Category: Dialog

Psalm 23: the Psalm that Exactly No One is Excited to Hear a Sermon About

We never preach about the psalms. But if we ever preach the psalms, I suppose it’s on days like this one. Psalm 23 contains some of the most familiar words in all of holy Scripture. Words most of us came to know before we were aware of our knowing them, even if we did not grow up in church. The Lord is my shepherd. Let me ask you, where did these words first find you? Or better, when did you first become aware that these words were inside you? When did you first feel the support or the intimacy of the images lifted up in this psalm? Which of the visuals first spoke to you, opened something of the life of God up to you? Or maybe it was someone close to you whose affection for this psalm you came to know through their sharing.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

My relationship with psalm 23, in a lot of ways, is a picture of my relationship with the rest of the Bible. Mostly, the things I notice in it change over time. Things that jumped out as a kid – I mean really jumped out, they were THE ONLY POINT of a story – are still there, but they no longer demand center stage, at least not always. Some of those things have receded in importance, some things have showed themselves to be connected to other things I hadn’t yet seen over time, and so my understanding of their meaning has grown or been transformed. None of the seeing is wasted. All of it shapes. All of it contributes. Sometimes one image builds on another. Occasionally, a new thing here appears to undermine an old thing there, but mostly the landscape continually opens up, deepens, and layers. It all points to God, who is at once unchanging and surprising.

The Lord is my shepherd. “I shall not want.” Right off the bat, that was a problem phrase for six-year old me. The language was hard to follow; it felt somewhat antiquated (a forgivable feeling, it turns out, this being the KJV), , but I couldn’t have told you how. “Lack for nothing” is closer to the meaning, but that’s how exactly nobody memorizes the verse. Some of the confusion came from the sequencing, combined with the old-timey language: not wanting came after mention of the Shepherd, whom I was pretty sure we were supposed to want, which confused me. Moreover, it was not clear to my six-year old heart why not wanting anything was good. I am not sure age or experience in this world of being sold to has entirely resolved that tension, although time and exposure have certainly highlighted the stakes of it.

As a kid, it was hard to miss, too, the VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH (all caps) – there was an eye-opener! – and, with it, the stakes of the trust. That the shepherd wanted life for the sheep was a simple but important thing for me to hear. And that the shepherd wasn’t above walking in valleys. Downward mobility toward the pain of another was a feature of this shepherd’s love. And of course it foreshadows the cross. If Jesus was this Good Shepherd, who knew my name, I discovered in the shadows an invitation to trust that that love would walk with me there. And also that I could go into another’s shadow without fear, even if I could do nothing to make things better for them or dispel the darkness by myself.

This part of the psalm – the shepherd’s refusal to abandon the sheep, even to death – prepared me, I think, to cherish the eucharistic hymns that talk about Christ the victim, Christ the priest. The most famous of these are Easter hymns. And of course they’re not original. Today we heard from Revelation, some of the source material: “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.” The lamb will be their shepherd. The shepherd becomes the lamb.

As I got older I noticed other things. I had always liked the thought of a feast, but one day I read the whole sentence. A feast prepared in the presence of my enemies (or those who trouble me). As our kids have learned to say when they find a possibility repulsive, “No, thank you.” Just, why? While I suppose the point of the story was that a feast in such a context would bring humiliation to my enemies, there was an honest part of me that wondered why they had to be there. And then a fearful part of me that wondered if they had been invited as more than spectators to witness the fruit of my divine favor or success. Was this all a part of that love your enemies business? I began to grow suspicious. What if my enemies had a place at the table, too? Worse still, what if my presence was to them what I had assumed theirs was to me? And what did such a party say about God? What if God wasn’t just with me in discomfort – what if God brought about some of my discomfort, you know, on purpose? What if God’s ends included – but did not center on – me, with my ideas for how things should go? It was blasphemy to imagine.

My nervousness increased years later with a thoughtful consideration of still waters. What I had earlier assumed to be a poetic repetition of the goodness of green pastures now struck me as a detail that could go either way – toward green, lush goodness, on the one hand, or equally toward the way of shadows and enemies at the table, on the other. For context, I was fresh off a family camping trip in which my brother, dad, and I had gone tubing down a river. After a few runs of the chute, we let confidence get the better of us and we floated down past where the signs said we should definitely get out. The pace slowed down suddenly. The quick-moving waters, that had made the chute so much fun, were nowhere to be seen. Before long, things stopped completely. The banks of the river weren’t accessible and it seemed like we’d be lost forever. Our imaginations filled with images of snakes – both in the water and dropping from trees – snakes and stagnation as we strained our muscles hard to keep hands and feet out of and above the water, which of course was to seal our fate as stuck, without the capacity to paddle. Was still water the gift of the oasis in the desert, the match for green pastures, or was still water more like the valley, more like enemies at the table? More like Lauren Winner, the Christian author of Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath, who followed up these books with an unlikely successor, her memoir Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis? In an NPR interview for All Things Considered, Winner described the situation in which she found herself, her mother dying, her marriage failing, this way: “In my life, I had this dramatic conversion to Christianity and it had lots of intense emotions. I thought that those feelings would just endure, and that those feelings would sort of sustain me in the life of faith forever. And then I came to a place where I was no longer in the glow of the young adult new Christian conversion; I was now just in the middle of my faith life.” She found herself where things got still. He leads me beside still waters. It’s a harder sell on campus, where it is possible that I am talking to at least some students for whom the waters have not yet stopped, but it is maybe easier for us to know that faith that is faith must be faith when things get still. Where it is still, still God is there.

That Easter is fifty days long invites such an observation. If Easter were just the one day, we could maybe imagine that Easter is all confetti eggs and Alleluias, that Easter marks the end of grief, but fifty days – no one can pretend that long. The promise in Revelation, after all, is not the end of the tears, but that God will wipe every tear away. We are right to rejoice and to sing our songs loud, but at some point we also get to let God be God when we are tired and wounded. Yes, Easter is true celebration. And Easter is also the risen Christ finding Thomas one week later in the excruciating anguish of his doubts. Easter is true resurrection, yes, and Easter is the risen Christ seeking, finding, breathing forgiveness on Peter and Paul, walking in the valley of the road to Emmaus when understanding fails his friends and they lose the way, consoling Mary outside the tomb, among the rocks, in the depths of sorrow, grief, and loss. This is all a part of Easter, because this is all the landscape on which, to which, the risen Christ visits us. This is Easter, his touching every broken place, the shepherd calling his sheep by name; the movement of the love Jesus has for his friends, to whom he returns with healing and life.

There is no friend or stranger, however strange they seem to us, who is not in herself the location of the presence and reign of the risen Jesus and so who is not a person for whom we are not called to show up in hope. And on those days when you seem strange to yourself, and you wonder, the love of the risen Christ is already near, the cup already overflowing with forgiveness, the psalmist tells us, the oil prepared already for your head.

Whom then shall we fear?

The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want. To dwell, to trust, to rest in the care of the Shepherd/Lamb/King is to meet the wonder, love, and praise of the age-old, anonymous hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true,
No, I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea,—
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love, but, O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.

Dear Mayor Pete,

I pray this finds you well!We haven’t met, although your priest, now the Rector at St. James, was on the diocesan commission that presented me for ordination a lot years ago in South Bend. So we have a wonderfully corrupting influence in common. Ha. In…

#becauseofRHE

I preached on Sunday, and we’ll get to that in another post. But first, I want to talk about Rachel Held Evans. I never met her, and never really talked with her. I read her books, and her blog. I followed her on Twitter, and she replied to me a few times (which triggered hours […]

Belief and the God Who Sees Us First

My children’s favorite part of the Book of Common Prayer – I know, it’s a strange way to start a sentence, on a lot of levels – but my children’s favorite part of the Book of Common Prayer is the chart for determining the date of Easter. From time to time I forget it’s there, but it is! – you can look it up later – there’s a table in the front or the back (I can never remember which) that lists the exact date of Easter Sunday for 189 years. I know that might seem like a trivial item to include in a prayer book but, trust me, before smartphones – this table, in its heyday, was a Godsend! Every Easter Sunday date for almost two centuries. Helpful, because Easter is based on lots of things and moving parts and so it moves around itself. The table is pretty extensive. In it are instructions for Leap Years and – of special interest to my kids – several cryptic mentions of The Golden Number, which is the secret weapon, apparently, for decoding each year’s date. I’m not making it up. It’s straight out of Harry Potter, but it’s there. And from this table, you can learn lots of fun things. For example, did you know Easter will only be as late as it was this year 5 more times over the next 70 years? Or that Easter can fall as late as April 25, but it only does so twice in the 189 years of the table – in 1943, which I just missed – and again in 2038, mark your calendars!

The table and its golden numbers are all kinds of weird, but they’re weird in a way that feels wonderfully right. It’s almost as if the unpredictability of Easter’s date mirrors the surprise of the resurrection itself, what with its determined refusal to be contained or controlled or predicted. So, just like the resurrection, Easter Day can be hard to see coming.

But if Easter Day is hard to predict, the Sunday that follows Easter Day each year is considerably easier. John’s gospel. Doubting Thomas. Like clockwork. Every year! What does this mean? I sometimes imagine that the predictability of the sequencing could go one of two ways:

On the one hand, the reliability of ol’ Thomas might help us reorient ourselves after the wandering and chocolate-deprived season of Lent, in which our world gets upended, by the end of which we’re worshiping together at weird times during the week, day and night, and equally upended by the celebration of an Easter whose timing may have surprised us. Thomas helps us get back on track.

On the other hand, the predictability of Thomas’ arrival might inadvertently dull our imaginations or lull us back to sleep. Like a family returning from a long road trip vacation. They’ve just seen far-off treasures of previously unimaginable beauty – the Redwoods of California! Niagara Falls! – but now, they’re almost back home. The last fifteen miles. They know these streets. The neighborhoods are familiar. Nothing new to see here. They say that’s when the accidents happen, when the streets, becoming recognized, grow ordinary, when the eyes stop believing in the possibility of new and unexpected beauty at every stop and turn along the road and instead assume it’s all been seen before, that’s when it happens, when the heart and mind default again to autopilot.

If not today, it’s some day, right? The gradual re-assimilation into The Way Things Have Always Been… It happens. How else to account for the disconnect between the astonishment and joy of Easter Sunday and the live possibility that other Sundays after it might become mundane?

But this year, I saw something in John’s gospel that got me thinking. This year I saw something strange along the sidewalk of a once familiar street. Something that made me doubt I know the doubt of Thomas as well as I thought I did.

What I saw was Thomas’ brother in doubt, Nathanael. Jesus appears to Thomas at the end of John’s gospel, but Nathanael’s story of doubt comes at the beginning, in the very first chapter. (In this way, Thomas and Nathanael are like two bookends of belief and unbelief in the gospel of John.) Where Thomas didn’t believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, Nathanael didn’t believe that anything good could come out of Nazareth, that is, that there was anything special about Jesus. Do you remember that story? Jesus calls Philip who goes to find his friend, Nathanael, and he says, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s what sets up Nathanael’s one-liner. Can anything good come of Nazareth? It’s an edgy question, riding the always fine line between cynicism and prejudice. Nathanael’s cynicism is sometimes said to resonate with folks like you and me, we 21st century people for whom cynicism is often admired and frequently mistaken for wisdom, but Nathanael is also a reminder that cynicism predates our generation. As good as we are at cynicism, we didn’t invent it; we aren’t the first to be slow to believe; nor are we the first to have grown weary from always being sold the next, new thing; we aren’t the first to resent the hawkers of wares – the endless calls from solicitors brandishing unknown numbers – perpetually attempting to command our attention; we aren’t the first to discover the need for proof of trustworthiness before we get up from under the tree. And on a deeper level, along that same fault-line of trust, Nathanael’s reluctance reminds us that we are not the first to have been wounded, to have learned mistrust through betrayal and brokenhearted-ness, to have discovered the necessity of guarded hearts in a world that can be immeasurably exploitative and cruel.

I’ll believe it when I see it, Nathanael says.

And so we learn to be like him. And it’s almost like the Scripture, by including Nathanael’s account, honors our solidarity with Nathanael and makes space for our hidden wounds, too. It’s almost like the Scripture, busy telling the story of Nathanael and Jesus, nevertheless casts a thoughtful glance over its shoulder at us, communicating an understanding and compassionate heart toward us, we who sometimes share Nathanael’s circumstance.

Shortly after Nathanael pops off to Philip, Jesus finds Nathanael, and speaks to him. Jesus tells Nathanael he saw him under the tree, and that simple comment is what elicits Nathanael’s profession of faith, a profession not unlike the one Thomas gives this morning. Nathanael says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” In reply Jesus asks Nathanael, ‘Do you believe just because I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’

So Nathanael, who had started with I’ll believe it when I see it, doesn’t believe when he sees so much as he believes when he is seen. While he was still unbelieving, amidst all of his fears and misgivings and hesitations, his doubts and living wounds, Jesus sees him, loves him, moves toward him, and Jesus’ seeing is the beginning of Nathanael’s belief, belief that will take Nathanael far beyond what he can see.

So by the time we come across Thomas today, Nathanael has prepared us to know better than to accept Thomas’ doubt as the most important thing about Thomas or this day that follows the resurrection we didn’t see coming. The most important thing about Thomas’ belief is that it comes – yes, as he sees Jesus – but most importantly – as he discovers himself as seen by Jesus. Loved by Jesus. Approached by Jesus. And not just for Thomas, right? For all of the disciples still locked behind closed doors. Hiding. Imitating the posture of Adam and Eve, after the snake. Out of sight. Found and forgiven by the Risen Jesus, whom they had abandoned. Seeing is believing, absolutely, but not the way we thought. As it turns out, the seeing that matters most belongs to God. God sees and loves first. God sees and loves you. This is the beginning of belief.

Two final thoughts, then. First, if the seeing that matters most belongs to God, we can begin to make sense of belief that does not make all things clear to us. That is, we can believe and still not pretend to know what comes next, and so maybe we can be reawakened to wonder and awe, because we believe in the one we follow, even into uncertainty. Or, if you prefer the words of the prayer book, “…out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” We do not know the way, but the one we follow sees us, knows us, loves us and has become the way for us. And so we can be present even to those people in whom it is impossible to imagine God’s presence, confident that we do not know the limits of God’s love, even for us and in ourselves. We are, all of us, seen, known, and unimaginably loved by God. Sometimes God allows us to remind one another of this, when we forget. We should pray for these opportunities, both within the circles of this faith community and outside of these walls.

Second, and finally, maybe this morning you, like me, can use the reminder that the bread and wine we are about to share are not thoughtlessly and/or generically made available by God for God’s people. “This is my body, given for you.” For you. You are seen, known, loved by the living God. Yes, even knowing that thing you messed up, the hurt you’ve inflicted, and the ways you’ve been hurt. Today. And always. That’s what it means to come to this table. It is, like Nathanael and Thomas, to discover ourselves seen and loved by Jesus.

Amen.

Easter Staring Contest!

Easter is like Christmas, in that there is a great temptation to cram in the entirety of Christianity 101 just because you have all these people in front of you who aren’t usually there. The additional problem of Easter, however, is that it is the emotional conclusion to a story that the liturgy has been […]

Dirty Feet

Last year, Holy Week was my first week at St. John’s. (Weirdly, I recommend this method of starting as a rector. Provided you have enough coffee.) But it meant I basically was hanging on by my teeth the whole time, and stumbling around, praying someone would point me in the right direction. This year, people […]

Palm Sunday

I heard someone (I think it was Dr. Amy- Jill Levine) say years ago, that we like to think that the Holy Week liturgies speak for themselves, but they don’t. They speak loudly, but unless you consciously unpack what they say, and what people hear, you run the serious risk of adding another reinforcing layer […]

Bible Misquote Show

I have a very clear memory of the sermons I heard as a child. Though–sadly, not what amazing theology they included. What I remember is the illustrations. I have a crystal-clear memory of being about 9 years old and hearing a sermon about….something, and the associate priest talking about how when baby turtles were hatched, […]

Prodigal Elder Brother

So remember that time that I posted my first Lent sermon, then went quiet til after Easter? Ah, memories! It has been quite the Lent around these parts. The husband and I bought a house in town, thus staring down all manner of Millennial stereotypes. The parish had a delightful Lenten series on the Eucharist. […]

My Gratitude for Maundy Thursday

I’ve always loved Maundy Thursday. The front edge of the three day mystery. A part of the Passion, but with the rubrical option to replace the red of Passion with liturgical white or gold, in celebration of the moment: last supper meets first Eucharist…