A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

July 19, 2015

Psalm 23

It was hot in the Minneapolis church I was visiting last Sunday.  It felt like 90 degrees in the pew and Minnesota-muggy, air so heavy it was hard to breathe. A few valiant ceiling fans did their best but couldn’t keep up as the pews filled.

I was happy to be back where I had spent 15 years as a deacon and as a parent, a little stunned at the changes in some of the people I knew, and curious about the contemporary liturgy.  It was a lively service, but it was hard to dismiss the temperature.

By accident, I had sat down next to an old friend and her children.  She was a young woman I always liked because she talked as fast as I did, and was brutally, refreshingly honest.

Mid-service, she got up and went out for a minute, waving her phone like she had to take a call.  When she came back, she handed me a sparkling glass of ice water.

Never had water tasted so good, so icy cold, cooling my parched throat as well as my hands holding the frosty glass. I smiled at how many rules this gesture must have broken about what was not allowed in the sanctuary! This wasn’t a paper cup; it was real glass and what I dropped it and it broke?  What if the splintered glass flew into someone’s eye? What if it spilled and the water warped the historic pew? What if everyone went out to get water?

But then I thought, no. Maybe this is a special ministry to visitors.  If so, wow.

But it wasn’t anything official.  It was just Deanna.

The feeling I got when receiving the ice water is part of what today’s lessons are about, that is the pure comfort that God offers us.  Comfort that is not tied to keeping rules,” mission,” ministry, transformation, service, gratitude, or any “should’s.”  All you need to receive the comfort I’m talking about is to reach out and take it.

We are all thirsty and so hungry.

There is no force on earth more primal than hunger.  But in our culture, we use food for more than fuel.  We may use it to fill us up when we are lonely; to reward ourselves when nothing else is there.  Hunger is described as feelings of weakness, emptiness and even pain caused by the lack of something essential. And it takes many forms.

In the face of ongoing repression, the hunger for justice, equality, and fairness can be constant.  The following words have been haunting me since I read them recently.  In 1952 the esteemed American writer James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  I checked this out with some friends who are both African-American males.  They nodded, “Yeah…..”

During the 1912 Textile Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Rose Schneiderman gave a now-famous speech in which she said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”  Food for the body; dignity, respect, and decent working conditions for the soul.  Bread and roses….

Hunger is closely related to longing. I like the word “longing”.  It evokes a reaching for something we can’t quite get to, stretching, elongating our arms to touch, to make contact, to grasp.

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a wonderful story about longing. In the story, the mother of two children dies suddenly and the children and their father go to a robot store to find a substitute. They decide on a robot that is called “The Grandmother. “ They program in what they need from her, and the completely lifelike grandma comes home with them.

And what a grandma!  She knows how to cook everyone’s favorite food, exactly as they like it.  She can play games, and somehow everyone wins more often than they should.  She can run races and keep up.  She has time enough to spend with every child, so no one ever feels left out.  She settles arguments so each child feels like they’ve won.  Best of all, when a picture is taken of her and one of the children, Grandma’s face resembles that particular child. She remembers every accomplishment of each of the three siblings, every first, every birthday party, every little act of courage, and each gesture of generosity.

The children grow up and Grandma fades from the scene.  But then, and best of all, when the children have grown up and become old and frail, Grandma appears on the scene again to take care of them just as she did when they were little.

The point of the story is that the extent of our longing, the expectations we have, for example, of mothers, can only be met by someone superhuman or robotic.

Or Divine.  The God we meet in today’s psalm knows how much we hunger and thirst, and how much we crave relief and comfort.  And it is offered, no strings attached

Psalm 23 is music; it is poetry. Within it are the memories of dozens of funerals and loved ones we mourn.  But it is much more than a dose of comfort for those times when the pain of loss rips at our hearts.

The 23rd Psalm is ascribed to David, the shepherd–king and ancestor or Jesus.  In the Christian Scriptures, a thousand years later, it is Jesus who becomes known as “The Good Shepherd.” But today we respect and interpret this psalm as a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which it is.

Some things to notice about this piece of Scripture….

The first half of the psalm is a description of God. The second half of the psalm is about a relationship with God.  In the middle of the psalm, the psalmist changes from speaking about God in the third person — “He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” to the more personal you –- “You are with me.  Your rod and your staff they comfort me.

The psalm speaks of “the valley of the shadow of death”, and indeed, sometimes death itself frightens us less than its menacing shadow, the looming darkness and hopelessness that threaten to overcome us.  We humans are the only species we know of that live with the knowledge that we must eventually die, and sometimes that knowledge can assume tremendous force in our lives.  It is “forethought of grief,” in a poem you will hear soon.  But note also that the psalm says that we walk through the valley of the shadow – through….  Human beings are not fashioned to live in permanent darkness, and eventually we are led out of the dark, shadowy valley.

“You anoint my head with oil,” the psalm goes on. In ancient times, a shepherd would put oil on a lamb’s head, both to repel insects and to accelerate healing.  This act of anointing with oil reverberates within our own religious tradition. We are anointed with oil on our forehead at our baptism, and thus marked as Christ’s own forever.  We may be anointed by a priest or to prepare us for death.  The response to being anointed, to such tender caring and touch is deep, almost primal gratitude: “My cup runneth over.”

So where do we find our good shepherd?  How can we access the comfort we are promised when we need it most?  Where do we go for solace and rest in a terrorized, techno-obsessed world?

Maybe we go to art and music, since beauty is one-way God comforts her broken children. Maybe we go to nature.  Hear the words of the poet Wendell Berry:

“When despair grows in me

and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting for their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

I can testify that this also works with a little grey cat laying next to you; your head on her warm body, listening to her purr you into calmness.  We have to take our “wild things” where we find them.

Finally, we may go to Scripture seeking comfort and it is there, but sometimes our very familiarity with the words can restrict us from hearing them in a new way.

But even with something as familiar and even rote as the 23rd Psalm, there can be surprises. There can be unexpected gifts.  There can be comfort that can seem customized for you and maybe even funny when if you read with an open heart.

So for the last two weeks, I have been pretty angry with someone in my life.  Let’s call her “Calpurnia”.

Calpurnia has said some things that are outrageously unfair; she has twisted information; she has avoided requests to talk it through the problem.  I was allowing her way too much space in my head and she has been frustrating the heck out of me.

During this time, I had also been thinking on and off during this time about the 23rd psalm, knowing this sermon was coming up.

So one night last week I remember going to sleep with both of those things on my mind: stupid Calpurnia and the 23rd Psalm. (You see why I need a cat).   I woke up the next morning and the first words that entered my mind were these: “He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Yes!  I thought. Thank you.

When the initial wave of pure comfort had passed, I played it out in my imagination: God is preparing a table for me — with lobster and cheesecake and Champagne (and Diet Coke) and pink roses and blue hydrangeas and a Ralph Lauren linen tablecloth.

And Calpurnia?  Well, she will be there since this is all done “in the presence of my enemies” ….. So I will be gracious and not send her away but maybe she will have to sit at the kiddy table and have Mac and cheese from a mix and a juice box.

This is funny now but, before I had to go and be a grown up and negotiate and forgive and whatever, it was comforting.  I felt known and I felt understood and I felt loved and cherished.

Later as I tried to write about this experience for the sermon, I started worrying that I was being irreverent, using too light a tone and too frivolous an interpretation of a verse from this most beloved and serious of the psalms.  I researched like crazy to see if I could be wrong but didn’t find that I was wrong.

Maybe this verse about the table and the enemies is just stuck in there, waiting to be found when someone really needs it.  Maybe it doesn’t have to be explained away with serious theology.  Maybe it doesn’t have to be put in the context of our obligations and duties.  Maybe it is just a surprise that is there to comfort those of us who need it, breaking the rules like a glass of cold water in a hot church.


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