April 21, 2013
Everyone knows and loves Psalm 23. I bet there are more than a few people here who didn’t even need to look at the words, because it’s written on your heart. When I visit people who are sick or sad, I often ask if they would like me to read something from the Bible. Almost always the response is, “What about Psalm 23?” Many families find it enormously comforting to have read at the funeral of a loved one. For all those reasons, I really WANT to love Psalm 23, but I have to say, when I saw it come up in the lectionary for this week, I really resented it.
This week I had trouble saying, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” because I DID want. And it felt to me like the Shepherd was in another pasture–or maybe asleep on the job. Where was the Shepherd on Monday when bombs went off at the Boston Marathon? Why wasn’t the Shepherd leading the people near the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, beside still waters? Were the Shepherd’s rod and staff comforting the people in the earthquake in China? And that’s not to mention the ongoing grief our synod is experiencing concerning our Bishop’s role in the death of Maureen Mengelt. I could not pray, “I shall not want,” this week.
And you probably have your own instances of times when you could not find truth or comfort in those words—either because you were experiencing some kind of pain personally or because of a broader concern that weighed on you.
And that is why I am grateful for the Book of Psalms. Because Psalm 23 is not all there is. There are 150 Psalms covering every feeling you might have, and even some that you might never have had. There is at least one Psalm for every occasion, so I am pleased that whoever put the book of Psalms together put Psalm 23 right next to Psalm 22. Because Psalm 22 turned out to be the psalm I could pray this week.
[Turn to Psalm 22 in hymnal. Read together the first 11 verses.]
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Kind of different from “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” isn’t it? And these psalms are right next to each other on the page, a juxtaposition I find helpful and kind of beautiful. It is good to know that our faith makes room for grief, that our Scriptures make space for us to be upset and angry–even with God. There is no experience we can’t take to God in prayer.
I don’t know, of course, but I suspect that the widows who mourn their friend Tabitha in today’s reading from Acts might have needed this prayer. They might have wondered, “She was such a good woman! Why did she have to die?” They might have asked, “Why would God take someone who is good and kind and cares for the poor, rather than someone who is selfish and cruel?” They might have cried this psalm together while they waited for Peter and the other disciples to arrive.
I wonder about the community of the faithful described in today’s reading from Revelation–those described as “the ones who have come out of the ordeal.” Now, it doesn’t say what ordeal, exactly, but haven’t people of God in every time and every land had to struggle through some ordeals? And the ones referred to in this particular text have already died, so they have faced that particularly daunting ordeal, for sure. I wonder how many of them had called to God in the midst of their pain, “Why are you so far from helping me, so far from the words of my groaning?”
It consoles me most of all to remember that when Jesus was hanging on the cross, an ordeal of excruciating pain on every level, he did not pray the 23rd Psalm. Like many good Jewish men, he had probably memorized all the Psalms, and which one did he embrace in that hour? Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It doesn’t matter that God hadn’t really forsaken him—that is how he felt, and that is what he prayed.
Of course, God did not forsake him. God came to him in the worst hours and brought new life out of death. And God did not abandon Tabitha or the other widows in Joppa either. There were tears, but they were followed by resurrection. And the saints in Revelation are not IN an ordeal, they have come OUT of the ordeal. This is how God works. God does not abandon us in our struggles, but sits with us in the pain. And in ways we don’t usually perceive while it is happening, God then pulls us through the pain, explaining that what looked like death was just the beginning of something new.
I bet each one of you can think of a time like that in your life. A time when you thought everything was all over, that you couldn’t sink any deeper into despair or hopelessness, and then, somehow, mysteriously, wonderfully, God came to you and rescued you from that dark place.
I realize that I am about to ask you to be very vulnerable, but I believe that people grow most in their faith when they share stories of hope. So I’d like to invite you to speak to one or maybe two people sitting near you about such a time: a time when you had given up, thought God had abandoned you, and God came to you. Make sure each person has a chance to share.
[Pause for sharing.]
So, did you hear some resurrection stories just now? Can you testify to yet another saint who has come out of the ordeal, another Tabitha who has been raised from the dead? And do the words of hope you just heard lead to the very place I couldn’t go earlier this week: Psalm 23? Maybe, just maybe, you have seen or heard of a time when the Shepherd really WAS caring for the sheep, even if the sheep didn’t know it at the time? Is it possible that you heard about someone feasting on life, even in the midst of some enemies?
Every week, our Shepherd lays out for us a banquet of life, no matter what else is going on in the world. In the midst of our enemies of fear and despair, hopelessness and sickness, anger and confusion, Jesus sets out provisions. He offers us his body and blood, and he calls us together as a flock to share it. He gives us his very self as a gift, and gives us one another so that we are not alone. And sometimes what we need most of all is the green grass of companionship and the still waters of someone else praying for us.
So maybe it is possible for us to truly and authentically pray Psalm 23, even in the awful weeks. Let’s try it now.
[Read Psalm 23]
~Pastor Susan Schneider