A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 3 May 2020 by the Revd Sally Hitchiner.
Reading for this address: Psalm 23.
We’re getting used to our new normal.
For those of us who have experienced able bodied or mental health privileges so far in life, life has changed beyond recognition over the past couple of months. We can barely leave our homes, where our jobs are under threat or our health and risk of death is not entirely under our control.
For others of us, our lives have changed because the world is now experiencing the world as we’ve known it. Whatever the change, this world has now become normal. I can barely remember my old life. This is now our reality.
When I was training I spent a term with a community of Benedictine monks and nuns, they have a rule of life that struck me. As well as obedience and stability monks make a commitment to Conversatio Morum – daily conversion. I often preached about this in my university chaplaincy days to new groups of freshers in churches or Christian Unions. The experience of moving to university is a shift of reality and the invitation God holds before us is to reconvert.
However this psalm offers a different view on this that makes me wonder whether my sermons back then were incomplete.
The psalm is familiar. Chances are even if you haven’t downloaded the order of service or if you were gazing through the window when Ivan read it out so beautifully earlier in our service, the chances are you will still be able to recall it. Even if you’ve just tuned in and you haven’t heard the start of this service, chances are if you say a psalm out loud now that you’ll guess the exact psalm I’m talking about…
Psalm 23 in reality holds together not just one but three experiences of God.
God as the parental shepherd
God as the friend guide
God as the welcoming host
The same characteristics, the same love but three expressions, meeting the Psalmist at different experiences of his life and drawing out of him three responses.
We start young, so young the psalmist reaches for the beings who experience the simple life in the way that children do… we really need to get into the mind of a sheep.
You’re a little sheep used to Biblical shepherding conditions. When you find a tuft of grass you better eat all of it, bitter roots included because who knows where the next one is.
You’re constantly moving from place to place looking for new tufts of grass, new low hanging bushes, any scraps that has a bit of greenery, a bit of life.
And yet this psalm describes God transforming this little sheep’s reality into one with grass, green and luscious. A meadow – so much green grass you can lie down in it. You can roll around in the stuff. You don’t have to worry that there won’t be enough to fill your tummy. It’s everywhere.
And there’s water, so clean and abundant that you can drink all you want.
This water isn’t even in a fast flowing river where you could lose your footing and be swept downstream. These are still waters, gentle and available.
This is the stuff of sheep dreams. This Psalm is full of provision, we don’t have to be in want. We call this faith.
This was the experience of the People of Israel – the family of Jacob/Israel had grown in a situation where they were slaves of Egypt. But in this situation God revealed God’s name as Yahweh, The LORD mentioned at the start of this Psalm. The Lord invited them to become a people group and to leave slavery to become the people who worshipped him. The Lord brought them out of Egypt, making the waters of the red sea safe to pass through and feeding them in the wilderness to their heart’s content.
In the UK over the past six weeks of lockdown, in spite of all the scarcity in our shops, nature has been abundantly beautiful, warm spring days, not too hot but the sun has barely stopped shining. When we reflected on our experiences of the first month of lockdown members of our church community, including those who can’t go outside have commented on the extraordinary beauty of the sun shining. Abundance might be in new forms but life is never full of scarcity with God.
God holds out the invitation not to be in want and God whispers “I want to restore your soul”
And we’re just getting started.
The parental, shepherd experience of God is lovely but it has it isn’t all there is. This Psalm is the most commonly quoted psalm in funerals and I don’t think it would be that if it was just about rolling green pastures of abundant provision. This Psalm also has a deeper revelation about God.
We move into darker terrain. Perhaps the Psalmist reflects on life as an adult. Life that feels like walking through the darkest valley where death is everywhere we look. In that moment the psalmist doesn’t experience God as the great fixer, the perfect parent who makes everything better.
Now the Psalmist finds that God isn’t above him as a higher power, God is walking at his side, shoulder to shoulder as a friend and guide. This is a friend who does not leave him even when the road is darkest. This presence is a rod to fight off predators and a staff for us to lean on.
The people of Israel didn’t stay happy in their Promised Land forever. Countries invaded them, destroyed their civilisation and their religious buildings and carried them off to foreign lands. What they found there was that God wasn’t just to be found in their world of sheep and temples. God was now found among them in the middle of their suffering. The prophets spoke of Comfort and tenderness on a depth that they hadn’t known previously.
There are plenty of stages of life where childhood is left behind (for some all too early) and we find that we are fundamentally alone in a dark valley.
Except we’re not… at the centre of this Psalm, perhaps at the centre of the whole bible, at the centre of the whole Christian life is one phrase: “You are with me”. Not “The Shepherd” not even “The Lord” referring to God by God’s first name, given to his special people, in the darkest hour, the Psalmist moves from a relationship that talks ABOUT God to talks TO God.
When I was small my maternal grandmother looked after me while my youngest sister was seriously ill. I adored her and she adored me but she died when I was still a child and I realised a few months ago that I had forgotten her first name. I just knew her as “Nanna” – the nice old lady who always had time for me and put sweets in my pockets when it was time to go home. The relationship was very real but it was different to the relationship I would have with her as an adult.
There’s a different beauty in the revelation of God in the darkest hour. We find a God who meets us eyeball to eyeball, who we can talk to with increased directness. At those times prayer can, if we let it, take on a new intensity as we bare our souls to God and find that God is with us in a new way.
This Psalm is full of present attention for God. Not looking for provision or resolution just thanks that God is with him. We call this Love.
But this Psalm doesn’t stop there.
He looks forward beyond the end of this life and what does he find? He finds The Lord, Yahweh waiting for him with a banquet prepared, drawing together, even the bad stories, the people who have hated us in our life, into a party so extensive it can absorb and reinterpret the wrong in the world.
Friends have talked about the moment a new baby is born as putting old family rivalries into perspective. They no longer matter in the light of something so wonderful. There is a new start at the end of history that draws everything into a greater story.
Other people cannot ruin this. Neither can we.
Goodness and Mercy run after us… normally we expect sermons to say that we should run after goodness but here we’re not hunting the Easter Eggs, the Easter Eggs are hunting us. Everywhere you look goodness and mercy are waiting, begging to be picked up and enjoyed.
This is the promise the Psalmist glimpses at the end of this Psalm. You have before you a future so glorious that it can draw up your weakness, it can draw up the bad experiences you’ve had and draw them all into a wonderful feast.
Christians can’t but hear this as the Eucharist table, the overflowing cup is the cup of Christ’s blood of the new covenant overflowing for many for the forgiveness of sins. It’s the reason we gather, even now, even when we have to do it virtually, around this table to enact and open ourselves afresh to this truth.
Christ as Shepherd, whose sheep know his voice in our Gospel reading.
Christ as brother, the lamb who walks through the valley of death with us to the point of being slain.
And the welcoming host, the master of the feast waiting for us to arrive at the heavenly banquet where the wine of his very self is overflowing for all, friend or foe, all who would draw near.
We call this response hope. This Psalm is full of Faith, hope and love. But the greatest is love. God, in Christ is with us. The incarnation doesn’t just mean that Christ was with us once 2000 years ago. The incarnation is the whole way that God exists with humanity. The incarnation is fundamental to who God is and has always been. Meeting us where we are, here, now. God in Christ meets you.
The Benedictines are right to commit to daily conversion, but not because we have to force every experience into the way we have met God in the past, but because whatever your experience today, God is to be found afresh.
What we find in the twenty-third Psalm, what we find in the story of God’s interaction with his people in the Old Testament, what we find in the revelation of Christ and the Christian faith in general is one simple statement: God in Christ will not leave you alone.