Good morning, again.
What a week it’s been! Economic collapse, shelter-in-place quarantines, schools and businesses closing and so forth. And above all the ever-rising death toll as the virus reaches 85 countries and all 50 states.
Last week, the Reverend Peggy reminded us to know that the Lord is among us; shown to the Israelites in the water bursting from the stone in the desert at Mount Horeb. After a week like we’ve just had, it may seem even harder to remember that the Lord is among us. The temptation is to complain, like the desert-bound Israelites, and yearn for the empty comforts of a long-ago Egypt of our minds.
But then the lectionary delivers us our beloved 23rd Psalm. As I wrote about this week, it was a God-given gift. It comes like a beacon in the darkness, reminding us that the Lord is indeed among us, and the reward we’re offered is so much greater than the water from a stone that quenched the Israelites thirst.
I thought it worthwhile for us to meditate on this most-loved Psalm—with its six short, but memorable verses–especially during this time of uncertainty. It’s the salve that many of us may need.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
The Psalmist is already being delivered. Even before he begins. God is not a distant deity but a shepherd, one who watches over his flock. No matter what happens—how dark things may seem—we will be safe. We shall not want. And we’re called not to be still in this comfort, but to actively participate in it:
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside still waters
We’re surrounded by the abundance of creation, made for us. Green pastures, still waters. My earliest memories of this verse called to mind a mountain stream coursing through whispering pines into a vast meadow. Greens and blues and the bright sun making everything sparkle. Just the kind of scene that we might find here in Arkansas (should the sun ever decide to break through the clouds again). But we’re not just physically quenched by God’s abundance:
He restores my soul.
God reaches into the very depths of our being and doesn’t just heal us but restores us. Returns us to factory condition. Makes us complete, as we were at the beginning of creation. Before all this messiness began.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley
I fear no evil
For you are with me
Your rod and your staff
They comfort me
God isn’t just with us in the good times. Nor is God an always good times God, whom we expect to wash away all our pain. No, God is with us even in the darkness. And because of this, we have nothing to fear.
In a conversation with Brett Hardison this week he reminded me of a science fiction/fantasy book from my teens. The book is called Dune by writer Frank Herbert, and it was part of the nerd-starter pack (along with The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia) for any awkward teenage boy in the late 70’s. [And for those keeping score at home, it was later made into a terrible movie starring Sting, but don’t get me started.]
Anyway, a key mantra in the book is “Fear is the Mindkiller.” Fear is the thing that takes us out of the game, it paralyzes us, it creates division where there should be none. I believe an essential part of being Christian, is to be—at our core—without fear. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
This is possibly the most important thing for us to remember in this time of uncertainty. We don’t respond to darkness with fear, but with comfort. God is with us. God protects us not from pain and suffering but from evil, something much, much more debilitating. God reserves a place for us in his kingdom.
And while the Israelites in the desert were satisfied with water from the rock, we are promised something much, much greater:
You prepare a table before me
In the presence of my enemies
Again, we aren’t separated from those who oppose us, from the forces that seek to destroy us. In the face of a pandemic, we are, in a God lens, safe. In fact, more than safe, we’re surrounded by plenty
You anoint my head with oil
My cup overflows
In opposition to our enemies, to the forces that threaten us, we’re not just without fear, we’re living into abundance. Our cup overflows. God anoints us with his sacred oil.
The psalmist closes with the greatest possible promise of deliverance.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
My whole life long.
Some translations suggest the line should be “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life. Imagine goodness and mercy chasing us at every turn. In times of darkness, in front of our enemies, we’re being pursued, chased, hunted down by goodness and mercy. By grace.
And this is not in some afterlife but in this life. Goodness and mercy are lurking around every corner, waiting to catch us. We do nothing to earn it. And, again, it’s in this life, we dwell in the house of the Lord. In the very presence of the shepherd, the savior.
In this time of social distancing and Zoom-based online meetings, many of you may be missing your regular chance to gather here, in this church. This place that we also call the house of the Lord. But God’s house, we’re reminded, has many rooms. Our idea of spaces can’t match God’s idea. Wherever you are, you are in God’s house. Just notice it.
In prepping for this sermon I found something that’s called a “Reverse Paraphrase.” It’s where a writer attempts to express at every turn the opposite sentiment from the Psalmist. The following comes from a 15-year-old author, writing in 2002 (I’ll post this on our Facebook page later):
by Anna Thompson
I have no shepherd, I need a shepherd.
I am caught in the desert.
I am thirsty
And no one is telling me where to go.
I am lost and no one cares.
I am scared of evil, because I am alone.
I am the strongest thing in my life,
There is no greater or more powerful
Being to comfort or protect me.
I must be alone with my enemies,
With no one to help me.
The cup of my life and my soul
Are empty and dry.
I seek after goodness and mercy
But never find it.
I have no home;
Nothing is certain.
How often do we find ourselves wanting to live into the hopefulness of Psalm 23, while letting our feelings revert to the pain and loneliness of this reverse paraphrase?
Is the Lord my shepherd, I shall not want…or do I need a shepherd, any shepherd?
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil or do I fear evil, because I am alone?
Does your rod and your staff, comfort me or because there’s nothing more powerful to comfort and protect me, I must protect myself?
Goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life. Will they?
Do I have a home? Or will I dwell in the house of the Lord?
What do we say versus what do we truly, truly feel?
I invite us all, in the midst of so much fear and concern, to try to really live into the promise of Psalm 23. Not just as words, but as the purpose, the mission, as our way of life.
There couldn’t have been a better time for the Lectionary (and God) to offer us the beloved Psalm 23. It’s the perfect salve for uncertain times. As more happens over the coming weeks, I urge you to keep Psalm 23 close by. Let its words of reassurance and strength and comfort wash over you; let it take our fears away. Deep in our essence we believe, we know that in God’s world, we have nothing to fear, and we are surrounded by lakes and forests and streams of comfort and tranquility. Our cups runneth over.