Sermon for July 3rd, 2022

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Psalm 107:1-43

Our scripture reading today will be incorporated into the sermon.

Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 107

Tomorrow is the 4th of July, Independence Day, and it's a good occasion to remember that our own heritage as Presbyterians is intertwined in that of our nation. Twelve of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians, and one (John Witherspoon) was a Presbyterian pastor--the only pastor to sign the document. In fact, Rev. Witherspoon was so vocal and influential in the debate leading up to the American revolution, that when word came to the Prime Minister of England (Horace Walpole) that the colonies were rebelling, he remarked that "Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson!" In our own history books, we refer to our struggle for independence as the "American Revolution," but in contemporary English sources at the time, it was occasionally referred to as the "Presbyterian Rebellion in the Colonies."

So when you fire up your grills tomorrow afternoon to celebrate, give thanks to God for our nation, for our independence, and also for the brave Presbyterians--then and now--whose courage and conviction inspires us.

Today's Psalm, the 107th Psalm, has an important independence day connection: It has been used in recent years as part of the liturgy for Israel's Independence Day in Jewish prayer books. There are, in my opinion, some striking similarities between ancient Israel and modern day America--some of them positive and some less so. Or perhaps it's just that we tend to see our own present-day cares and concerns reflected in the ancient scriptures because they are God's timeless words to all people in all places.

Psalm 107 begins with a a call to worship, and a very broad invitation for all people to respond.

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

That last part of the invitation--the part about people gathered in from the east, the west, the north, and the south--is the key to understanding the rest of the psalm. In ancient Israel, it was the custom for all Jewish people to make a pilgrimage at least once a year to the city of Jerusalem, and to the temple. They would come from the east, the west, the north, and the south--and this psalm acknowledges their stories.

In the same way, when Israel was reestablished as a nation in 1948, faithful Jews returned to their homeland from all over the world--again, from east and west, from north and south--I imagine this Psalm took on special meaning for them in that time.

17,000 years ago, the first people came to America. They came from the North, crossing the Bering Strait land bridge and settling throughout the continent. Today we call them "Native" Americans, but they were once newcomers in this land, too. In the 17th and 18th centuries, immigrants arrived to America from the East, from Europe and (due to the slave trade) from Africa. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a wave of immigration coming from the West--from China, the Philippines, from Japan and Korea. In our own times, the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we have seen an influx of immigration from the South, from Mexico, Central America, and South America. In every century, from every direction, people have come to this land in search of something--whether it's freedom, prosperity, safety, opportunity--I believe that Psalm 107 speaks to their stories, to our stories, as well.

Verses 4-9 tell the first story. I'm going to read verses 4 and 5. Then we'll read verse 6 together (out loud). I'll read verse 7, then we'll read verse 8 together, and I'll read verse 9. If you're confused, just read the bold words on the screen. Your part is the refrain that will be found in each section, each story.

4 Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town;
5 hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress;
7 he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town.
8 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
9 For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.

As El Pasoans, we probably know a thing or two about wandering around in the desert. But to someone living in ancient Jerusalem, the great desert, the Judean Desert, was to the East of the city. So this first story is the story of the people who come from the East. Traveling through the desert is treacherous; at times they face hunger, thirst, and despair. When they cry out to the Lord, he leads them (presumably) to Jerusalem, where they are filled with good things.

In a metaphorical sense, the desert also represents a place of spiritual stagnation, being lost without any spiritual nourishment or direction. There are many people today who can identify with the story of the East--they have no community, no bedrock upon which to build their faith, and so they put their hope in people or things which blow away just like the desert sand.

Our next story is in verses 10 through 16. We'll read the refrains (verses 13 and 15) together, and I'll read the rest.

10 Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons,
11 for they had rebelled against the words of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12 Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor; they fell down, with no one to help.
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
14 he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds apart.
15 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
16 For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.

The sun sets in the West, and when it does, darkness follows. So this is the story of the people who come from the West. In the Bible, the West is the home of the Philistines, who fought against the Israelites and "rebelled against the words of God." They were known to be great metal-workers, hence all the reference to iron and bronze. But when we labor in the darkness, without God's guidance, our hard labor has a way of enslaving us, controlling us, instead of the other way around. To those who are prisoners of their own careers; to those who work so hard they neglect the things that God has called us to cherish, there is a promise here that if you cry out to God, he will shatter the bars of your self-made prison, and bring light into your darkness once more.

Our third story is found in verses 17 through 22. Once again, we'll read the refrains in verse 19 and 21 together.

17 Some were sick through their sinful ways and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
20 he sent out his word and healed them and delivered them from destruction.
21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

To the North of Jerusalem were the mighty empires of Assyria, Persia, and Babylon. Invasion almost always came from the North, leaving death, disease, famine and sickness in its wake. The Old Testament teaches that these invasions were the result of the sinfulness of the people, turning away from God to worship false idols.

A false idol is something you think can save you from all your troubles, even though it's not God. Some people look to the government for their salvation, or to their favorite political leader. Some people think money or power or fame can save them, and some turn to substance abuse or other addictive habits to escape from their problems, which is an attempt at salvation. All of these things leave us vulnerable to invasion--to letting someone or something else take control over our lives. And most of those things ultimately lead to our destruction. But here, God promises healing and deliverance, if we cry out to him, and put our trust in him alone.

Our last story is verses 23 through 32. This one's a little bit longer than the others, but still the same refrain in verses 28, and 31, which we'll say together.

23 Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunkards and were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;
29 he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.
31 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.
32 Let them extol him in the congregation of the people and praise him in the assembly of the elders.

The only direction we have left, of course, is south. And to the south of Jerusalem is the Red Sea--an important trade route connecting Egypt and the Middle Eastern countries with South Asia. The sea, in ancient times, was a place of great risks and great rewards--there was much profit to be made from trade and commerce, but when you embarked upon the waters, you were at the complete mercy of the winds and the waves. Verse 26 speaks of the sailors' courage, but in the very next verse, their swaggering turns into drunken staggering. It takes courage to accomplish anything great, anything difficult and worthy of acclaim. But courage by itself is foolishness. Courage balanced with humility before God is what brings us safely to our haven in the end.

There is an ebb and flow, a rise and fall, to the final verses of the Psalm--just like the mighty waves described in the preceding verses. Notice how the imagery moves back and forth between the destructive power of God, and the healing, restorative power of God; the wrath of God towards the unjust, and the mercy of God toward the distressed: Verses 33-43:

33 He turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground,
34 a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

(That's the destructive part, now watch as it reverses!)

35 He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.
36 And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in;
37 they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield.
38 By his blessing they multiply greatly, and he does not let their cattle decrease.
39 When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
40 he pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes,

(again the wrath of God on the unjust, now watch as it reverses!)

41 but he raises up the needy out of distress and makes their families like flocks.
42 The upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness stops its mouth.
43 Let those who are wise pay attention to these things and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 107 is a beautiful poem, written to celebrate the "steadfast love of the Lord" through all life's ups and downs, ins and outs. It speaks to all people--those who come from the north, the south, the east, and the west. It is a promise that with God's guidance and help, they will find what they are seeking in their travels, they will come to a safe haven at last.

In 1883, just one year after our church was established here in El Paso, an American poet named Emma Lazarus wrote a poem entitled "The New Colossus." Her title is a reference to an ancient Greek statue, the Colossus of Rhodes, which was built as a military monument, and meant to intimidate foreigners approaching the city's harbor. Emma Lazarus wrote her poem to describe a new statue, currently being built in the harbor of New York city, for a still new country, and hopefully a new and different approach to new arrivals--an approach that echoes the sentiments found in Psalm 107, and also the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

Since tomorrow is Independence Day, I want to conclude by reading that poem, and by reminding us, as Psalm 107 does, that our independence can only be maintained when we realize and embrace our dependence upon our God, and upon each other.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"