Preacher: Rev. David Exley Scripture: Psalm 46
The great Albert Einstein was on a train leaving Princeton Junction in New Jersey, heading north. When the conductor came to his seat, Einstein was unable to find his ticket. He searched through all of his pockets and looked in his briefcase, becoming extremely disturbed. The conductor tried to comfort him, saying, “Dr. Einstein, don’t worry about the ticket. I know who you are and you don’t have to present your ticket to me. I trust that you purchased a ticket.” About twenty minutes later, the conductor came down the aisle of the train once again and saw Einstein, still searching wildly for the misplaced ticket. The conductor again said to him, “Dr. Einstein, please don’t worry about the ticket. I know who you are!” Einstein stood and said in a gruff voice, “Young man, I know who I am, but I am trying to find my ticket because I want to know where I am going!”+
Do you ever feel like Einstein? Knowing who you are BUT unsure of your destination. 2020 feels like one of those years where we’re desperate to find that ticket that will tell us where we’re going. Being told to take comfort in the words of Psalm 46, in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, feel a little like a conductor trying to tell us not to worry about finding our ticket while we long to know where we are going.
There is a part of me that wants to hear these words from Psalm 46 about as much as I want that extra hour added to the 2020 calendar year that we’re going to get next weekend when we turn back the clocks at the end of Daylight Savings Time.
The cynic in all of us can’t help but roll their eyes as they hear these opening words from the Psalm… “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart, when the mountains crumble into the centre of the sea.” The mountains may not be crumbling into the sea, but this year certainly feels like a “world falling apart” kind of year. And so, if God is indeed our refuge and our strength, where is God? Now, let me be clear. I don’t mean to simply ask that question in a rhetorical way. I also don’t mean to ask that question in a way that allows me the opportunity to pivot toward an obvious and easy answer (as provided by a faith leader within the confines of a well-constructed, three point, fifteen minute sermon). If God is our refuge and our strength, where is God?
It is in times like these when we must ask that question openly and honestly. Even when we think we have an answer ready—when it’s there on the tip of our tongues—we need to hold back and allow the silence to move us toward a deeper understanding of who God is… where God is… and how God is active in the ever-expanding story of our world.
On “more normal” Sundays at this time of the year churches around the world tend to sing Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”—a hymn inspired by Psalm 46. This might be one of those years where we may need to either: a) not sing that hymn; OR b) sing it in a way that allows us to ponder the question, “How is God a Mighty Fortress?” OR, “If God is a Mighty Fortress, what does that look like for us today?”
There are moments where we can sing God’s glory and celebrate the gift of what we see out the window as the train of life moves down the tracks. The alert pops up on social media that tells us that the Pope has endorsed same sex partners making their relationships official through civil unions. While it’s not a FULL endorsement for LGBTQ folk, it does represent a significant moment in time for the Catholic Church. It is news like this that we can truly celebrate and give thanks to that God who is with us in times of trouble. But then, just as we read that news, more details emerge about the 545 children that were separated from their parents at the U.S. border. Children mostly from families that were merely seeking asylum in the United States—Children ripped from their loved ones with not a concern or care for their well-being.
Even with the good news stories, how could we possibly “be still” in the midst of this turbulent ride we find ourselves on in this life?Perhaps one answer is to move toward a place where we are more aware of the pain and the need within this world. Rather than stepping into the first class car, putting on the noise-cancelling headphones and ordering a tall glass of wine (as nice as that sounds)… perhaps we need to get up out of our seat and move around. Perhaps we need to look out the window and make note of the hurt that is in the world—not just the hurt we are feeling, but the hurt that is felt by neighbours and strangers who look nothing like us.
Just recently, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright wrote a book called “God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath”. In his reflections on the pandemic, he suggests that one response is to listen for God’s voice—specifically that voice that “groans for all creation”. He writes, “That is our vocation: to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain.”
Far too often we are the cause of pain. We create it. We walk past people who are experiencing it. We downplay the hurt of others. We fail to humanize those who look and sound different from us and don’t share a similar story to ours.Our vocation is to JOIN God in those places where the world is in pain. God is indeed already there—weeping alongside those who’ve been hurt by the world. But that presence is more clear when we begin to go to those places of pain. We’re called to be in prayer—perhaps (and maybe most especially) wordless prayer—so that we might stand in solidarity with one another. So that our restless world might be moved to a place of peace and solitude as we allow God, THROUGH US, to “break the bow” and “shatter the spear” in this cold, heartless, and hurting world.
On second thought, maybe we do need that extra hour next week. Maybe we do need to turn the clock back so that we might be given a second chance to move from pain to peace—from restlessness to a more restful place. So that we might listen more clearly for that God whose love and peaceful ways are woven into the fabric of all creation.
I’ll close with this story. I have a few of my own train stories—even a few from taking the train out of Princeton Junction. But this particular story isn’t from a trip on New Jersey transit or Amtrak. Instead, it’s a story from a trip I took to Northern Ontario with my brother and my grandparents well over thirty years ago. While we were travelling back from the north—just before we arrived at the train station in Toronto—there was a man sitting next to us who caught our eye… someone who eventually engaged me and my brother in conversation as we approached our final destination. He was an Indigenous man. But for a few brief moments on the train, he became the magic man to me and my brother. Partway through our trip he looked over at us and said, “How are you doing Dave and Steve?” Our jaws hit the ground. “How could he possibly know our names!” He began to talk with us and even shared a few card tricks that he knew. Every now and then he would call us by our names and my grandparents would giggle and laugh almost to the point that they were on the ground. After a good 30 minutes or so of fun with our new magician friend on the train, we arrived at the station and he said farewell to us. Again, my grandparents are still giggling and grinning from ear to ear. As I went to retrieve my suitcase I looked at my brother and suddenly realized what the secret was to the magic man’s most impressive trick. We were both wearing hats on the train that day—custom made hats—one that said “Steve” and the other that said “Dave”. The magic man’s superpower was that he could read the name printed right above our faces.
There was a beauty to that conversation. When I think back, there was something magical that happened on that train ride back to Toronto. We forgot about our destination and became lost in conversation with a man who looked nothing like us, someone who took the time to say our names and to be playful with us. It didn’t matter that he only knew our names as a result of our hats, what mattered most was that he took the time to “see” us and engage us in conversation. Suddenly our destination didn’t matter as much. The conversation and the connection became more important. The strength of God, the beauty of God’s creation, is not to be found in the larger picture things within life (sometimes we see glimpses of God there) but the gifts of God and the presence of God is to be found in walking the road with one another—taking the journey together. Seeing one another. Sometimes, as we look, the answer to our question is right under our nose. And so, let’s let go for a moment or two of our need to know the destination. Let’s be still as God reveals to us the beauty that exists along the road of life. Amen.
+From: Campolo, Tony “Stories That Feed The Soul” (©2010 Baker Books)