Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on March 22, 2009.
Pslam 107: 1-3, 17-22
One week prior to the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Fred Craddock, who was then a young seminary professor, heard the esteemed German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias recall growing up in Israel before the war as the son of Christian missionaries. After the end of World War II, Jeremias returned to Israel. He was curious to know whether his friendships with the Israeli Jews had been severed by the fact that it was the Germans, his own native people, who had executed six million Jews in the death camps of Eastern Europe. When Jeremias knocked on the door of a lifelong friend, he was pleasantly surprised to be warmly greeted with an affectionate embrace. His friend led him through the house to the backyard where a rustic tent had been erected.
It was Succoth, the season more commonly known as the Feast of Booths, when observant Jews put up a crude tent or arbor as a sign of their remembrance of Israel’s wandering in the desert. During those days a generation of Jews had lived in tents after God delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. Succoth is a season of hospitality that’s gladly shared with friends no matter what their faith might be. There is food on the table as if friends are expected and the booth is decorated with flowers and the artful drawings of children. Fastened on each side of the entrance of this tent were pieces of paper each with a message. The one on the left said, “From God.” The one on the right said, “To God.” Immediately Jeremias recognized “the whole of life” as he called it. “We come from God and we go to God and in between we live in tents.”
That truth is a way of doing what Craddock called, “marking sacred time.” Everything in life is a part of the fabric of how our lives are lived. We live and we love. We struggle mightily and on occasion we face terrible circumstances that leave indelible marks on our souls. But we do all this in relation to the great love of God and thus we make and mark such experiences as sacred. We come to believe all time is sacred time and all experiences are sacred experiences because God is with us helping us redeem it all as a part of “a life lived with God.”
In our experiences of “living in tents” between our coming from God and our going to God, we encounter everything under the sun. No one knows this better than the psalmist. In the psalms, the whole range of human experience is described and reflected upon. The psalms become an emotional mirror reflecting back to us the full range of experiences that describe our lives.
The psalm begins as a national call for thanksgiving. The whole people of God are invited and they come streaming from every direction on the compass: From the west and from the east, from the north and from the south. The people gather in order to lift up the name of the LORD. Together in one voice, they call out praise to God “for he is good” and because “his steadfast love endures forever.” They say joyfully, “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed!”
Gratitude is a way of marking sacred time. It is a way of being that recognizes the good works of God active in making meaning out of our lives. No matter what happens in life, whether those experiences come from the mountaintop or down in the valley, God is with us sharing the journey. The people of God come together to remind one another that God has done this because God is good and faithful in showing us love.
Psalm 107 begins on a note of pronounced gratitude. It is a sense of gratitude built on confidence and brimming with hope. It is gratitude that is poetic and beautiful in describing the universal love and care of God. Gratitude is the basis for marking sacred time. It is essential if we’re to see all things as gifts of a beneficent God who loves us in all seasons.
But what do we do in the meantime experiences, when life is altogether too real?
What do we do when we suffer to the point we feel despair? What do we do when the pain of a failed relationship and the deep sense of abandonment nearly take us under?
What does faith mean to us then? In what way does faith itself either provide us with the comfort of knowing God is with us or does faith seem to mock us in our pain? The psalmist understands this dilemma.
The psalmist gives four examples that cover the full range of human experience. Perhaps there’s a sense that while many have gathered to sing praises to God for goodness and steadfast love, there are others who can’t find words to express their gratitude because they are in sorrowing times. How do we mark sacred time in those moments? The psalmist gives us four occasions when one lives in the seasons of sorrow and troubles. They all begin with the designation, some, as if some are in this situation and some are in this other situation. While we read of one of these occasions in verse 17, there are three others described in the unread verses of Psalm 107.
Some wandered in the desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their souls fainted within them (Verses 4-5, NRSV). The psalmist looks back at one of the most significant events to occur amongst the people of God to those days when the people were freed from their servitude to the Egyptians and crossed over the Red Sea to the desert of the Sinai. There they wandered on a soul journey marked by their complaints and God’s provision for their many needs. Perhaps you’re one who’s suffered in the desert and felt as if your life would come to a desolate end? Have you spent time wandering and felt that you could not take another step? All of us know something of this kind of circumstances when our lives were withered from the heat of the searing sun living in tents as we wander aimlessly hoping to find refuge. How do we mark sacred the time spent in the desert?
Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons (Verse 10, NRSV). If the context of this psalm is depicted in the Exodus, where is the prison and where are the shackles? Some commentators think this refers to the Hebrew concept of Sheol, a nether world of anguish and imprisonment. No question, there are some experiences that feel like a prison. Those are shadowy places to be sure and we suffer as if were physically locked behind doors with our hands and our feet bound in shackles. It is a prison of the soul where we suffer immensely and don’t know how to set ourselves free. How do we mark sacred the time spent in the gloom of a prison?
Some were sick through their sinful ways and because of their iniquities endured afflictions (Verse 17, NRSV). Can our sorrow turn to bitterness? Absolutely, and it is devastating when bitterness takes over our souls. Does the body react to the injection of bitterness in our spirits? No question. The pain of the soul can cause the body to get sick. We suffer in our bodies those evil spirits that come when we internalize our soul sicknesses. Whenever anger and retribution overcome our relationships, we inwardly grow sick. Whenever we are sick in our souls, there is always the possibility that the toxins of that anger and bitterness will infest our bodies with sorrows that turn into physical ailments. How do we mark sacred the time spent in the struggle with our anger?
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters (Verse 23, NRSV). On the immense waters that cover the earth, one can be aware of the great power of God exhibited through the powers of nature. Ships rise and fall with the breaking of waves. Ships that feel as though they are mere specks on the endless horizon of God’s creation can give one a sense of being powerless. There are experiences of life that can be symbolized by the minute presence of the ships on the seas of life. Events of incredible magnitude crash down around us in such fury and unexpected damage that we can be caught off-guard in a moment of tragedy. How do we mark sacred the time spent lost on the seas?
I first read the story of a missionary couple that met with tragedy when I was in high school. As a senior in High School, my Sunday School teacher suggested I read Through the Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, and so I did. Her story captures what it means to mark time sacred as described by the psalmist.
Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Jim were missionaries to the Aucas, a small tribe of Quichua Indians of Ecuador in the mid-1950’s. The Elliots were newly married and soon they had a little girl who lived with them in the jungles of Ecuador. But they weren’t alone as there also were four other couples with their young children who also committed themselves to the task of making contact with a tribe so backward as to be considered from the Stone Age in their development as a people. In the past, the Aucas were known to be so vicious and warlike they had attacked all visitors who tried making friendly contact with them. On a day when the five missionary men cautiously approached ten of the tribesmen, the Indians suddenly and savagely turned on Jim and the other missionaries killing all of them with their spears.
Elisabeth Elliot and the other wives were suddenly missionary widows lost in grief for a time in the death of their husbands. Elliot was nearly overwhelmed by it but learned there was a Presence in the desert of her sorrow to suffer with her. How, you might ask, did she mark sacred time in these awful days? Elisabeth Elliot learned that the God of all creation is our friend and full of love. She realized God’s love watches over us with such steadfastness we can hardly speak of it in mere words. Years later after the tragedy of losing her husband had been widely told, she wrote reflectively, “God always suits his guidance to the individual and his frame of reference. Our task is to be alert to his signals, through whatever means they may come, and to see beyond the valley the light of the Father’s house.”
We mark sacred time whenever we look up from our troubles and sense the sure and steady hand of God who stays with us in our seasons of trouble. We mark sacred time as we travel the journey between our coming from God and our going to God.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).