May 3, 2020

The Third Sunday after Easter

Scripture Reading: Psalm 23

The Divine Shepherd

A Psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
    he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
    for his name’s sake.

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.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
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]

Footnotes:

  1. Psalm 23:2 Heb waters of rest
  2. Psalm 23:3 Or life
  3. Psalm 23:3 Or paths of righteousness
  4. Psalm 23:4 Or the valley of the shadow of death
  5. Psalm 23:6 Or Only
  6. Psalm 23:6 Or kindness
  7. Psalm 23:6 Heb for length of days


Sermon:

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, people shopped whenever and wherever they wanted in stores that usually had enough of everything, including toilet paper.

Once upon a time, people sat around tables inside the Bullpen or Village Pizza or at Machete’s. There, they shared a meal and a drink or two, as well as companionship, laughter, and love.

Long, long, ago, Busch Stadium was a vast, cheering, sea of red. We celebrated graduations and birthdays. We visited nursing homes. People sat shoulder to shoulder, and no one was afraid, and no one wore a mask.

Once upon a time, that all was true. This song comes from long, long, ago, but it still speaks to us.

Joni Mitchell

 

“Don’t it always seem to go; you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!”

The psalmist said we don’t appreciate green pastures, cool water, and safety until they’re gone, too. Once upon a time, we even thought we didn’t need them. We were more than okay making it on our own, we said.

Of course, none of our pastures were ever quite as green as we wanted them to be. So, we worked harder, terrified we’d never pull it off.

What do terrified people do? They run. They run like crazy. What do terrified, lost people do? They run with absolutely no clue where they’re going.

The late psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they’ve lost their way.”

Let’s stop for a minute to appreciate the genius of Buster Keaton in this 1922 comedy.

Buster Keaton

 

We run so hard, so fast, and so far that we don’t even realize we’re lost until someone or something slows us down. The COVID-19 virus has not only slowed us down. It’s also forced us to be more mindful of where we’re going.

It’s one thing to get lost. It’s even worse to be lost and stuck. Sad to say, I think that describes a lot of us just now. Psychology Today recently listed four warning signs of being stuck, consumed by the moment.

The first is not seeing time for what it is. Does it feel like things are going to go on like this forever? They won’t, you know. Whatever the future holds, it won’t be the same as today. When we get stuck in the moment, we forget that.

The second warning sign is no hope for the future. As you look ahead, can you picture a future with more freedom and possibility then we have right now?

If you can’t, you might be stuck. Stay there too long and you’ll end up on the road to despair and hopelessness.

The third warning sign is obsession with the present. Do you watch coronavirus news 24/7? Are you so fixed on it that it nothing else matters? You could be stuck, not just with TV remote trigger finger, but with anxiety and worry, too.

The fourth warning sign is pulling into your little COVID shell and shutting yourself off from family and friends. Have you lost interest in whatever used to make your life meaningful and fun?

If you have, you’d better get unstuck, and the sooner the better.

First, reconnect with friends and loved ones. Make the effort to reach out and speak with them. Tell them how you are, and ask how they’re doing. If they aren’t stuck, maybe they can help unstick you, too.

Second, cut back on coronavirus news. It’s okay to stay informed. It is definitely not okay to be obsessed.

Third, make the most of today. These are weird times, that’s for sure. But they bring with them a chance to see each other and the world in a new way.

Deepen your relationships. Find a new hobby. Get something done you couldn’t do in that “once upon a time,” time.

Fourth—and here we move from psychology to theology—remember no valley is so dark that God won’t walk with us through it. There is no darkness so deep that the light of Christ can’t dispel it.

We can forget that in our pain, confusion, fear, uncertainty, and anger.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, also wrote a meditation on Psalm 23. Rabbi Kushner notes that the psalmist never said:

“I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.” He’s saying, “This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side…not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me confidence.”

 

Kushner says people hurt by life can get stuck, lingering in the “valley of the shadow.” That valley can be a place of despair. It can also be a place of deepened and renewed faith.

In Psalm 23, when life is all green pastures, still waters, and right paths, God is “he,” an impersonal someone I say I believe in.

In verse four, in the valley of the shadow, with enemies gathered around, God is “you.” See the difference?

  • God isn’t just someone or something I talk about. God is someone I talk to.

  • God isn’t just someone or something I believe in. God is someone I walk with.

  • God isn’t just someone I say exists. God is someone I cling to and draw strength from in even the worst of times.

 

Passing through the valley of the shadow changes the way we see life, the world, and each other. Psalm 23 assures us that no matter how things may look, God is with us, giving us whatever it is we need to face and overcome the terror of life’s dark valleys.

More than that, verse six says, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

“Follow” is a weak translation of a strong Hebrew verb that means to chase after or pursue. Often, in Scripture, it describes enemies chasing the righteous.

Even when enemies are hot on our heels, even when the path ahead leads through the darkest of valleys, God’s goodness and love won’t stop, but will instead chase after God’s blindly running, lost, scared sheep.

Of course, we can’t outrun God. God’s goodness and love caught up with us and became part of us in Jesus Christ. In him, as John’s Gospel says, a light shines that darkness will never overcome.

Through the hope we share in Christ’s resurrection, we dare to say that not even the darkest of valleys, nor even death itself, can separate us from God’s love. That love surrounds us, enfolds us, and embraces us, not just now, but forever.