Sunday, March 22, 2020

Fourth Sunday in Lent

"You Prepare A Table Before Me –

In The Presence Of All My Fears"

Rev. Dr. Scott Landis

Psalm 23

It’s always little tricky to try and preach a sermon on such a familiar text as the beloved 23rd Psalm. These words have such deep meaning for each one of us based on a variety of our personal experiences. The temptation is to simply read the words – like we did in our opening centering practice and let them speak to us – to our own individual needs – and say nothing more. If that feels like what your spirit needs, I encourage you to do just that. Turn off this service and simply listen for whatever God is offering you. If, however, you want to go further, stay with me for the next several minutes as we explore the depth of these words for our collective experience during this difficult time – one which may feel like a global “valley of the shadow of death.” If that is what you are feeling today, I invite you to listen carefully. Perhaps the words may bring you a sense of hope and encouragement despite our current circumstances.

This psalm, of which you have heard in a couple of different versions – and also in a musical setting – is one that has been read at almost every memorial service I have ever officiated. Its words have been memorized by many, words that bring us comfort and hope in a time of deep sorrow and loneliness.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this passage showed up as one of our lectionary readings for this particular Sunday. It’s almost as if God was reaching out to us, reminding us, “Hey, you’re not alone. I’m right here – and will remain with you in good times and in challenging ones.” Why am I always surprised when God shows up like that?

So, let’s consider the psalmist’s words that have supported our faith communities for millennia – words of assurance that remind us of God’s provision, abundance, and restoration.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” The very first words of the psalmist are words of comfort – God IS our shepherd. Those words may not have QUITE the same meaning to us as they did to folks in this setting, but we can easily relate. The shepherd cares for the sheep. The shepherd provides EVERYTHING the sheep need: shelter, protection, food, and most of all – gentle compassion and loving-care.

In our setting, the church, the shepherd’s duties are primarily the responsibility of the pastor with respect to the congregation or flock. More than one person recently told me this responsibility is inherent in the title often conferred upon the pastor as “Kahu,” the one who cares deeply for those in his/her charge. The kahu is responsible to ensure that the spiritual ‘ohana is safe and has its needs met.

God’s provision is spelled out in the next few lines of the psalm: “God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters.” In other words, God goes beyond our wants. In fact, under God’s care we will be free from all our wants – our external needs will be met. We need worry about nothing.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility or prudent action in taking care of our needs, just as we are doing to combat the coronavirus. There are specific things that we can do – not only to fight the disease, but to care for others who are in need. God may provide the resources we need, but it will be up to us to be faithful stewards in using them carefully and responsibly – ensuring the well-being of all.

But notice that God goes beyond simply meeting our physical (external) needs – as important as they are. God also makes provision for our internal needs. God is concerned about the inner person – our “soul care.” The Psalmist continues, “God restores my soul leading me on the paths of righteousness.” I dare say, at this time, soul care may be just as important to many of us as physical care.

That’s why it is so important to reach out to those in our ‘ohana and beyond – particularly in this time of social distancing which has relegated many of our kupuna to veritable isolation which too often engenders fear.

I felt this rather profoundly the other day in speaking to my 88 year-old father. I heard a hint of depression when he said, “I can’t go out of the house and I miss my church.” I know many of you are feeling the same. But we can do things to change that. Pick up the phone and call one another. It is essential to stay connected during this time of increased isolation. Prayer and meditation work wonders to feel connected to God, but there is probably nothing better than getting phone call from a loved one just to say, “aloha” and “I love you, how are you doing?”

All of this leads up to what I believe are the two critical verses in the psalm where God’s care really takes on some teeth:

1. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am not afraid because you are ever with me.” One of the reasons I wanted to begin our worship today focusing on the waves right outside our sanctuary doors, was so you would be reminded of their constancy. Just like it is with God’s presence – it never ceases. It’s always there.

When my kids were little, we used to make our way each summer to the Jersey shore. They would love to play all day in the waves, boogey boarding, body surfing, doing flips, and skim boarding – there energy and activity seemed endless. When it was time to leave toward the end of each day, they would fuss and protest wanting to stay at the beach as long as possible. In order to make leaving a tad easier we would sometimes tell them that “God turns the waves off at night, so it’s really no fun to be here.” Now, I’m not sure they ever really bought that, but it did help.

In retrospect, it was a terrible thing to say. When, in fact, the beauty of the ocean and the promise of never-ending waves are indeed a reminder of God’s ever-present, constant care. And what a wonderful reminder at such a time as this. Sorry kids.

It’s because of this presence that we are assured of another great truth embedded in the second crucial verse, to quote Nan Merrill:

2. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears.” I really like her translation of “fears” instead of “enemies.” Because, right now, one of our biggest enemies is fear. Notice, God is not forcing us to confront our fears actively. Rather, we are invited to notice them, to sit down at table with them, and finally to gently let them go as we are assured that God will protect us even while we are in the midst of them:

We will be anointed with oil – which is an element of both sanctification AND healing.

Our cups will overflow – once again, indicating that our Shepherd will meet all our thirsts – in fact, ALL our needs will be met.

The psalm ends with another blessing of assurance when it states, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me (which can also be translated “will pursue me”) all the days of my life. We are not just passive recipients of all that God has to offer. No! God will continually pursue us – chasing us down – in order that we might realize all these gifts are ours. Just as the waves keep coming toward the shore, God’s grace, God’s love, God’s eternal presence will constantly come toward us.

It’s understandable why this is such a beloved psalm. It doesn’t try to ignore the darkness – that’s impossible when confronting difficult and challenging times. Rather it reminds us that, no matter what, God will walk by our side as we face our fears, our loneliness, or whatever else this nasty pandemic throws our way.

I realize that it may seem difficult to sense that “Presence” right now as we are being told to isolate from one another. We have to be increasingly creative as we seek in new ways to be “in touch” with each other.

It is really hard not being with you on a regular basis for worship. This has certainly been THE most unusual experience in my entire 40 years of ministry. And you are likely hearing this message today alone in your home or condo which, in some strange way, unites us all as we all share in this common experience. I long for the day when this sanctuary is filled once again with your presence, your voices, and your energy. But until that time let us realize anew the affirmation of the psalmist’s words. Remember, you are not alone. God is here.

Mahalo ke Akua!

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