The Road Home

Text: Psalm 23

Introduction

Today, traditionally, is Good Shepherd Sunday. On this fourth Sunday in Easter many churches around the globe will read Psalm 23 or a passage from John 10 where Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.

This morning, I have accepted the daunting challenge of preaching from perhaps the most familiar text in the entire Bible, Psalm 23. It is frequently read at funerals, recited in church, and memorized by students. I remember there was even a small scholarship at my college if you could memorize and recite it. Psalm 23 has been immortalized in centuries of art and poetry, and is perhaps one passage of scripture that will never be able to transcend the King James Version—No matter how many new translations come out, it will always be “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

So what can I say about a passage of scripture that familiar, that “near & dear” to us?…a passage of scripture that usually ranks above the Ten Commandments on lists of “most famous Bible verses”?

Maybe something; maybe nothing. But I do believe God is guiding us this morning to see and hear it anew. And to do that, we will have to journey together.

But before we journey, we have to pack. And packing, in this case, involves opening up the Psalm for a closer inspection: examining a few words and phrases whose meanings are significant for the journey we are taking. So for the next few minutes, we are going to work through the psalm, wrestling for a few moments with some of those words and phrases that are already so intimately familiar to us. Once we have worked through the images presented in Psalm 23, we will begin our journey.

Shepherds

Our packing begins with the image of the shepherd. Shepherds are foreign to most of us, in our western, urban environment. Most of our common knowledge of shepherds and sheep comes from the Bible and well-intentioned preachers.

  • Our Bible is saturated with stories of shepherds, starting with the second son of the first couple: Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted by the God who snubbed his brother’s.
  • Abraham, through whom a covenant with God was initiated, owned many herds, and we often think of him as a shepherd.
  • His grandson Jacob worked as a shepherd for fourteen years before he was able to marry the girl of his dreams and return home.
  • Moses was a shepherd who kept his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks, before encountering the Burning Bush.
  • And let us not forget David, the iconic shepherd for many of us, the boy in the fields who was considered too young to go to war or to become king.
  • We remember the prophet Amos, who was a shepherd around Tekoa.
  • And no nativity scene would be complete without a few shepherds and various livestock visiting the infant Jesus.
  • The same Jesus who would one day refer to himself as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep.

But shepherding was not all blue skies and wildflowers. Their labor was dangerous and menial, as they faced threats from wild animals, bandits, and the worst that Mother Nature had to offer. Shepherds were on the margins of society and rough around the edges, and so Jesus’ self-identification as a shepherd was (in fact) an edgy statement. When Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10, he admits identifying with the margins of society, he acknowledges something dangerous about his ministry, and he stresses the lengths to which he will go to protect us.

It is of course through Jesus that we encounter Psalm 23, a psalm Jesus himself would have known and perhaps prayed. And Jesus comes to Psalm 23 through Ezekiel 34:10-16, where God assumes the roles of the shepherd—the one who will rescue, lead, guide, feed, protect, and seek the lost sheep. But in the process of seeing God as shepherd, we have to see God through this adjusted lens as well—a little rough around the edges and relentless in pursuit of us.

Place of Plenty

Next, the Psalm continues with a vividly poetic depiction of a place of plenty. It is a location characterized by provision, care, guidance, and restoration. The Hebrew here suggests a stillness in the sense of peace and tranquility, both within creation and within the psalmist’s very being.

Notice that the plenty here is not merely for our benefit as sheep. It is for God’s benefit as well, for in leading and providing for us, the Name of God is glorified in all the earth.

Adversity & Fear

The “valley of the shadow of death” is immediately ominous and foreboding, however one reads it. This is perhaps the easiest symbol to translate into our own lives, as it takes only a moment before we remember such dark valleys and the ominous approach of death that we have experienced. We know from our own experiences that the imminent approach of death is often just as foreboding in anticipation as is death in its finality.

One of the gifts of Psalm 23, however, is its communication of the antidote for fear. The most powerful antidote of fear—we read in verse 4—is presence. This truth has been affirmed by my experience, whether sitting in the shadow of death with a newly widowed 99-year-old or a mother who just lost a five-day-old infant. The promise of presence given by Jesus Christ (“Lo, I am with you always”) is lived out in us, as we accompany those we meet throughout the valleys and shadow places of this life.

Rod & Staff

If any of the symbols of Psalm 23 are misunderstood, they are surely the rod and staff of the shepherd. In the psalm, the rod and staff are sources of comfort to the psalmist as she traverses the “dark valley” and faces “evil.” We tend to see these objects as weapons to be used for defensive or offensive means, as dictated by the situation. It is with these weapons that evil is warded off, that our safety is secured for another day.

Since we see these objects as weapons, some of us sheep begin to fear the Shepherd, afraid the Shepherd will turn them against us if we do not follow close enough.

And while it is true that the rod and staff of the Shepherd were at times used defensively, that was never their primary purpose. Their primary purpose was to prod, direct, and guide the sheep in the direction they needed to go. As such, these objects represent the presence and leadership of the LORD in the life of the psalmist. And remember—even when used as weapons, the rod and staff were used to passionately defend us!

Anointing & Table

With the introduction of the Table metaphor in verse 5, the speaker and hearer transform from metaphorical sheep into full human beings. For the close listener, we can hear echoes of Psalm 78 where it is suggested that God prepared a table in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. We cannot ignore the familiarity of this image that seems to automatically draw us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, hearing its echoes of lavish hospitality.

The anointing described here has no messianic connotations. Rather than refer to commissioning and kingship, this term undergirds the image of hospitality. In the ancient world, the good and proper host would anoint honored guests before partaking of the prepared feast. In this way—in this psalm—God affirms our special status in God’s eyes and invites us to accept the hospitality of God.

Don’t Call Me “Shirley”!

The psalm concludes with an expression of confidence in the Shepherd. On account of the first five verses, the psalmist pledges faithfulness to the One who “pursues” him with goodness and mercy. This is the actual image being used—that of the psalmist being “chased down” by the goodness and mercy of the Shepherd.

Pastor Gary Simpson talks about being “sandwiched between the goodness of God in front and the mercy of God behind”:

The goodness of God [—he says—] is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place… The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut…

Mercy is made necessary and nonnegotiable soon after the human is created. Prone to both mistakes and missteps, sometimes deviously yet strategically placed, at other times just because of circumstances and surroundings, we need mercy… We need mercy behind us, sweeping up the refuse we have inadvertently left in our wake; we need mercy to erase even the memory of our sins as God casts our sins as far as the east is from the west. Shutting doors that no one can open. (Feasting, 440)

Faced with the relentless pursuit of such goodness and mercy, we—like the psalmist—can do nothing but express gratitude and commitment to the One who is so committed to us.

 

Journeying: We Depart

Now that we’ve packed, let’s take a journey together—a real journey……and a symbolic one. You are already familiar with this journey. In fact, you know it intimately. Because it is your journey……and it is mine.

At the beginning of the journey, there is a God. Your needs are met. You are in a place of plenty, a place of wholeness. The paths that you traverse are wide and open, clearly marked. It is obvious where you are to go. God is good, for life is good.

But somewhere along the way, the journey becomes less comfortable, less familiar. It doesn’t happen abruptly, but you begin to notice that the trail has narrowed, that the grasses and weeds along the side of the trail have begun to encroach upon the trail itself. Journeying along becomes more difficult as the loamy soil gives way to rocky terrain. These progressively larger rocks, combined with the appearance of increasingly treacherous climbs and descents, slows your forward movement. Stopping to catch your breath, you become conscious of the fact that it is darker here: clouds have moved in and darkened; mountains and trees filter out light from the once-blue sky. The rain begins to fall.

Some of us become disoriented and lost in this dark valley. The going is hard. We can’t find the path. We struggle to remember when we last saw our Guide. Surely we’ve made a wrong turn. Surely we have wandered from God’s good place and grace. Our maps and the directions we were given by others don’t seem to get us anywhere. We have stumbled off the map, into a place of darkness, futility, hardship, and despair. If we remain in this valley for long, we begin to experience symptoms similar to Stockholm syndrome: we embrace the valley and the darkness, never daring to believe we can experience anything different.

But if we are diligent, we will begin to recognize the artifacts of God’s guidance—symbols of God’s presence: nothing tangible, perhaps; nothing provable; but small gifts of grace. At first, they are hard to see and easy to misinterpret. In the midst of the darkness and adversity of our journey, we are more apt to identify them as symbols of punishment than guidance. But once recognized, these gifts of grace begin to strengthen us and provide confidence to face adversity.

At some point—before the adversity is over—you begin to understand how God has been with you, seeking to prepare for a thousand possibilities, chasing you down with God’s goodness and mercy, working to redeem the adversity of your life for good. You see how God has provided you a feast—even when you lacked so much. You begin to see that you are loved by a God who thinks you are special. And you are humbled by God’s abundant provision.

God in God’s goodness and mercy has been providing for you throughout your life—in the time of plenty and the time of darkness. And you know in this moment that God in God’s goodness and mercy will continue to provide for you and redeem your life for good.

So you respond in the only way you can: pledging faithfulness to the God who had been faithful to you.

“The LORD is my Shepherd.”

 

Conclusion?

Your journey……my journey……our journey is Psalm 23, over and over again. And as we read it and encounter it anew, we reflect on our lives: our expectations and realities, our dreams and dashed hopes, our light and shadows, our life and death.

Sometimes the only way to “green pastures” and “still waters” is to traverse the “valley of the shadow of death.”

Is the LORD our Shepherd? What shadows edge out the light in our lives? What kind of dangers threaten this community? If we are in a valley right now, what do we fear? Where might we see our Shepherd’s rod and staff, emblems of guidance and protection? Where do we find presence? Where might we provide presence? How might God be chasing us down with God’s goodness and mercy?

Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd is gathering the sheep. He calls to them and they hear his voice. In Christ, God’s relentless pursuit of us reaches its climax, as Jesus “lays down his life for the sheep” and is empowered to “take it up again” (John 10:11, 18).

Is the LORD your shepherd? Do you know the comfort of God’s presence, which dispels fear, restores our humanity, and guides us to the feast prepared for us?

The Shepherd is calling. Do you recognize his voice?

 

 

 

Two-fer: “The Proof Is in the Pudding” and a Funeral Homily

In the sermon, I make a reference to a funeral service I performed the day before. I have attached that homily below, in the event anyone might one day read this and be curious.

The Proof Is in the Pudding
Scripture: Luke 24:36-48

It’s amazing how quickly everything changes.

On Thursday afternoon of this past week, I was here at church putting the final touches on the bulletin. I was about to turn my attention to writing a bit—hopefully part of the sermon I was to deliver today—when I got a phone call. And everything changed.

The phone call was from Howard at Hallowell & James. Was I available to perform a grave-side service on Saturday morning? A quick check of my schedule; yes, it was open. OK, Howard says, here’s the situation. It’s for a 5-day-old infant who was born extremely prematurely.

I felt the very foundations of the earth shake.

Everything changed. My schedule for that day. The shape of my Friday and Saturday. My mood, the music on my playlist, my posture, my priorities… And this sermon as well.

It’s amazing how quickly everything changes.

Suddenly Easter wasn’t just a holiday with bunnies and brunch. Suddenly talking about the resurrection wasn’t just a matter of historical or rational plausibility. Suddenly the resurrection was vibrantly real, the only possible hope for the future, the only comfort in the world we live in, the only thing that really mattered.

It’s amazing how quickly everything changes.

In our Gospel reading today, the disciples learned just how quickly change can come.

In terms of the overall narrative of the resurrection of Jesus, this reading falls chronologically within last week’s reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 20. Here the disciples are cloistered in Jerusalem, fearing the authorities will come after them. They have heard reports of “Jesus sightings,” and they struggle with what they might mean.

Then—suddenly—Jesus appears in their midst: talking, showing his wounds, eating fish, and “opening their minds.” In doing so, Jesus sets them free from the fear that has imprisoned them.

We need such a transformation today.

On an insert in the bulletin this morning you’ll find something posted by a friend on FaceBook this past week—a sort of Mad Lib for the church. It’s just for fun—after all, it was produced initially as a joke—but it might well be a useful tool for sparking conversations about just that kind of transformation. I urge you to take a few moments before you go today to fill in some of those blanks—you don’t have to do all of them if you don’t want—and place it in the box in the back of the sanctuary. Writing your name on it might allow for follow-up conversation, but it isn’t required by any means. This actually might be your one chance to provide anonymous feedback. 😉

As I reflected on it and our scripture lessons today, I began to think that this silly Mad Lib just might expose some of our fears, some of the things that keep us locked up inside with the Good News of resurrection life, while the world outside spirals out of control. Like the disciples cloistered in the Upper Room, we feel far more secure practicing our religion in our fortified churches than we do in the world, where we fear recriminations from the authorities in our lives: our family, our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, those we know and those we don’t, the media, and anyone else that might possibly speak a negative word about our religious practices.

The world we live in is a skeptical one, always demanding proof. As Christians, we often feel we have to justify our practices and convictions, and it is usually much easier to hide and avoid the conversation altogether.

We forget that Jesus knows what it’s like to have to prove himself. Even in our text today, after years of relationship building, teaching, miracle-working, healing, interpreting, and revealing, Jesus has to prove his resurrection to the very disciples who have been told rather directly several times that precisely this would occur.

What is in question is Jesus’ humanity. He is not a spirit, specter, phantom, spook, or ghost. He is human, and the only way to prove that is to reveal his intrinsically human essence.

The first proof that Jesus offers is the invitation to use their senses to identify him as not a ghost. “Look,” Jesus says: use your eyes. “Touch,” Jesus says: discover for yourself that I am “flesh and bones.”

Since the disciples are still unbelieving, Jesus offers a further proof: he eats. Now, maybe this seems like a silly proof. But the fact that ghosts were not able to eat food was a truism of the ancient world, a conviction that seems to be consistent across the globe today with the exception of the far East. So by eating the broiled fish, Jesus tries to prove again that he is a flesh-and-blood person. The proof—as it is said—is in the pudding.

The text doesn’t really indicate the disciples’ response, but Jesus decides to engage them on a further level—he appeals to them theologically by “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” He proves his physical resurrection by interpreting their sacred scriptures in a way that explains it.

But then, after this mind-blowing Bible study—sorry, that should have been “mind-opening”—Jesus shakes the very foundation of the disciples’ reality: Jesus tells them that they are now going to be the “proof” of the resurrection: “You are all witnesses.”

It’s amazing how quickly everything changes.

One minute the disciples are hiding in fear, the next they are charged with proclaiming the resurrection to everyone they meet. One minute they are convinced they are witnessing a ghost, the next they are charged with bearing witness to victory over death. One minute they had given up hope, and the next minute they are charged with the Hope of the World. One minute they need proof of Jesus’ resurrection, the next they are the proof.

It’s amazing how quickly everything changes.

Being “flesh and bone”—as Jesus puts it—is an intrinsic part of the human reality, as is being hungry and eating. With these proofs, Jesus lets the disciples come to understand the reality of his resurrection simply by being and doing the ordinary things of human existence.

Maybe the core of “proving” ourselves and the resurrection message to others involves simply being and doing those ordinary things of life in Christ. You know, things like:

  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt 5:9)
  • If you love me, you will keep my commandments… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 14:15; 15:12)
  • By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
  • For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. (Romans 8:14)
  • By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:5-6)
  • We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another (1 John 3:14)

There it is, explicitly stated for anyone who would hear. The proof that “we have passed from death to life” is that “we love one another.”

And what does this love look like?

Well, Jesus has already answered this one too: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). And as the author of 1 John reminds us, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (3:16).

That is love. That is the proof of the resurrection we are called to live into. That is the essence of discipleship, evangelism, missionary activity, and everything that is Christian.

And when you love like that, it’s amazing how quickly everything changes.

Lavender Mae Lee (April 11, 2012-April 16, 2012):
We Will Remember

A Poem:

The world may never notice
if a rosebud doesn’t bloom
or even pause to wonder if the petals fall too soon
but every life that ever forms
or ever comes to be
touches the world
in some small way for all eternity
the little one we longed for
was swiftly here and gone
but the love that was then planted
is a light that still shines on
and though our arms are empty
our hearts know what to do
every beating of our heart says
We will remember you.

―Author unknown.

We have come today:

to remember before God our sister Lavender Mae Lee;
to give thanks for her life;
to commend her to God our merciful redeemer and judge;
to commit her body to be buried;
and to comfort one another in our grief.

Let us pray:

O God, whose beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them: Give us grace to entrust Lavender Mae Lee to your never failing care and love, and bring us all to your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This is a day of great tragedy. No parent should ever have to bury a child; it is against the natural order of things.

But her we stand at Lavender’s grave. And we grieve.

And maybe nobody wants to say it out loud, but we think we’ve lost her, that maybe we failed her somehow, that maybe even God has let her down.

It’s not wrong to hope and dream and invest. When we hold a baby, we imagine all the possibilities that will be created in a lifetime. In the loss of that life, all that grief, the “what ifs,” and the “if onlys” can be overwhelming. What is wrong is coming to a moment like this one and feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and hope and optimism of the life we imagined could be.

As we grieve, God grieves with us. For we are reminded in Psalm 139:13-16 that God has known Lavender Mae intimately, and has been deeply involved in her formation. There we read:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

With these words of Divine knowing and concern, we add the assuring words of Jesus in Matthew 18:14, that

It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

And again Jesus reminds us in Matthew 10:29-31 of the importance of every human life:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Nor can we forget the wise words spoken by the man best known as Dr. Seuss: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

So here we stand at Lavender’s grave. And we grieve. And God grieves with us.

We mourn a life that has ended. We mourn a relationship cut short. We mourn hopes and dreams never realized. But perhaps most of all, we mourn the inability to shower a lifetime of love on this little one.

Lavender Mae was a genuine miracle; from the very beginning her existence defied reason. She has lived only a very short time on this earth, but she was and is infinitely valued and loved. Perhaps no other human being has experienced such love in such a short span of time. As Winnie the Pooh reminds us, “”Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

If we are to find comfort, it will be on account of that love. For love, the apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:8, “never ends.” The love that we have for Lavender Mae, and that she has for us, will live on in us. Helen Keller once proclaimed: “What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

Lavender Mae is forever a part of us, because of the love that we share.

This day of sorrow confronts us with human frailty, sorrow, loss, and death, but it also reminds us that we do not have to be confined by these.  The sources of our tears are just the shadows created by the undying light of Christ that shined through the life of this one ordinary person—the light that will one day rise to full noonday height, erasing all darkness.

One earthen vessel, which carried that light among us, is shattered.  Its dust will soon be returned to the ground from which it came, awaiting the Resurrection.  We grieve her going, but it is the light that illuminated her life and will resurrect it that we come here to seek.  Lavender Mae is gone, but the flame that burned within her will not be put out.

And so we look toward that day of reunion and peace, that day described in Revelation 21:4, when “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither will there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

And so, we will go on living, for in living we best honor Lavender’s life. And we will go on remembering, for we can never forget Lavender and how her love has changed us. And we will go on hoping—hoping for the reunion of our love that will come about through Jesus Christ and the God who cares as much for Lavender Mae Lee as do we.

And we know little Lavender will be well taken care of, for in addition to the God who “knit her together in her mother’s womb,” Lavender has the love and care of her great-grandmother, who was waiting in Heaven to receive her from this world.

Hold on her, God. Because we cannot. Wrap your arms around her and tell her how much we love her. Keep her close and safe in your peace and love.

Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding, graciously be with Rhonda and the entire Lee family in their grief.   Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Committal:

We have entrusted our sister Lavender Mae Lee to God’s mercy,
and now we commit her body to the ground
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To him be glory for ever.
Amen.

Benediction (adapted from 2 Thessalonians 2:4):

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and give you peace.