Our Life Journey
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
September 8, 2019
Psalm 23 (KJV)
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
In light of hurricane evacuations, or non-evacuations, in breathing sighs of relief it might be smart to think about life in perspective. We might take a moment and think about what is really important. We know family is more important than houses, that life is more precious than the furniture and memories more important than the mementos we fill our houses with. But if we take time to think about our life journeys in light of what may or may not be moments of crisis – moments of critical decisions we may be able to get a better handle on what is important, and make choices in light of that instead of randomly.
Certainly all of us are thankful we didn’t suffer what the Bahamas suffered, and our hearts go out to the people there. If you are inclined to help, let me make a suggestion. Don’t send stuff, don’t go through gofundme pages. Our United Church of Christ has a presence in the islands and working with other denominations and long-term, long-time partners they do the best work now and later as the need arises. Dollars are the best way to help so if you want to do that we will welcome any special offering dollars you want us to forward through the church channels. There are no additional administrative costs, all dollars go to help the people in need and that is the advantage of our mission structure in our global UCC mission.
But if we look at our own situations and take stock of what is important in our life journey maybe you are thankful to God today. Maybe you already were and got over that. But what about the rest of your life? Do we live with a day to day sense of God’s grace, of God’s presence, of the way in which God’s blessings aren’t bought, aren’t for some and not for others, and still have the gratitude to know and give thanks that God is here for our whole life journey?
Our exploration of the books of the Bible brings us to the Book of Psalms. As we seek to hear familiar texts with new understanding or new texts we never listened to, to find the truth they speak, the Psalms have an amazing variety of expressions of faith. There are Psalms of “lament” that express sorrow and pain. There are Psalms of praise for God as a mighty king, as someone who defends the people from enemies. There are Psalms that rejoice with life and with creation and with God’s wondrous power. Today’s Psalm is probably the most familiar for people of faith. It is also familiar at least in part to many people who claim to have “no religion.” Almost everyone who has been to a funeral has heard these verses read. But this morning I want to invite us to hear it as a call to be aware of God’s presence, God’s actions throughout our life journeys.
I am not talking about people who claim to have no faith in God or don’t have any interest in whether God even exists. The real challenge is people of faith. Is God just an onlooker? Or someone we ask to approve our choices and bless our priorities? Or do we learn God’s priorities? It seems many assume that as long as they don’t do anything too extreme, like murder someone, then God’s pretty ok with them. At the other end of the extreme spectrum are those whose God seems rather controlling, demanding, punishing, even sadistic – a kind of cosmic bully who they live in fear of offending and are pretty sure they always do. Neither way seems to fit the picture the Psalmist gives us of the Psalm calls, “The Lord, my shepherd.”
So, as people who believe in this Shepherd God, let’s do a deeper dive into the details of the 23rd Psalm and what that teaches us about God and faith and our life journey. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – the Hebrew uses the word YAHWEH which English translates as Lord – this is not just some lord of the manor, this is God who is our shepherd. My point is this no small matter to say God, the Creator of the Universes, the Almighty, the one who says to any who question, “I AM WHO I AM!” So let us begin by realizing this God of ours is not a god with a little “g” or a Lord with a small “L.” This is the true God, the one we should confess is our true Lord. Simple enough to say but harder to live in a way that demonstrates that belief day in and day out in our life journey.
This Shepherd of ours provides all things, so much so that we “shall not want.” This God doesn’t just provide pastures of spotty grass and brown weeds, this Shepherd provides green pastures, rich in needed nutrients, the same God who provided manna to those journeying through the deserts as they escaped slavery in Egypt. This Lord provides STILL waters not just some smelly, Sulphur-full pond or over-chlorinated fountain of processed “agua.” So this Lord, this “I AM” provides the sheep with the finest of needed resources. Our biggest challenge is that we often forget the difference between want and need. As my mother used to say to me when I was begging for some childish unnecessary item at the Woolworth’s, and I would tell her I needed it so badly, she would remind me that, “What you want and what you need are two different things.”
But even more than attending to my normal human needs, this Lord, “I AM” takes care of much more. This God “restores my soul.” This to me reminds me where and who gives the essence, the very breath of life, but also who heals and renews broken hearts, shattered spirits, when life is empty of its essence, its meaning. This is the promise that is at the heart of this Psalm to me. It is not a promise of overnight success, or even overnight healing when we are broken or empty. This all speaks to the essence of the Psalm which scholars describe as a Psalm of “trust.” That’s really the heart of it isn’t it? Who or what will we trust for our life journey to work out?
Henri Nouwen, whose writing on the spiritual life inspires so many, once said he learned his greatest lesson in faith at, of all places, the circus. While he was there he was absolutely mesmerized by the performance of the the German trapeze group “The Flying Rodleighs.” Their breath-taking performance as they flew through the air amazed him. After the show, he spoke with Rodleigh himself. Nouwen asked him how he was able to just let go and fly through the air so easily. Rodleigh responded, “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me. The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher. I’m not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me”
So here is the core of the matter for us as people of faith, who or what will we trust on this life’s journey? Will we trust our own resources, ignoring the fact that the Shepherd Yahweh gave us those resources – all of them? Will we trust our IRA’s and our 401k’s, our stock options, trading all ethics and morals for the sake of seeing the Dow Jones go up? Will we put all our marbles, hold out our arms for Bernie or Joe or Donald or some other politician to grab us as we go flying through the air? Each of us has to decide that for our own life’s journey.
Here’s the Bible’s offer of who will catch us as we fly through the air with the greatest of un-ease. It is Yahweh, the great “I AM,” who is our Shepherd. The Shepherd God leads us in paths of righteousness and this has the quality of both personal morality and public ethics. God our Shepherd calls us to do what is right for all people for the sake of God’s own name – in other words how we treat others is a reflection on God’s character when we claim to be people of faith. And there are far too many headlines of so-called Christians denying God’s love for all people, limiting the great “I AM” to just them and those like them. Be careful! Everything we do is reflects on the name of the God we claim to believe in. Is the God of your life’s journey one who loves no matter the political party, the skin color, even the religious beliefs of the person we are judging, mistreating, hating? Let us trust that the Shepherd of Righteousness calls us to a higher ethic, a greater love.
The next lines make this matter of trust even clearer. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, the shepherd’s rod and staff comfort me. Even when our lives are in peril, this Psalm promises that we need not fear “evil.” One of the great privileges of my life’s journey and work has been to be in the presence of those whose lives are in peril from disease or age or life itself and the courage and faith that they have often demonstrated to me in facing those times without “fearing evil,” have been a great witness to me. I don’t know if this trust comes naturally when one has nothing else to trust – but I know we don’t have to wait until we enter the valley of the shadow to trust this Shepherd.
The final two verses of the psalm move to the second metaphor: God is a gracious host who prepares a banquet table for the psalmist (see Psalm 92:11). This table is spread “in the presence of my enemies,” who seem to watch from the sidelines as God anoints the head of the psalmist and fills the psalmist’s cup to overflowing (23:5). Is your cup empty or overflowing? Are you able to trust the Good Shepherd when it is empty… AND when it is overflowing? For this Shepherd has promised us a place in his presence, in his household always. Yes there are times in our life’s journey when the cup will be empty, often because we have not chosen the paths of righteousness but sometimes through no fault of our own. But the promise of this Psalm is that even when we have suffered evil, not just bad breaks or circumstances beyond our control, but in the face of evil itself, we need not fear for this Shepherd is with us.
Who is this Shepherd? This Shepherd came to us in the one we know as Jesus. He faced down storms in a boat on the sea and stilled the storms and challenged his disciples to trust him. He promised the Shepherd’s love was so great it would leave 99 in the wilderness to find the one that was lost. He suffered a violent death at the hands of political and religious leaders who cared more about their own prosperity and protection than the paths of righteousness, for God’s sake. This Shepherd rose again from that violent evil death to show us he is still with us.
We live in times when many are so anxious and terrified of the future. It is easy to give in to that fear. The 23rd Psalm speaks God’s word to us. It is the word of One we can trust not only in good times or bad times, but through all of life’s journey. Go with the Shepherd my friends. Go with God. AMEN.