The psalmist cries, “From where will my help come?” and responds with faith to her own lament: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth…The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.” My help comes. It does not tarry or wait or take sides but protects and keeps. Does it?
Since 2014, the satirical website The Onion has posted an article entitled “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” seven times. Isla Vista, Charleston, Roseburg, San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and now Parkland. All they do is change the names, location, and numbers.1 We exist in an ever-familiar cycle of watching violence roll out its pattern. A shooting. Talking heads blame someone or some policy or lack of policy but don’t take responsibility. We all send our thoughts and prayers. Then the Speeches, tweets, vigils. And at last, everyone who isn’t on the ground gets to move on. We get to wash it off and let it exist far away and hope that it will never happen here. Wait a while and repeat. This is a haunting ritual. But yet, we have grown used to it which is another way of saying we as a nation have grown numb to it – numb to the pain and darkness and complicit actions and inactions and broken systems that create spaces and paths for this violence to take the lives of beloved children of God.
And yet, “My help comes from the Lord.”
The shooting in Parkland, Florida, occurred on the first day of the liturgical season of Lent, the season in our church year that calls us to dwell in the valley of the shadow of death. Such coincidence should not be lost on us. We have entered the time of year when the shadow of the cross looms and we remember the suffering unto death of our Lord and Savior. We were already shrouded in darkness with Lent upon us and now, with Parkland, even more so.
Year after year, Lent draws us into the familiar beat of our faith and we trust in a different kind of rhythm – we trust that our muscles will remind us of the steps. Remember with me the routine: It begins with preparation at Advent, moving into adoration at Christmas through Epiphany. We then are given a pace called Ordinary Time where we practice living as ones who follow a newborn king.
Now, we enter into the reflection of this discipleship, wading knee-deep into the ashes of Lent and the suffering of Christ, coming out the other side at Easter, having been reborn as disciples of the Risen Savior. It is a rhythm that Christians have followed for centuries and is the rhythm of our shared life together.
But sometimes, our muscles fail us, don’t they? As I watched the Snapchat stories of students watching hell rise before them, I felt like my heart was outside of my body. My senses were stripped and yet I know that whatever I felt was distant and removed. I do not pretend to understand an ounce of their fear. But what I do know is that for that moment, I felt jolted. I felt thrown off from the ritualized grieving I’m accustomed to as an American. And it made me wonder if Lent could be something different this time around.
So often, we perform Lent. Perhaps we give things up like chocolate or red meat. We try for forty days to cleanse ourselves with hyssop or rather with the removal of things we think stand in our way to discipleship. This is muscle memory. It isn’t bad; it simply is. It works and is fine and well and centuries proven to make us consider our lives and how we follow our suffering Savior.
What if this Lent, though, we let ourselves be jolted out of our collective inertia? What if instead of being upset and angry about Parkland for just a few days and then falling back into the rhythm of our lives, we held on to that pain, held on to that anger, held on to compassion and let it keep us woke and ready and loud? What if we allowed ourselves to be thrown out of rhythm? The expected and usual pace of Lent is fruitful – this is not to say it isn’t – but what if there is also something in letting go of the routines we’ve always known? What would it look like if we chose another kind of discipleship? One that cried out, “My help comes from the Lord”?
Our help comes from the Lord – from the One who calls us on our inertia. In our Gospel reading from this morning, Jesus is asked why his disciples do not follow the ways of all the other disciples in his community. Why aren’t your people doing what we’ve always done? Why aren’t your people following the program, Jesus? Christ answers with these metaphors of cloth and wine, reminding the inquisition that to live a life that follows his rhythm is to let one’s whole life be jolted out of all that is and become new, become transformed. To not just do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done. To not give in to muscle memory but in to life that yanks you out of what was and brings you into a life of what can be. And I love what Jesus does here because he uses the harsh words of tearing and bursting because he knows that to fully follow him means something has to give, something has to break. It hurts, he says. You’re going to feel the tugs and pulls and stretching as your body adjust to a new rhythm. You will fall. You will be hurt. You will mess up. But, in walking through this valley of darkness, you’ll also come out the other side, reborn and made new – you’ll be made into new wineskins, Jesus says. New and unexpected and filled.
For our Lenten Book Read, we’re walking through John Pavlovitz’s “A Bigger Table.” It, too, has left me wondering if the rhythms he puts forth might become our own. In the first third of the book, Pavlovitz tells his own relationship with the church and his call to be a pastor. He writes, “Like many followers of Jesus, over time I’d learned to shelve the questions when they proved too difficult or uncomfortable or existentially messy. I ignored the nagging longings. I procrastinated away what I knew was going to be an invasive undertaking. Rather than expose it all, rather than risk the repercussions of complete revelation, I adapted through a regular cocktail of denial, silence, and fake-it-till-you-make-it religious busyness. I pretended all was well with my soul in hopes that I could prophesy it over myself and make it true.”2
And then – in the midst of living this life that was bound to a rhythm of all he’d ever known – he is jolted. Pavlovitz gets fired from the church where he was a pastor and instead of getting back into a routine at another church, he sits with what it is and lets it wash over him. Unfettered and untethered, he could “be more honest than he’d ever been about what I believe and don’t believe and be OK with all of it again.”3 Out of rhythm and yet… “My help comes from the Lord.”
I have never been one for dwelling in pain. If something comes at me, I take care of it and compartmentalize it away. It is easier that way, isn’t it?
But today, I am reminded that I made a promise of discipleship – a promise that exists not just on this Sunday of Claire’s and James’ baptism – but a promise that is the resounding echo of all the saints who made the same promises to you at your baptism. The promise that brought you and me here. The promise that we have repeated again and again in a holy ritual to generations of children who have gone before us. And this promise is one that while routine is nothing of the ordinary. It is one that is meant to jolt us from what was and remind us of what will be. It is the beautiful promise of a broken people to try again and again to set before every child an example of discipleship, to be one who cares for all of God’s children with compassion and tenderness and a keen eye that does not turn away when things get difficult.
You’ve already answered “yes.” You answered, “We do,” because you do hope and pray to be the kind of disciple you are called to be and that your discipleship might in turn guide and grow these sweet babies.
Hear these words and know that your baptism called you to a life that is meant to be out of rhythm from the ways of this world. It is a call to belong to the One who dwells in the pain and suffering of his people and does not turn away. It is a call to be freed from the lull of inertia and move into action again and again until all of creation can sing together “My help comes from the Lord” and we not doubt it to be true. It is a call to be a disciple.
For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come,
he has fought, he has suffered.
For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane
and the horror of Calvary.
For you he uttered the cry, “It is finished!”
For you he rose from the dead
and ascended into heaven
and there he intercedes —
for you, little child, even though you do not know it. But in this way
the word of the Gospel becomes true.
“We love him, because he first loved us.”4
May it be so in you and in me and in every child of God. Amen.
2. John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table. Page 49.
3. John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table. Page 51.
4. The baptism liturgy comes from the French Reformed liturgy in James B. Torrance’s Worship, Community & The Triune God of Grace.