The following sermon was preached Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in Lent (Year C). At two points throughout the sermon, seven readers repeat the Psalm and stand up from the various positions in the congregation. Many thanks to the people who are Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia for inspiration for this sermon.
It was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a very long journey. And on top of that, they had no idea where it would end up. As a community, they had a vague understanding of what it would represent. But how it would be constructed and what it would look like was anybody’s’ guess.
One thing, however, was understood by everyone: this was not going to be the task of one person or even a few. No, this journey could only be traveled with the entire community. That was, simply, the only way that this would be brought to life and the journey completed.
And so it began. At a church-wide retreat in autumn of 2006, each person of the community – male, female, young and old, alike – was taught how to fold a small paper crane. But this was not to be only an exercise in mere physical dexterity or artistic expression; rather, it was above all to be a spiritual practice in the power of prayer. Each small paper crane was created with a prayer upon the lips of its creator. Each paper had on it a prayer for a specific member of the community. Others still had general prayers for peace and wholeness for a world in need of God’s goodness.
But one weekend retreat was simply not going to be enough. Therefore, a small group of congregants began to assemble bags to be distributed to everyone in the community. Each bag contained several sheets of paper of various vibrant colors, a list of names and prayer concerns, and instructions for how to fold.
And so it continued, for months the congregation folded and prayed, prayed and folded. After well over a year, throughout the cramps and the paper cuts, the congregation had almost completed this incredible, multi-colored, flying prayers of the people.
In what must have been a laborious and painstaking process, the cranes were strung up on fishing wire. Each strand of cranes was then fixed to a trefoil shaped trinitarian symbol made by a congregant and hung from the ceiling of the historic, wooden sanctuary.
If you look at the end of your pew, you will find a couple of pictures of the end result.
What you are looking at is a piece of liturgical art made by the people who are Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. This also so happens to be the congregation that our guest today, Michael Morgan, has served for the past forty years as organist.
Like you all here at Silver Creek, the folks at Central Presbyterian Church have become a second family to me. As such, Central has become my “default” church when I don’t have Sunday responsibilities elsewhere. Now I haven’t been there in some time because I been blessed to be with you all for the past five months.
And while they might look very different from this community, y’all are very similar because like you all, the folks at Central Presbyterian Church have been and are indeed at this very moment going through some difficult transitions. And like you all have been inspiring me for the past five months, they too have inspired me with their courage and faithful expression of the gospel.
From the first moment I laid eyes upon their flying, color-filled prayers of the people, I was hooked. Each Sunday, it seemed, I was captivated by the soaring cranes in different ways; each Sunday it struck me differently.
One Sunday, I would look upon the explosion of color and be fascinated by the fact that this “Wing and a Prayer” (as they took to calling it) was both incredibly communal while at the same time being intensely individual; the sea of color represented the collective prayer of the community by each individual contributing one or several particular prayers.
Another Sunday, I would marvel at the sheer amount of time and effort that it took, as an entire community, to pray this prayer. One Sunday, I decided to crunch some numbers and learned that there is an estimated 2,500 cranes which hover above the congregation. Assuming that each crane took five minutes to fold, that means that the congregation spent well over 208 hours folding these cranes. And that’s not even to mention the time that was spent planning it and putting it together. So many Sundays I simply would gaze in the air, getting a crick in my neck, marveling at the commitment that this community had to create this prayer.
However, one Sunday (in fact, I believe it was the Sunday immediately before I began my time with you all in October), I was sitting directly beneath this holy, hovering work of art. It had been a rough week for me. I don’t remember exactly why but I was, that morning, feeling discouraged, dismayed, and…dislocated. The wilderness of the world was taking its toll on me and the color of the cranes contrasted to the dreary grey of my heart.
I looked up, straining my neck to fit all of the thousands of cranes into my gaze. And that morning, I saw something new. I saw a beautiful defiance. I thought to myself, how dare we hoist such a beautiful prayer in the midst of such a wilderness? What right do we have to pray in beautiful color when the world at times seems to throw nothing but darkness and grey our way? Who are we that we sing such a gorgeous song to God when we see another school shooting, another church split, another worker laid off, another person executed, another person sleeping on the streets?
But for some reason, in that moment, I did not attempt to answer that question (to be rather blunt, I don’t know if I could if I tried). I did not attempt to understand why we have such confidence, such beautiful defiance, in the face of such a wilderness; I simply gazed at the thousands of colors dancing above me… and marveled at the fact that we do.
Stephen: The Lord is my light and my salvation!
Reader 1: whom shall I fear?
Reader 2: The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
Reader 1: of whom shall I be afraid?
Reader 3: When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh –
Reader 2: my adversaries and foes – they shall stumble and fall.
Reader 4: Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
Reader 1: though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident!
Reader 5: One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
Reader 3: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
Reader 2: to behold the beauty of the Lord,
Reader 4: and to inquire in his temple.
Reader 6: For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
Reader 1: he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
Reader 5: he will set me high on a rock.
Reader 7: Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me.
Reader 3: and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy!
All: I will sing and make melody to the Lord!
I will sing and make melody to the Lord. It’s beautiful. And what I think makes this statement even more beautiful is the fact that the verses before it do not attempt to gloss over the difficulties of the wilderness. In fact, the Psalmist is quite specific. Evildoers assail him. They are devouring his flesh. An army is encamping against her and she is a victim of war. The Psalmist gives voice to the wilderness in which you and I find ourselves and does not beat around the bush.
But as I was talking with Michael Morgan this week, he pointed out to me that each statement of woe, each cry of distress, is coupled by an even stronger statement of courage and defiance. The grey of the wilderness is matched by the colorful hope of the him who has steadfast trust in the goodness of the Lord. The one who is traversing the land of the wilderness is singing her praise to the God who she knows will join her in the land in the living.
And because of this they sing. And we sing. For the Lord is our light and our salvation, our stronghold of our very lives; of whom shall we be afraid?
And because of this steadfast confidence, this beautiful defiance, we dare to hoist our prayers to the God who hears our every cry.
Stephen: Hear, O Lord, why I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
Reader 7: “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Reader 6: Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Reader 5: Do not hide your face from me.
Reader 4: Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Reader 3: Do not cast me off,
Reader 2: Do not forsake me,
Reader 1: O God of my salvation!
Reader 7: Teach me your way, O Lord
Reader 6: and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Reader 5: Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
Reader 4: for false witnesses have risen against me,
Reader 3: and they are breathing out violence.
Reader 2: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
Readers 1,3: Wait for the Lord!
Readers 4,5: be strong!
Readers 6,7: and let your heart take courage;
All: wait for the Lord!
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Friends, this passage is a beautiful testament to the defiance of proclaiming the beauty of God despite the wilderness in which we know find ourselves. In fact, perhaps the Psalmist is telling us that it is not in despite of the wilderness, but rather precisely because of it that we are called to show defiant confidence in God, our help in ages past. The colors of this psalm shatter into the monotony of the wilderness, into the grey of our struggles, our splits, our sins. Even in the wilderness, the beauty of God, the goodness of God, is to be proclaimed.
Now here I must admit that I would be neglecting my responsibilities as a preacher if I didn’t acknowledge that perhaps there are some of you who have not always seen the goodness of God. I can think of times in my life (fairly recently actually) when the goodness of God has failed to be seen by my eyes, felt by my hands, and received in my heart.
In fact, perhaps some of you, even this day, are not in a place where you can see the goodness of God in the land of the living. Perhaps some of you are praying that faithful and honest prayer to God: “I believe, help my unbelief!”
I’m here to tell you this day that that’s ok. It’s alright if you cannot, at this very moment, believe the goodness of God. It’s alright if these words of confident trust stick in your throat.
This Psalm tells us that the goodness of God does not depend on our belief in it. God’s goodness is present in the land of the wilderness no less that it is in the land of the living.
In fact, if you this day cannot believe in the beautiful goodness of God, if you one day find yourself lacking the energy to hoist up one prayer to God, be strong, and let your heart take courage for you are in a community that will do that for you.
And so, together, we are strengthened by the Spirit to continue our journey as a community. Holding up one another as God has called us to do, we will continue this long and winding road to the cross where we trust that we will see the goodness of the Lord…in the land of the living. And on this road, there is one thing that we ask: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of our life and to behold the beauty of the Lord.
Friends, I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
I believe that you and I will soon gaze upon the sight of that empty tomb.
But for now…in this wilderness…let us defiantly proclaim the goodness of God for we have never needed it more.
And until then…while you wait for the Lord…be strong…and let your heart take courage for I believe that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Amen.