First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Neil H. Wilson, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720
231-547-9122


Love Is Our Defense

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, September 2nd ~ Patti Ulrich ~ Guest Preacher

Love is Our Defense

Many years ago, our church here in Charlevoix took on a huge expansion project. My feelings about the project were mixed, at best. We took up temporary residence at the Christian Science Church across the parking lot which was kind enough to let us use their space, so we squeezed in there. We even held church in the barn at the llama farm on Boyne City Road! Do any of you remember that?   Sitting on the hay bales like barn swallows, we sang hymns of praise.

As we prepared for our temporary move out of the church and how it might look after we moved back in, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that space: late at night alone in the sanctuary during a prayer vigil, at our children’s baptisms and their confirmation services, in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear (halos and such) straight while they sang carols as only children can. We used to crowd in the stairwell at the back of the church trying desperately to shoosh the excited children. Remember when Marti Trubilowicz made little sheep hats out of felt for the children? They were so cute! And the time one teenage Mary took a small camera out from under her robe to snap a photo of the baby Jesus! (That was before cell phones) Too funny! Wonderful memories!

At the time, it didn’t seem to me that we needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.” But I have found that even though I loved that simple space very much, I now love the new space just as much with all the new memories that are being created here each and every week and each and every day.

Psalm 84 is a joyful song praising God, not a building, although God’s presence is mysteriously and powerfully experienced there. The psalmist begins by calling the Temple   God’s “dwelling place,” but of course “dwelling” in a place doesn’t have to mean being contained by it.

Psalm 84 is one of the “Songs of Zion” which, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “serve to celebrate, Zion-Jerusalem as the epicenter of reality wherein YHWH dwells permanently in a way that guarantees the city,” thereby making the people feel safe–after all, God is in their city. Could there be any better source of security? I think when he’s talking about God being in our city, he’s talking about a place where we can imagine how things should and could be, rather than how they actually are. A place where we can dream the dream of God. If God is love, and we know that’s the truth, then that “source of life” is also our best home, our best defense, our best security and shelter. Love is our best defense, indeed.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Keeping God, and God’s love, at the heart of everything: I think of the concept of “sanctuary” as a safe haven for those fleeing other powers. Something that we see on the news almost every night these days as desperate people try to seek safety for their families from violence they face in their home lands. It is something that we might find hard to relate to here in our beautiful community.

And yet today in our country, we are still shaken and grieved by the horror of shootings in places of worship – our faith and other faiths. Nine people were killed in a mass shooting at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at the end of a Bible study where they had offered warm hospitality and kindness to the man who then shot them, for being Black, he told the police. It’s jarring to realize that even church itself can’t offer safe space, sanctuary, when such a thing can happen on sacred ground. But the people of the church found a way to forgive that young man. Surely God is dwelling in their city!

And as we look to a new future for our church, we have faith that we will portray and yes BE a church community that is safe and is God’s home. Our very lives, then, and all of nature, are sacred ground, holy ground. Thus, we too can “go from strength to strength” (v. 7). For wherever we are, we are “at home with God.” So are the sparrow and the swallow, of course: the psalmist sings of their good fortune in finding a home in the sacred surroundings of the Temple.

We can’t help recalling Jesus’ own words about God’s eye being on the sparrow. One wonders at the repeated image of tiny sparrows in the Bible, one of the smallest of God’s creatures. Throughout the Bible, we hear that God cares for the ones we might easily overlook: the small ones, the humble ones, the ones on the margins.

The swallows and the sparrows, all of creation then, join with humans in a song of praise to God, according to the psalmist–just think of Psalm 104, for instance. “Praise the Lord, O my soul. Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty…. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”  I hope you’ll read it when you get home this afternoon! Imagine the “continuous birdsongs” playing harmony to our pilgrims’ hymns like Amazing Grace! What a lovely image, for a Temple long ago and the sacred spaces of our lives today, too. The next time you are outside and hear them singing their sweet songs in the trees and bushes, be reminded of God’s love for the little ones and for you as well. I hope that will make you smile!

The swallow and the sparrow find a place to make a nest for their little ones in the temple. And we humans can also find a nest in a church whose worship experience encompasses “serenity, innocence, and trusting delight” in the presence of the God who loves [us].[i] Of course, the image of “nest” suggests a place of safety, nurture, and home. We may certainly find a “nest” in other places where we experience being at home with God, but we pray and have faith that our church community will continue to be a place for people to find a safe place, a home! AMEN!

Inspiration and quotes in this message come from Kathryn Matthews, UCC Worship Resources

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for the Preaching Year

 

 

 

Benediction

 

Happy are those whose strength is in the Lord.

The Lord is our light and our protector giving us grace and glory.

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right.

Blessed are those who trust in him. Go now in peace to love and serve.

Amen!

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for the Preaching Year

Benediction

 

Happy are those whose strength is in the Lord.

The Lord is our light and our protector giving us grace and glory.

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right.

Blessed are those who trust in him. Go now in peace to love and serve.

 

Amen!

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