4th Sunday of Easter
Scripture: 23RD Psalm
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.[g
Living God, help us so to hear your Word that we may truly understand; that, understanding, we may believe; and believing, we may follow your way in all faithfulness, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do. Amen.
Have you ever been really scared? Maybe it took an illness to scare you, a notice that your job had been eliminated, a phone call from the police in the middle of the night, or a letter on the kitchen counter that said, “I’m not coming back.” We speak sometimes of being scared stiff or paralyzed with fear, but as a pastor I’ve noticed that most people react to fear by running, running like crazy. It doesn’t matter where we run, what we use for fuel, how many fences we have to jump or what we try next. We just have to keep moving like those police chases on TV cop shows. You know where the cops are standing there with their guns drawn and they shout at the suspect to stop and he or she just keeps on running. Why do they do that? I call it “running on empty.” The late psychologist Rollo May has written, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”
This is how we get into real trouble — by panicking and then running when we are lost. It is under this kind of pressure that we make the worst mistakes with relationships, family and work. The same could be said of churches, schools and governments. Not convinced that God is leading us to green pastures, we veer off course, try a short cut or run like terrified sheep often following each other right off the nearest cliff. It is not a pretty sight!
You already know how I feel about being referred to as one of God’s sheep. One of God’s soaring eagles, sure! Or maybe even a cunning tiger for Jesus. But, no! Sheep are dumb! They scare easily, and they have a knack for getting lost. Sitting here this morning on the corner of La Brea and Coliseum all decked out for Mother’s Day most of us don’t look lost, but the Psalmist would no doubt take issue with my assessment. He would be so bold as to point a finger at one or two of us who have lost our way in a relationship that offers more hurt than love, or he might give a wink to someone here this morning in a job that leaves them depleted and spent, or he could send a knowing glance to someone in the throes of guilt for not feeling good enough, pretty enough or smart enough.
Some of us may have gotten lost in our battles against declining health. Others of us are lost in grief. And how many of us are simply lost in our shame for things done or left undone or some stupid remark made when we did indeed know better? Some of us have tried so hard to find ourselves that we’ve lost sight of who we are, who we were created to be.
Sometimes we are lost because life really is bigger and “badder” than we are. Sometimes things happen to us that we have little or no control over. Sometimes those still waters turn into torrents of raging white water rapids and somehow we were not prepared.
Our Experience Expanded
The following was written by one of my favorite theologians, Erma Bombeck for Mother’s Day in 2010. 2 I think her use of humor brings a clever understanding of how God guides us down a particular unanticipated path:
Most women become mothers by accident, some by choice, a few by social pressures and a couple by habit.
This year, nearly 100,000 women will become mothers of handicapped children. Did you ever wonder how these mothers of handicapped children are chosen?
Somehow I visualize God hovering over earth selecting His instruments for propagation with great care and deliberation. As He observes, He instructs His angels to make notes in a giant ledger.
Armstrong, Beth: son; patron saint, Matthew.
Forest, Marjorie: daughter; matron saint, Cecilia.
Rutledge, Carrie: twins; patron saint . . . Gerard. He‘s used to profanity.
Finally God passes a name to an angel and smiles.
Give her a deaf child.
The angel is curious. Why this one, God? She‘s so happy. “Exactly,” says God. “Could I give a child with a handicap to a mother who does not know laughter? That would be cruel.”
“But has she patience?” asks the angel.
“I don‘t want her to have too much patience, or she will drown in a sea of self-pity and despair. Once the shock and resentment wear off, she‘ll handle it.”
“But, Lord, I don‘t think she even believes in you.” God smiles. “No matter, I can fix that. This one is perfect. She has just enough selfishness.”
The angel gasps. “Selfishness? Is that a virtue?”
God nods. “If she can‘t separate herself from the child occasionally, she‘ll never survive. Yes, here is a woman whom I will bless with a child less than perfect. She doesn‘t realize it yet, but she is to be envied. She will never take for granted a spoken word. She will never consider a step ordinary. When her child says ‘Momma‘ for the first time, she will be present at a miracle and know it! When she teaches her child about a tree or a sunset, she will hear it as few people ever realize my creation.”
“I will permit her to hear clearly the things I hear: ignorance, cruelty, prejudice and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I will be at her side every minute of every day of her life, because she is doing my work as surely as she is here by my side.”
“And what about her patron saint?” asks the angel, pen poised in midair. God smiles. A mirror will suffice.
As people of faith the 23rd Psalm has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. Most of us have this psalm committed to memory. It was the go-to passage for Connie Gomes’ memorial service. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are to some degree also in Jewish territory. It is always wise for us to remember the nature of the Jews’ tumultuous history with God.
They were a people who were called Israel, which means, “those who have struggled with God.” They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto or get back to. They struggled for peace, for food and for a future. Most importantly, they struggled with their faith in God.
The Hebrews longed to live with God as sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard. They were too afraid to keep believing that this shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them. So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, which always led them into unmanageable trouble and laments for the salvation of God. Then they would return, come back together and engage in worship where this same story was told and retold.
So it is not surprising that so many of the psalms describe the churning, disruptive experience of being lost and found, judged and forgiven, sent away and brought back. It is all a part of the misery of people who get scared and lose their way while running on empty and of the high drama of a God who searches high and low to find the lost sheep.
So maybe this means that the last thing we ought to be doing is rushing to the 23rd Psalm to be reminded that everything is OK. We’re drawn to the images of green pastures, still waters, an overflowing cup and a banquet table set in our honor because we strive for equilibrium, security and abundance. We don’t particularly care for the highs and lows of Israel’s history, the people’s insatiable thirst on long desert treks, or their maddening love affair with God. It all sounds a bit reckless to us.
Besides, most of us can make it to the green pastures on our own. Of course, they are never quite green enough, but that only makes us work harder to be our own saviors and even more terrified that we never quite pull it off.
Re-mything our Traditions
Frederick Buechner makes these comments about 9/11:
On the evening of the day the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, a service was hastily improvised in one of the largest New York churches, where crowds of both believers and nonbelievers came together in search of whatever it is people search for at such times–some word of reassurance, some glimmer of hope.
“At times like these,” the speaker said, “God is useless.”
When I first heard of it, it struck me as appalling, and then it struck me as very brave, and finally it struck me as true.
When horrors happen we can’t use God to make them unhappen any more than we can use a flood of light to put out a fire or Psalm 23 to find our way home in the dark.
All we can do is to draw close to God and to each other as best we can, the way those stunned New Yorkers did, and to hope that, although God may well be useless when all hell breaks loose, there is nothing that happens, not even hell, where God is not present with us and for us. 3
The key to discovering this salvation is seeing with a clear eye the “Thou art with me” part. That is how David survived the valley of the shadow of death when he was on the run from Saul, and it is the hope that rises out of the rubble of collapsed towers in New York. Believing God is with us is how relief workers make it through another day of caring for the homeless in Afghanistan, and how huddled Christians continue to worship in countries where Christians are persecuted. It is even how middle-class Americans survive jobs they don’t like but can’t afford to leave because they need them to support families.
We must keep asking ourselves “What is the source of our fear, our discouragement?” Is it fatigue? Are we tired and burned out? Are we doing too much? Are we bored, are we not doing enough? Is it physical tiredness or is it emotional? Rick Warren says, “When you’re physically or emotionally exhausted, you’re a prime candidate to be infected with discouragement or panic. Your defenses are lowered and things can seem bleaker than they really are. This often occurs when you’re halfway through a major project and you get tired.” 4 I know that I get frustrated. I have all these unfinished projects that seem to pile up and I get a feeling of being overwhelmed. Or I’ll be knee deep in doing something I am really excited about and there will be an unexpected interruption that totally diverts my attention.
And don’t you just hate it when your best laid plans all fall apart or a deal you were really banking on falls through. My big fear is throwing a party and having no one show up! I don’t know where it comes from but it is there. Have you all bought your carpet or flooring squares yet? As someone said, “Just when I think I can make ends meet — somebody moves the ends!”
And let us face it, fear walks with each of us. Fear is behind more of life’s difficulties than we’d like to admit. The fear of criticism (What will they think?); the fear of responsibility (What if I can’t handle this?); and the fear of failure (What if I blow it?) can cause a major onset of the blues.
So what does Psalm 23 tells us to do: (1) Rest our bodies and our souls. That is how we fill our tanks so that we don’t have to run on empty. If you need a break take one! Burning candles at both ends does not create twice as much light. It just burns up the candle twice as fast.
Being discouraged, feeling bad or fearful doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing the wrong thing. It may just be that we are doing the right thing in the wrong way. (2) The psalmist would suggest that we try a new approach. Shake things up a little. Have dinner with an enemy!
We must also discipline ourselves to avoid the not-Ok feelings: the discouragement, the blues, the fear. Jesus taught us to fight back! As people of faith we have the grace to smile through the tears. Losing a loved one will be a part of who we are for the rest of our lives but it doesn’t have to define us; having been abused as a child can inform the choices we make forever, unless we deliberately decide not to let that happen. Hurting someone else or being hurt by someone else requires forgiveness and we control that. Feeling discouraged can be a choice. If we feel down, overwhelmed, and yes, even sad is it because we’ve chosen to feel that way or is life just a whole lot bigger than we are at the moment? No one is forcing us to feel bad. (3) So the Psalmist tells us to hang on! Do what’s right in spite of our feelings. No feeling lasts forever. We only need ask God for strength. God can give us new energy. There’s incredibly motivating power in faith. There it is again — the churning, disruptive experiences of a people who keep discovering that their only hope is in the Shepherd who is always the closest thing to them. 5 Amen.
Great God, your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Thank you that we can live in your light and walk in your truth. May the things that you have revealed and our own thoughts dwell in our hearts and stir us to action. We ask all this in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.
2 May 9, 2010 – Mothers of Disabled Children
3 Frederick Buechner’s excerpt on Disaster from Beyond Words
5 http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2249 (Craig Barnes)