Rev. Laura Young
Summit on 16th UMC
“Dwelling in the House of the Church”
May 7, 2017; Easter 4A
Let us pray: Loving God, let the words of my mouth help each person who hears them find a word from you. Amen.
Intro: I don’t know about you, but this week, I’ve felt like I’ve been soaked by a firehose every time I read the paper or turn on the news, and even when I’ve been in churches a few times this week. Things are intense. Here, for our Community Lament Tuesday night and Rev. Smith’s teaching here Thursday on the moral resistance movement, and Thursday at the National Day of Prayer at St. John’s UCC with Planned Parenthood and Crazy Faith, protestors lining Mound Street in front of the church….
Thank God for the 23rd Psalm. Really!
We had: United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto’s ruling last week about her consecration as being unlawful due to the fact that she is a married lesbian; (I was going to preach about that today but I decided not to – you know what’s going on….)
We had the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare repeal and replace vote in the House, which will now be sent to the Senate; and
We had an Executive Order by the president on religious “freedom,” which really amounts to religious discrimination.
All in a week.
I recited this Psalm a lot this week, and not just because I was preaching on it today. Thank God for the 23rd Psalm because we can say it, even when we don’t feel it… It can buoy us and help us articulate our trust in God, and we can read it, recite it from memory, even in times that it’s hard to trust God.
Ok, Psalm 23. I’m going to use the New Revised Standard Version and – hang on to your hats -- I’m first going to use feminine pronouns for God, just for a different perspective of this radical care and provision from God. Don’t worry, God is still God.:)
Psalm 23 (NRSV – with feminine pronouns for God)
The Lady is my shepherd
I shall not want.
She makes me lie down in green pastures;
She leads me beside still waters;
She restores my soul.
She leads me in right paths for her name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil.
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
In the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lady
My whole life long.
We think of this Psalm as one we hear at a funeral or graveside service, or in a setting in the midst of death and dying. My sister and I said the 23rd Psalm, alternating it with the Lord’s Prayer – for an entire long night when my 96-year-old grandfather was quickly nearing the end of his life – over and over again, in his delirium, he would be calmed as soon as he heard the familiar words of this Psalm, and he would join in, half-conscious, perhaps using muscle memory to say the familiar words.
Many of us were raised with the 23rd Psalm. I memorized it quite literally at my Nana Voorhees’s knee one summer when she lived with us. It is beautiful poetry. But really, it’s even more important to use this Psalm in our everyday lives to acknowledge and give thanks for the provision of God in our lives. This week, I saw God in so many places! I saw God provide an unexpected waft of lilac scent coming from the newly blooming bush into the open window of my bedroom… the perfect cup of French-pressed coffee with some heavy cream left over from a recipe… my son’s safe arrival at his destination…. Forgetting my New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary at the office and finding it at the library down the street from my house – God provides!!…. Unexpectedly getting to sit at a beautiful piano in a beautiful church and play There is a Balm in Gilead surrounded by beautiful women singing, verse after verse…. God provided Tina singing Precious Lord Tuesday night…. God provided Beautiful heavy spring rain showers…. What did God provide for you this week? Did you notice? Thank you God, for providing for me!!!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book on praying the Bible, from the one on Psalms, says our entire life becomes worship, the offering of Thanksgiving. Bonhoeffer says that to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands, is what the Psalms wish to teach us. This is to help us live a radically God-centered life.
For a sheep, to be able to lie down in green pastures means to have food; to be led beside still waters means to have something to drink; to be led in right paths means the danger is abated and proper shelter is attained. God restores my soul, or, better translated, God keeps me alive. We lack nothing, because the shepherd provides the basic necessities of life: food, drink, shelter.
The Psalmist speaks of darkness here…. That even in the most life-threatening situation, God’s provision is sufficient…God is right here, intimately present in our lives. The rod represents royal authority and rule, but what comforts us is that God is sovereign and god’s powerful presence provides for our lives.
This Psalm shows God as the gracious host. God is shown as loving, merciful, and good.
I find it very interesting to think about goodness and mercy following the Psalmist. In Hebrew, the verb here has the more active sense of pursuit. God actively pursues us. This makes perfect Wesleyan sense when we consider Prevenient grace – God chasing us down, awaiting our response.
God provides, and this Psalm helps reminds us of that. And from that provision, we can gain trust. It’s a beautiful thing, trust. And this Psalm celebrates it.
A good friend of mine, who converted to Judaism as an adult, uses a daily blessing that she says, sometimes dozens of times a day. I won’t try to say it in Hebrew, but in English, it goes like this: “Our Praise to you, Eternal God, Sovereign of all the Universe, may the divine sparks of this beauty – or whatever it might be she’s asking a blessing upon – delicious food, a creature in nature, a moment of love – may the divine sparks of this thing be lifted to heaven and if you so find it pleasing, I humbly ask that you make it sacred.”
I am just captivated by this blessing and I find the song of trust that is Psalm 23 to be in this spirit. She explained that it is her way of gathering up the blessings of the world, acknowledging them, and being thankful for them. Moment by moment. She talks of the Jewish Mystics who believe that everything in the world has a divine spark within it, but those sparks are enveloped with “husks,” that represent our corporeal – or bodily – existence. They believe that our mission on earth is to lift all of the divine sparks to heaven – and when that finally happens, the goal of the creation of this world will have been accomplished. So, one can lift the divine spark to heaven, simply by noticing and appreciating it!
Imagine if we used this song of trust to celebrate and notice and recognize our daily activities, noticing and appreciating each simple meal, or quenching drink of clean water, or roof over our head when it’s raining. Imagine centering our lives on God in ways that challenge our usual ways of thinking – especially our very U.S. American way of wanting more and more and caring only for our self, and relying on our individualism. Well, this is a communal song of trust. It’s not just about us. Psalm 23 gives us assurance as individuals, but it also reminds us that we are all together in the household of God. We are dwelling in the house of God together.
And I want to pause here and reflect for a minute to remind us that we indeed are called to dwell in the house of God – in the House of the Lord, or the House of the Lady – the house of God – and most decidedly NOT the House of the church. For the church is broken. And yet, and yet! We are here. And so in the midst of the challenges and struggles, we give thanks for God bringing us together in this place, and we keep working to expand what is good, and clear out what is not. Too often, we focus on the church as the place to find God, and when we struggle in the church, we struggle to find God. But God’s gift of faith equips us to find God wherever we are – inside the church or out.
As always, I’m asking: as people attempting to follow Jesus, who modeled the perfect way to love God and our neighbor, how do we translate the events of our lives this week in light of our faith?
One of my favorite bosses throughout my whole career is Chris Glaros, who was the managing director at Children’s Defense Fund – he’s a lawyer at OSU now. Chris is a very sharp guy – an involved member of First Congregational UCC on Broad Street, very politically active. You might remember the TV commercial that he and his wife Lauren did after Donald Trump mocked a disabled journalist – they talked about their daughter Grace, who is disabled, and how everyone at school know never to make fun of Grace, who has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair. Chris’s wife and both parents are teachers. He’s from East Cleveland but lives here now. He’s just one of the best and smartest people I know. He and his wife Lauren have two children, both now elementary-school aged. Chris’s family’s story is an example of what it means to trust God; trust, which we think about every time we think of Psalm 23; and what it means to be truly pro-life and pro-choice; and how important it is that our government, including every politician and citizen, are responsible for making sure that every person who needs health care has it.
Chris and his wife Lauren learned after a 20-week ultrasound that their baby would be born with spina bifida and face a lifetime of enormous health challenges. Chris said that the first thing he did was open his Bible, where he found comfort in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” He gave thanks for his good health insurance for the family, paid for by the taxpayers of the state of Ohio, provided by the job he had at the time, knowing that the baby would bankrupt them if they didn’t have that insurance. They talked with a doctor and then decided together – without the help of government -- that terminating the pregnancy was not an option for them. Chris notes that Republicans are eager to profess that this child’s life was precious. He trusted our society, our government, Republicans and Democrats both, to ensure a safety net for their baby’s life after their choice was made. Chris explains that Grace would not be alive today without this safety net, without protections against a lifetime limit on her insurance coverage, without protections from denying coverage because of her countless preexisting conditions, without Medicaid. Grace has had some 30 surgeries and spent a good chunk of her life in the hospital. She requires 24/7 care. Chris reiterates that every life is precious and we need to care for one another, and expressed his heartbreak over the callousness of House Republicans to vote to cruelly deny millions of Americans the health care required to live the lives God intended for them. Chris shared that he likes to sing Amazing Grace to his daughter Grace at bedtime, and that on the night of the House vote on health care, he prayed for our elected officials’ blindness to be cured so they could see, as the line in the hymn declares, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
There is so much blindness in the world and in the church right now. Selfishness and fear. If only we could trust God the way this Psalm calls us to.
So, in this time of uncertainty and perhaps even fear, how can we use the 23rd Psalm to lift us up? Perhaps we can consider praying something like this:
For people who don’t have health insurance or who fear they won’t have the health care they’ll need: THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD, I SHALL NOT WANT.
For 24 million Americans who have insurance now but might lose it next year: “HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES; HE LEADS ME BESIDE THE STILL WATERS; HE RESTORES MY SOUL;
When states are allowed to charge more or completely eliminate people from accessing coverage because of pre-existing conditions, we say, “HE LEADS ME IN RIGHT PATHS FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE.”
When millions of people could lose coverage due to deep cuts in Medicaid, we trust, saying, “EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE DARKEST VALLEY, I FEAR NO EVIL;
When religious freedom becomes religious discrimination, we trust saying, “FOR YOU ARE WITH ME; YOUR ROD AND YOUR STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.”
When employers can scale back what they pay each year, or small businesses are free to drop coverage, we trust, saying, “YOU PREPARE A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES; YOU ANOINT MY HEAD WITH OIL; MY CUP OVERFLOWS.”
When the UMC’s highest court says a lesbian bishop’s consecration is unlawful, we trust, saying, “SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE, AND I SHALL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD MY WHOLE LIFE LONG.”
It is so important to pray together and to share our stories with one another. When we dwell in the house of the church, we will often be disappointed, but when we dwell in the house of God, we will be reconciled with God and one another – right with God and our neighbor, resting in God’s peace and giving thanks for God’s blessings, and dwelling in the house of the lord all the days of our lives.