Inaugural Address of the 2010 Family & Youth Conference
Your Grace Bishop Barnabas, Your Grace (and my friend) Bishop Zacharia Nicholovos. Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! And thank you for the invitation.
I want to start by bringing greetings from the other member churches in the National Council of Churches. Nine of the thirty six of them are Orthodox; two with roots in India. You may feel like a small church in the U.S. context, but in fact you are also an essential, beloved part of a community of churches that have, among them, fifty million believers in 100,000+ congregations. You are in a covenant relationship with United Methodists, Quakers, Episcopalians, Korean Presbyterians, Progressive National Baptists, Greek Orthodox.
Behind this is a most important theological conviction: those who confess Jesus Christ reconciled to God and one another. Thanks to what God has done in Christ. And now we are called to manifest this unity/reconciliation in the way we live with one another. Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios captured this calling in his writings: "The church, the body of Christ, is to exist on earth as an expression, however imperfect it may be, of the community of love that God is. This community is characterized not only by mutual love that binds Christians together, but as an overflowing love that pours out the love of God in sacrificial service to the whole of humanity – the whole of creation." That, in a nutshell, is the basis of the NCC. The purpose of the Council is to be that place where the Christians express something of our unity as the body of Christ. What happens to the Moravian Church happens to you. Your joys and concerns should also be the joys and concerns of the Church of the Brethren. Isn’t this good news?
The NCC is known for the witness we make regarding such things as immigration reform or environmental protection or poverty reduction – ! The NCC is a biblically-grounded community through which the churches act on behalf of society’s most vulnerable members - because that’s where God leads us. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has understood this, providing hygiene kits for Church World Service and other funds for Haiti relief. I urge you to join even more forcefully in ecumenical advocacy regarding the major issues facing this society – but I also thank you for all you have already done as a valued member of the NCC.
I need to give one other personal word of introduction. I have lots of ties to India. I first traveled there when I was nineteen, have taught on three occasions at United Theological College in Bangalore, have traveled in Kerala, and spoken at the Orthodox Seminary in Kotayam (whose principal, Dr. K.M. George, is a friend). Most important: I have an Indian daughter, Anna Kapila, who was born in an ashram in Mumbai. She turned twenty-eight yesterday, and I see lots of young adults here who remind me of her.
People sometimes ask: Did your daughter have trouble growing up in the U.S. with white parents? You have to ask her! But I can tell you that she did develop some interesting theories. When Anna was four or five, I overheard her telling one of her friends that when she grew up she would probably turn white. Actually I think she’s quite well adjusted – and I am very proud of her!
Our focus text for this Family and Youth Conference is Psalm 46, and especially verse 10: "Be still and know that I am God." This was my grandmother’s favorite verse of scripture, which she used to quote on its own in almost in any circumstance. But in order to really understand it, we need to think about the Psalms as a whole.
Nearly everything is in the psalms: wonder, fear, frustration, rage, joy, hope. But if there is one attitude, one message, that runs through the Psalms from beginning to end it is this: Trust in the living God who is maker of heaven and earth, who is the source of our lives. Think of Psalm 24: "The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it." This is a confession of our utter dependence on God. "You are my Lord," says Psalm 16, "I have no good apart from you." Not "my life feels a little empty without you," but "I have no good apart from you."
The Bible is very clear from Genesis to Revelation, but especially in the Psalms, that the good news is about what God is doing – not what we have done, are doing, or will do. In fact, much of what humans do in the Bible is rather bad news that God has to fix on a regular basis. Listen, for example, to the opening verse from Psalm 40: "I waited patiently for the Lord [I hoped intensely for the Lord]; God inclined to me and heard my cry. God drew me up from the dissolute pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure."
What is a "miry bog"? A mud hole. God reaches out like a mother who pulls her child out of the mud hole, knowing that the kid will soon be filthy once again. That’s the kind of God the psalmist praises - a God of steadfast (i.e., constant) love, who repeatedly lifts us out of our pettiness and idolatry and prideful self-assurance, and enables us to stand on that which alone is solid.
Let me ask a personal question and ask you to think about it: What mud hole have you been in? A mud hole of depression? Anxiety? Illness? Guilt? Resentment? Envy? And were you ever lifted up by a word from a friend, by an inner voice you couldn’t quite pinpoint, by an unexpected event? Then, says the psalmist, give thanks to God!
Psalm 40 goes on to say, "I delight to do God’s will, to tell the glad news of deliverance." But the psalmist is very clear that we are able to hear God’s word only because, as the psalm puts it, God has cleaned out our ears! And we are able to proclaim the good news only because God has put a new song in our mouths. This is the same attitude we find in the wonderful Psalm 51 (which may be more familiar): "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise."
act and speak and comfort and we serve – but the credit belongs to God.
So far I’ve just been talking about them, but the psalms are meant to be read together. These were "hymns" of ancient Israel. The word psalm means "songs of praise" (like Tagore’s "Gitanjali"). I don’t think we can sing it, but let’s at least read Psalm 46 together. Actually, I will read it, and when I indicate, please respond with the refrain: "God is our refuge and strength."
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
"Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth."
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
What an amazing word of hope and faith! God is our refuge and strength. Therefore, even though the world around us may seem like chaos, we will not be afraid. It is like Psalm 23: "The Lord is our shepherd. Therefore, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil."
The Psalms certainly don’t ignore evil, but the constant note is one of humble confidence because God is God! Oh yes, the warriors they have power, but their bows will break – and God remains in charge. (I love the way Psalm 33 puts it: "A king is not protected by his army, a warrior is not delivered by his strength – and even a good horse won’t save you"!) And yes, the politicians they call the shots; but, in the words of Psalm 146, "when their breadth departs, they return to the dust, on that very day their plans perish" – and remains in charge!
That brings us to our key verse for this conference; "Be still and know that I am God." The words, as you can tell when reading the whole psalm, have a double meaning. Water (the sea) is the ancient image for chaos, for that which threatens creation. The opening verses of the psalm speak of such chaos, of the waters that roar and foam, of mountains that shake in the heart of the sea. And to this chaos, God commands, "Be still, and know that I am God." And then to us God says, "Be still, and know that I am God." Trust that I am in charge. Do not live fearfully.
I want to end my noting that I have a friend who is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk. At the monastery where he lives, they read all 150 psalms as part of worship in the course of each week.
I once asked him, "What do you get out of this? What different does it make for you to read the psalms over and over again?" "Well," he said, "the Psalms are like glasses. When you look through them, the world comes into clearer focus." You see his point. Our constant temptation is to lament how we got the short end of the stick, instead of giving thanks for the divine gift of life itself! Our constant temptation is to boast about what we’ve accomplished, instead of giving thanks for what God has done through us. Our constant temptation is to trust in our own resources or in Wall Street or in military weapons, instead of trusting in God as our true security. The Psalms are like glasses. They help us see the world as it really is – filled with the glory and presence of God.
My friend made one other point. "The Psalms," he said, "have become the story of my life." This is exactly what Psalm 136 is intended to do, to tell the story of God’s work of creation and redemption so that it becomes our story. And the psalmist even ends each verse of that psalm with a response for us to say: "For God’s steadfast love endures forever."
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good ...
who made the heavens and spread out the earth on the waters ...
who brought Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm...
who divided the sea in two and led the people through the wilderness ...
who rescued us from our foes and gives food to all flesh ...
O give thanks to the God of heaven …
With fear and trembling, let me add some verses that the psalmist didn’t write:
O give thanks to the Lord who has given us the gift of reconciliation in Jesus Christ ...
Who has called us from every race and national and broken down the dividing wall between us ...
Who has cleaned out our ears and put peace on our lips ...
O give thanks to the God of heaven ...
This, friends, is our family story, which we rehearse each time we read the Bible, and especially the Psalms. May God richly bless you during these days together!
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