Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2020
One thing that I did not count on when we decided to have our children almost seven years apart is the fact that doing so would mean that I would watch so many animated movies for so long – nearly a decade and a half. Just as one daughter started to grow out of them, the other daughter began to grow into them.
Being a dutiful father, I have watched a great many animated films.
My problem with so many of these movies is not the animation. Instead, it is the recycled plot line where the ever-present plucky underdog always seems to overcome the odds and save the day, all while getting the girl.
Last Sunday night, my two daughters begged me to watch yet another animated film with them. “This one is different!” they promised me, “You will like it!” I was not so sure, but they refused to give up. This is how I found myself watching a movie called Frozen II.
Now to be honest, all I can remember about the original Frozen is three things: the talking snowman, the song “Let it Go,” and the refreshing fact that the heroes are female instead of male. So armed with this serious lack of information, I sat down to try to enjoy the sequel to a movie I barely remember.
And friends, it was wonderful.
Without giving away any spoilers, I can tell you of one scene in particular upon which the entire movie pivoted. It takes place early in the film when everything is falling apart and there seems to be no way out, no hope whatsoever, and the bad news seems insurmountable. It is then that a minor character, a troll named Pabbie, names how terrible the situation is before delivering the best line in the film, saying “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.”
When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing. Until very recently, I felt like I could see into the future as one gazes at the planets in the clear night sky. As I looked past Lent, I could see the emerging majesty of the rings of Planet Easter. Further along the star-scape I could see the comet Eastertide, flying into the Pentecost Galaxy where lives Confirmation Sunday and the waxing moons of summer as we planned our missions to those moons for our children, youth, and adults.
And then thick clouds rolled in. The evil planet COVID-19 eclipsed our view, and it has been so long since the night has seemed so dark, the future so impossible to see.
Today’s scripture reading also pivots upon one line, a verse we all know well, the next to the last line of this 46th psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God.” The reason I decided to break from the Revised Common Lectionary and preach on this text today is because it is a text that, from its opening words, places all of the hope of humankind upon the strength, mercy, and grace of God. The psalm opens by saying “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.” In this reading, the psalmist envisions a terrible and terrifying future, one that twice mentions the shaking of the mountains.
And yet, the psalmist only describes future calamities after first describing a present reality: it is God who is our refuge. It is God who is our strength. It is God who is our very present help in our times of trouble. Psalm 46 does not imagine a shaken world set apart from God’s help. Instead, it promises God’s presence with us, even when everything else is falling apart.
For all of the profound hope of this reading, and for all of the tremendous and beautiful promises it makes to us, it asks for only one thing in return. The protection described in this psalm is not, according to the psalmist, promised to those who do this and who do not do that. It is not a psalm of conditional grace because it is not a psalm about who we are. Instead, it is a psalm about who God is, sovereign, all-powerful, greater than the things that oppress us.
In other words, it is not a psalm about what we have done or what we can do. It is a psalm about what God will do, even when everything around us is shaking. Still, the psalm asks one thing of us, right there near the end, and that one thing is to be still and know that God is God.
Stillness is more difficult than it sounds. We want to do things. We want to fix things. We want to change things. Against the backdrop of “doing,” being still sounds like an indulgence, an extravagance, a luxury that none of us can afford right now, if ever. We can see no future, and we wonder, if all we can do is “the next right thing,” well, what is the next right thing?
The thing is, being still is not the same thing as doing nothing. If anything, being still can simply mean that we heighten our awareness of God’s presence in our mist. It can mean that we do the difficult work of admitting our powerlessness and trusting in the providence of God. Sometimes what feels like “nothing” is the most important “something” we can ever do as our redeeming God uses even our stillness for the purposes of holiness.
Last week, I told the following story in an email to our congregation here at Reveille. I told of a time when I had been asked to lead a staff retreat for a large, Richmond congregation; Woodlake United Methodist Church, back when their pastor was the Rev. Dr. Peter Moon. The staff were gathering at Camp Occahannock. on the Bay, a United Methodist camp on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
As I drove to join them, I was crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel when I noticed the bay was filled with nearly two dozen immense container ships, all just sitting there, none of them moving. The stillness was amazing; ship after ship after ship, all unmoving, all still.
It was not until I thought about it more later that evening that I realized what was happening. While it looked like the ships were doing nothing, they were actually doing all they could: they were waiting for the tide to change so that they could do what was next.
Being stuck inside of our houses as though we were in the midst of an invisible blizzard can so easily lead to all of us believing that we are able to do so little. However, what if we regarded it another way? What if this time of stillness was a time of “holy stillness,” a part of our Lenten disciplines? What if the God who is our “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” was at work redeeming this time of stillness so that it became nothing less than a way in which the God we know supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of the healer named Jesus was doing the sacred work of healing the world? And what if, by altering our routines, by being still, we were partnering with God in doing just that: healing the world?
“When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I thought the “next right thing” was leading our voyage to Planet Easter. Now, this time of holy stillness has enabled me to think in more granular detail about what the next right thing truly is. Perhaps the “next right thing” is being mindful of how I properly wash my hands, while giving thanks for the gift of clean water. Perhaps the “next right thin”g is holding my family a little closer, while giving thanks for their life, health, and the additional time I have been given with them. Perhaps the “next right thing” is for us to elevate our mindfulness in regard to who represents the most vulnerable in our community, and what it would mean to care for those people in very specific ways. Perhaps the “next right thing” is a realization of what a holy gift it is for us to gather, a realization of how incomplete we are when we are apart, a realization of the sacred gift of community.
What if the “next right thing” is to learn to let go of trying to control everything all the time, and to trust our life, families, church, community, nation, and world to the one who stops the shaking of the mountains and “breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; [and] burns the shields with fire?”
What would your days look like if you were able to listen for God in the stillness to show you your “next right thing?”
One day, by God’s grace, the tide will rise again, and the journeys of our customary round will continue. We will somehow, by God’s grace, get through this, and it is my prayer that when we do, we emerge from our seclusion more willing to be connected to God and neighbor, more grateful for the blessings of this life, more mindful of others’ needs, and more appreciative of the simple gifts of gathering together as the Body of Christ, weaving our voices together in song, sharing and bearing one another’s joys and concerns in prayer, and being God’s witness to the world.
But until that day comes, hear God’s call to “Be still and know that I am God,” to be still and know, to be still, and to simply be.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.