25 June 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel
As I was preparing for this sermon I discovered something interesting. In my seven years as a chaplain I have never used the 23rd Psalm as the Scripture for my sermon. Perhaps the best known passage from the Bible and I haven’t ventured to journey through it with my flock.
I had to ask myself if I was unsure of the path ahead. Perhaps I was unsure of what lay ahead on that journey. I do know that engaging well known passages can be a valley of shadows for a pastor. It’s already well known so what more can be said?
We convince ourselves that we already know what it means. So when we come to the 23rd Psalm we recite it from memory smile that we’ve still got that old time Bible memory training fixed in our brains and move on. Because we are all so familiar with the story we don’t stop to soak in the beauty of such a powerful poem.
As I spent time trying to figure out why I’ve never preached on this sermon, I looked back over all of my previous orations on Scripture. Much like this passage, it was a great trip down memory lane. I was amazed that I still remember the circumstances and location of my previous sermons over the years.
I was able to draw vibrant images of where I preached those sermons seeing the faces of not only the military members in my audience, but people from different countries who just happened to drop in for whatever reason, and warm congregations that asked me to guest preach so their pastor could take a holiday or because they were temporarily without a pastor (some of them asked me to stay and apply for the job).
What struck me was the warmth and graciousness of each congregation to which I had the honor of preaching. Places that let me expand mine and their theology, sometimes gently correcting some crazy path I felt God leading us towards. Much like the Psalmist today, I knew that God was there with us, leading us and keeping us not on a straight and easy path, but rather on a path of God’s choosing that was challenging, yet safe. At times dark, scary and unknown, but bathed in the light of God’s enduring love and comfort.
A path full of love with God guiding our way.
What is this love of God we hear about today? Originally, the word used is hesed, which translates into a covenantal type of love, maybe best described as loving-kindness. It’s a deep, loyal love where we are sought regardless of who we are. God sees something special in each of us and seeks us out, guiding and providing for us along the way. It’s the love we strive to seek in our lives each and every day. It’s God’s love for each of us.
This love, similar to the love we seek with our spouse, sneaks up on us because you don’t realize the depth and sincerity of hesed until you are a recipient of such loving-kindness. We can only get a Psalm such as this from someone who has experienced such loyal love.
While there are many characteristics of this type of loyal love, let’s look at how a few of these traits are described in today’s passage.
From the outset of this poem we hear of God described as the shepherd making God the caregiver of the flock. The shepherd looks after the flock to keep them together and lead them to places where they have the ability to thrive. Once the flock accepts and trusts the shepherd, they understand the freedom to live their lives fulfilling a purpose following the guidance of the one who leads them.
While the knowledge and trust of the shepherd doesn’t eliminate fear entirely, it transforms the majority of fear into its opposite, love.
We cannot overestimate the power of fear. There are many things in this world to which we may find fearful. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it is also a large wall in trusting anyone, especially God. Once we overcome the fear of God we begin to understand God and see God’s work in the world. From there we begin to glimpse the loyal love of God in our lives and the lives of those around us. We begin to know and trust God.
With the proper knowledge of God, we learn and believe that God is there with us. Thus, we are endowed with the courage and boldness to defend the friendless, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and minister to the world about and with the loyal love we have received from God. We are able to live into the universal call of those who follow God and descend from Abraham to shine God’s blessing to the world through our actions.
Psalm 23 is helpful in that it also provides an answer to the natural question of how do I bless the world? Through hospitality. In verse 5, the poem shifts from talking about God and the Psalmist begins to talk to God. He recognizes that God’s hospitality through table and shelter are ways that God has blessed the Psalmist. It is also the way in which we can bless the world.
Occasionally, we have shared meals as a Christian community here in Sembawang. We gather with our catholic brothers and sisters over lunch. We share stories and laugh together as we break bread. We come together at a table without any ulterior motives. It is a table in a safe place in an ever changing and sometimes dangerous world. Tables bring people together. Sharing meals together is a bonding experience that crosses cultural lines in a way many other activities cannot accomplish.
What if each of us here today sought to share a meal once a month with a stranger? Where you sat down at the table with people you’ve never met and shared a meal. What would you learn about them, yourself, and God’s love?
When Lisa and I were in Japan a few weeks ago, we participated in a number of tours. One was a walking food tour, which honestly wasn’t all that good of a tour, where we sat at tables with different people from different countries. In the course of those table conversations we relaxed around each other and broke down barriers. By the end of the evening, we were receiving tips on places to visit and things to do on our next trip to Copenhagen.
The next night we took a night photography tour through two areas of Tokyo. There were four of us participating in the tour and we all engaged in some small chit chat during the tour. As we were finishing up, the youngest member of the group suggested we all get together for dinner that evening. Three Americans and one Aussie dined together over many types of yakitori and got to know each other on a deeper level, breaking down barriers and learning from fellow travelers in life. Learning about how to give and receive hospitality.
Like most poems, we can quickly read these familiar lines and take away a surface meaning, one that give us comfort that God is there with us no matter the situation in which we find ourselves. This is a valid and beautiful reading of the 23rd Psalm. However, like parables, poems have something deeper at their core.
For the 23rd Psalm, the deep meaning is more than just God being there for us, it also reminds us of our call to lead those in the valley. We may not be able to lead them out of the valley, but the knowledge we are there with them is so important. Just as when we derive strength and comfort of knowing we are not alone in the darkness, so too shall we provide that to others. And we can do that through simple acts of hospitality in opening up our homes and tables. We have all been shown hospitality in our need, so let us look for ways to extend that hospitality to those in a similar need. Not only will we be living out the Psalm we will be fulfilling our call to the world.
You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.