A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
June 25, 2017
There are so many images in this psalm, and each of them is lovely and memorable. It’s not surprise it is one of the most famous passages of scripture. Is there one for you that resonates more than another?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the opening image:
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
The idea of resting, and restoring fits well with my upcoming sabbatical.
This is my last sermon before I leave for 3 months on sabbatical. And I’ve been thinking about the privilege of taking time away from the rhythm of my work schedule, patterns, and habits.
Thank you. I’m very grateful for this gift you’re giving me. And I have great confidence in the leadership of the church to keep doing what they’ve already been doing and to start some new things in the coming months.
I’m excited about this gift. I feel the truth in the psalmist’s claim, “I shall not want”.
This week, though, I noticed myself feeling all anxious-y and jangly. Those are not the words that usually describe me. And I took stock about why I was feeling what I was feeling.
I think my anxiety is about stopping work. About not being defined, thankfully only for 3 months, by being a pastor. By not being your pastor. I won’t be preaching, teaching, pastoral care-ing, political agitating, or doing the other things I do to claim my place, and define myself, in the world.
I’m not alone in this.
Americans are notorious for answering the “who are you?” question with the “what do you do for a living?” answer.
How do you answer the “who are you?” question without making reference to the things you do for your career, or whatever it is you do to fill your day?
It’s a lot easier for me to proudly claim, “I’m the pastor of a great congregation” than it is for me to do the reflection required to truly answer the question of who I am, apart from my much loved work identity.
Who are you? When the paychecks are gone, and the awards are gathering dust on a shelf, the kids are grown, and the job well done is in the past—who are you?
It’s much easier to say what we did in a given day than it is to say who we were that day.
The truth is, I am a sheep of God’s flock. And God is my shepherd.
In his book, Sabbath, Wayne Muller writes:
“Sabbath time assumes that if we step back and rest, we will see the wholeness in it all. We will naturally apprehend the good in how things are, taste the underlying strength, beauty, and wisdom that lives even in the difficult days, take delight in the gift and blessing of being alive.
“All life requires a rhythm of rest. There is a rhythm in our waking activity and the body’s need for sleep. There is a rhythm in the way day dissolves into night, and night into morning. There is a rhythm in the active growth of spring and summer is quieted by the necessary dormancy of fall and winter. In our bodies, the heart perceptibly rests after each life-giving beat. The lungs rest between the exhale and the inhale.
“We have lost this essential rhythm. Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing.”
The word Sabbatical comes from the word Sabbath. It’s a longer period of Sabbath rest than we practice (or try to practice) each week. I trust that the rhythm of rest it will afford me will restore me for the rhythm of work.
I notice the rhythms of Sabbath in this psalm too–of work and rest, of sadness and joy, of feasts and enemies. The patterns of our lives are here.
The irony is not lost on me that the prospect of laying by still waters is what was bringing me anxiety, rather than my usual routine of guiding people through the valley of the shadow of death or preparing tables in the presence of enemies.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
Which is a reminder that we are not the shepherd. We are sheep of God’s flock.
And it is God who leads us to the still waters, and prepares the tables, and guides us through the valleys. It’s the Lord who anoints us and comforts us with rod and staff.
Maybe my anxiety is connected to my realization that all of the parts of the psalm I like to do are the things that God the shepherd does, not the things we, the sheep, do.
Sheep aren’t meant to DO what God does, though. Sure, we do things as Christians–there are actions involved in our life of faith. But when our identity gets so wrapped up in the things we do, and when we forget who the real shepherd is. The shepherd never offers a workshop for the sheep about how to become shepherds. Sheep are sheep are sheep.
The Lord is our shepherd. We are the sheep of his pasture.
I have spent no time as an actual shepherd, which is a surprise to exactly none of you, but I hear that if a sheep walks into a dead end, it will just stop. It won’t turn around. It will just wait for someone to come lead it back to a better path.
How often are we like that?
We keep running into walls and don’t stop to turn around.
The Lord is my shepherd.
And it must be awfully tough work for the Lord to do, trying to lead us where we obstinately do not want to go.
What would our lives look like if we stopped fighting God for that job of shepherd?
In my experience, when I actually acknowledge my identity as a sheep of God’s pasture, and follow the voice of my Shepherd, things tend to go pretty well. The Lord is pretty good at the job, being the almighty God and all. Why can’t I just let him do it?
Note who the shepherd has to help in the field, keeping track of us wayward sheep. It isn’t judgment and wrath. It isn’t shame and exclusion. It is goodness and mercy.
One of my friends wrote a prayer based on the 23rd Psalm. And it ends with this:
Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And sometimes they will catch me. Amen.
I love this idea of God’s goodness and mercy being what God send after us, so persistent that they chase us all over the place until they catch up to us.
While much of Faith is mystery for me—a space in which I live with unknowns and hope—the knowledge of God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me is a truth I can claim with confidence. It is a song I can sing, a psalm I could write.
What is the psalm you would write? The Bible may not be accepting any more psalms for publications within its covers, but I invite you to write your own. What is the truth you can claim with confidence? What is the mystery of faith that stymies you? What is the lament your soul needs to sing?
A few years ago at all church camp, we wrote our own psalms. I don’t have copies of all of them, but here are some excerpts from a few of them that people shared at camp worship.
From Bruce Walters:
I began to run. Some for fear, some to escape family health problems, and perhaps even to run away and hide from You.
As I age, I cannot explain it or You. (Lyrically) Still puzzled after all these years!
Yet now I run, but not away from You, but with You, toward You.
I’m not afraid of You as I’ve been.
I accept You, worship You and Your odd plan.
I draw strength from You, O God, but to the close of my day, You may always puzzle me.
So, run with me Lord, run with me.
From Sharon Bancroft:
My God, when I was hurting you held my hand.
When my world was crumbling you told me you’d protect me and walk with me through the storm.
My God, when the storm passed you held my hand as I walked–we walked–together toward the sunlight, to life again.
You sent unexpected blessings into my life–to uphold me, and give me hope.
You helped me sing again Lord–put the music and joy back into my heart.
And here’s the last line of the psalm I wrote. I was struck by how true it still is. And how it is still what I want to sing as I prepare for 3 months of sabbatical.
Create in me, O God, the trust and
Courage to be
Fragile, free, answering
Over the next 3 months, there will be still waters and green meadows in our lives.
There may be valleys of shadow and death.
We may be invited to eat at banquets, only to discover God has sat us next to our enemies.
Through it all, may we remember it is the Goodness and Mercy of God who pursue us. May we be on the lookout for them, so we may write our own psalms with our lives.
I look forward to hearing how Goodness and Mercy will catch you in the coming months.