Lent 3/22/2020 – St. Paul’s (Live-Stream)_
God is Here. God is with you in your home. He surrounds us and in Him we have our being. Take a few moments to still yourself… observe your breathing slowing down…your thoughts becoming less insistent. God is present! Reach out to Him and spend some time rejoicing in His presence. He is here for you all the time; make this time for Him.
Let us take a some time in silence as we begin our worship together……
————–I end this time of silence with a prayer from the Armed Forces Prayerbook:
In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated. We desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving. We remember your death, Lord Christ; We proclaim your resurrection; We await your coming in glory. And since We cannot receive you today in the physical presence of my community, We ask you to come spiritually into our hearts. Cleanse and strengthen us with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let us never be separated from you. May we live in you, and you in us, in this life and the life to come. Amen+
This is a special and important time in which we are facing new challenges in response to the spread of the Corona Virus. It is also Lent–a special season in the life of the Church. We are finding more time as part of this season to pause, to think, to reflect, to decide, to ponder the painful life of Jesus, and to see our own life afresh in relation to his during these trying times of social distancing. Lent and the response to this pandemic are countercultural, because it moves against our busyness, our drive and energy and control. In effect, we are being asked to wait and watch and notice–things we do not do well or easily. The Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23, is known to us and much loved by us. In some ways, Psalm 23 seems no match for the work of Lent much less our circumstances, because it seems so sweet and so soft and comforting. But something happens to this Psalm if we take it as a script for Lent and coping with the Coronavirus pandemic.
As you know, the psalm begins, The Lord is my shepherd. The very first word is The Lord or, better, Yahweh. The first word in Lenten talk is the peculiar name of the God of Israel, the one who makes heaven and earth, and wholiberates and heals and commands. The psalmist is focused upon this peculiar God and the memory we have of the ways of this God.
And then he says of this God: Yahweh is my shepherd. To think, shepherd might suggest an idyllic pastoral scene.In fact, however, the term shepherd is political in the Bible…as is everything else we seem to say these days. It means king, sovereign, lord, authority, the one who directs, to whom I am answerable, whom I trust and serve. In this opening line, the psalm is clear about the goal and focus, the center and purpose of life: Yahweh and no other. No rival loyalty, no competing claim–not economic or political, not liberal or conservative, not sexist or racist, or any other petty loyalties that seduce us. It is a mark of discernment and maturity to strip life down to one compelling loyalty.
The the poet draws a stunning conclusion from this statement about God: I shall not want.I shall not lack anything. I shall not have any other yearnings or desires that fall outside the gifts of God. What God gives will be enough for me. This is a statement of enormous confidence in the generosity of God, the one who knows what we need and gives well beyond all we ask or think. And notice at the same time that this phrase I shall not want, is a decision made against the greed and lust and satiation and aggressive ambition of a consumer society. Our consumer society is driven by the notion that we always must want one more thing, and we are entitled to it, and we will have it no matter what. This is part of what is leading people to hoard.
So here is this Lenten invitation during a time of staying home…..I will refocus my desire. I will not entertain all those greeds and yearnings that keep me busy and cause me not to notice and keep in touch with my neighbor. Here is a Lenten project for all of us who are competentand affluent and driven and anxious. Faith in this God requires refocus of our desires, because most of our wants are contrived and imagined and phony. This Lord will be the Lord of our wants and needs, and we need much less when we are clear about the wonder and goodness of God. No substitutes allowed or required.
To unpack this statement of focused trust, the poem invites us to two images. The first is this: Imagine that you are a sheep. As you may know, sheep are really dumb. They do not know how to take care of themselves or even to come in out of the rain. Left to their own devices, they would soon be in trouble, hurt, and likely destroyed. A sheep needs a shepherd, and must learn to trust its life to the shepherd. But it matters a lot what kind of shepherd a sheep is able to have. There are all kinds, some good, some bad.
Then, this sheep, according to the psalmist, says, Let me tell you about my shepherd, like whom there is no other. Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth, the liberator of Israel, is my shepherd who I trust completely. Let me tell you specifically about why I trust so completely.
This reliable, strong, generous shepherd has done three things for his sheep:
- He has led us into green pastures. Keep in mind this psalm was written in a climate like Far West Texas. He has sought out the best grazing land, so we now not only have plenty to eat, there is some left over to lie in. How luxurious. In other words, God is whispering to you: I want you to have plenty. I want you to have enough and to spare.
- He has led me beside still waters. The psalm says that God takes us to a place where the water flows fast enough to be fresh and not so fast we cannot drink it. God is saying to us: I want you to have fresh, flowing, accessible, quiet water. I want you to know what its like to have cold water flowing down on your tongue and in your mouth and over your cheeks and everywhere.
- He has led us in the paths of righteousness, which means safe, straight paths. There are dangerous paths on which sheep may walk in treachery, crooked and narrow and stony, or through dark places filled with disease…But we have been safe. God is with us.
This good shepherd has given all that is needed–good food, good water, good paths. What else could an average sheep need? Notice that all the verbs of action are for the shepherd. The sheep has no verbs. The sheep does nothing. The sheep waits and receives and enjoys the gifts. Because the shepherd is generous, the sheep lives a safe, trust-filled life, surrounded by generosity. No hunger, no fear, no anxiety, no danger. All is Well, because there is one shepherd who is trusted.
This poem shifts abruptly to a second metaphor. Now it is the image of a traveler going through dangerous territory. Sort of like the man with the Good Samaritan who went on a journey and got mugged (Luke 10:30). The journey is filled with threats and danger.
So, remember, Yahweh is my shepherd. Yahweh is my guardian and protector. In the most dangerous place, I fear no evil. This traveler has confidence, even in threatening places, because the traveler is accompanied. Thou art with me. It is precisely the reality of God who is the antidote to our consuming anxiety and fears. The psalmist has discovered that things on the journey are not as they seem when God is present. We are safer, more cared for than we imagined. It is the presence of God that transforms dangerous places and tough circumstances such as we are in now.
So, says the poet, let me tell you about the valley of the shadow of death, when God is present:
- There, on the journey, we are confronted by God’s
- protective rod and staff, instruments of guidance and comfort. We are not on our own, but guided, guided by God’s presence. What we need to hear from God is that…however bad or painful or miserable this is, it’s not going to scare me away– and I’m going to show you that with the words I say to you, with how I touch you, and with the way I am happy to be silent with you, we are going to stare this tragedy down together.
- When God is present, There, on the journey, we thought there were no resources; but in the very presence of need, fear, and hunger, God sets a table of generous food. It is like coming around the corner of deep threat, and there in the middle of the road a lavish table of
- marvelous food, water from the rock, bread from heaven is spread out before you. One caveat is that God invites you to dinner and never tells you who you’ll be sitting next to. It could be embarrassing. I believe this is what makes God laugh.
- When God is present, there, on the journey, where we thought there was only scarcity, the God of generosity pours out precious oil on our heads. Our lives overflow because of God’s wonderful generosity, just where we thought God had no gifts to give. God wants us to feel the sensual joy of being cherished and adored, of feeling His hands through our hair and the smoothness and
- assurance of his touch on our head and skin in this time of social distancing. Are you ready to enjoy being enjoyed by God?
The journey, with the power and purpose of God, changes the circumstance in which we live. Wilderness becomes home, isolation becomes companionship, scarcity becomes generosity. This is how the life of faith is in the midst of scary times. It is, to be sure, very different from the life where Yahweh is not at its core.
The psalm concludes, as you know, with two affirmations:
First, goodness and mercy pursue me. The psalm doesn’t say Surely I shall search for goodness and mercy; it says, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow ME – shall pursue me, shall chase me, hunt me down, stalk me, search me out, track me down, find me– and not just for a while, but all the days of my life. Goodness and mercy are on a perpetual mission to find you and they’ll be pursuing you every day of your life. In other words, you can’t finally escape God’s relentless tenderness, tray as you might.
This is a time while we are pretty much stuck at home to quit running, to let ourselves be caught and embraced in love, like that of a sheep with safe pasture, like a traveler with rich and unexpected food. Our life is not willed by God to be an endless anxiety. It is rather, meant to be an embrace, and that entails being caught by God.
The second concluding line is, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever….that is my whole life long. I will live in continuous communion with God. I will not depart from the premises of God’s life, because I have no desire for a life apart from God. Why would I want to leave?
The last line of this psalm asserts that the true joy and purpose of life are to love God and be loved by God, no longer alone facing this world filled with the Coronavirus, but in communion with God. Our anti-Lent society gives us many desires….these, however, will never constitute a good life. The matter has been settled in the first line of this poet. This sheep community trusts this God and wants nothing else.
Most of us know this psalm well. There is nothing soft or sweet or easy or sentimental here. This is the voice of a reorganized, refocused, reoriented life. It means to see differently, to trust differently, and to obey differently.
As you heard the Gospel reading for today, it might at first seem to be about a blind boy. As you ponder the story, it now becomes clear that the real issue is not the boy who is blind but his opponents. They think they know everything and control everything. Jesus says to them,Those who do see may become blind. And their answer is, Surely we are not blind are we? The bottom line is they are blind because they see wrongly. They see only through their control, their arrogance, their meanness, their anxiety…and in so doing, they miss everything.
Lent during our pandemic crisis is about noticing our blindness, and seeing differently. And so, I am inviting you during this time to see differently…. To see past your anxiety, your fear, your control. See yourself as the sheep of this good shepherd we call Jesus, as the traveler in God’s good valley, as the citizen at home in God’s good house. You will, I promise, when you truly see, become free and joyous and generous, unencumbered and grateful. The Rev. Amy Lunde-Whitler says What our hearts yearn for, what our souls ache for is a God who walks with through the broken shards of our messy lives. If this is so, then during this Lent of the Pandemic, desire one thing: God’s presence. Stop and let God catch up while you wait in your home.