PREPARING FOR WORSHIP
- Take a deep breath, exhaling it slowly and let the breath that escapes your body be a cleansing moment when all the anxiety that besets you is expelled.
- Do this breathing exercise again.
- Do it again.
- Now remember a time of comfort and joy.
- Focus on God’s hand in creating, sustaining and guiding you to this place of peace.
- Finally, give thanks for what God has done in your life and say outloud “O GOD I GIVE YOUR NAME PRAISE AND I AM READY TO ENTER INTO THIS TIME OF WORSHIP.”
For Your abiding presence, O God, hear our thanks. You have guided us through war, sustained in times of want, and brought forth food from the fields. In all of life, your hand has sustained us. Hear us now as we pray for:
- Those who have fallen ill (provide the names of those you know whose health is compromised)
- Those who live in isolation from those they love (provide names of those you know who are isolated or in quarantine)
- Those who provide health care in midst of this pandemic (provide names of those you know who are members of the health care team)
- For troubled parents who have yet another worry on their hands.
- For those in positions of leadership and government.
- For those involved in research who are seeking a treatment and a vaccine.
- For your own personal health — both physical and mental.
- For the nourishing of your soul that trust and hope might remain strong.
For all this we pray. Amen.
SCRIPTURE — PSALM 23 (NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION)
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely 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.
A Sermon by The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ March 22, 2020
“The Still Waters of Faith: An Exploration of the 23rd Psalm”
“…he leads me beside still waters…” Psalm 23:2i
His job was on the line and his face carried the weight of uncertainty. He did not know how long his job would last. Like all of us, the present moment was all he knew, all he could trust.
Ellen and I had gone out to eat while in New Orleans celebrating the wedding of our friends’ daughter. We had gone to one of the myriads of hotels and sat at the bar — in large part because they had a television tuned to CNN. Louisiana had zero cases of Covid-19 when we left the state of Vermont on Wednesday. It was now four days later and the number of cases had grown to 77 by Sunday. The hotel had an eerie feeling of winding down, of becoming a mere shell of unused capacity.
As one is want to do, we talked with the barkeeper. There was no smile on his face. He told us that he didn’t think the hotel would be open by the end of the week. He would be without a job.
Given where we are today, he would have been crazy not to be anxious. The same can be said, I suspect, for all of us. There is reason for concern and there is nowhere to hide from the social upheaval that has descended upon us. And yet.
The words of the 23rd Psalm have spoken to countless generations, to those confronting the loss of a loved one, to those who are on the battlefield of war, to those who seek respite and hope from the anxiety inherent in the human condition. Why? It points beyond the terror of any given moment to an unflagging hope. Perhaps a deeper look at this psalm will give us both understanding and guidance as we move through our time of unknowing. Let’s take it verse by verse.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
At the very outset, there is a challenge put before all who read this psalm. It is, of course a declarative sentence. “The Lord is my shepherd….” and in that declaration is found the ending promise, “I shall not want.” But this is the question I put before us today. Is the Lord our shepherd? By what am I guided? What informs my course in life, the actions I take, the place of my deepest trust?
If I am to be honest, the Lord is not always my shepherd — not because God has given up on me but because I have sought an escape from God. There are times in our lives when we seek to trust in what we control — our financial investments, prestige, power. God is not our shepherd for we have sought to go our own way. We find our condition echoed in the words of Isaiah 53:6 “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way…”
But our want returns. We stumble and fall into chaos and disorder. We do not heed the shepherd’s voice. We are like Israel wondering in the wilderness. For forty years, they had no home, only a promise. Yet they did not die in the wilderness of their longing, they did not starve but journeyed on. They did not live in want. They had enough. Moses called them back to the God who had delivered them from bondage and the Great Shepherd led them home. The key for them and for us is to seek God as our shepherd.
“2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;”
This is what any shepherd would do. But notice that it says “leads me…” It is my understanding that in antiquity, the sheep knew their shepherd’s voice. Indeed, I think when sheep were put into the fold at night, they were comingled, meaning that other shepherds used the sheep fold and in the morning the shepherds would call to their sheep and the sheep, hearing their shepherd’s voice, would follow.
So why is that important? It means that the sheep were not herded like cattle but led. We, too, must discern the voice of God amidst the din of the world. It is in following our true shepherd that we arrive at green pastures and still waters.
Speaking of still waters…. One summer our boys had high school friends from Acton, Massachusetts, up to our house on Lake Champlain. Our home is very near the ferry crossing to New York state. They decided it would be fun to take two inflatable rafts and row over to New York from the Vermont side. They started out in the morning. The lake was unusually still, the breeze mild. It didn’t stay that way. When they set out to return from New York to Vermont, the wind out of the Southwest had picked up considerably. The lake was rough and the wind strong. For every inch they advanced towards Vermont they found themselves forced by the wind further North. A neighbor lent us his raft that was equipped with an outboard motor and I raced North, threw them a line, and towed them home.
So it is in life. The calm waters of any given present can become tumultuous as time passes. The Good Shepherd leads us to calm waters and a safe harbor. In times of chaos we need that guiding hand.
“3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
God restores our souls. From what does one need restoring? Is it not the separation from God that destroys one’s soul, that causes it to fall into a state of weakness and despondency? Who but God could restore one’s soul? It is when one gazes to the heavens and seeks the transcendent presence of the One who brought the world into being, who sustains us along life’s way, who is willing to die on a cross that we might find the restoration of our wayward souls, it is then that one’s soul can be filled again with hope in the power of God to triumph over the darkness.
Turning now to the last part of verse 3, “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” What does “…for his name’s sake” mean? I used to just gloss over the second part of the verse because I agreed with the first part — namely, “He leads me in right paths….” Of course, God leads us in right paths. It is when we deviate from the will of God that we travel down the wrong road. So, the first part of the verse seems clear enough. But what of the second part, “for his name’s sake?”
See if this makes sense. The Great Shepherd has called us and we journey where the Shepherd’s voice takes us. It is for the sake of God’s name that God leads us beside the still waters and restores our souls. For God to do otherwise would be to violate God’s nature.
There is couplet by the poet Rilke that I have used before that seems fitting here:
“We learn by going
Which way we are to go.”
It is by following the voice of God, that inner presence, that we discover the power and truth of God’s path for us. Oh, it may not always be easy. Sometimes there are battles to be fought that are worth the struggle and sometimes we can discern the purpose behind our effort. Other times come when the struggle’s purpose is not clearly defined. But in the end we are called to trust that whatever joy or sorrow confronts us, our faith and trust in God can lead us to affirm that it was done “for his name’s sake.” Simply put, your ultimate welfare fits the purpose of God and while on this side of heaven we may not see the final victory, the power of an empty tomb awaits and the triumph is God’s. “…for his name’s sake…” Thanks be to God.
That is all we have time for this week. We will pick this up at the fourth verse. In the meantime, remember in whose hands you are held. Let us pray….
THE CLOSE OF WORSHIP
Remain strong, my friends. Know that the One who suffered on the cross that we might live in freedom, reconciled to God and assured of Christ’s final victory over the force of darkness and death, that same God is with us today, tomorrow and forever. Thanks be to God. Amen
i Psalm 23
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6Surely 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.