Sunday 3 May 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Revd Sheridan James
A question I’ve seen coming up on social media over the last few weeks is
“What have you learnt about God during this global pandemic/life under lockdown?”
It’s a really good question – one that really merits some consideration. And given that this is not a normal sermon and you’re not listening to this in church, you could make yourself a cup of tea and write/draw/mind map some thoughts about that right now if you like. You may be someone who very naturally journals and reflects and you may be someone who has never done that before, but I really recommend it. It’s not about writing fancy or clever stuff. It’s about helping you to process what’s going on and what maybe God is trying to show you. Sometimes when you write and draw things come out of the sludge of our brain and we have a bit of a revelation and that in itself can be hugely beneficial to us spiritually, psychologically and emotionally.
Go on – go and give it a go. And if you want – you could share them with us, if you email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or perhaps you want to finish with this sermon and take some time this afternoon to think and ponder.
Back to psalm 23.
The psalms are the poetry and worship book of the bible – and they are written with great skill in terms of words and metaphor, theology and reflection, insight and wisdom. They are not rough and ready jottings. But I’m sure that before psalm 23 came into existence in the form we see it today, there were rough drafts, sketches and other versions, as David sought to find exactly the right thought and metaphor. Any creative person knows that sometimes it just flows and other times it’s a struggle, even a torment.
Psalm 23, today’s psalm is perhaps the most famous psalm and perhaps one of the top 5 most known texts in the Bible. It’s read at most funerals. It was the theme tune to the wonderful TV show, “The Vicar of Dibley”. But perhaps like Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings, or any hits by The Beatles or Bob Marley it looses it’s impact through us being over familiar with it.
But I think it has some beautiful things that could bring us strength and comfort in these difficult days.
There are 6 verses, so I’m going to aim for 6 pearls of wisdom.
- Denial is no one’s friend
We’re all longing for this to be over and for life to return to normal. And the struggle is real. It doesn’t help anyone by not acknowledging the tough things, the things we fear, the frustrations and difficulties we experience. We need to acknowledge them to ourselves, our nearest and dearest and to God. The psalms are full of truth and honesty – depression, sadness, rage, guilt, anger – all there in the psalms. God DOES NOT require us to put on our Sunday best and present the ‘best version’ of ourselves. He really, really, really doesn’t. Even though that’s what ‘church culture’ has sometimes required of us. Psalm 23 is a very comforting psalm but right in the middle of it is the greatest ‘truth’ – “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” or in today’s translation “Though I walk through the darkest valley” – this is the truth of humanity’s life experience. We walk through dark valleys. We live with a sense of our own mortality. Death is prevalent. It’s a certain life experience. And right now, it is all around us. And it will create in all of us a reaction – fear, anger, anxiety and denial. But denial is no one’s friend. Bring the reality of what you are feeling and thinking to God, to yourself and to your loved ones.
- The Good Shepherd has got our back
The central metaphor in this psalm is about sheep and shepherds. God is the Good Shepherd – the shepherd who looks after his sheep so well that we lack nothing. But this “lacking of nothing” is not rooted in a 21-Century understanding or want and need – where basically we have little sense of what is enough. We have consumed and gorged ourselves to death, using up the planet’s resources at such a rate that we are causing destruction of the earth and exploitation of the workers. This metaphor is rooted in an understanding of simple provision. The shepherd gives food and water and a place to rest. Simple, but absolutely essential needs. Food and shelter. During this global pandemic, perhaps for the first time, we have become super aware of food and shortages. More aware of what we actually need to survive. We’ve become more inventive, hopefully more grateful for what we took for granted. We’ve looked out for our neighbour. We’ve worried about our friends and family. And perhaps we’ve remembered how much we rely on God. A thing that’s easily to forget in the instant Western world, where we can always get what we need, whenever we need it.
But in a time of lack, we’ve leaned closer to God and had moments where we have remembered that we lack nothing. The Good Shepherd has got our back.
- Slow down, you move too fast
Grassy meadows, green pastures, restful waters, still waters… beautiful images of rest and peace. For the sheep essential parts of their provision – food and water – but delightful images for the humans reading this poem. This image is not about food and drink for us, but for an easing of our busy minds. Our fretful hearts. Quite something to think that this psalm, written 1000 BC – so some 3000 years ago would need to include an image about rest – surely the ancient Israelites were better at rest than us. Perhaps they were. They certainly had less distractions. But humans have always worried, feared, felt guilt, frustration and anger. And so spaces to soothe our weary minds have been essential. And they are essential now. I know that there’s the pressure of home-schooling, working from home, boredom, loneliness, frustration. But today, on this sabbath day for Christians, take 20 mins to sit (metaphorically) by a green meadow, some still waters. Drink in the beauty of the clouds, a flower, some trees. And let the Lord bring peace.
- Be a good sheep, not a stubborn one
I can be a stubborn sheep. Pursuing paths that are not good for me. I could pray, or I could scroll aimlessly on Twitter. I could listen to some music that would calm me, or I could compose angry emails to my boss in my head. I could take some time out and read the Bible. Or I could watch yet another video on YouTube. I could get frustrated with my household, or choose a path of kindness. Not that all the paths God will lead us down will be ‘churchy’ kinds of paths…. On Friday I joined an art class and painted a puffin. It was so good for me. It’s not a great painting, but it stilled my mind, made me focus on God’s creation and just made me so relaxed. It was for that hour a ‘still water’ or a ‘grassy meadow’.
- He keeps me alive, he revives my soul
Verse 3 in the two translations I’m reading has ‘he keeps me alive’ and ‘he revives my soul’ – sometimes during lockdown, we’re in survival mode – just coping, just bearing it, just OK. Not more than that. And in that flatness, difficulty, struggle – turn to God, remembering he’s the Good Shepherd who has got our back. He is with us, in the struggle, in the sadness, in the loneliness. He is there – protecting, comforting, bringing peace. Allow him to revive your soul.
- Enemies sitting at the table – but they are not the only ones there
I wonder who you think the enemies are at the moment? Perhaps the Coronavirus feels like an enemy – an enemy who has robbed us of so much. It certainly feels like an invasion. In some ways we feel like we’re living through a war, with an invisible enemy. And I know that the suffering is very real. All of you will know people who have been ill with the virus. Several people in our congregation have had it, or currently have it. And for some it’s been a brutal, brutal experience.
I haven’t suffered with Covid-19, but 2020 has been a year of suffering for me. A toxic mix of a hysterectomy, the loss of my mother and going through chemo to prevent the return of ovarian cancer. In some ways I’ve felt like I’ve matured a decade. In other ways aged a decade. It’s been 4 months of incredible loss.
But in other ways, a time when I have experienced God as the Good Shepherd in ways that I can’t quite begin to express yet (I will try, but not quite yet). I have not been saved from pain or suffering. I have not been saved from illness. Or from bereavement. I have not been saved from fear, pain, struggle, anger, loneliness. All these have been my lived experience.
But I have also been upheld by God’s grace, as a daily lived experience. This tangible sense of his loving kindness surrounding and supporting me through all of these things. I have sensed his goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. Just as you would sunshine on your face or the sweetness of dew on the grass in the morning, or the way a blackbird lifts your heart when you hear his sweet, sweet song.
I’ll stop there.
Read the psalm again. Perhaps find it in your Bible at home.
Write your own thoughts. A poem. A painting. Let the psalm speak to you of God’s provision, protection and loving kindness. Amen.