2022-03-06 Sermon TUMC – Lent 1 From Security to Generosity

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91,
Isaiah 55:8 Michele Rae Rizoli

Remembering who we are

Do you have it too? That feeling that we’re all on some sort of macabre shopping channel special, where the world is saying – “But wait, there’s more!”?

With a pandemic still playing out, climate change lurching forward, and a new large impact war — in addition to the already existing conflicts in our world — I don’t need to tell you we are living in a time of unrest right now.

As people of faith, how do we respond to our current times?
How do we pray? And what do we even pray for?

We stand in the face of this big glob of well-founded anxiety and fear and we try to ground ourselves anew in our faith.

Today’s scriptures give us some strong clues about how we can try to keep on moving forward in these turbulent times:

  1. We can try to gain perspective (zoom out)
  2. We can name our fears and our hopes
  3. We must remember who we are

First, perspective Isaiah 55:8.

Our Lent theme this season is “Seeking God’s Ways.” It is based on Isaiah 55:8 which reads:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Eternal One.

There is roll-up awning outside my house that can be opened on a switch and it rolls out to provide shade or protect from rain.

For the past 12 years that I’ve lived in that house, tucked away to one side of this awning is a perpetual birds nest. It seems that generations of house sparrows have passed on to each other what a prime spot this apparently is for a nest. Nature has provided many trees and cedar hedges nearby, but to my great frustration, these birds think that the awning just above the barbecue is better than anywhere else.

For the most part I have had to settle on a “live and let live” policy with this intergenerational family of sparrows. They endure the smoke that sometimes rises from the barbecue, the awning that sometimes rolls out and damages their nest, and I endure them scolding me the whole time, and the holes they eventually peck into my awning. To me it seems like it would be so much easier for everyone if they just built a nest somewhere else, like in the trees, like birds are meant to do!

What is clear though is that the ways of the birds are not my ways, and their thoughts are not my thoughts! 🙂

It’s a silly example, that I raise to make the simple point: that we humans, like those birds, do not have the full perspective on the world. We might be making choices that seem very safe and secure to us, but that ultimately are not the best choices in the big picture.

Our human choices are often based on patterns — patterns of thought, patterns of behaviour, patterns of consumption, etc. God’s perspective — however you conceive of God, is always greater than ours and works on a different and larger scale of complexity.

During Lent we are invited to try to break our comfortable patterns and to seek God’s ways. By which I mean moving away from self-centredness, towards compassion, peace and justice.

On Ash Wednesday some of us heard the words “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” Yes, you got it right, these words are also used at funerals. In reminding ourselves of our status as dust (that is to say mortal) we also remember that we as individuals (and sometimes even as groups) do not come equipped to know everything that there is to know, nor to solve everything there is to solve.

When we are feeling overwhelmed, Preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber suggests we use the following questions:
What’s MINE to do, and what’s NOT mine to do?
What’s MINE to say and what’s NOT mine to say?
And the hardest question: What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT mine to care about?

So, changing our perspective might be a first response to a sense of crisis.

The second response is to get real about our fears.

The psalms, as you may already know, are a wonderful place to find conversations between those two ways of thinking: our ways and God’s ways. These poems in the Bible name fear and distress and anxiety very clearly, but they also reach towards trust in God and in God’s ways. We see this playing out in Psalm 91.

The psalm frames everything within an affirmation of faith. I can almost picture someone in the mirror every morning saying this:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to God, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’

And then the psalmist takes each fear and puts it beside affirmations about God.
Walter Brueggemann, a scholar who has written about the psalms, notes that “You gotta have a place where you process your fears, because if you don’t process your fears, they will devour you [and] they will immobilize you.”

Once our fears are named, they can be recognized and not just keep lurking shapelessly in the background. It is a small step towards overcoming them, or at least towards co-existing with them, once you know what your fears are.

Our unnamed psalmist in Psalm 91 names the dangers that they fear, here are a few:

the snare of the fowler — (I chuckled when I realized that’s someone who traps birds) That would be the fear of falling into traps.

One trap that I would like to name for those of us who profess to be pacifists right now, is the trap of getting caught up in war propaganda. The clearest way I see this manifesting is on social media, but it is also in the air around us. This is a way of speaking and thinking that believes the issue of war can be summed up in “good guys” and “bad guys” — and we or the people who look like us are always the good guys. It is a dangerous trap, which me must guard carefully against. War in our current context is in the realm of complex systemic evil, and complex systems, or as the Bible likes to call them, “principalities and powers.”. We must be careful not to get caught up in the war-making and war-speaking.

the deadly pestilence — Do I even need to spell that out? Covid. Fear of illness and annihilation.

The terror of the night — For our context this might mean the consuming anxiety that keeps us from getting proper sleep or worrying about relatives and loved ones who are in the lines of fire.

The arrow that flies by day, the destruction that wastes at noonday. — I name this the stuff that comes out of nowhere to take away our sense of security and throws us off balance.

And I’m aware, as you are, that for others in this world today, especially in Ukraine and in refugee camps and in other occupied places, it is an actual realistic fear of actual terror!

From our relative place of security, we must find ways to stand in solidarity with them and reach out with prayers, with generosity, with material and political help, and with a renewed intention to work for peace.

So those are some of the fears that the psalmist names. We are not going to speak them aloud, but ask yourselves: What would you name as your fears in this moment?

Speaking of fears, author J.B. Priestly points out in the Believers Church Commentary about this psalm, that “Heads of governments know that a frightened people is easier to govern and will agree to millions being spent on “defence.”

The Canadian government is currently sending weapons to Ukraine to stoke this war. As followers of Jesus, who also lived in a time of Roman occupation, and still called for peace, what are we called to do in view of this?

As Anabaptist pacifists it is important to keep our fears in check and in perspective so that they might not be used against the cause of peace. We need to guard what we say and how we say it, what we post on social media, what we affirm to ourselves and to others about the conflict we find ourselves in, and who we align ourselves with. We must seek wisdom from each other and from God about how to respond.

To our fears we say with the psalmist: God, is our refuge and our strength.

God will cover you with God’s pinions,
and under God’s wings you will find refuge;
God’s faithfulness is a shield.

Now Psalm 91 has sometimes been used as a sort of good luck charm that would guarantee that nothing bad can ever happen to us. In scripture Satan uses this passage to tempt Jesus into dangerous behaviour. And in our current context some people have misguidedly used it to think they do not require vaccines or precautions to be safe from covid. However, the psalm as a whole does not make such promises of immunity. We know that bad things still happen.

“The power of this psalm lies not in the notion of a magic trick that makes all things that might cause fear to vanish, but rather in the notion of [us having] companions in our processing, and most especially, a God who prevents those things from having dominion over us. … What God does promise is, from the midst of such things, to “answer,” “be with,” “protect,” and “deliver.”

So that’s our second response, to name the fears and remember that God is with us, hovering with the big picture and with protective care.

We gain perspective and we name our fears.

Finally we turn to the third response we might have in times of crisis: Remembering who we are (which is actually the other two in a nutshell).

Now I told you about the birds, and I know this moves me closer to the crazy lady category, but I do talk to them. And I say: “You’re birds! Go to the trees for goodness sake! Do you not realize that there is smoke coming at you on a regular basis? Do you not realize that you could die trapped in the mechanism of this moving awning? Do you not realize that a block away is the ravine where you could be flying and having fun instead of sitting on the wires and scolding me? Be birds!”

The scene we encounter in this passage in Deuteronomy is a scene of grounding. It is an act of worship, much like we are doing together here today.

What we’re listening to in the passage in Deuteronomy are instructions to the Israelites that they are not to forget who they are and where they came from.

At the heart of this passage is a retelling of their suffering and of God’s faithfulness to them: “We cried to the Eternal One, the God of our ancestors, who heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression.”

It’s interesting that as wandering people they think that they’ve finally found security in a new land. But the first thing they are asked to do is to hold that security lightly and to give generously. They were to take the first fruits of any produce they have in their very first harvest and bring them and offer them to God — and to the priests, the foreigners, the widows and the orphans, that is to say, anyone in need.

As they offered it up they were to remember the stories of their reliance on God and of God’s faithfulness to them.

I’m aware that many of you present have Ukrainian or Russian roots, this is all hitting pretty close to your family’s personal stories right now. I’ve heard some of those heartbreaking accounts over the years: some are about unthinkable tragedy and some are also about God’s incredible and sometimes miraculous faithfulness.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) the Mennonite Church’s relief and development arm, actually began by helping starving Mennonite in Ukraine. In our own congregation folks were involved in creating the Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, a centre which is now occupied by an invading army. This is close to our experience.

And so here we are, again. Another thing I know is that many of our ancestors struggled whether to keep their commitments to non-violence and peace in the face of unthinkable dangers. That struggle is still our struggle today; for those in the line of fire and for us here with our sense of security, our resources, and the luxury of our opinions.

How will we reflect and rely upon God’s faithfulness at this time?

We don’t know what happens next.
But we do recognize today that God’s ways are not our ways, and that we do not have the full picture.
We name our fears and renew our trust in a faithful God.
And we remember who we are and that we profess to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the way of peace.

May God grant us wisdom and mercy.


  1. https://thecorners.substack.com/p/if-you-cant-take-in-anymore-theres?s=w&fbclid=IwAR1FzIIOFj6MRv4X8XrX5OFfqS8BClHT5B_QNKlZ7hiWAUZEpW78kPJaFJ

2.Walter Brueggemann, “Why the Old Testament Must Not Go Away.” Sept 22, 2014 Freitheim Lecture at Luther Seminary, quote taken from Q & A after lecture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E8OYS8fcas&t=1079s

  1. Believer’s Church Commentary, Psalms by James H. Waltner P. 450
  2. Bobby Morris at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-psalm-911-2-9-16-5