Sermon 4-17-16

April 17, 2016

Psalm 23

We have come, this morning, to what is, arguably, the most familiar passage in all the Bible—certainly in the Old Testament–the world’s favorite psalm—Psalm 23.  It’s the favorite of Jews—the favorite of Eastern Orthodox Christians–of Roman Catholics—of Western Protestants–even agnostics love this Psalm!  Here are words that just come to life–when spoken at a wedding–even more so when heard at a funeral.  They’ve been set to music (in countless ways, and so beautifully by our choir, this morning!)—these are words that have this amazing capacity to express–as vividly as any other part of God’s word–what it means to be at home with God—what it means to experience God’s grace…  If I’m speaking at a nursing home, say–people in their wheelchairs–seems like they’re someplace else altogether—but I can start reading the words of the 23rd Psalm, and it is, like, astonishing— their heads come up out of their laps–their mouths start moving—reciting along with me–they come alive—alive to these familiar words—something that happens regardless of culture or background, that connection…  (I mean, to be sure, the whole sheep/shepherd thing has to be explained in some cultures—to Eskimos in Alaska, say, or to people who live on islands in the Pacific–but the human imagination does not need any help to be able to feel–deep down inside–the beauty of green pastures, or of still waters, or of a cup that overflows with goodness…  We get it.  So what a privilege to come to these words again–words through which God has spoken grace and healing for thousands of years…

One of the harsh realities of trying to live a life with God is that– so often–we have to find that life in a world full of frenzy—full of demand.  Has that been your experience—having to try and grab a spiritual life on the fly?

In fact, most days, we can feel like we’re living in the middle of this huge, human traffic jam…

http://49.media.tumblr.com/68f3556bb9774b292246b0b9ee24f8ad/tumblr_mvyf5f3eRH1qzcq51o1_r1_500.gif

—all noisy—all full of needdistracted—even dangerous—a world with out-of-control ambitions—a world of recklessness—of urgency—a world crowded with people bent on getting where they’re going and all angry and frustrated when anybody else gets in their way…

The writer Donna Schaper put it this way: (that) We’re all doing too much, and yet we think it’s still not enough; we can’t do any more, but we think we are supposed to somehow.  Our gaze becomes unfocused–our expressions weary—worn out–our faces having taken on a kind of snowed-in look–like we’re wandering around aimlessly–in the wilderness.[1]

So, how do we stay attentive to God in that kind of world?  Well, the Bible’s answer to that question has always been found in the words of the 4th Commandment of the 10 Commandments—the part where it says: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”  Literally, the word “Sabbath” means to quit.  Stop.  Take a break.  In and of itself, it’s a word with nothing particularly devout or holy in it; it’s actually more a word about time–specifically the nonuse of time–what overly-scheduled people call wasting time.  And the go-to place in the Bible for understanding the Sabbath is Creation week, back in the Bible’s beginning—back in Genesis.  Sabbath is the seventh and final day in the creation story—the day “God rested from all of the work he’d done” (Gen. 2:3).  That whole line-up of the other days—one, two, three, four, five, six—are the days God spoke energy into existence—spoke matter into existence—spoke the sun and the moon and the stars and little lambs into existence–spoke human beings capable of such astonishing things into existence—always bringing us–again and again—back to the same refrain: “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day…  And there was evening, and there was morning, a second day…”—again and again–six times–until the Sabbath Day comes—when everything stops–and we lie down in green pastures, and we are led beside–not whitewater–but still water—led to the place where God’s voice can be heard–where we discover how it is that God wants to lead us–the place where our fears get dispelledthat’s the promise of Psalm 23…  Amen?

Those of us a little older, here –let’s say the fifty-somethings on up—we older folk–we have this mostly nostalgic picture in our minds of the Sabbath day from when we grew up, right?—(Martial plays…[2])–may even wish we could go back to that time–back when Sunday began with Mom and Dad–the kids—all going to church together—no stores open—nobody going to Walmart or even Amazon.com—you didn’t mow your lawn or wash your car—just church—the kids all quiet and well-behaved in church—everybody so willingly wearing their Sunday clothes–the big family meal afterwards–Mom making her homemade gravy to go with the mashed potatoes–the afternoon stretching out as long as heaven itself… Suppertime it was leftovers–something cold and simple–the Sunday evening church rounding out the day–a day of rest and deep connection—connection with God and with one another—and church

Of course we know what’s happened to that memory, don’t we (even if we’re guilty of remembering it more fondly than it really was—like I do!).  What happened is that less than a fifth of Americans still live that way.  Lots of people have to work on Sunday–few think Christians should have their Sabbath day singled out in a way that neither our Jewish or Muslim sisters and brothers do.  Sunday’s a day to shop, take our kids to their sporting events—a day to try and dig our way out of the hole we’ve created for ourselves the other six days of the week, right?  But still, these words keep nudging us: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul…

Here’s something I learned—I learned that there are actually two versions of the Sabbath command in the Bible.  The command itself is identical, but the supporting reasons for the command differ.  One’s found in Exodus–the other in Deuteronomy.  In the Exodus version, we’re told to keep the Sabbath because God kept it (Exodus 20:8-11).  God did his work in six days, then God rested.  So if God sets one day apart to rest, why, we can too, right?  It’s because, apparently, there are some things that can only be accomplished, even by God, in a state of rest…  So that’s one reason for Sabbath-keeping…

The Deuteronomy reason, on the other hand, has it differently.  See, our ancestors in Egypt went four hundred years without a vacation (Deut. 5:15).  Not one day off.  Which was crazy!  And the consequence of that?  Well, they were no longer considered human beings–only slaves—only work units—not real people—not human beings created in the image of Almighty God; see, they’d become equipment—human machines for making bricks and building buildings.  Humanity got defaced, don’t you see.  And lest any of us do that to our neighbor (or husband, or wife, or child, or employee), we are commanded to keep the Sabbath.  Because the moment we begin to see others in terms of what they can do rather than who they are, we mutilate humanity–we violate community.  It happens when that’s how we treat others and it happens when that’s how we treat ourselves…  It’s no use claiming, “You know, I had a pretty manageable week this week—I don’t think I need to rest this time around–I’ll just wait and keep the Sabbath next week.  How ‘bout that?”  But it doesn’t work that way—doesn’t work that way because our lives are so interconnected that we will inevitably involve others in our work whether we intend to or not.  It’s why one of my teachers in college never went out to eat—never flew on an airplane—never did anything that would cause somebody else to have to work on a Sunday.  He wanted to live his life in such a way that his own Sabbath-keeping would protect the Sabbath of others.  And keeping the Sabbath in that sense of the word is kindness–it’s basic human kindness…  We preserve the image of God in others when we’re able to see them as they are, not as we need or want them to be…

See, one of the amazing things that happens to us–when we keep Sabbath—when we lie down in green pastures–when we allow ourselves to be led beside still waters—when we have our souls restored—what happens to us is something we can’t afford to live without—because the consequence our keeping is that we get to know the shepherd!  Both the Bible and our experience of life tells us we need a shepherd, right?—we need One we can know and trust if we’re ever going to make it through.  There are dark valleys–all sort of enemy–both real ones and imaginary ones—plenty of reasons to fear.  We need a shepherd–because we are sheep, we need a shepherd

And the good news of the gospel is that God sent a shepherd into this world—sent one for you—sent one for me–one whose love for the sheep ran so deep that he laid down his very life for them, and for us…  And sometimes that gets us to wondering, “What happens to the sheep if the shepherd dies?”  It’s a great, post-Easter question, right there…  Who protects and leads the sheep now?  Well, let me tell you a parable—it goes like this:

On the night before the shepherd died, all the sheep fell asleep after a big meal–the sound of the shepherd’s flute ringing in their ears.  And as they slept, they shared this terrible dream—a dream of wolves—had clubs and torches–came out of the woods–led their shepherd away–tore him to shreds on a hillside outside of town…

In the dream, the sheep all huddled for safety, unable to think, unable to move–stayed that way for three whole days, wondering if they’d starve to death before the wolves came back—back to finish them off.  But then, on the third day, they heard a flute—far away at first, but then drawing near—a sound that woke them up from their slumber, so that they stood once again in the presence of their Good Shepherd. 

Everything was the same again, but everything had changed.  Looking around at each other, they saw what had happened—that they’d fallen asleep as sheep, but had woken up as shepherds.  As they slept, every one of them had been changed into the image of their master, and as they stood there staring at one another, he handed them crooks–like his–and flutes–and sent them out to gather their own flocks.  “Do for them as I did for you,” he said, and played them a little tune as they set off to do just that.[3]

[1] Donna Schaper, Sabbath Keeping (Cowley Publications, 1999)

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcLnzSr1W_4

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cowley Publications, 1997)