Reclaiming Psalm 23

Words of Hope - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

This is a transcript from the March 22, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

Good morning. How has your week been? Last night I found myself posting and just doing a video and I didn't know how to start it. I just started it with what was going on in me and it was with a big sigh. It's been that kind of week. It's been that week that stretches us thin and exasperates us, it terrifies us. Sometimes it delights us, surprises us, but all in all, it's pretty exhausting. I know I'm not alone.

That's why this morning I am shifting gears and doing, for the next several weeks, a series on the words of hope. Words that speak to us. Words that encourage us. Words that lift us. Words that we go to. They're sort of our go-to words. Our go-to scriptures. Our go-to quotes. I've asked people to send in. I would invite you to send those in in the days and weeks to come because I'd love to hear them.

This morning I want to start with one of those go-to words for me. It is one of those go-to passages. I know it's not just me. It is something that all of us or a large part of us have and it's Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is perhaps one of the most beloved chapters of the Bible. One the most memorized. The only problem with Psalm 23 is that we usually associate it now just with funerals and with memorials.

While I get that part, I get it because those are great words of consolation. I think that's not enough. It's so much bigger than that. Psalm 23 was created not just for the last of our days but for the living of our days. It's in the hustle and bustle over frayed and frazzled. That's where Psalm 23 comes in. I'm going to read it through once. The words will be up here for us. Some of you could probably just close your eyes and memorize it although there's a little bit different variations in verses.

You'll forgive me if I don't close my eyes. I'm going to keep them right on here. "That the Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His namesake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil for you're 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 Lord my whole lifelong."

Those are go-to words for me. Those are go-to words that speak to the core of my soul. They offer both confidence. It is also an invitation for the way that I am to live into the days that are ahead. I would say that as we read those words and as comfortable as they are and as familiar as they are we should also note that those words are either the most delusional words ever written about real-life or they're an invitation to a different way of life because either these words are just full of false bravado and religious clich├ęs, or they are speaking about an earned trust.

They are based on the confidence of what has been. That's why gratitude is where we begin this morning. This is a psalm that could only be written in the spirit of gratitude. Earlier, Jordan invited us to begin with gratitude. What are the things that we want to rejoice in today? Some of you are already sharing those things. It's wonderful you should because these are the kinds of things that are part of an everyday life. These are the things, and this is what gratitude does. Gratitude opens us up. That's not just religious stuff that's brain science.

It helps to rewire and reframe our brain when we are faced with the dark paths; the valley of the shadow of death kind of experiences. Our brain goes to a different place, and we start to get into that fight or flight or freeze mentality. When we start with gratitude of what has been so far, what has brought us here so far, what God has done already, our brain start to relax, and we're able to come up with different solutions. We're able to be open to the one who has been with us and the one that we can count on to be with us as we go from here.

What are you grateful for this morning? I found myself this week because I have little practices every day, I write down things that I am grateful for. I was surprised a little bit this week as the week went on. About Thursday or Friday, I just noticed that I was starting to fill up a whole page and not a single thing was a thing with the exception of coffee. Coffee was important in the morning. After that, it was just names of people.

I'm grateful for this person and this person. There was family on there, there was friends, there was co-workers, there was people in the community. I was just starting to fill this page and it just dawned on me that when you start to take away all the things and all the trappings and all the normal props around us that we get grateful and we come back to one of the greatest gifts is the people that God has given us. I found myself just going down this list and just spilled onto the page.

We're taking a look at Psalm 23 and the point is in to be exhaustive about this. What are some of the lessons that these great words of hope might offer us today? What are particularly pertinent? A couple of things struck me this week. Beyond the fact that it's based on gratitude, it's that there is this unmistakable and unyielding truth that this is a road that we have to take every day and there are no shortcuts. I'm amazed how many times in the Psalms when it's about praise and thanksgiving.

It's about us. It's about the congregation joining in but in Psalm 23 and Psalms like this walking the path, notice how many times it's singular because there is a place where we get to walk together with each other, but we don't get to do this for each other. There is something that each of us has to do. We would love if this Psalm was simply moving from, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," and just go jump to, "and surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."

We would love if those two things were together but it's significant about what's in the middle. What's in the middle is that we are walking through a valley of the shadow of death. It's not just an obstacle. It's just not an obstacle to experiencing the love and the mercy and the goodness of God. It becomes the occasion where we will experience God's presence next. If we can recall where God has been that brought us to this point then we can take confidence that as we are walking into the places where we are exposed, where we feel vulnerable, where we feel afraid, where we are at completely out of control.

We begin to notice the presence of that same one, that Shepherd who was with us and then the task becomes not just how do we get through this but how do we recognize and how do we respond? One of the most profound ways that we respond is with the urging and the nudging towards those still waters and those places that restore our soul. Those are the key places. This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. This is a wandering in the wilderness. It's not as simple as, "Let's just get through this." It is finding those places.

I think every day where we can turn off to the side and find that place of stillness, find that place that nurtures and find that place that restores our soul. I want to ask, "What restores your soul? What are the things that you do? What are the things that you have found?" Just as the path is singular and personal, I think that answer is singular and personal as well. Everyone knows and everyone has a sense of the things that restore their soul.

I've asked for people to send that in and I've been amazed at the variety of things; everything from getting out into nature or being around people or serving others in special capacities, praying for others, learning, music, walking. What is it that restores your soul? Are you taking the time to do it or like me, so many times your head's down, the blinders are on and you're just trying to get through what's in front of you? Here's what I know.

I don't know how long this season of staying in our houses and sheltering in place and staying in is going to last. That's a season that has its own time, and I have no control of it, but I do have the control of what am I going to do with this time, and my choices, I could try to put my blinders on, head down and just get through it. I could find all kinds of ways to distract myself. I could be on Twitter all day. I could be on watching TV all day. I could be busy all day, or I have the opportunity now.

In fact, an invitation like never before, when all the other things have been pulled away, to take time and let this also become a time of nurturing my soul so that when I get to the other side, that I'm a different person because I believe this. I believe that this, "He restores my soul," is not just an affirmation of faith. It is that. I believe it is also an invitation to a journey, where the things that are in front of us are not seen as obstacles, but just the occasion where we will experience God and God's presence in new ways.

To do that, at least I know I need to turn aside. I need to find the still waters. I need to find those places and do those things to nurture my soul. Here's the warning. What kind of provisions from God are in front of us right now but we may just walk right past them? What kinds of things is God providing us resources of strength and encouragement, of solace, of comfort that are right there but because our focus is here, we don't see? What kind of provisions does God have for you? What kind of provisions are waiting for us? The question of this week, what will you do?

What will you do this week that nurtures and restores your soul? I want to begin with that statement at the end. "You prepare a table before me at the presence of my enemies." When I was trying to come up with an image of that table, I found myself looking at every picture and going, "How do I find a table of celebration and abundance that is going to meet everybody's taste buds? How do I find a table that is glorious and that is gluten-free and dairy-free? How do I find a table that matches the needs of vegetarians and vegans and is also keto? How do I do all of those things?"

Here's what I'd like to suggest. Rather than me put up a picture, I'd like you to use your own imagination. I'd like you to ask this question, what is on your table? What is on your table that celebrates and signifies abundance and joy? It could be a little. It could be a lot. What is the food that makes your mouth water? What are the things that bring comfort? What are the things that when there is its signal this is a celebration? Take just a moment to imagine that. What kind of food and drink is there? What kind of people are there, by the way?

Then as you're imagining that, imagine this. What's not at your table? What foods don't you want there? More important, I want you to imagine what else is not invited to your table if it's going to be, in fact, a table of celebration. For most of us, what's not at our table are those people who annoy us, who discourage us, who we're angry with, our enemies, but more than that, it is the enemies around us. It is the things like disease. It is the things like the trials and the tribulations. We don't want those there.

In fact, when we pray, we pray that those things aren't there so we can celebrate, but watch this. This passage doesn't say, "Get rid of all my enemies so I can enjoy this table." It says, "In the presence of my enemies, you set this table." The invitation is to somehow enjoy this table, in the presence, in the midst of all the things that are still harassing you. Many of them are outward, but also take to heart all the things that are inward that harass you. Your own doubts. Your own fear. Your own sense of inadequacy and not-enoughness. The things that haunt you. The inner judge and critic.

Can you imagine celebrating and reveling in the presence of God, in the presence of those enemies? Because that's the invitation, and that's the picture. The celebration comes not when all those things have been pushed aside, but the real celebration, the real promise, the real invitation of Psalm 23 is to find abundance this week, in the presence of fear, to celebrate even with the news, that somehow revel even with the voices of criticism and judgment that we bring on ourselves. It is then that we will find God restoring our soul.

There was a poem this week by an Irish priest, and it has gone all over the world. We decided we wanted to incorporate it here this morning because it gets to some of these same both and not either/or. It's either got to be all wonderful, or it's all terrible, but in the midst of both and the things we wish weren't there with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the ability to celebrate. These things exist, and it's there. It's there that we are able to find the presence to recognize and respond.

We put some pictures to it from around the world. Members of our Growing in Everyday Spirituality team have lent their voices. Let this be a reflection that closes for the table that is set before us.

"Yes, there is fear. Yes, there is isolation. Yes, there is panic buying. Yes, there is sickness. Yes, there is even death.

They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again. They say that after just a few weeks of quiet, the sky is no longer thick with fumes but blue and gray and clear.

They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares, keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them. They say that a hotel in the west of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today, a young woman I know is busy spreading flyers with her phone number throughout the neighborhood so that elders may have someone to call. Today, churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, and the weary.

All over the world, people are slowing down and reflecting. All over the world, people are looking at their neighbors in a new way. All over the world, people are waking up to a new reality, to how big we are, to how little control we really have, to what really matters, to love.

We pray and we remember that yes, there is fear, but there does not have to be hate. Yes, there is isolation, but there does not have to be loneliness. Yes, there is panic buying, but there does not have to be meanness.

Yes, there is sickness, but there does not have to be disease of the soul. Yes, there is even death, but there can always be a rebirth of love. Wake to the choices you make as to how you live now.

Today, breathe, listen. Behind the factory noises of your panic, the birds are singing again. The sky is clearing. Spring is coming.

And we are always encompassed by love. Open the windows of your soul though you may not be able to touch across the empty square--"

To be able to worship together, the sanctuary isn't full, but it isn't empty either. As we were preparing and even as we were leading worship, it's with the energy and the faces that are here that are in our minds. More than that, it is the people that are here that are doing. I want to thank Jordan, I want to thank Sarah, Nick, but I also want to thank the people you can't see who are making this possible and that's Brandon and that's Aaron and that's Randy. All of that is part of today. We come in and wherever we are, we're a part of worship and now we go out to serve.

What path are you ready to walk this week? What song are you wanting to sing? Where are you going to need God's help? We know we're walking on the right path. We know we're singing the right song. When it aligns with the great commandments, go, love God with everything you've got this week. Heart, soul, mind, and strength. Go, love your neighbor as yourself and then the benediction that we always give here at New Hope. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace. In believing, may you abound with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit now and forever." Amen. Go in peace.