Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Psalm 23--A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

I love the story about little Michael who loved to read books. Every night his parents would have to read page after page and book after book. The same stories, never veering. The same order of all the stories, of course. They could never change the words. Everything had to be the same. But he loved one particular book. And one night his mother came in and found him standing on the book. Just standing there, the book on the floor. He thought if he stood there long enough and sort of scrunched down and squinted his eyes and gritted his teeth, he could enter the story and that story would become his story. So his mother found him crying and frustrated standing there on the book. He had tried to enter the story and it just did not work.

We are a lot like Michael. We really do want to believe that we can enter the story, and that it is more than just something we find in a book. We believe that Adam and Eve are people that we know. We bumped into Cain and Abel at the family reunion. Jacob and Esau may well be our brothers or our sisters. Abraham and Sarah sit across the aisle from us. And Isaac and Bill Clinton, er I mean King David and Solomon and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph or innkeepers and shepherds are people we know quite well.

So the writer Thomas Mann was right after all. “It is, it always is however much we try to say it was.” And this is narrative theology at its best. Theology as story. When the words leap from the page and take root in our lives.

Back in 1985 my wife and I and our two children had a wonderful opportunity to spend the summer in England. It was sort of a last hurrah for the children. Our daughter was to be married the next year. Our son would be going off to college. So we went across the sea and spent the summer. I exchanged pulpits with an English pastor. He came over and did my work, and I went over and did his work. We lived in their house, they lived in ours. They drove our car, and we tried to drive theirs. My wife, Gayle still says it was the most terrifying time of her life—and she will not get back in a car with me in England. But despite road signs we could not read and roundabouts and a shepherd’s pie or two, we had a great time. Before we left on our trip friends would come by and tell us what to see and where to go. They made long lists and gave us helpful hints. They brought along their guidebooks and left  them with us. And late at night we would study the maps and get so excited with just the thoughts of where we were going and what we were going to see.

But nothing in the maps or guidebooks prepared us for the country and the people and the experience. Every time the four Lovettes get together we remember all the funny-wonderful things that happened in the summer of ’85. We never had a lot of hot water and just about the time our daughter tried to take a bath you can imagine what happened. And I could hear her in the bathroom yelling: “I just hate England.” Or the time my son and I took a side trip over to Europe  and wound up in a Belgium hospital in the middle of the night. Or not knowing the Pastor and his wife left the meanest little Jack Russell dog at home for us to baby-sit while they were in South Carolina. But despite a few glitches—we just loved that trip.  It was nothing like the books described—it was far, far more. 

And this is what I have discovered about the Bible. It is not only a guidebook, but if it is only just a holy book we will miss the meaning of the story. Because unless we immerse ourselves, like Michael, and scrunch down and enter the story and make it our own we are going to miss the length and the breadth and the height and the depth of what God has in mind for us all.

What I want to do this morning is to take a  Psalm—a Psalm we all know and talk to you about two occasions in my own life when the guidebook became more than a guidebook and the story was more than something in a book.

The Lord is my Shepherd

Several years ago I had an opportunity to study at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC. The College of Preachers is housed on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral. After studying hard all week long I decided, since the week was running out that I wanted to spend some time visiting the cathedral. I had not had a chance to go there and I just wanted to walk around and soak up the splendor.

I chose an early morning time right after breakfast, before my classes started. So I went up the hill to the cathedral and began to try to get in. The building was locked. I walked all the way around the huge structure. Every door I came to was locked. I could not get in. It was too early. I was very frustrated so I came back around the corner after trying every door and saw a little sign that said, “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd”—Open 24 hours every day.”

So I thought, “Well, I can sneak in the back way. I can go through the basement and I can find an opening and get upstairs and I’ll find a way to get into the building before anybody else gets there!” And I went in through the entrance in the basement, walked down a long hall and turned right. The doors were locked. I could not get in. So I turned around and walked back down the hall and started to leave the building when I saw the sign again: “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”

I found myself in a small room.  I think there were four or five tiny benches. There was one stained glass window off to the side. There was in the center a tiny altar. On the stone altar—which was just a ledge—I looked up at this beautiful carved, sculptured piece. It was a Shepherd holding a sheep in his arms. Underneath that piece, somebody had lovingly placed a piece of forsythia. And that was it.

I sat down and looked at the statue. And I can’t tell you exactly what occurred. But something happened to me for the first time in my life. I understood the meaning of the first words of this Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Because as I looked at the stone carving, I saw the kindness and the tenderness in that face that looked down at the sheep in his arms. I noticed how he held that lamb so closely and so tenderly and so strongly. And as I saw the sheep, I saw myself. And it hit me that he was my Shepherd. I had preached on that text a hundred times. But suddenly I saw that I was kept in the arms and I was loved and cared for. I don’t know what happened but it’s one of the peak experiences in my life.One of those rare times when the story was more than a story but it became my story. The Lord was my shepherd and deep down I was that kept.

That afternoon I wanted something to make the occasion and I went up to the gift shop and looked around for something to remember that special day. I found a little silver cross and I wore that cross around my neck as a sign of the fact that he is my shepherd and he keeps me safe and secure. So on one occasion the story became more than story. And a Psalm became more than a Psalm. And the words left the page and took root in my life and heart.

I Shall Not Lack

But there is another time in my life when the Psalm helped pull me through. My father had died. We had not had a very good relationship and he died before we got to finish our business. There were some troubles in the church I was serving. I was just finding life very hard. Of course. as a good Christian and was to be strong. I was not supposed to have troubles or be depressed. After all I was the Pastor. But the trouble was that I was not handling anything very well. I sealed it all off and tried to take care of it by working harder and harder. Of course this was deadly and destructive.

Finally, it got so bad and so hard that I was desperate. So I went to see an old physician in the town where I served. I had referred many people to him and we were friends. It was a time before pastoral counseling was really in vogue and not many people knew where to go for counseling, so I has sent people to him.

So I went to see the doctor and poured out my story. After I told him all I could the old doctor, in his eighties, took out a card from his desk drawer and gave it to me. He said, “I want you to read this card. “ I turned it over and the card read: “The Twenty Third Psalm” And it began: “The Lord is my shepherd.” He said, “Keep reading.” “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” He said, “Do you see it? I’ve changed a word. He doesn’t give us what we want, but he will always provide us with what we need—always. And I want you to take this prescription and I want you to live with it all day long every day.  I want you to make it your own.”

That little card became life a life raft for me. I pulled it out and read it over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” And those simple words, sometimes at night when the demons would rage and the terrors were high, I would remember the words. And strangely they would, over time, calm me down. Time passed and healing happened and grace poured in from unlikely places and life moved on.  But I never forgot the power of those words. 

It was a year or so later that I was visiting the hospital one day and the pink lady at the information counter said, “Dr. So-and-So”—the doctor I had gone to see: "he’s upstairs. He’s a patient.” So I went upstairs to see him. His door was closed and I knocked quietly on the door. Nobody answered. So I knocked again and a quiet voice said, “Come in.” I walked into the room and it was dark. The blinds were closed. He was sitting in a chair with his head down. I asked him how he was doing and he said, “Not so well. I got this report and it’s not good. And I know what’s going to happen and I’m scared and I am just down.” We talked for a while.

Before I started to go, I said, “I want to give you something.” He said, “What?” And I took out my pocket a calling card and I wrote something down on it and gave it to him. He read it. Do you know what it said? It said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” He looked up and there were tears in both our eyes and he said, “It’s right. It really is right.”And once again the old miracle took place. The words leaped off the page and took root in the human heart. And we discovered that it is more than a story. It is real life itself. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not lack.” 

For he really does not give us all the things we want. We know that. TV preachers tell us we’ll get it all but we know better. But all of our needs, the lacks of our lives, are always attended to. It is, my friends, it is, however much we try to say it was.

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