Afflicting the Comfortable: Another Take on Psalm 23 – Sermon for April 17, 2016

If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. And often we can recite it, amazingly, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.

In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. And when I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they asked for this one.

When I talk to people about funerals, either their own, or that of someone they loved, they ask for this Psalm too. Because unlike perhaps any other piece of Scripture, Psalm 23 gives us comfort in the most difficult of times. The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

So, to be honest with you, that’s why for a long time I could not stand this Psalm. After years of being a chaplain, I just sort of thought of it as the Psalm you read when someone was sick or dying, and I really only thought about it then.

I mean, really, nearly every time you hear this Psalm something bad is happening, right?

And that’s okay. I think in times of pain, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.

And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.

But, it would be a mistake to just think of this as the funeral Psalm, or the Psalm you read when times are hard.

When I was in college I heard a priest say once that the job of the preacher was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. That still resonates at some level. If you come to church and you are in pain, I do hope you find comfort in what is said here. But if you come to church and you are completely comfortable, and completely unmotivated to make this world better for others, then I hope you leave a little afflicted.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the same is true of the Psalms. I wonder if they too are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

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Like I said, almost every time I plan a funeral, the reading of Psalm 23 is requested. But the fact Psalm 23 has been relegated mostly to funerals is a tragedy. Because this Psalm isn’t about death; it’s about living fearlessly and in abundance.

The shepherd of the Psalm, who is God, is described as someone who can lead us through the scariest of places, all the while casting aside our fear. And God fills our cups, not just until there is enough, but until they overflow with so much goodness that we can’t help but share it.

That’s a good word for those of us who are so comfortable we could use some affliction. And, to be clear, that’s most of us, at least some of the time. We all have moments when we can use a little comfort but, whether we admit it or not, we also have moments where our cup overflows with abundance.

And so when our cup is overflowing the question that remains is who do we then follow? Who will be our shepherd through life? Will it be the one who has filled our cups to overflowing? Or will it be something else? In other words, can we really say with all honestly and conviction that “the Lord is my shepherd”?

Before you answer that, know that there are many shepherds out there you can choose. You can choose the shepherd of fear, who tells you that you will never be enough. You can choose the shepherd of anger, who reacts to the world with rage. You can choose the shepherd of greed, who tells you that you need more. Or you can choose the shepherd of narcissism, who tells you that you are the only one who matters on the path.

And there are countless other shepherds as well, all vowing for your time and attention. And, even if we believe that we are independent of their influence, the reality is that we are all following some sort of shepherd in this life. And, too often, they are leading us down the wrong paths.

And so, when we proclaim instead that the Lord is our Shepherd, we are saying something extraordinary. We are saying that we are not going to get lost anymore. We are saying that even as God leads us through territory that is so foreign and vast that it feels like we are in the “valley of the shadow of death”,you also know that you are still with God, and there is nothing to fear.

God does not promise us that if we follow we will always have an easy journey. Psalm 23 isn’t a warm and fuzzy affirmation of an easy life. But God does say that even when we are on those new and unfamiliar roads God will be there with us, leading us through.

And so, I also want to say this. What is true for individuals is so often also true for churches.

I think churches could learn from Psalm 23. Because in a time when so many churches are drawing inward, afraid of an unknown future, and clinging to the “hope” of austerity measures, and “wait and see” fearfulness, the Psalm offers us a radical alternative. Don’t live in fear. Live in faith. And follow the one who can lead you through the darkest valleys and make them seem like they were well-lit sidewalks.

Some of you know that my first parish ministry call was to a two point charge in Vermont. One church was relatively healthy, but the other was not. For nearly 200 years it had been a thriving small town church, and the center of the town. But those days were long gone. By the time I got there, my work was to help the church to close its doors and merge with the other church in a graceful way.

At that time a good Sunday morning was one in which the attendance was in the double digits. As in, ten people. Counting the organist and me. And it was rarely a good Sunday morning.

I wanted to understand why this had happened, and so did a lot of research into the history, going back even before any of the people who were left, because the truth was that the few who were left had come after the damage had been done. And as I looked deeper, I found out that there had been a time when the church’s cup had indeed overflowed in every sense of the word. But decades before, instead of sharing that abundance and using it in creative ways, fear had ruled the day. The church had turned more and more inward, and more and more fearful about its own future.

It was like as this cup overflowed they were trying to put all of that abundance and grace back in so they could hang onto it. They kept trying to build a bigger cup, instead of using what they had been given. They were so afraid of a future when they would not have enough that instead of looking at all they had as a blessing and gift to share with others, they saw it as something to fearfully store up for themselves.

And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, decades later those fears came true. Just not in the ways they thought they would.

At the end of the church’s life they had a whole lot of money in the bank account, a nice building that was hardly ever open except on Sunday mornings, next to no one in the pews, and most importantly, no one in the community being served beyond the doors of the church.

That’s not our situation. At all. But it’s a constant reminder for me. I don’t believe anyone ever consciously chose or even wanted that future for that church. But somehow, over the course of decades, that’s where they wound up. And so, I promised myself that no matter where I pastored next, I would tell that story. Because it’s too easy to have the best of intentions, and to end up there.

And so, I always want to say to churches the same thing I want to say to individuals: don’t wait until your funeral to live out this Psalm. This should not be your deathbed prayer. This should be the proclamation you make as you rise every morning: the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear.

And so, whether on your own path or on this path we walk together, live out that kind of faith everyday. God has already given you more than you need. You have an abundance. You have enough. Don’t be afraid to use it. Live boldly, follow the Good Shepherd, and you, and we, will indeed live. Amen?

Sermon for the Closing of Wilmington Congregational Church

Genesis 12:1-9

12Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,

6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lordappeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

If I could only say one thing to the members of Wilmington today, I’d say this: “you did nothing wrong”.

And if I could say a second thing it would be this: “God is not done with you.”

We’ve come today because we are saying goodbye to one particular form of the body of Christ. We are sad. And it is not something we ever wanted to do. And yet, in the end, we felt like this was the most faithful choice we could have made. Which makes today particularly bittersweet.

Over the last year we have engaged in a hard conversation. A conversation that had been a long time coming. It was not easy. It was emotional. And it was something none of us wanted to talk about. And yet we did. And about two months ago we sat in this sanctuary and took a unanimous vote that it was time to close our doors.

Since that time, the biggest regret I have heard from folks. is not about closing the church. It’s about whether we let our ancestors in this place down. Would members of all the generations that came through those doors look at us today and think, “You didn’t do enough. You didn’t honor our legacy.”?

There’s a tendency to beat ourselves up about that. To wonder what we could have done better. But if we are doing that, we are losing sight of the question: Did we honor their legacy?

As I’ve thought about it, I think the answer is “yes”. We have honored the lives and faith of the people who came through that door. And I’ll tell you why.

The earliest founders of this church, back in the 1780’s, were not from here. They came to a new frontier, and they built a church that reflected the needs of the community at that time. They were people of faith. People for whom the will of God was the center of their lives. And they, and the generations that came after them, kept the doors of this church open to respond to the faith needs of not just this community, but the world.

They did incredible things in the name of faith. They gave meaning to a growing town, before Vermont was even a state. They baptized and confirmed people who would know Christ. They, in the days before abolition, sent money to support Congregational missionaries working to free slaves. They rallied to keep responding to the needs of Wilmington in the Great Depression, and the World Wars, and they served the people of this town well even into the last few months. Even when we knew where we were heading, when the waters flooded this town, we responded to Wilmington as people of faith, and we opened our doors.

Up until that very last meeting with the vote, we did the things that honored the legacy of  our forebears. And then, at the vote, we did it once more.

You all know there was enough money in our accounts to keep our congregation going for a few more years. But you also knew that this was about more than us. This was about God, and the legacy of this church.

You made a hard choice. You decided to honor the legacy of the people who came before you by giving freely of the gifts we had, so that our sister church down the road could continue to minister to our whole valley. You made a selfless choice. And the choice you made, and the way you made it, said more about who you were as Christians than about anything else. You spoke well for all the generations that no longer could. You told the world what kind of Christians they were, by showing what kind of Christians you are.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have uncertainty. That doesn’t mean we exactly what happens next. But, I can tell you this: God isn’t done with you yet.

This afternoon I read you a story of old beginnings. Old because they come from one of our oldest ancestors. One who never lived in Vermont, but whom we still know. I read you the story of Abraham, and how God told him to leave the place he knew.

God doesn’t just tell Abraham to go. God tells him that there is a new land waiting. One that will be shown to him. And God tells him that God will bless Abraham’s name and make it great.

You have to wonder what Abraham was thinking. Was he scared? Was he unsure? Did he really believe it? Did some part of him want to hold on to all he knew and stay there in that place?

I’m guessing he did. But I also know that he went. And I know that God did everything that God promised. Because thousands of years later, when the book of Hebrews was written, we are told about what Abraham did. And how he looked to God, “the architect and builder” of a new place. And how this man, who Scripture calls “as good as dead”, produced a legacy. Descendants who were greater in number than the stars, or grains of sand.

But you don’t even have to take Scripture’s word for it. You can take the word of his descendants. I am one of them. And so are you.

And if God would do this for Abraham and Sarah, God will do it for those of us who are his legacy.

You have done nothing wrong. You have done everything possible to honor the legacy of those who come before you. You’ve done it by loving your neighbor. You’ve done it by  being good stewards. You’ve done it by trusting that God never forgets God’s children. And that God sometimes calls us to a new home in order to make us great. And God wants us to be great.

As we leave here today, and ring that bell one last time, may it ring out our commitment to that carrying our legacy with it. May it ring out our intention to be people who serve our God and our neighbors. And may it ring out our hope as we join another community of faith, and seek to serve this whole valley. God has promised us a blessing. And God will meet us on the journey. Amen.

“Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening.” – Sermon for January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
3:1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

3:2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;

3:3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.

3:4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”

3:5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

3:6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

3:8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.

3:9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

3:10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

On Sunday mornings for decades now the pastor of this church has preached the same sermon, and offered the same service in one church and then driven six miles to the next and done it all again. Today’s the last time the pastor of this church does that. Today’s the last time Alan plays the same hymns at both places. Today’s the last time we make that quick run out of the door of one church and into the door of the other. It’s the last time we worry about making it down the road in time.

 

In many way the two churches are the same, and in worship each Sunday we do the exact same things. But so many times in the past year and a half I have wanted to preach one thing to Wilmington and one to West Dover, because both churches have been in such different places in their lives. And I came to truly believe that God was calling both churches to something new, and that each needed to listen for it. And today, I can tell you that I truly believe that both have.

 

Today’s Scripture reading talks about a young prophet named Samuel. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving Eli, one of the priests there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.”

 

In the United Church of Christ, the denomination that both of these churches belong to, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And then, we have to listen.

 

When I came here twenty months ago, I told the members of Wilmington that I knew the idea of closing the church had been around for some time, but that I didn’t have any agenda one way or another. My only agenda was to help us learn to listen for God’s voice, and to listen for what God was calling us to do next.

 

I’m really proud of the way that the members of Wilmington did just that. They listened to what God was saying to them, both in prayer, and by looking around at their community and asking what God would have them do. They looked at towns that were getting smaller, a society where compulsory church attendance is no longer the norm, and the fact that two like minded ministries were just six miles apart. And unlike back before the early 20th century, we don’t have to saddle up the horses on Sunday mornings to make it to church on snowy, unpaved roads. We just have to make a short trip now.

 

The needs of the people of God have changed. And we are being called to do something new. And we have been provided for by generations that came through those church doors and committed what they had to the ministry of the Wilmington Church. And we might be thinking right now that when we close the doors for the last time we might be betraying that legacy. But we’re not. In fact, we are making sure it lives.

 

The people who founded the Wilmington church back in the 1700’s didn’t come from Wilmington. They came mostly from Massachusetts and their families from England before that. They had gotten onto boats, often because they believed their faith compelled them to do it. They believed they had to leave the only home they knew in order to find the place where God was calling them to go. And it must have been terrifying.

 

And yet they went. They were called Puritans and they believed they were building a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts. They didn’t always get it right, but they tried. And by the time their children and grandchildren pushed forth into Vermont we called their houses of worship Congregational churches. And then over the years we became the United Church of Christ. And we began to proclaim that “God is still speaking” and that we were ready to listen. And so, we did. And we heard what God was calling us to do next.

 

Our founders, and the good church people who came through the doors for years, wouldn’t be disappointed in us. They’d be proud of us. They were people who understood what it meant to say “here I am, Lord” and to listen for what God said next.

 

The people at West Dover have been listening too. So many people in the congregation have asked how they could welcome the members of Wilmington. So many have expressed gratitude for the fact that Wilmington has made the gracious stewardship gesture to give what they had to West Dover. Wilmington could have spent down to their last dollar keeping the doors open, but they chose instead to invest in West Dover’s ministry. And West Dover responded by saying, “We want you to work from us from the get go. We want to help you preserve the legacy, and the vision, of all those generations from Wilmington. We want to own it with you.” And when the West Dover church council made the decision to welcome new members from Wilmington into leadership, I couldn’t have been more proud. Because it showed that we were listening for what God was doing next. It showed we believe that God, just like one of those Puritan ministers said so long ago, “has more truth and light yet to break forth”.

 

Now that’s not to say that all of things are certain. That’s not to say that we are all hope and no sadness. Or that we have all the answers, and none of the questions. That’s not to say that we know what church will look like for us in a year or five or ten. That’s just to say that God is, indeed, still speaking. God still has more truth and light. And God is going to be there with us wherever our journey takes us, just like God was there in those boats that crossed the Atlantic, and with those early Congregational settlers who came up here. Just like God was with Samuel.

 

There’s a temptation in times of change to panic and to want every question to be answered immediately. And you probably have questions, and ideas, and thoughts about what should happen next. We all do. And I want to hear them. From all of you. Because I believe that God is truly speaking to all of us, just like God spoke to Samuel. I truly believe that God is about to tell us what God wants us to do next. And like Eli sending Samuel back to listen to God’s word, I believe we are being called to stop and listen with prayerful hearts to what God is saying to us. We have to all be willing to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” and to really mean it.

 

I’d like for us, as members of both churches, to say that together, and then to listen together. I’d like for us to be Samuels, listening for God’s voice in the night. And I’d like for us to be open to the idea that maybe God is going to have words to speak to us from people we might not expect. Maybe even you. Samuel was just a boy when God spoke through him. Surely, God can speak through any one of us.

 

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said that if a sailor didn’t know which direction he was headed, no wind would seem good. And there’s a tendency, when you’re not sure where you’re going, to thing that there is nothing good coming your way. It’s easy to be negative in situations like that. But when you start to think about where you are truly being called to go, you finally know where to put up your sail and harness the wind to your advantage.

 

It may sound odd to talk about sailing in terms of church, but there’s a long history of representing the church as a boat. It happens in art work and in hymns and in ecumenical circles. We are people who have been gathered together for a journey that is sometimes on choppy seas, but we are held safely together by God’s love, secure in our belief that Christ can calm the waters.

 

Which means we have a choice in our life together now. We could sit out in our boat, in the middle of the ocean, with our sails down just hoping to drift to the right place. Or we could try to see where God wants us to be going, and put those sails up together.

 

In the coming months, I’d like us all to talk about how to do that. I’d like us to engage in a visioning process, one where we can talk about our hopes, and our dreams, and our beliefs about what God is asking us to do next. I’d like all of us to be a part of that conversation, West Dover, Wilmington, long-time member, newcomer, church officer, and even those who can’t stand committee meetings. I’d like for us to think as a community about what we believe our mission is; what we believe God is asking us to do in the Deerfield Valley. And I want you all to be a part, because I want you all to be able to come to church on Sunday mornings and say, “This is my church, and we are listening to what God is saying.”

 

And when we start to see what our mission is, when we start to understand what God is calling us to next, together we can put up those sails. Because God is about to take us to good places. As much as I believe anything in my life, I believe that. I hope that you do too. And so I leave you with this:

 

God is still speaking. And God always will be. So may we always be listening. Because listening to God’s voice is our legacy to honor. Amen.