The wanderers, the sitters, the loathers, the staggerers, and the Turner - a Sermon on Psalm 107

     The following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on November 11, 2012.  The original title of the sermon was "Feasting on the Verbs" but I decided to rename it "The wanderers, the sitters, the loathers, the staggerers, and the Turner" after the characters that found me during the journey of this sermon.  As a side note, the opening rhetorical pattern ("this sermon is not for you if...") is borrowed from a sermon by Walter Brueggemann which can be found in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).  Finally, the pictures that are posted in between the sections of this sermon were taken by me on a wonderful walk around Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia on November 10th.  Enjoy!

            This sermon is not for you…if you have never wandered.
            This sermon is not for you…if you have never sat in darkness or in gloom.
            This sermon is not for you…if you have never loathed what actually heals you.
            This sermon is not for you…if you have never staggered along the journey of life.
            If none of these verbs sound familiar to you…then this sermon is notfor you.  However, if, like me, you have experienced or are living them at this very moment…then this sermon is especially for you.  This story is for you because the Psalms are our story.  So perhaps, if we listen closely enough, we will note that the voices of Psalm 107 might not be as far removed as previously thought.
            I like to think of the author of Psalm 107 as a stage director, who has crafted several “scenes” and invites us to journey from one to another to arrive at the end of the story changed.  Furthermore, the psalmist cleverly uses verbs to direct us in the movement of this passage.  The psalmist begins the narrative with a verb directed, rather bluntly, toward you and me.  “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.”  Give thanks.  There you have it:  our first verb.  The psalmist then directs our gaze from our verb and toward two verbs that belong solely to God:  gather and redeem.  Simply put, we give thanks because God gathers and redeems.  Now, thanks to the verbs of the Psalmist, you and I know exactly what to look for in the rest of the story.
Our first scene opens as the “Wanderers" take the stage.  They have two big verbs:  the find no way and then they faint.  We watch this scene with a great deal of empathy for we all, I suppose, at some time or another, search for that “inhabited town,” that place where we will have purpose instead of meaninglessness, that place where our hunger and thirst will be perished and wandering will give way to exploring and fear will give way to curiosity.  After finding no way and fainting, the Wanderers cry out to the Lord.  And then the One who has gathered and redeemed delivers and leads.  The Lord hears their cries and leads them by a straight way, a just and upright path, to an inhabited town where their stomachs are filled and their thirst satisfied.  As we begin our movement to the next scene, a musical interlude reaches our ears that we will hear again throughout this story:   
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind. 
For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things."

            The second scene begins as the moving Wanderers exit stage left and we turn stage right to see the “Sitters.”  They, it would seem, do not even possess the energy to wander.  Instead, they sit in their darkness and gloom, prisoners of misery and in irons.  However, this is no unjust circumstance, for they have rebelled and spurned.  They have fallen down under the weight of their own hard labor.  In their misery, darkness, and gloom, they repeat the refrain of the Wanderers and cry out to the Lord.  This time, the Psalmist gives God three new verbs in response to this gut-wrenching plea for salvation:  saved, brought, and broke.  God saves them from their distress, brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.  The movement to the next scene continues as the musical refrain begins again: 
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind,
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.”
            The third scene opens with the “Loathers.”  They are called as such because, according to the Psalmist, they loath any kind of food.  In sharp contrast to the Wanderers who wander the desert in search of the smallest scrap of sustenance, the Loathers cannot bring themselves to be nourished by the smorgasbord sitting right in front of them.  Why, we might ask?  Because they are sick through their sinful ways and endure affliction by their own iniquities.  Their sickness is so prevalent that they draw near to the gates of death.  The Psalmist does not let them off the hook by giving them a passive verb such as “were drawn.”  No, the Loathers are active agents in their own distress and draw themselves near the gates of death.  Once again, the pattern continues, and the Loathers join the chorus of the Wanderers and the Sitters and cry out to the Lord.  The Lord, in response, saved, sent, healed, and delivered.  God saved them from their distress by sending out God’s word to heal them and deliver them from destruction.  And as the camera turns to the next scene, the refrain again continues:
            “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
                        for his wonderful works to humankind.
            And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
                        and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.”
            Our fourth scene introduces to us the “Staggerers.”  Perhaps worried that we might lose attention during this rather long narrative, the director throws us a curveball by introducing to us these characters.  Unlike the Wanderers, the Sitters, and the Loathers, the Staggerers are not victims of their own doing but instead find themselves amidst a storm of God’sown doing.  In the chaos of the stormy wind and the incessant barrage of waves, their courage melts and they reel and stagger like drunkards, so much so that they are at their wits’ end.  To no surprise, the Staggerers join their sisters and brothers the Wanderers, the Sitters, and the Loathers, and cry out to the Lord in their trouble.  The Lord responds and brings them out of their distress, makes the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.  And the Psalmist tells us that they were glad because they had quiet, because God brought them to their desired haven.  Together at last on the stage in front of us, the Wanderers, the Sitters, the Loathers, and the Staggerers sing the refrain that, by now, is familiar to our ears: 
            “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
                        for his wonderful works to humankind.
            Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
                        and praise him in the assembly of the elders.”
            The fifth and final scene introduces the main character (who actually gave the script to the director in the first place).  This character goes by many names (“Lord” perhaps being chief among them) but in this scene is called “The Turner.”  He is called as such because the Turner turns the rivers into a desert and turns a desert into rivers.  The Turner is introduced as the one whom all along has possessed the ability to turn the Wanderers into sheltered ones, the Sitters into freed ones, the Loathers into healed ones, and the Staggerers into glad ones.  The Turner allows all of the characters we have met so far to sow and plant and receive a fruitful yield.  Through the blessing of the Turner, they do not decrease but multiply. 

            As the curtain comes down on and we are left pondering the story of the Wanderers, the Sitters, the Loathers, the Staggerers, and the Turner, the director comes out front and addresses us directly, saying:
            “The upright see [these things] and are glad;
                        and all wickedness stops its mouth.
            Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
                        and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”
            This is much to consider, indeed!  There are many wanderers, sitters, loathers, and staggerers in this world, but there is only one Turner.  Only thischaracter can bring us from the depths of our despair and the prison of our misery.  Because of this good news, the Psalmist invites us to be wise and heed these things, to realize that this story both begins and ends with the Turner’s steadfast love.  The Psalmist also lets us in on a little secret:  the lowering of the curtain did not actually end this story, for it is only intermission.  Much to our surprise, you and I are no longer members of the audience but then again perhaps we never really were in the first place.  We are active participants in the story of God’s steadfast love and we will never be the same for God has gathered and redeemed and we must give thanks!

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.