No sermon this week, so instead, I am excited to share with you a project that I was blessed to work on last summer. Stories of God at Home is a new book by Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman. The book takes several of the most beloved Godly Play stories and adapts them for use by families at home at various points in the year.
Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2016 || Easter 4C || Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read Psalm 23. We affectionately call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since we always pair the shepherd of the beloved psalm with the Good Shepherd, which Jesus describes in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. And yet I doubt it has escaped your notice that we read Psalm 23 more often than once a year. We read it yesterday, in fact; and two weeks before that at the funerals of Ed Carlson and Barbara Noonan. We’re not quite a third of the way through 2016, and we’ve already had six funerals this year. Sometimes the grave seems too close. Sometimes the bitter taste of loss overwhelms all the other sensations we could be feeling. Sometimes the promise of the resurrection seems to lose its luster in comparison to the stark reality of death.
And still we believe that death is an end, but not the end. We believe that the new and superlative life of the resurrection treats death as a threshold through which we walk, not as a tomb at which we stop. A cynic might say that we believe in this way just to make ourselves feel better when a loved one dies. But what the cynic doesn’t understand is that our belief does not make death hurt any less. Our belief enwraps our grief in the warm folds of hope. And hope helps us spread our pain out over the long haul, so that it doesn’t strike us all at once, which would surely kill us. Instead, the pain nestles in our depths and mixes with faith, hope, and memory. And in time, one ingredient in the recipe of grief begins standing out above the rest. And that ingredient is love. So we respond to the cynic: our belief doesn’t make us hurt less, but it does help us love more. In fact, our belief helps us love forever, which is what the resurrection is all about.
Psalm 23 ends with the word “forever.” And in Hebrew it begins with the holiest of God’s names, the “I Am Who I Am” name, the eternal name, the forever name. In between these two mentions of eternity are several promises: promises about sustenance, peace, revival, guidance, companionship, protection, abundance, goodness. We tend to read Psalm 23 at funerals because, in the first days of ragged grief, we need to be reminded of these promises, since we more than likely are having trouble finding ourselves at home in them.
The promises of God continue in our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of this final book of the Bible is strange and scary and sorely misunderstood, but every few chapters, the clouds break and we see the Son shining through. During Easter season, we are reading these shining moments of promise from Revelation. Today, we listen to a promise concerning ones who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The elder says to John,
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sounds a lot like Psalm 23, right? The promises are the same because the promises of God are eternal. They existed in the early days, when people were first waking up to the presence of God, were first writing down their experiences, some like King David, poetically. The promises continued to exist hundreds of years later when John of Patmos wrote his prophecy in the book of Revelation. And we know these promises still operate now, for we live our lives in their sway.
And yet, it would be folly to think that our lives as followers of the Good Shepherd are complete when we accept these promises for ourselves. No. Stopping there leads to self-centeredness and isolation. Believing God’s promises about sustenance, peace, guidance, abundance, and all the rest compels us to live outside ourselves, to accept our piece of God’s great mission of healing and reconciliation. There are people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And God calls us to them.
Reading this week the promise from Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” reminded me of a young boy I met when I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas ten summers ago. I was assigned to the tenth floor, which housed the neurological and plastic surgery units. Many of my patients were in for cleft palette procedures, some for brain cancers, and every once in a while a crash victim. Derrick* was one such case. His entire family had been involved in a horrible motor vehicle collision, which killed one of his siblings, sent two others to my hospital, and his parents to neighboring ones.
I don’t remember exactly which bones or vertebrae Derrick had broken in the crash, but when I walked into his room the first time, he couldn’t move his head to see who was at the door. His head and neck were braced in what they call a “halo.” He sat motionless because he literally was unable to move. I babbled out my nervousness for a few ineffectual minutes until the weight of Derrick’s loss pummeled me into silence. My usual chaplain’s patter was not going to work in this case. (And I would discover later that patter of any kind never works.)
I visited him everyday while he was on my floor. Some days we talked a bit – stilted conversation punctuated by long silences. Mere words could not reach the depths of his loss or his loneliness. So we watched TV – the types of shows eleven-year-olds like. The World Cup was that summer, so we watched soccer too. I think Derrick found a teeny tiny morsel of comfort in my visits, but it was utterly apparent that I was a poor substitute for what he really needed, which was his family, who were all still hospitalized themselves. Grandparents came and did what they could. The nurses arranged for his sister, who wasn’t injured as badly, to visit him from her floor occasionally. But his parents could not come.
One morning, I visited him first thing. His eyes flicked over and tracked me as I came around and sat down by his bedside. And that’s when I noticed them: Three perfectly straight lines of salt running from his eye down his dark cheek. Now Derrick couldn’t move because of the halo. This meant that during the night, his bed had been raised and lowered to three different positions, and he had cried at each one. And no one was there to wipe away his tears.
That was the day I finally understood what God was calling me to do. To be. I had been in the process to become a priest for years, but didn’t really know why until I saw those three perfect lines of salt on this broken and devastated child. I couldn’t replace his parents. I couldn’t make him feel better. I couldn’t bring his brother back to life. But I could be there. Just be there…to wipe away his tears.
When you look out over this broken world full of broken promises, I hope you will not let this brokenness overcome you. We who believe God’s promises have a mission to help extend those promises to people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And in this mission, we are not alone. We have a Good Shepherd guiding us to those people, and then guiding us together with them to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
(Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2014 || Easter 4A || Psalm 23)
In six years of priesthood, I’ve preached on the psalm exactly twice. Today, I’m going to make it three times. Psalm 23 is among the most well-loved and oft-quoted passages of scriptures. We read it at funerals or by the bedsides of those who are sick. When you listen to these words, you might hear an echo of your grandmother reciting it to you when you were a child. The words of Psalm 23 are powerful and gentle at the same time. But, as with anything you hear over and over again, the words can grow stale and distant. So I’d like to try something. I’d like to offer a meditation on Psalm 23 by expanding the thoughts contained in each of the six verses. Saint Francis of Assisi did something similar with the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m going to follow his example. As you listen, see how the venerable words of the twenty-third Psalm strike you anew.
The LORD is my shepherd.
For most, our agrarian days are long past and we see pastureland only from the car window as we drive by on the highway. We see the animals in the field, and we think, “How quaint and how beautiful.” But something tugs inside, and we notice a secret longing for a simpler time. We desire to tramp through the long grass, the only sounds the swish of our clothes rubbing together and our voices calling the flock. Each sheep has a name, and as we call, they come. We have a shepherd, too, who calls us each by name. We have a guide. A protector. A provider. The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
It’s a statement of faith that hangs on the promise of provision, the expectation that the Lord will provide. But this English rendition of the Hebrew words gives them more than one meaning. We will not be in want; that is, we will lack for nothing we need to sustain us. But we will also be free from the concept of “wanting”; that is, when we believe the Lord will provide, we will resist the siren song of consumer culture that seduces us, that tries to tell us security only comes with more stuff. “I shall not be in want,” means that we understand proportion, that we have a realistic notion of the word “enough,” and that we find contentment in living simply.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
These are the good days – the days of plenty, the days of refreshment. The still waters reflect God’s peace. The green pastures announce God’s abundance. Peace and abundance feed our awareness of the One who leads us. We notice that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”* Noticing this grandeur re-“charges” us. Or in the words of the psalmist:
He revives my soul
My essence. My life-force. The gift God gave each of us in the sparkling moment of creation that connects our fleetingness to God’s eternity. God’s grandeur is present, and yet we might still miss it. We tire. We burn out. We feel more fleeting than eternal. Thus our Lord revives our souls time and time again…
And guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Oftentimes in the psalms the poet reiterates a thought with a parallel one, which is why many psalms have a repetitive nature to them. Here we have a hidden parallel: reviving our souls and guiding us along right pathways are two sides of the same coin. The pathways along which our shepherd guides us lead to revival, to green grass and refreshing water. And all for God’s name’s sake; in other words, all to make God’s grandeur apparent. And yet…
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
If the shepherd is leading us, why do we walk through this particular valley? Why is it on the route at all? Do we stumble into the valley of the shadow of death because we have strayed from right pathways, or do the right pathways include a road through this valley? We all know life isn’t just green pastures and still waters. We are a people formed by the reality of the cross. But the cross – the shadow of death – is not the end of the story. The joy of the resurrection proclaims that we are not abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death. No. We walk through the valley and out the other side. Perhaps we make this journey because there are people stuck in the valley. It is our duty and our joy to help them find their way out.
In the valley we fear no evil; not because evil doesn’t exist, but because fearing evil gives it power. Fear keeps us from trusting that we will make it out the other side of the valley. Evil seeks to separate us from the One in whom we put our trust. But evil will not succeed…
For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This is our mantra while in the valley: “You are with me. You are with me.” Just because we have trouble noticing God’s presence doesn’t mean God is absent. And so we breathe these words, “You are with me,” until they become, “I am with you.” And dwelling in that truth, we find comfort. Comfort and sustenance, for…
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
On the bad days, we might not be able to find the green pastures or the still waters. We might stop believing we have enough and start listening to the seductive voices of those who trouble us, those who chant: “More. More. More. Then you’ll find comfort.” And so, on those bad days, instead of leading us to the pasture to forage for ourselves, the Lord sets a banquet before us. The Lord places what we need right in front of us so we can’t miss it. And we discover once again the abundance inherent in trusting in the Lord to provide.
You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
When the Lord provides, the Lord provides. What we are fearful won’t be enough overwhelms us instead. Our cups overflow with blessing, both because there is so much blessing, and also because we have made ourselves too small to contain it. The extravagance of God’s blessing fills us in a way that the “More” of the seductive voices could never achieve. When our cups run over, we have the opportunity to spill God’s blessing on all those we meet. As the Lord guides us along right pathways, overflowing blessing marks the way for us and for those who will come after. And as we walk those ways…
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The Lord, our shepherd, guides us, leads us by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and still waters. The Lord takes the lead. We follow. And notice what follows us: God’s goodness and mercy trails us like the churning wake of a ship at sea. Thus, we are surrounded: God’s blessing and abundance before us, God’s goodness and mercy behind us. And above, below, and within us is the truth of God’s promise that…
I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
For ever includes right now. To dwell means not just to live, but to abide. To unpack all our boxes. To put our clothes in the drawers and fill the refrigerator. To make a home for ourselves in the palm of God’s hand. This is the witness of this beautiful poem, Psalm 23. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have a home in our Lord’s house. We have a provider in the Good Shepherd. And we have eyes to witness, here and in the life to come, a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”