Sermon May 12, 2019

“The Guiding Hand of God”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Psalm 23
May 12, 2019

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters. 
– Psalm23:2i

It is my sincere hope that the words we just read this morning are a reflection of your relationship with God. Led to still waters, your wounds and scratches soothed, your fear laid to rest as you feast on what your enemies would deny you, never having to fear the valleys of deep darkness because you knew and know that God is with you. How I hope that the 23rd Psalm reflects your faith.

But I lived in Chicago, outside Detroit, near Philadelphia and ouside of Boston. The rosy words of the 23rd Psalm do not express the harried reality of the daily commute most urbanites face. Instead of still water, they hear, “God out’a my way. I’m driving here!”

The 23rd Psalm may be what we need, but it may not reflect our lived experience. Let’s face it, life has dealt us all some harsh blows. You may be feeling abandoned by God or our current state of affairs has brought untold anxiety upon your soul and you cannot say these words with any conviction in the present. If that is the case, then let us work on helping each other affirm the 23rd Psalm as a future hope. We do this because we are those who love the light, who want to find our way in darkness and want to be lifted beyond despair. If you do not desire to live in the light, then what I have to offer this morning will not speak to you. The truth of the matter is this: Unless one desires the grace of God, it will not come. God forces no one into belief, it must be longed for by those of us who have come to know the limits of our control and the vicissitudes of life. So if you desire to make this Psalm your own, let me suggest three necessary steps.

First, there is a need to reframe the past. Second, we must affirm the reality of the transcendent or, more simply put, of a power greater than ourselves. Third, we must rest our lives on faith. We’ll take them in the order just given.

If the words of the 23rd Psalm are to become our own, it will require a reframing of the past. There isn’t a person here today who has not been hurt by what has been. Betrayal, deceit, unfaithfulness, rejection, these are but a few of what may have plagued us in the past. It is easy to lament what has been and to wish it had never occurred. The reality, however, is that these moments of darkness were all too real.

Certainly Joseph knew something of this. His jealous brothers sold him into slavery by giving him over to a passing caravan headed to Egypt. Remember? Do you think Joseph jumped up and down praising his brothers for their treachery? He was but a boy, seventeen at the time he was ripped away from a loving father and the only home he had known. Clearly, being sold into slavery was not Joseph’ dream come true. But in the end, this act of treachery became the means by which the people of Israel were saved from starvation; for it was Joseph who interpreted one of Pharaoh’s dreams and warned Pharaoh that a period of seven years was coming when there would be little to no rain, that a famine would settle over not only Egypt but the entire region, and to prevent calamity, they must begin to store surplus grain in anticipation of the drought that was coming. In one of the most stunning scenes in the Bible, Joseph’s brothers, having been sent by their father, appear before Joseph who is now a high official in Pharaoh’s court. Eventually, Joseph reveals his identity to them and they are filled with terror. Now Joseph could wet his revenge. But Joseph saw beyond the treachery of that day long ago. He said to his brothers,

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Genesis 45:4-5)

Joseph reframed the darkness of his brother’s betrayal and saw how God used it to bring forth the light of hope.

And before us this morning is perhaps the most remarkable reframing of the past. On our altar sits a method of execution – the cross. It is the central symbol of our faith and has been transformed from a method of death to a symbol of hope. The day Jesus hung from its scaffold is known as Good Friday! Is that is not a reframing of the past?

In my own life, reframing has helped me to see that despite hardships I have faced, God used them to good ends. This may be hard for you folks to believe, but there have people in the churches that I served who wanted to get rid of me. (Please, no groins!) For the longest time I thought there was something wrong with me – I didn’t make the right visit at the right time; I said something that offended a member of long standing – it could have been anything. But one day an angel of the Lord came to me and set me straight. She was a psych nurse. She said, “Jeff, you do know this isn’t about you. These folks are going through a rough patch in life and they’re making you their scapegoat.” That took awhile to sink in but I stood firm and the naysayers eventually left the church and the church could breath again. I came to see that the hardship that I thought was personal had to happen if the church was to be healthy. I reframed my ordeal and you must be willing to do the same.

Second, we must affirm the reality of the transcendent. God must become more than a belief. God must guide our living. You see, I highly doubt the author of the 23rd Psalm had a life with no turmoil. Days must have come, as they come to us all, when the still waters and the cup overflowing could not be found. The easiest way to deal with such trials is to question the reality of God. Do away with the One whom we say loves us unconditionally, and you don’t have to explain why children get sick and die. The far harder task is to cling to God’s reality, to fight through the darkness and find the light.

Believing in the transcendent is like believing in the reality of justice. Remember the trial of O. J. Simpson and his stunning acquittal? It was a travesty, but I didn’t hear anyone suggesting that the jury system of justice should be done away with. We don’t throw out the courts because in some cases justice goes wanting. So it is with God. You don’t jettison your belief in the power of the cross because life took a wrong turn. No. Just the opposite. Look for the reality of the cross and its redemptive power in exactly those moments when darkness descends. Clinging to the reality of God helps make that reality real.

Third, we must live in faith. Faith provides the lenses by which we see the world aright. Listen to this tragic lament of a man who lost his faith.

“Russell Baker has written a marvelous autobiography, Growing up, from which comes this excerpt: His father died when he was five. ‘Bessie said I would understand someday, but she was only partly right. That afternoon, though I couldn’t have phrased it this way then, I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than anybody in Morrisonville was willing to admit. That day I decided that God was not entirely to be trusted. After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five, I had become a skeptic and began to sense that any happiness that came my way might be the prelude to some grim joke.'”

At the age of five, he had shut himself off from the avenue of hope that faith alone provides. He had sealed himself off from any future pain but doing so comes at a high cost. Frederick Buechner writes:

“The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own. Surely that is why, in Jesus’ sad joke, the rich man has as hard a time getting into Paradise as that camel through the needle’s eye because with his credit card in his pocket, the rich man is so effective at getting for himself everything he needs that he does not see that the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept…a helping had…even from [God]…”

Live in the faith that God will work all things, all things, to the good.

The words of the 23rd Psalm were written long ago by a grateful soul. If we will reframe our past, believe in the transcendent and live in faith, we, too, will find the still waters of unquenchable hope and the words of the Psalmist will become our own.

iPsalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those
who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.