"COURAGE" - Psalm 56 - from Sunday, March 19, 2017
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Texts: Ephesians 6:10-17; Psalm 56
Refugees who journey from desperation and vulnerability to eventual new life and security will never forget - carry forever - the imprint of their life experience. Chuong Nyugen is one of those refugees.
In Vietnam, in 1975, Chuong Nyugen’s parents placed him and his siblings – ranging in ages from 6 to 21- in a boat with no captain, no crew, and almost no food or water. Thousands of “boat people” died fleeing Vietnam in those days. Amazingly, a week later, with the help of the US Navy, the over-crowded boat with Chuong Nyugen and his family made it to the Philippines. Eventually, Chuong Nyugen arrived into the United States where he grew up and became a Catholic priest.
Nyugen made the news recently because he wrote a letter to our President about the executive order banning entrance to the United States for people from some Muslim countries. He wrote: “I am a refugee, . . . Becoming a refugee is a choice one makes when there are no other choices.” Nyugen has spent his life and ministry working with Vietnamese youth and running a Catholic center in the Los Angeles area. He considers his life and his story to be one of the many that has helped make America great.
In his letter to the President – and what is most amazing - Nyugen offered to relinquish his US citizenship so that it might be offered to a Syrian refugee. He asked his Catholic superiors to re-locate him to one of the predominantly Muslim countries named in the executive order. He says, “When you are a refugee, you are a nobody. America has allowed me to become somebody.” Chuong Nyugen wants someone else to have a turn. (see Christian Century, March 15, 2017, and “Religious News Service,” Feb. 17, 2017)
Today, the “Word of the Week” is COURAGE.
Somewhere along the way, maybe it was getting into the boat in 1975, fleeing from Saigon in fear and uncertainty, that Nyugen ingested some COURAGE. Maybe it was through the long week – days and nights sloshing around on the ocean – that he drank in enough COURAGE to shape his faithful life. Maybe it was a life of tough ministry with Vietnamese youth in LA, . . . maybe it was the combination of all things. But somehow, COURAGE seems to shape this man. He wants to give his life in love and devotion that other refugees may have a chance like he has had.
If you look up COURAGE in Roget’s Thesaurus, you get words like “boldness,” “bravery,” and “fearlessness.” But COURAGE is really much more than fearlessness. COURAGE often exists alongside fear. As the old saying goes, “it isn’t courage if you are not afraid!”
COURAGE is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment and action that something else is more important than fear.
As you might guess, COURAGE is an important trait of faith and discipleship. Numerous times in Scripture, we are exhorted to be strong and courageous, to take courage, to put on boldness and fortitude for the living of our days. Many Biblical heroes show us what COURAGE looks like – Abraham and Sarah respond to the call of God; Moses and Miriam trust God and walk with God despite Pharaoh’s power and threats against them; David stands before Goliath; numerous prophets speak God’s word under great duress; Jesus faces Pilate; the Apostles face persecution and threats of death. COURAGE is often called forth, central to what God’s people aspire to embody.
Our first lesson urges us to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” It is an image of God’s armor protecting us, so we can withstand the threats that come from earthly sources and even cosmic powers. Stand therefore – boldness, fortitude, strength – COURAGE.
Our second lesson intends to be foundational to COURAGE. Listen to Psalm 56:
1Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me; 2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me.
O Most High, 3when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust;
I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?
5All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. 6They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life, 7so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
8You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record? 9Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me. 10In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise,
11in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me? 12My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.
13For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The setting of this psalm is one of fear. Fighters plot against the one who prays to God. Threats lie in ambush to take his life. All of this generates fear. But the psalm is about faith – TRUST and COURAGE in the face of threats. When everything seems to indicate destruction and peril, danger and death, the psalmist affirms: “You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. . . . . This I know, that God is for me.” I love that message!
We speak often about God as Creator of all, ruler of earth and sky and nations. And we pray this is true. The Mighty God will prevail over the messed up world, bringing peace and justice. But verse 8 ought to be one of our most favorite of all. God is not just mighty and over; God is so nearby, caring enough to keep count of our tossings – our restless nights of fretting, our sleepless moments of turmoil; God puts our tears in his bottle. God cherishes us and our tears! The psalmist says, “This I know, that God is for me. . . . in God I trust. I am not afraid.”
This is not simply an independent act of human will, where we try to drum up some different narrative in the midst of life’s perils. This is the response of people who know something about God – “if God is for us, who can be against us?” God comes through. God makes us a way when there is no way. God never leaves us. God is the first and the last and the living One. God keeps count of our tossings! This I know, that God is for me. In God I trust. I am not afraid.
There is a wonderful line from Alice Walker, the writer, poet, and human rights activist that relates to this psalm – 56. Walker says, “This we know/we were/ not meant/ to suffer/ so much/ & to learn/ nothing.” (see Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, p. xii)
In the tossings on the night, . . . in the tears that are cried, . . . in the losses that beat us down, . . . in the wandering in the wilderness, . . . in moments of failure, . . . in the long days of heartache and exile, in the fretting about our children, in the darkest moments of depression and disaster, we are NOT meant to suffer so much and learn nothing. God is with us; God keeps track of our tossings; God collects our tears in his bottle; God never ever leaves us; nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. And all of that intends to shape us and mold us in COURAGE – courage to trust God in all times. Faith always wants to shape us in the ways of COURAGE.
And when COURAGE shapes us in the ways of trusting God, COURAGE also compels us, empowers us, calls us to live a certain way – with boldness and bravery beyond ourselves, beyond the present moments and issues that threaten us. COURAGE knows that God keeps count of our tossings, and places our tears in his bottle. BUT COURAGE sets the tone of our life – how we live each day, the choices we make, the love we share, the actions that flow from us. The great writer, C.S. Lewis wrote that COURAGE is not simply one of the virtues that we should aspire to, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality (see Columbia Dictionary of Quotations).
It takes COURAGE to be engaged in the world as God’s people.
It takes COURAGE to step forward and participate with God in the in-breaking of God’s reign.
Everyday, wherever we find ourselves, we are called and expected to be courageous – to live with love, to spread hope, to serve God. COURAGEOUS – with COURAGE – that is how we are empowered and compelled to live.
One of the Acts of Faith Festival plays this season is the very fine play by David Robbins, The End of War, playing at the VA REP on Broad St. Ginger and I saw this play on Friday night.
This is a complex story. The setting is Berlin, Germany, 1945. Two of the characters in this play are Russian soldiers making the long march from Russia, across Poland, and into Berlin. These two soldiers are trying to find the COURAGE to be human beings instead of simply killing machines. Historians say that the soldiers on that march from Russia to Berlin may have seen more killing and death than any other humans in the history of the world. So these two soldiers are trying to find enough COURAGE to stay grounded in humanity, in human life, instead of the extensive death that surrounds them.
But the heart of the story involves a family in Berlin. While Berlin is crumbling under nightly bombings, a mother (Freya) and her adult daughter (Lottie) are forced to move in together because Lottie’s apartment building was bombed out. When Lottie moves in, Freya, the mother, has to tell Lottie about Julius, the Jewish man Freya has allowed to hide in the basement. A JEW – in the basement – in 1945!
“What! Are you crazy?” You have a Jew hiding in the basement? . . . . What in the world are you thinking? We could be killed for this! Who is this person?”
“He came to the door and asked for some food. . . . . . He was . hungry. . . . . I gave him something to eat,” Freya replied.
“And now he lives here?! This is insane. Do you realize how dangerous this is??”
“It felt like the right thing to do.”
“We are not heroes,” Lottie asserts.
“We are not monsters, either.”
And this Jew hiding in the basement becomes the context for everything that happens.
Life is full of fear and . . . also, too often, full of hatred.
Life brings choices. How do we survive difficult times? Do we live selfishly – being extra careful to protect what we have, get what we can get?
Or do we allow grace to flow from us, COURAGE to form us, and live selflessly?
What might WE have done in Berlin in 1945?
I really hope and pray that we never find ourselves in such dire straits that involve life and death for ourselves and others.
But here is the truth – we WILL INDEED find ourselves in situations, both small and large, where FEAR and COURAGE find themselves right next to each other. We want to be preparing ourselves, as God’s people, as faithful people, to do the right thing. These incidents come – sometimes expected and sometimes not – small and large. How do we live? How do we choose? How do we juggle the inherent fears and caution that may be part of us, with the call to have COURAGE – to trust God and live as God’s people?
“We don’t have to be heroes here.” Lottie says to her mother.
“Ok, but we are not monsters either.”
What do we do? Are we mostly selfish or selfless? And it’s often all about COURAGE.
Do we open ourselves to risk? Do we do for people we do not know? What are we supposed to do?
Do we have the courage for selfless serving? Do we put ourselves at risk? Do we ask, like Chuong Nyugen, to let another refugee have our place?
God keeps count of our tossings. God collects our tears. And God does that for EVERYONE.
God also calls us, gives us opportunities to be courageous, to gather up our COURAGE – to embody the gospel.
Will it be COURAGE?
There is a great quote from CS Lewis: “there are moments in all of our lives when the angels of heaven hold their breath to see which way we will go.” Will we seek to become what God made us to be, loving and courageous? Will we keep striving, with God’s help, to step forward with COURAGE?
These are interesting times. God keeps calling us to trust God and serve God. Where and how might you really embody the ways of COURAGE, the ways of Jesus’ love this week? Next week? In all the weeks ahead?
Prayer of Commitment: By Your Spirit, with every means of grace, fortify us with COURAGE to live and love as Christ’s disciples. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during worship on Sunday, March 19, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.