Easter 4 2016
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
April 17, 2016
So often in this life we are faced with a challenging choice…give in to darkness and despair or trust that we are being shepherded toward the light and to goodness.
It is one of our most basic temptations as human beings to move either toward the light or into the dark, to trust in abundance or believe in the lie of lack, and that temptation engages of the most precious gifts God has given us…choice.
It was the pivot point in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve chose to embrace the serpent’s story claiming that they did not already have all they ever wanted or needed.
Instead they believed that the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil would fill a void within them that up to that point they weren’t even aware existed.
If you read the stories in Genesis of Noah and the matriarchs and patriarchs, this central theme of whether or not our ancestors chose to embrace God’s promises and trust that God would lead them to abundance of life runs throughout scripture.
Build an ark or not?
Believe in a baby that would become the first in a line of descendants more numerous than the stars or not?
Reconcile with your brother whose blessing you stole or not…forgive your brothers who sold you into slavery or not…the story of faith is a story about human beings choosing to trust in the Lord, and about how wrong their lives go when they run from that trust.
In this season of Easter, in which we still revel in God’s triumph over death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new life that is abundant and readily available to all as a result, it bears repeating that often our lives feel dominated by the darkness…by death and despair.
A quick reading of the news highlights all the ways our world breaks down, and all the ways that we human beings choose not to believe in goodness and mercy.
I understand why it can be so hard to believe in the promises of God in the midst of such darkness.
And yet, I also know that choosing to trust in God leads us to where our true peace ultimately lies.
Now don’t get me wrong…I’m not a fan of the kind of faux trust in God that minimizes suffering, sadness, and the deep wounds that come from disappointment.
I’m sure you have heard well-meaning people try to soothe you in the midst of hard times and loss, saying, “Well it was just God’s will…we can’t always know the reasons why God chose to take your loved one from you”….and so on.
These kinds of statements can be damaging and hurtful if they seek to dismiss the real darkness that threatens to overwhelm us in moments of loss and hardship.
The kind of trust we are called to cultivate is one that does not easily dismiss the pain that reaches us in this lifetime, but rather acknowledges it fully and chooses to trust in spite of it.
In very few places is the kind of trust of which I speak more beautifully or memorably articulated than in the 23rd Psalm.
The themes of trust run throughout it, and hearken back to not only personal issues of trust, but communal ones as well.
Short, but to the point, Psalm 23 has found purchase with listeners and the faithful for so long because it walks the line between advocating for trust in the Lord and acknowledgment of darkness.
In a land known for sheep herding, the Psalmist claims that the LORD is my shepherd…and that as a result of being part of the Lord’s flock…lack and want are satisfied.
If we look at Israel’s history, probably the most powerful connection is the Exodus and the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, in which the people of God were constantly challenged to trust in God’s shepherding.
There is certainly no luxury in the desert…the sun was hot, and the air dry…but God never failed to provide the people with that which is needed to sustain life.
Water from the rock. Manna from the skies. Quail falling throughout the camp.
And guidance and direction from a prophet who shepherded them even when they would have been easy to abandon.
The Psalmist is trying to remind people who have come into the promised land, lived in it and prospered in it that arrival to that place required a trust in God that was not always easy to muster.
Even in the darkest valleys…where the shadows overtake the light and no exit seems possible…the Lord walks with us…choosing to stay with us in the midst of pain and uncertainty rather than fleeing like a hired hand might.
We who follow Christ in this Easter season know this to be true because Jesus did not shy away from betrayal and trial and the pain of the cross, but rather accepted it and then showed how the darkness could not triumph over the power of God.
And when the church is being its best self…and I dare say when we are being our best selves as well…we understand that accompanying each other in the midst of suffering and darkness is one of the best things we can do.
There really aren’t easy words when a loved one dies, or when a disappointment befalls a friend, or when despair has taken hold of you.
But being reminded that we do not walk through such valleys alone…that is indeed a comfort, and it also is the truth that we need to hear that inspires us once more to trust that the dark valley will not persist forever.
The last line of Psalm 23 is perhaps the most powerful one.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The verb “to follow” is almost better rendered as “to pursue” so that the line would read “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.”
I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot of my energy searching for goodness and mercy…seeking it in the public square…in relationships…and hoping to find it through my own expenditure of effort.
But God’s promise to me and to all of us is that goodness and mercy are not waiting to be discovered by us somewhere “out there,” but rather are actively seeking us out!
What a difference if we truly can trust in this pursuance and know that the Lord our shepherd is actively pursuing us with goodness and mercy in tow!
Our job is to keep our eyes open…trust that this is actually the case…and remind each other of this truth when anything threatens to obscure it.
Trusting also means believing that, because we are beloved by God, we are worthy of being pursued by goodness and mercy, and worthy to receive them as well.
How are you doing with trusting the Lord these days?
Maybe you come to this Sunday morning in need of being reminded of God’s promises, or maybe today you are being called to remind someone else of those promises and encourage them to trust once more.
However you come to this day, and this table that is spread for us in the wilderness of this world…with all its hurts, scars and pains…I pray you will go forth renewed and resurrected by the power of the risen Lord.
For in Jesus we have seen the Good Shepherd in action, and we have seen the promises of God made fully manifest for all time.
Be not afraid dear people of God…fear no evil…for the one who walked with us in the Garden, who brought us out of bondage in Egypt and who has relentlessly pursued us with goodness and mercy all the days of our life is here and ready to accompany us forevermore.
Can you trust that today?