Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Strange comfort

Psalm 23, by Irv Davis, (c) 2000.

Psalm 23
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
April 3, 2011

Security is a word we hear more often these days. The Department of Homeland Security, formed in 2002 in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has increased access to our privacy in the name of security. We have security checks at state and federal buildings, at some schools, and at major entertainment and sports venues, like concerts and the Olympics, even in Bridgeport at Harbor Yard. Security at most airports has been increasing steadily, to the point of invading personal modesty with revealing body scanners. It is now customary to hand over briefcases, backpacks, laptops and handbags, take off our shoes, belts, jewelry, and even then we still might have to be checked with a wand or a pat down. And then there’s our Social Security system, originally intended to be an assistance check added to one’s own personal savings, but now it’s the only source of income for a great many folks with the funds dwindling rapidly.

Our obsession with security betrays our addiction to fear. Fear that we can’t ever be safe enough. Fear that we won’t have enough to live. Fear that the ways things are will come to an end. We want to know that everything will be alright, that we will be cared for, and we want it guaranteed.

Living with fear is very exhausting. It makes it difficult to sleep, makes it difficult to relax, to have fun, to laugh, to enjoy any sense of peace. A guarantee of security might make it easier to breathe and to go about our business but at what price? Ben Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.” In our desire for guaranteed security we have traded our safety for our souls. And those who offer this guarantee think they have a window into our souls and our lives.

An ancient Chinese story is told of an old farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day the old horse ran off into the hills. Everyone said, “What a shame!” The old man replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses. Everyone in the village congratulated the old farmer, for the measure of his wealth had been increased. The old farmer replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” When the old farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg. Everyone said, “What bad luck!” The old farmer replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” A week later the imperial army was marching through the village, conscripting all the young men into the emperor’s war campaign. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, the army excused him from military service. Everyone said, “It’s a good thing that horse broke his leg.” The old farmer replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.”

We are quick to judge, quick to secure meaning and at least a small measure of comfort in the events of our lives, to know why things happen the way they do. We want guarantees and certainty, the very opposites of faith and serenity. Faith is a trust not in what we know but in what we can’t know for certain; serenity is the state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled in the face of that which produces fear.

Have you noticed that in the past ten years or so, in political and other forms of discourse, a difference of opinion, viewpoint or belief is generally not tolerated? Increasingly there is a lack of trust in others who do not share our mindset. On the airwaves, on TV news shows, and in the public sphere we argue and shout more than we listen, consider and discuss.

It is the certainty of our religious convictions that often drives a painful, hurtful wedge between human beings. I believe that the next challenge of the church is that of interfaith relationships and working alongside those of no faith tradition. If we are honest with ourselves, it is not the form of our faith which gives us comfort but its content: peace and justice for all people and for the earth and all its inhabitants, extravagant welcome, wholeness, healing, forgiveness, and compassion. As Christians we see this most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But not everyone sees in the same way that we do, nor should they have to in order for all of us to be compassionate towards each other and to share what we have.

Kashmir, India, 1999.

Psalm 23, the most memorized text in the Bible after the Lord’s Prayer, is one used mainly for comfort, especially at a funeral or memorial service. But it is a strange comfort if we read it closely. This is a paraphrase I wrote some years ago as a call to worship:

God is our guide and friend. In God we lack nothing. We come for restoration and strength to follow God’s way of narrow distance and wide compassion. God is always with us. Wherever we are, God is. We seek the ways of life though we fear change as though it were death. God feeds us at the same table with our enemy, holy love pouring down like oil on our heads, filling our cupped hands with mercy. We are God’s dwelling place, a holy tabernacle, the body of Christ.

The only comfort that is promised in this psalm is God’s presence, in good times and in the worst of them. God restores us because we’re going to need all our strength for the path of righteousness and justice. God leads us, but sometimes to places we’d rather not go, even unto death. God feeds us but at the same table as our enemy. God anoints us but God also anointed Jesus to be the Christ and look where that got him. A relationship with God has never been a rose garden. What we are promised is streams of mercy, meadows of restoration, and the presence of God along that path of righteousness that inevitably goes through the valley of death.

We all want to be comforted by our faith, by God, and by each other. Surely this is a purpose for church: to be loved and to love others. But God also leads us beyond ourselves to the world that is waiting to be loved; the world that is waiting to be shown what it means to feast at a table with enemies, with our worst fears; a world in which the only thing that is certain is change. We put our faith in a loving God because we want that change to be for the good of all and not just for some or a few.

A charcoal sketch of the valley of the shadow of death that I did in high school.

Think of this church, of the collective faith in this room. Where is God calling you that you’d rather not go? What is the perceived enemy with which you must sit at table and be fed by the hand of God? What is the path of righteousness that God has set before you as a community of faith? What interferes with your serenity and your faith in the uncertain? How have you experienced God’s presence during this interim time?

Is there a God? In truth we cannot say without a doubt that God exists. What we can say is that even with our doubts, when we open ourselves to the mystery we call God, we know ourselves to be comforted; that when we let go of certainty, we can be at peace with the unknown and journey through that dark valley in faith that God is with us; that when we put our lives in God’s hands, we can eat at table with our worst fears and know that we will be restored.



Andy said...

I found the story of the Chinese farmer to be quite insightful. Furthermore, it is indicative of the way I look at the world these days.

An excellent sermon - as always. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Cynthia said...

Good to hear from you, Andy. Miss you on your blog!