea of Galilee was fierce: “the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.” Most likely those disciples who had made their living from the sea; who were also experienced sailors; who may have been caught in other storms—most likely these disciples tried their best to keep their boat afloat, bailing out the water, and doing everything else that they could to save their lives. However, this storm overpowered them, all of their experiences as sailors; all of their resources were exhausted; now they feared for their lives. So they wake Jesus up, and having divine power over nature commands the wind, saying: “Peace! Be still!” Lo and behold, immediately the sea is calm. The disciples respond with awe and wonder at Jesus’ power over nature so that the wind and the sea obeyed him. 

We too face storms in life. The storms may be life-threatening such as the coronavirus or cancer, or being caught in a tornado or hurricane, or storms such as what seem like unresolvable conflicts in marriages that end in divorce, or conflicts in the workplace that end in job loss, or as we increasingly hear in the news lately, racial discrimination, profiling and violence against our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and Muslims. Whatever form the storms may take, the GOOD NEWS is that the LORD is with us in our storms; just as he was with those seafarers in our psalm and the disciples in our gospel.

So, trust Jesus when he says “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth;” power over wind and sea; to calm your storms and mine; to remove fear; to enrich your life for having overcome your storms. And, in awe and wonder, give thanks and praise to Jesus who promises to be with us always—even through life’s worst storms. 

As Canadian singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan sang: 

Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water

Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea

Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently

Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee. Amen! 

1 Craig Larson & Lori Quicke, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching 101 Clips to Show or Tell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), pp. 90-91.

Brief Book Review: Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook

Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook

Edited by: Melvin A. Kimble, Susan H. McFadden, James W. Ellor, and James J. Seeber

Publisher: Fortress Press, hardcover, 637 pages, including: Illustrations, Contributors, Forword, Preface, Introduction: Beginning the Conversation, Index of Names, and Index of Subjects

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Contents

This is a very impressive, comprehensive volume. Counting the 4 editors, there are a total of 55 contributors to this volume. The work was funded by the Lilly Endowment, and is the result ofecumenical, interfaith, and interdisciplinary cooperation. It consists of the following parts: Part One: Religion, Spirituality, And The Aging Person, Part Two: Pastoral Care In An Aging Society, Part Three: Congregational Ministry In An Aging Society, Part Four: Community Outreach In An Aging Society, Part Five: Theological Perspectives On Aging, Part Six: Social Scientific Perspectives On Aging. Each of the parts contain several chapters. A Bibliography is included at the end of each chapter, some of which are very thorough. 

Brief Highlights

Since this is merely a brief review, here are a few insightful highlights and observations that may motivate readers of this review to consult this helpful resource.

Harold G. Koenig, in Part One, highlights some of the research done on religion and health among seniors. He claims that there is more evidence supporting the view that religion enhances mental health and less evidence supporting the view that religion enhances physical health. When asked what helped the elderly to cope with issues of aging, they cited the following: i) prayer; ii) Bible reading; iii) trust in the Lord, faith in God, Jesus Christ; iv) going to church; v) support from their pastor or other members of their congregation. 

Longevity was attributed to three factors: (1) activity (“hard work, exercise, keeping active physically and mentally”), (2) a strong belief in God and “Christian living,” and (3) a positive attitude toward self and others. (p. 24) 

In Part Two, there is an informative chapter titled “Pastoral Care of African Americans” by Anne Streaty Wimberly and Edward P. Wimberly, in which they emphasise the importance of the church and family networks, wherein older African Americans make significant contributions to the growth, development and identity of the next generation. 

In Part Three, the chapter titled “Age-based Jewish and Christian Rituals” by W.A. Achenbaum, points out that Jews honour their elders. In the Talmud there are no limits placed on how often Jews should visit the sick. Full membership in Jewish burial societies were reserved for the elderly, and surplus income from burial plots was used for charity, including orphan care. (p. 204)

For this reviewer, the most helpful chapter in Part Four was “Spiritual Challenges of Nursing Home Life” by Dayle A. Friedman. The author highlights many of the significant factors involved regarding spiritual challenges and care in nursing homes, such as: Routinized, tyrannical, and empty time, loss of meaning, grief, disorientation and disconnection, life with meaning, vertical and horizontal connections, family, religious, and individual celebrations, education, and more. 

Part Five consists of seven theological perspectives on aging: Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, Neo-Orthodox, Process Theology, Feminist Theology, Constructive Theology, with a concluding chapter entitled “Science and Religion in Dialogue. In the chapter on Feminist Theology, author Mary M. Knutsen points out that elderly women live seven to eight years longer than men, and are more likely than men to live in poverty. Over half of the black and Hispanic elderly females living alone lived at or below the poverty level, according to one study. 

The chapter in Part Six by Barbara Pittard Payne, “The Interdisciplinary Study of Gerontology” is quite informative. It provides a brief history of gerontology, which came into existence as an area of scientific study in the mid-twentieth century, trends and themes in social gerontology, including health-care costs, caregiving, minorities and gender, trends and themes in gerontology and religion, including faith and aging, religious practices, beliefs and behaviour, nonorganizational religious activities, the differences between religious liberals and religious conservatives, religion and health.

This volume is a comprehensive, helpful “go to” resource for seminarians, pastors and chaplains, as well as others who work with seniors in a variety of professions.

Please note: This review is of Volume 1. Volume 2 was published later, and I have not read it. 

Sermon for 2 Pentecost Yr B

Sermon for 2 Pentecost Yr B, 6/06/2021

Ps 130

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Waiting for God”

Psalm 130 was apparently Martin Luther’s favourite psalm. This is what he had to say about it: “a proper master and doctor of Scripture.” In other words, a GOOD NEWS Psalm, which communicates what really matters—God’s forgiveness and saving grace. Maybe because this was Luther’s favourite psalm, he wrote a penitential hymn based on it, with the title of the opening verse: “Out of the Depths I Cry to You.” This hymn, is #600 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, under the Confession and Forgiveness section. Dating back to at least the 5th century, the church has regarded Psalm 130 as a penitential psalm, along with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 69, 102, and 143. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives it two titles “A Song of Ascents,” and “Waiting for Divine Redemption.” The CEV Bible has one title in brackets, (A Song for Worship), and a second title: “Trusting the LORD in Times of Trouble.” Psalms 120-134 all have the title “Songs of Ascent.” Many scholars believe that these psalms were sung by faithful pilgrims as they travelled up to Jerusalem for the yearly festivals. Some scholars also think that the word “ascents” refers to the faithful ascending the stairs of the temple for worship.

In addition to Psalm 130 being identified as a penitential psalm and a song of ascents or pilgrimage psalm; the Lutheran Study Bible (p. 849) also identifies it as a prayer for help or lament. To understand this psalm as a penitential, pilgrimage and lament psalm, I think it is helpful to consider the insights of biblical scholar, the Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann. In two of his books, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, and Spirituality of the Psalms; Dr. Brueggemann suggests that patterns of thought and speech in the psalms are similar to the patterns of human life. For example, there are satisfied seasons of well-being, there are anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death, and those seasons can become turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God. He also puts it another way, summarizing it in three words, stages, or seasons. There are times of orientation when all seems well with the world. There are times of disorientation when the world is turned upside-down and trouble and suffering are the order of the day. Then there are times of reorientation when life is restored, sometimes even better than in a time of orientation. Reorientation can come sometimes in unpredictable, creative and surprising ways. 

Turning to the first three verses of our psalm, we learn that the psalmist is in trouble, it was, as Brueggemann might say, a time of disorientation. A time of suffering and trouble or crisis perhaps in the extreme, since the psalmist says: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.” Or as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message: “Help, God—I’ve hit rock bottom!” Or as the CEV puts it: “From the sea of troubles I call out to you, Lord.” When we “hit rock bottom,” we often refer to some crisis or disaster, something that overwhelms us. When we have a “sea of troubles,” we may very well feel that our life is in danger, since the troubles are so great that we cannot overcome them. 

In verse two of The Message, one has the sense of the psalmist’s boldness and desperation, as he prays: “Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy!” The CEV captures something of this desperation as well, the psalmist prays: “Won’t you please listen as I beg for mercy?” In other words, the psalmist cannot help himself, and others cannot help him. Only God can help him in his tragic, life-threatening situation. 

Verse three is a confession of sin, although the psalmist does not recite specific sins. He realizes that he and everyone for that matter are helpless to defend their sins if God kept a record of them. As the CEV puts it: “If you kept a record of our sins, no one could last long.” If God kept a record of our sins, all of us would have to plead guilty for every one of them. We would stand condemned before God. 

However, verse four moves us from disorientation to reorientation; from despair to hope. As The Message renders it: “As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshipped.” 

Yet, in verses five and six, the psalmist returns back to a time of disorientation, a time of waiting. Waiting is mentioned three times in these two verses: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” The sense of waiting here is not peaceful, it is tense and stressful. The image the psalmist employs here is that of a soldier or security guard watching through the night for enemies or burglars. It can be difficult to stay awake through the night until morning. When the morning arrives, then the soldier or security guard is less tense and relieved of stress. 

There are many times in your life and my life when waiting is difficult and stressful, yet necessary. For example, I think back many years ago to the time when I graduated from seminary. I was waiting for a call to begin serving as a pastor, and had not yet received a call. Dr. Hordern, our seminary president, consoled me with the following words of wisdom: “All things come to those who wait.” I ended up having to wait for a year before I received my first call and was ordained. That year of waiting was not easy, it was stressful, and I was most grateful when my waiting was over. 

Life is filled with waiting, and a lot of waiting can be difficult and stressful. Parents waiting for their children to be born and as they live out the various stages of their lives; which may involve a lot of difficult, stressful, unwelcome twists and turns and sufferings. The unemployed wondering how they are going to pay all of their bills and debts, and waiting to be employed again. The person who is seriously ill or suffering from a life-threatening disease, waiting for surgery or treatments. The brother or sister who is alienated from his or her sibling, and waiting for forgiveness and reconciliation. Those in the midst of war, waiting for it to end. Victims of injustice because of the colour of their skin, waiting for justice in order that they might have equal access to work, education, and health-care. The senior citizen who believes that they have lived a full and meaningful life, waiting for death. All of us waiting for COVID-19 to be over so that our lives might have some sense of normality again. The list could go almost endlessly on. 

As people of faith, we have much to learn from our psalmist. We do not wait without hope. The psalmist tells us: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” God’s word is a word of hope, a word of promise. That’s why the psalmist can shift from the tense, anxiety-ridden, and stressful waiting in his state of disorientation into the hopeful state of reorientation. The psalmist concludes with words of wise counsel and confidence addressed to Israel in verses seven and eight: “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Or as The Message puts it: “O Israel, wait and watch for God—with God’s arrival comes love, with God’s arrival comes generous redemptionNo doubt about it—he’ll redeem Israel, buy back Israel from captivity to sin.” 

So, we are able to watch and wait, because we have the hope that whatever state of disorientation we might find ourselves in; it will not last forever. We wait and watch and hope for God’s steadfast love which is always dependable. His steadfast love has the power to redeem us, to buy us back out of slavery to sin—thanks to the saving work of Jesus. We are set free in Christ, and that is the GOOD NEWS today! Thanks be to God! Amen.