Sermon given on Sunday, 17 April 2016, Bethesda (Md.) Presbyterian Church
(C)Copyright 2016 by Edmund Haralson
Psalm 23. What a pipe dream.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Well, the fact of the matter is that I do want. And I need. And I desire. Maybe King David doesnít want, but thatís easy to say when youíre bank account is full, you have a roof over your head, a beautiful wife, and a fancy chariot. But what about the guy suffering from homelessness, does he not want? And the recent graduate trying to pay off that student loan on an entry level salary, does he not want? And the single mother working two jobs at just over minimum wage, does she not want? And the lesbian teen kicked out of house and home, does she not want? Yes, the Lord may be my shepherd, but there are lots of times and in lots of ways that I do want.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures. Yeah, right. Iíll lay down in that pasture just as soon as I finish my 4 loads of laundry, and my weekly grocery shopping, and after giving the kids a bath, and after writing checks to pay the bills. Oh I suppose I could do these chores during the week, after my 90 minute $7 one-way commute because I canít afford to live where I work. I can do the chores after I pick up the kids from the sitter, and after I cook them a healthy meal, and after we do homework, and after I read to them, and after they fall asleep. Yeah, Iím sure I can do my 90 minutes of laundry starting at 9 pm followed by sorting and folding and hanging. No problem. Phhh. Green pastures. The last time I saw a green pasture, much less had the time to lie down in one, was probably 5 or 10 years ago.
He leads me beside the still waters. The only reason the waters are still is because all I can do at the end of the day is go to sleep. When Iím asleep then the stresses of the bill collector and the rent renewal increase and the price of the tune up to pass inspection and the ten bucks for the field trip so the other kids at school wonít make fun of junior Ė all those things disappear. If I canít see them, then they arenít real. The waters arenít sill, theyíre comatose. He can lead me to them, but how do I shut off my brain, how do I calm down my heart, how do I closet my anxieties?
He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness. Well, it is true that no matter how bad things have gotten, Iíve managed to not worsen them. I get angry in the line at the DMV, but I havenít lost my cool. When the school called on Monday to say there was a parent-teacher meeting on Thursday, I was able to juggle work and the sitter to get there and at least look like the concerned parent that I really am. When I went to the courthouse to file the papers to try and get child support from that deadbeat of a dad Ė again Ė it went faster because Iíve already done it four times, once for each new job he canít seem to hold down. I guess Iíve remained righteous in the midst of it all because Iíve not lashed out yet. But my soul, well, my soul is drained. Thereís a drought going on. For every gallon I take out the reservoir of hope, only half a gallon seems to flow back in. My soul is holding steady, but restored? Nah, not really.
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. Valley of death. Valley of darkness. Valley of despair. Valley of empty dreams. Valley of lost hopes. All those valleys. True, I fear no evil because you are with me. But the banker isnít evil, and I fear him. And the empty propane tank isnít evil, but I fear the cold. And the Metro turnstile isnít evil, but it just deducted the balance off my smart card. And the sidewalk isnít evil, but it just ate the heel of my shoe. Lord, Lord, Lord. If it werenít for bad luck, Iíd have no luck at all. I guess, to be fair, the valleys I find myself in arenít valleys of death or darkness or despair of empty dreams or lost hopes. But boulders turn to rocks and rocks turn to stones and stones turn to pebbles and pebbles turn to sand and everything gets washed down to the ocean of oblivion. I donít know if Iím a boulder or a rock or a stone or a pebble or sand, but I am getting washed away. Heavens, this valley sure is deep. And that rod and that staff? Iím not sure they comfort me so much as goad me on. A nudge here and a push there, and I keep going along that valley. Dang, itís a long valley.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Why did you have to invite them? Donít I see enough of them already? Just let me eat in peace. How do you expect me not to gloat? I mean, youíre God. And you cooked up this huge banquet just for me. And Iím sitting there and Iím buttering my corn and Iím sweetening my iced tea and Iím dipping gravy on my mashed potatoes and Iím slicing the ham and carving the turkey and scooping the dressing and having a grand old time. And then my enemies show up. And they donít get a seat at the table. Itís hard not to gloat. And I canít really say I hate my enemies. Sure, I donít like them, but I donít hate them. And if they were hungry, like Iíve been, Iíd let them eat. I know what hunger feels like. And if they were lonely, like Iíve been, Iíd let them sit. I know what loneliness feels like. And maybe they have treated me unjustly, but that doesnít mean I have to do the same. Just because they werenít able to forgive me doesnít mean I canít forgive them. Lord, you sure make it hard sometimes. You tell me to forgive those who trespass against me, and then you prepare a table in their presence. Lord, donít you know how hard this is? Surely youíre not that naÔve.
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. I could have used some of that oil earlier. And are you trying to make up for all those times my cup was empty? I just donít get it. Is it that you finally heard me let out that big sigh? Is it that you finally saw that river of tears Iíve cried? Is it that you finally heard when I said, ďIím doneĒ? A day late and a dollar short. Thatís what it feels like sometimes. Oh, I know thatís not true, but it is what it feels like sometimes. And Lord, if you donít get that then you donít get me.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Yes, yes, I know, I know. But to be honest, Iíll believe it when I see it. And you know, instead of having this goodness and mercy thing follow me all the days of life, do you think it might be possible for them to go ahead of me? Iíve faced enough badness and injustice all these days of my life. I could use a break. And that dwelling in your house thing -- is that now or later? I donít mean to complain, but everything just seems a long way off.
This Psalm of David, Iím not sure itís for me.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ďSalvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.Ē
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ďAmen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.
Then one of the elders asked me, ďThese in white robes ó who are they, and where did they come from?Ē I answered, ďSir, you know.Ē And he said, ďThese are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; Ďhe will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.íĒ
Those words are from Revelation, chapter 7, verses 9-17.
Whenever I think of Psalm 23, I imagine a single sheep and a single shepherd. I forget that no shepherd who is trying to make a living at their occupation would have just one sheep. That would be like a car dealership with only one automobile out in the car lot. Or a credit union with only one investment option. Or a library with only one book. Revelation chapter 7 reminds me that I am not alone. I saw before me a great multitude. A crowd. A whole lot of people. A multitude so large, so vast, so grand that they could not be numbered.
I am not alone. Others around me have the wants and needs and desires that I have. Others in my midst face the same challenges of finding rest Ė of carving out a green pasture with still waters Ė that I face. And I am surrounded by others who have had their souls restored, who have been led along the paths of righteousness, who have walked through those valleys of darkness and shadow. Others have preceded me who have feasted and been anointed and received goodness and mercy. I am not alone.
When I look at this multitude and I am told that these in white robes are those who have come out the great tribulation. Now thereís been a lot of speculation and endless discussion about this great tribulation and its relationship to the second coming and the resurrection of the saints and the coming of the antichrist and the great battle of Armageddon. And the fact of the matter is, for all the speculation and discussion and endless debate, no one knows what this great tribulation really is. And I am of the opinion that it doesnít matter. And the reason I donít think it really matters is because it hasnít happened in the past 2,000 years and I donít know that itís going to happen in the next 2,000 years. But I do know this: Iíve got a life that I have to live now, today, in the present, every day, day by day.
And this life that I am living has enough tribulation on its own terms that I donít need to add one more ounce of sorrow or pain or suffering or despair or disappointment to it.
As far as Iím concerned, those people in those white robes, that vast multitude from every nation and tribe and people and language Ė those who have come out of the great tribulation Ė they are you and they are me. They are every one of us who has needed the Lamb, the Lamb who has become the Shepherd.
Have you hungered? Hungered not just for food, but for companionship, for care, for tenderness? Have you thirsted? Thirsted not just for water, but for knowledge, for justice, for compassion? Has the sun beat down upon you? Not just the 100-degree summers, but the heat of anxiety, of irritation, of ignorance? Have you felt the scorching heat? Not just the heat of a temperature inversion, but the heat of anger, of abuse, of bullying? If you have been born into this world, surrounded by people and circumstances and just plain living, then yes, you have. And if you have, then you have suffered your own tribulations. And you are not alone, but you are surrounded a vast multitude which no person can count.
That multitude surrounds you even now in this sacred space. You may not see them or hear them or feel them. You may not know them, having never met them, never seen their eyes, never glanced upon their faces. But they are here. And from that center which is your universe, that vast multitude radiates out from you Ė above you, below you, all around you. And it is not only that multitude of human beings created in the image of their savior Ė your savior Ė those who have gone before you, and those who are alive today with their spirit touching your spirit Ė however imperceptibly Ė and those who will come after you. You are also encompassed by all the angels of God, by the elders standing around the throne of the Lamb who has become your Shepherd.
The Lamb is your shepherd. You need not want. You are free to lie down in green pastures. You have permission to follow the Lamb beside the still waters and have your soul restored. You are free to be righteousness. You can fearlessly journey through any dark valley because you are never alone. Guidance is there, you are free to follow it. Every good thing has been spread out before you, itís yours for the taking. The Lamb, the angels, the elders, the vast multitude, they are with you all the days of your life, whether you know it or not, whether you feel it or not, even whether you want it or not. You are never alone. You are already dwelling in the house of the Lamb. Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God the Lamb, for ever and ever.