Sunday, May 7, 2017

In the midst of life....

Scripture: Psalm 23   (NRSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2  He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3  he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.
5  You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6  Surely 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.
 It is still Easter!  The sanctuary is still draped in white for celebration.  We are still singing Easter Hymns and crying out “He is Risen! . . .  Alleluia!”  And we just heard the 23rd Psalm.  We usually only hear the 23rd Psalm at funerals and memorial services.  In fact, we hear it at those times so often that I have heard people say, “Oh please, do not use the 23rd Psalm.  Everyone uses that.”  So how is that we hear this reading today, during Easter?  He is Risen!  Alleluia?  
It’s raining.  Fewer people come out to celebrate when it’s raining.  And stuff happens, even during Easter. 

The week after Easter I was still riding an emotional high from Easter - from the service, from the music, from the celebration of the resurrection, from lots of good news I received during that week, suddenly, on Friday, I crashed.  I was fine one minute and the next I was exhausted and depressed.   Just as I was coming back from that, and getting over having been with way too many people for a couple of days at the Annual Gathering, my beautiful one-eyed, crippled rescue kitty Samwise began to die.  She mostly just sleeps now.  Every time I look at her, I am surprised to see she is still breathing.  Maybe she’ll be gone when I get home today.  How do I celebrate, now?

Students are frantically writing last papers, preparing for final exams, trying to get through the last few days or weeks of school.  For some, it is the last time to do these things - Selma High’s prom and graduation are just around the corner.  Fresno State’s commencement is on May 20th.   There is something both exhilarating and depressing about doing things for the last time, to seeing something come to an end.  Never mind that you have been working toward this end for years.  Celebrations are bitter sweet as you face an unknown future.  

In this congregation we have had other things happen to make shouts of Alleluia ring a little hollow.  Three young men from Kingsburg were killed in a tragic accident.  The lone survivor is a part of our family.  Another young man connected with our church family has been in rehab after telling a friend he wanted to kill himself.  

Around the nation, thousands, possibly millions, of people are worrying about what will happen to their health insurance if the bill that just passed Congress also gets through the Senate.  I’ve seen long, detailed lists of pre-existing conditions that we will “lose”, but as I don’t know what “lose” means in this context, I don’t really know what that means.  What I do know is that a lot of people are frightened, that they won’t be covered any more, that their insurance premiums will skyrocket because of a pre-existing condition.  It is hard to celebrate even the risen Christ when you are frightened and upset.  Or, as Psalm 137 says, “How can we sing songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”   We may not be exiled from our homes the way the writer of that psalm was, but we understand the foreign-ness of sorrow, worry, and depression in the midst of a time of great celebration.

It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written.  
The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. I have everything I need.
The Lord keeps me safe, and gives me a place to rest when it all gets to be too much.  He restores my soul.  
No matter how worried I am, God holds me close, comforts me, and helps my heart be easy.
God’s rod, an instrument of punishment, and staff, the symbol of his shepherding care, comfort us, for in them we recognize God’s justice and mercy for all the world.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
No matter what is going on in my life - stress, illness, injury, danger, loss of a loved one - no matter what, I will be ok, because God is with me.

I love this picture, of a cat walking serenely past a row of dogs.  Cats are consummate actors, of course.  Who hasn’t seen a cat fall off of something and then get that, “I meant to do that” look on her face?   This cat may have been used as a K-9 training test before, or not, but she is certainly projecting catitude as she strolls along.  It is as if she knows that some higher power is protecting her.  Might some of them break and go for her?  It could happen.  But she looks  confident that she will be ok, no matter what.  

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century Christian mystic.  A book she wrote in 1395, “Revelations of Divine Love,”  describing a series of visions she had of Jesus, is the first English language book known to be written by a woman.  If you have not heard her name before, you have surely heard some of her words, because from this book comes the phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  In it she also wrote, ”If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me.  But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love."   She was convinced that all things will ultimately be put right by Christ, that, in fact, everything will ultimately be ok, because of God’s love made manifest in Jesus. 

It is surely true that none of us are promised a safe and easy life.  No one is promised uninterrupted happiness.  Into every life will come sorrow and suffering of some kind.  We are, however, always promised love.  No matter what happens, God loves us.  No matter what happens, God is there for us.  No matter what we have done, we will be forgiven.  Everything around us may fall apart, but we are not alone, not ever, for God is with us always.  

God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, and seeing the suffering of the people, asked “Is there no no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”  (Jeremiah 8:22)  We might even ask that question ourselves, when we are suffering in the midst of celebration, when in the midst of life we seem surrounded by death and difficulty. It is at those times that we turn to the comfort of Psalm 23.   We turn to the knowledge that no matter what, God is with us.  “Fear not,” God said, “for I am with you.”

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  Christ is the balm in Gilead, the one sent by God to heal us, to reconcile each individual, each nation, all of creation to one another and to God, to restore the world to wholeness in God’s name.  

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  That no matter what happens, we will be OK, for he is our Living God.  

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  For in his name, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  

My brothers and sisters, Christ is Risen! 
He is risen, indeed.

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