Seek God’s Face

Sermon preached for the Second Sunday of Lent for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold[a] of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
    they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, do I seek.
    Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation!
 If my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!


The other day I opened my browser window to check the news. I do that far often than I should, and its usually a mistake. 

There was the usual collection: missing teenagers, drug overdoses, new restaurants, war. So much war. 

In the middle of it all, a feel-good story, just a few lines. There was a video I didn’t watch. I told myself I didn’t have time. This is the written story, in its entirety.

Mykolaiv (mik-o-lee-aive), a few miles from the front line in southern Ukraine, has become a deserted town. Most shelves are empty, and many stores are closed — but not this tiny flower shop.

Angela Kalisnik sells shimmering tulips and roses because, war or not, “the flowers keep on blooming.”[1]

Like I said, a feel-good story. Except it made me angry. 

You idiot, I thought, directing my anger at… everything… to this one hopeful story. There’s a war. Stop trying to be beautiful and symbolic. Get somewhere safe.

You are not obliged to sacrifice your life to warm our hearts. 

I think that a lot, about feel good stories. I suppose it’s my natural cynicism. You are not obliged to sacrifice your life to warm our hearts. 

I turned off the news. I opened a different browser tab, one of the many ways I get to scripture. This one has the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. I scrolled until I got to the psalm. 

“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Again, I felt anger flare up. Who should you be afraid of? Everyone, you idiot! Everyone and everything. 

I felt guilty being angry, at the world, at scripture, but my spiritual director is forever trying, bless her heart, to get me to feel curious, not guilty, about my own reactions. So I stopped, and I tried to notice, and to inquire. 

There was a time, you know, when I could say, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” There was a day I could be that declarative, that confident. But not this week, not with… everything. And so my anger was grief, grief at a loss. Not that I have lost faith; nothing close to it. But that my faith this week cannot co-sign onto such simple sentences. The day will come again; it always does. I have finally stopped beating myself up for having an ocean faith, that ebbs and floods like tides. 

I closed my entire internet app, which was probably the wisest thing I’d done all morning. I scanned through my files instead. I’d never preached Psalm 27, but I was in luck—I had written an entire exegetical paper on it in seminary! An original Hebrew translation, historical-critical analysis, focus statement, and 29, count them, 29 footnotes. My week was saved!

I opened the file eagerly. March, 2013. Almost exactly eight years ago. 

The paper was dry as a bone. 

I used to be proud that I could write that way. Not a flicker of emotion, of passion, of opinion. Just the facts. Just the scholarship. I wrote that, “When viewed without the constrictions of genre, the psalm is remarkably intelligent psychologically.”

It gave me almost nothing to work with for a sermon. 

Except, buried in that genre analysis, a note about historical interpretation of this psalm. For many centuries, this pslam, this poem—like many others—was attributed to King David. It’s unlikely, but marvelous to think about. But in the early days of form criticism, a chic new scholarly tool developed in the late 1800s to try to unearth the original architecture of the Bible, this Psalm was really two psalms, inelegantly and incorrectly glued together into one. 

The first half is mostly praise; the second is mostly lament. They don’t go together, the scholars said. 

I wrote most modern scholars see it differently. The psalm, thematically, is too tight; it has a flow, a rhythm of hope and worry, delight and expectation. I posited that perhaps the two halves were written at very different times in the psalmist’s life; one easier, one harder.

I was 22. Sue me. 

I don’t think I fully comprehended—I still struggle to reconcile in myself—how the very same day, the very same moment, the very same story—can make us feel so many different things. 

The LORD is my light– 
my heart shall not fear– 
my head is lifted up– 
Hear, O LORD, when I cry– 
do not forsake me– 
lead me on a level path– 
they are breathing out violence–
Wait for the LORD

These swings of emotion are not evidence of multiple writers. Only that our psalmist lived in a world not so different from our own, a world where a shopkeeper sells bouquets in the middle of a war. 

This week several of my friends posted a meme with a snatch of poetry on it. It resonated; I went to find more. It was written in October of 2020, but it spoke to my friends now, in the midst of a war we are watching from the outside. We have never been more informed, and still so distant. 

This is part of the poem, written by Mari Andrew. 

1. I am washing my face before bed while a country is on fire. It feels dumb to was my face, and dumb not to. It has never been this way, and it has always been this way. 

Someone has always clinked a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another while someone falls in love in the same apartment building where someone grieves. The fact that suffering, mundanity and beauty coincide is unbearable and remarkable. …

3. How is a person supposed to do ordinary things like face-wash or big things like fall in love when a quick phone scroll is both advertising discounted designer socks and informing me that 12 million acres have been burned? 12 million?!

I despair, with an exhale. Then I refuse to despair, with an inhale. (“Despair is a tool to control us.”)
I scroll some more: A new baby, a new album, a flower, firefighters, a threatened world holds so much. 

4. “I must choose between despair and energy – I choose the latter.” – Keats. 

What does it look like to state in the midst of smoke, I choose energy?
For starters, I choose to finish washing my face. 
Then, I choose to look: Not away, but toward. 
I choose to trust: First, in goodness. Then, in people I know. 
Then, in people I’ll never meet. 
Always, In myself.[2]

It was that early line, about how suffering, mundanity and beauty coincide, that spoke to so many of my friends this week. We cannot live like people are not dying, of war and covid and cancer and malaria and loneliness and a million other things. But we also cannot live like we are not living. We wash our faces. We watch silly cat videos. We give. We laugh. 

I went to look up a bit more about the poet, Mari. I have a terror that one day I will quote someone from this pulpit who turns out to be a horrible person. 

I have a bad habit of assuming people my age are not Christian. That goes double for artists. But when I looked up recent things Mari has written, one was from just a week and a half ago, about Ash Wednesday, and how she treasures the truth of it. The truth that we’re not failures for being fragile, and mortal.[3]

I don’t know if Mari identifies fully as Christian—now or ever or sometimes—but I cannot help but hear the echoes of Psalm 27 in her own poetry. 

What does it look like to state in the midst of smoke, I choose energy?

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.

For starters, I choose to finish washing my face. 

Then, I choose to look: Not away, but toward. 

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

I choose to trust: First, in goodness. Then, in people I know. 
Then, in people I’ll never meet. 
Always, In myself.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord, the psalmist concludes. In triumph or anxiety, in beauty or war, wait for the Lord. But, Mari reminded me, it is not a lazy kind of waiting. We choose energy. We choose forward motion. We choose to seek God’s face. We choose to trust in goodness, and to turn our faces that way, like flowers swivel to the sunlight. 

So if your soul is hurting this morning, choose energy. Not the exhausting energy of doing all the things, but the energy of God. Sometimes it is an energy of beauty, of delight, of music, of humming rest. Sometimes it is an energy of seeking, of longing, of asking for what you need. Sometimes it is an energy of waiting, simply waiting, until the time is right. Sometimes it is an energy of tapping into the goodness already rising up around us, and believing that we are the goodness someone else is trusting in.

Seek God’s face, my heart says, when I have clicked on too many news stories, or watched too much TV, or played too many rounds of phone games. Seek God’s face, my heart says, when my own is washed with tears, or taut with fury. Seek God’s face, my heart says. Here we go. Get up off the couch. Get up out of the pew. Get up and try again. 

It’s a new day, and the flowers do not stop blooming. 

Amen.  


[1] https://www.npr.org/live-updates/russia-invades-ukraine-live-updates-belarus-mariupol#the-flowers-still-bloom-even-as-war-rages-and-this-shop-stays-open-to-sell-bouquets

[2] https://www.selfpractice.com.au/self-practice/notes-from-the-first-few-days-of-2020

[3] https://mariandrew.bulletin.com/tell-me-the-truth

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