It says in the bulletin that this is the time for the sermon, but what you are going to hear is not a sermon but a meditation. The difference is not all that important but knowing which is happening does help one to listen more effectively, and that is what I hope for you in these few minutes. A well-crafted modern sermon has focus and a central point. A meditation is a well-crafted modern sermon with attention deficit issues. Meditations are the spiritual equivalent of wandering in an art gallery or a museum, a very ‘July in Washington’ sort of thing to do. In spite of their undisciplined qualities, meditations are always about something, hopefully something rich and various, something that invites and rewards even the briefest glance. The lessons for today provide us with just such a resource: the 23rd psalm.
It is familiar even to the unreligious, and loved by all. The sound of it, especially in the King James Version, is comforting even to those who have no idea what it is saying. This morning, when all of our minds are wrestling with the pointlessly evil murders in Colorado and our eyes are wrestling with the equally pointless deaths due to HIV/AIDS represented in the quilt pieces hung throughout the nave, it is good to be able to pause and consider this psalm that we turn to so naturally in times of death and loss.
The first point is that the psalm is in the present tense. It does not say we want God to be our shepherd or that God was our shepherd, but that God is our shepherd, a current, right now, day-to-day fact. The only place God is ever found is in the present because God is not essentially a memory or a desire but a present tense noun, a now fact.
The second point is that the comforting images take place in turmoil and danger, in the valley of the shadow of death, which is where our nation is standing right now and where the International AIDS Conference, begun here last night, gets its edge. God provides no escape from difficult and scary things in life. When we sense those dangers we often ask God to remove them: take away the disease; make difficult people nice; stop war and poverty; take guns out of the hands of madmen. For reasons well beyond my control, or even understanding, that does not usually happen, so the shepherding comfort of God takes place in the midst of them.
What God provides in the midst of danger and anxiety are green pastures to lie down in, still waters to drink, paths of righteousness to follow, a rod and staff, and a feast—all in the presence of the things that trouble us. Let’s take a look at those provisions.
For green pastures, think of Sabbath, not just as a day off but as part of the rhythm of life, a balance of work and rest. The message of anxiety is speed up; do something, anything; get on your horse and ride off in all directions. The face of anxiety is frantic, multi-tasking, clock-watching. The goal of anxiety is solution-centered problem solving. Sabbath goes the other way. It is about being centered, holding that 6:1 ratio of work and rest. Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do I cannot get by on less than three hours of prayer a day.” Sabbath is about slowing down, the very opposite of anxiety’s impulse. Lord Moran wrote in Anatomy of Courage, “[People] of goodwill saddled with the fate of others need great courage to be idle when only rest can clear their fuddled wits.” Green pastures are slow-down, big-picture, breathe-deeply places.
Still water is important because it is easiest for sheep to drink. It is easy to draw on the refreshment of God. We do not need to go anywhere, master anything we don’t already know, believe anything we don’t already hold. God is here, now—the only place God is ever found. You are here, too—the only place you can ever be. There are holy places and things to learn, there are beliefs to discover but none of them trump the simple fact that you and God are always in the same place at the same time. The water is still and easy to drink.
Spreading out from green pastures and still water is a network of trails, the paths of righteousness. We often say we do not know what to do in the valley where death’s shadow is cast, and there is an element of truth to that. The reason we are called followers of Jesus is that we do not always know where to turn. If we knew, we would not have to follow. But we do have a shepherd who guides us on the paths of righteousness. The word righteousness literally means right-use-ness. In other words, doing the right thing.
And what is the right thing to do? You remember the words of Micah the prophet: What does the LORD require? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. If you are not into Old Testament prophets, remember Merlin as he counseled Arthur about Guinevere in the musical Camelot: “How do you handle a woman? Love her, simply love her, merely love her.” And consider the wisdom of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in a letter to her mother after the murder of her child, “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” That is what the paths of righteousness look like.
Finding the path of righteousness is simple. Following it is hard, so God provides a rod and staff, the disciplines of faith. Discipline does not wait on feelings. Discipline is done because it is right and best to do whether we feel like it or not. Understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable do not grow naturally in us. In spite of our constant repetition of the old saying, time does not heal anything. What we do with time is what heals. In the valley of death’s shadow, people act their way into new ways of feeling. We hardly ever feel our way into new ways of acting. God’s rod and staff keep us at our prayers, attentive to our hopes, vulnerable to the possibility of being vulnerable again.
The path of righteousness that God prods us onto leads through the dark valley onto green pastures, past still water and finally to God’s feast, the bounty that is found when wholeness is recovered. The feast of the fullness of life. That feast is just as real as it was before we became aware of the long shadows. It is as John’s Gospel says about good and evil, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot do anything but make it brighter. The feast is real even as the darkness is real.
Still we feel the stark reality of that darkness: murderous madmen, unfettered disease, and loss upon loss. It can make us wonder, What is this world coming to? If that question is not rhetorical, the answer is in the last line of the psalm: “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” You will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. We will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. All of us. Forever.
That truth is what the 23rd psalm has to offer us. It is good. Amen.