Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ever Found Your Name in the Bible?

photo by WELS net / flickr
I love the story about little Michael who loved to read books. Every night his parents would read page after page and book after book. The same stories--never veering. They could not change a word--he knew them by heart. But Michael loved one particular book. And one night his mother came in and found him standing on his favorite book crying. Just standing there, his feet on the book. His mother asked, "What are you doing?" And Michael said that he thought if he stood on the book long enough and sort of scrunched down and gritted his teeth he could enter the story and that story would become his story. But it did not work.

The church is a lot like Michael. We really do believe that we can enter the story, and that it is more than just something we find in a book. Remember those funny cartoons entitled, “Where’s Waldo?”  You’d have this whole page of faces and characters—trees, birds and animals. And the challenge was to find Waldo in the middle of all these characters. It wasn’t usually easy. But if you kept looking you’d say: “There’s Waldo!”

The Bible is like that. We look at the stories—and if the book is to mean anything to us we have to keep looking, looking until we find our faces and see our names. For until we find our faces and see our names—the book is not really our book at all—but just a beautiful book on a shelf. So take your Bible down from the shelf and open the book and see what you find.  Adam and Eve are people we know. We’ve all sinned—not just stubbed our toes but we done things we are ashamed of—ashamed as Adam and Eve that day God came back and said “Where are you?” And like them we want to hide. We bumped into Cain and Abel at the family reunion just struggling to see who Mom loves best. Or who gets Mama's cedar chest. Or the Christmas story about a 16-year-old pregnant girl scared, scared—and her 20 year old husband. Embarrassed. What will the neighbors say when they count up the months on their fingers?  Hmm.

Or let your finger run down just a little further and we read where Joseph and Mary found no place to stay. Nobody wanted them. And we stop and think about all those people from Syria that nobody wants. Is there a connection? Or read the passage we all know: “For God also loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believe…” and we look up from the book and look out at our world. God so loved the world. No qualifications. Everybody. Even that woman wrapped in a blanket on a cold windy day in Germany with a baby in her arms and a cup in her hands saying: “Help me…Help me.” Reckon he really does have the whole world in his hands? Not only you and me brother and sister but not only the little tiny baby…but all of us. He’s got the whole wide world in his hands. Which means of this is true we all have some homework to do.

Little Michael was more right than he knew. We really can enter the story. Because you see it is not confined to some thin pages in a book. It breaks loose and stops on our doorstep and knocks on our door and comes in—whether we want him there or not.. 

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— our story. When the words leap from the page and take root in our lives.

What I want to do this morning is to take a Psalm—a Psalm we all know and talk to you about it. Weeks ago with Evelyn Simpson we visited six of our homebound members. And I told them I wanted to read a passage of Scripture before we took Communion. And I began to read: “The Lord is my Shepherd…I shall not want…” And as I read they all, one by one did the same thing. They whispered the words. I could see their lips moving. And they said them as I said them. And it is my hope that on some night when they hurt and they might be scared they will remember those words were for them. He really is our Shepherd.

But what I want to do today is to talk about two occasions in my own life when the 23rd Psalm leaped off the page and I found myself right smack-dab in the middle of the story.

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, a gorgeous structure that many of you have visited. After studying hard all week long I decided, since I had not had much time, that I wanted to spend some time visiting the cathedral. I just wanted to walk around and soak up the splendor.

photo by zenm / flickr
I chose an early morning time right after breakfast, before my classes started. So I went up the hill to the cathedral and tried 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 an arrow pointing to “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”

I found myself in a little room much smaller than this platform. 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 as if 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 as if for the first time, 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 in which the story was more than a story but it became my story. The Lord was my shepherd and I was that kept.

That afternoon I wanted something to mark the occasion, so I found the gift shop and discovered a little silver cross and I began to wear around my neck as a sign  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.

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 finished our business. About the same time there were some troubles in the church I was serving. I was just having a really hard time. I, of course, was a good Christian and very strong. I was not supposed to have troubles or be depressed and I was supposed to handle it all. 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.

photo by Kyle Steed / flickr
Finally, things got so bad emotionally for me that I was desperate. I couldn’t sleep. I worked more and more for fewer and fewer results. My wife finally said, "I think you have got to get some help!" 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 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 pull it out and read it and look at it. I want you to make it your own.” It became life a life raft for me. I pulled those tiny words out and said them 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 calm me down. Over time passed and healing began to happen. Not just because of this experience but many things helped: my wife, prayer, rest, medication and grace poured in from unlikely places and life moved on. Thank God. 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 woman at the desk asked : “Do you know the Doctor is upstairs. Sick.” So I got the room number and found his room. 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 by his bed. 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 some words down 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 whenever that happens we discover that it is more than a story. It is real life itself. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not lack.” For he really never gives us all the things we want but all of our needs, the lacks of our lives, are always attended to.

The old gospel song is true after all: 

“My name's written there
On the page white and fair
In the book of God’s kingdom
my name's written there.”

Oh yes is it my friends—oh yes it is. Our names really are written there. Jennifer...Tom...Wayne...Bill...Mary...Evelyn...Frank..Pat. It is, my friends, it is, however much we try to say it was.

photo by Leonard J Matthews / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC where I serve as Interim Pastor. April 10, 2016)

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