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?

The Danger of Building Bigger Barns

Note: This was originally preached as a sermon at The Congregational Church in Exeter on August 9, 2015.

Every UCC pastor participates in the pension fund for our denomination. The idea is that years from now when we retire we’ll have enough put away so that we can live. And when I started my first pastorate in the UCC I had to get set up in the pension program, so I called and had them send a registration packet.

It arrived and it was, literally, over an inch thick. There were brochures about all sorts of different funds and investment strategies. I had never done this sort of investing, and I was lost. I had no clue whether I was supposed to have an aggressive approach to investing or a semi-aggressive one or balanced one or conservative. I didn’t know which sort of investment to choose, or what my target date should be. I panicked. Finally I asked a friend with a lot more experience to help me out. I just handed over the pamphlets and said to her, “I’d like to be able to retire one day.”

I know more about investing now, but the fact remains that for most of us the idea of investing makes us uneasy. We often don’t know if we’re doing it right. Are we putting enough away? Are we putting it in the right places? Will there be enough for us down the line?

These are not new problems. They apparently were very much present even 2000 years ago when a man called out to Jesus from the crowd saying, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Even Jesus seems a little reluctant to talk about it. He tells the man, “Who made me the arbitrator?” But he goes on and warns, “”Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

And then he tells this story: There was a man who had some land and he was doing very well. He had a lot of crops, a high yield. But he realized he didn’t have enough room to store it all. So he takes down his barns, and he builds even bigger ones in their place. He says to himself, I’ve got it made. I’ve got enough for years now. I’m going to relax and eat, drink and be merry.

Except, Jesus tells us, that very night the man lost his life. And now what good does all that stored up grain do? And who does it belong to? He ends by telling us that it’s the same as those who store up things for themselves but are not rich in their relationships with God.

11258358_10100963415948558_6094224018528029828_nUnlike the man who builds a bigger barn so that he can horde his wealth, Jesus reminds us that we have to take the even longer view. We have to look not just at our lives, but at the life eternal. We have to look past what we can forsee, and look at what we don’t even understand yet. And then we have to fill our barns only as much as we need.

Do we take what we have and do we store it up in barns? Do we cram those barns with far more than we could ever use? Do we sit back and say, “Now I have enough…now I can relax?? Because the reality is, no matter how much we get, we will never have “enough”. We will always think that we need more.

I read an article from the New York Times a few years ago. It was about storage units, the kind where you take the stuff you can’t fit anymore in your house and put it into a small room that you rent. And if you’ve ever been to a storage unit place, you know that there are row after row of these little rooms, each renting for a pretty good monthly sum.

The article was talking about how even in a recession, in a time when a lot of other industries are having to downscale, the storage market is growing. There are new ones opening up all the time. The article offered a statistic that blew me away: “by the early ’90’s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier.”

When you think about that, it sure does say a lot about who we are, and what we value. It says a lot about what we hold on to, and what we invest in. And it says a lot about where we put our faith. We are building bigger barns, and we are, quite literally, storing up the stuff that won’t save us.

There’s a phrase you may have heard before: you can’t take it with you. We all know it. And we know that the subtext is that we can’t take the money or the things or anything else that we have accumulated in this life on to the next. And that’s true.

I’m always struck by that when I do funerals. Often people eulogize the person who has died by telling stories about them. And the one thing that keeps coming up time and again is always about that person’s generosity. People remember what the person gave to them, and not usually in terms of material things, but in terms of time, or attention, or love. And it always strikes me that no one cares about how much the person may or may not have had stored away. I’ve never heard a eulogy talking about how much money, or how big a house someone had, and how that defined them. But I’ve heard so many that talk about generous hearts and spirits.

But this is not a lesson that applies just to life and death. It’s a lesson for ministry as well, as in the ministry that we are all engaged in together. You can’t take it with you if you truly want to follow Christ. You can’t be so tied down to the stuff that you want to hold on to, both literally and figuratively, that you are afraid to follow Christ to the new places you are called.

When I was in Vermont I initially pastored two congregations, in a yoked parish. One was doing okay. And one was quite small, and wrestling with the fact that they needed to close. In the end, they had a significant amount of money in the bank. But they had very few people left in the pews.

And they had a choice. They could either horde their money for themselves, and keep on going until they had spent their last dollar. Or they could choose another, radical option.

They knew God wasn’t done with them yet, and they knew that there was a lot of ministry left in them. And so, rather than storing up their treasure in a building they loved, but that they didn’t need anymore, and rather than keeping their money tied up in its upkeep, they decided to let go, and to follow Christ. They donated their money to the church down the road. And they gave their building to a congregation that had lost theirs. And they took their faith and joined with another church.

It’s a powerful lesson, and it can guide us now. What fears are holding us back from doing the work we want to do? How are we building bigger barns, and packing them to the rafters, when we should be sharing our abundance with others? What are we holding onto out of fear that we might not get it again? What are we treating like a limited resource, instead of a gift given by God for us to share?

This isn’t just about money or stuff, though it is about those things too. This is about all that we are given. It’s about our time. It’s about our talents. It’s about our love. And it’s about not being afraid to use it. You may remember that song from when we were kids called, “This Little Light of Mine.” One of the lines is, “Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m going to let it shine.”

It’s the same way with all we are given by God. “Hide it up in a barn? No. I’m going to share it with God.”

I’m talking about using the barn to store what you need, but not making that barn your god. Not making your fear and anxiety over not having enough in the future dictate your whole life. And not making the need to fill that barn to the rafter dictate your happiness. Because here’s the secret: if your happiness depends on how much you have, it will never be enough. There will never be a barn that is big enough to hold all the things our fears want us to hold onto…unless you let go, and trust in God’s abundance.

I was thinking about how sometimes churches have trouble doing that. Even in our simplest acts. Like every time I go to a church potluck. It doesn’t matter the church. There’s always one fear: will there be enough food to go around? But then I remember: when have I ever been to a church potluck where there hasn’t been enough? At this church, we typically have the opposite problem. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been sent home with a plate of extras.

This morning, this parish is going to partake in our own meal together. It consists only of a loaf of bread, and a cup of grape juice. It’s nearly the simplest meal you can think of, and yet, it is the one Jesus chose for us. When you think about that, it’s pretty amazing. God incarnate got to set out a meal for us to eat for centuries, one in which Christ would be spiritually with us, and it wasn’t a four course dinner from a well-known chef. It was just a humble meal. And it was enough. And it will be enough.

As people of faith we can’t ignore the fact that more often than not we are living in abundance. We have far more than we will ever need. And we have been blessed with more than we can use. And so we have two choices…build a bigger barn? Or decide that we will trust in the God who has blessed us so deeply enough to open our doors, release our fears, and bless others with us. The choice is ours. And the choice is yours. Amen.

Enough: Sermon for August 3, 2014

Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

When I was a college and seminary student in Atlanta there were two churches, both from the same mainline denomination, located on opposite ends of town. One church was very small. It only had about 35 active members, and it was located in a neighborhood that for years had been down and out. And for the life of them, no one could tell how that church managed to stay open year after year.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

The other was a very large church. In fact, it was the largest church in the denomination, not just in that city, but nationwide. And on Sundays, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta, thousands of people streamed through its doors to worship.

You might think from this set up that I’m about to preach on David and Goliath here. The small engine-that-could little guy versus the huge monster no one could stop. But this isn’t a story about good guys and bad guys. And it isn’t about one defeating the other. This is a different story. This is a story about what it means to have “enough”.

I’ll come back to those two churches, but first I want to talk about the story Lynne read for us. Jesus and the disciples are being followed by a large crowd that wants him to heal them. And as it gets later in the day, the disciples look out at the crowds and they start getting nervous. They see all these people and know they are about to get hungry.

They say to Jesus, “send them away…have them go and feed themselves”. And I’ll bet that deep down the disciples were worried they weren’t going to be able to hold on to the little they had for themselves. Especially when Jesus tells them “give them something to eat”. And all they have with them is five loaves and two fish. Which when you think about it, was probably just enough for the disciples and Jesus to have at least a little something. And Jesus is trying to give it away.

So about now, if you put this in corporate terms, people could be saying that Jesus didn’t have a very good business plan. He clearly did not have adequate supplies, and hadn’t budgeted well. Here he was at the height of demand, and he didn’t even have the supplies he needed to meet the basic needs of the people who worked for him, let alone the consumers.

In short, Jesus simply did not have “enough”.

But the thing is, in Christ we find that our own definitions of “enough” rarely hold up. He tells them to bring the bread and fish anyway. He tells the thousands of people to sit down, and he blesses the food, and gives it to the disciples. And they give it to the people. And, somehow, everyone on that hillside eats. In fact they eat until they can’t eat anymore, and they end up collecting baskets of bread that hasn’t even been touched.

Enough.

It turns out that Jesus didn’t just have enough. He had more than enough.

But how often does that happen? Here’s a question to answer for yourself: Do you have enough? Could you use “just a little more”? Have you ever said to yourself “if only I made a little more” or “if only I had this” or “if only I didn’t need to deal with that” then you would finally have “enough”?

If so, you’re not alone. Few people I have ever met, including people with extraordinary wealth, have ever thought they had “enough”. In fact, sometimes those of us who have never questioned having access to what others might feel is extraordinary, things like clean water and enough to eat and a home free of violence, are the ones who seem to least appreciate how close we really are to having “enough”.

And when times are the tightest, we want to hang on to what we have even more. We become a little less generous with what little extra we have around. We squirrel away what we don’t really need in storage units. We hunker down, and make sure that at the very least, we will be okay. And slowly we stop focusing on our neighbors, and start to look only at ourselves.

I think that Jesus knows what that was like. And so did his followers. As they watched Jesus literally take their dinner out of their hands and give it away, I’ll bet they were pretty anxious. Times hadn’t been good for them either. In fact, they had found themselves heading out to this deserted town all by themselves because Jesus needed a break. In the passage immediately before this one in Matthew we find out that his friend, and family member, John the Baptist has been killed, and the writing on the wall for Jesus, and for all of them, is becoming clear. And so, they wanted this time alone. To mourn. To pray.

But Scripture says that when Jesus saw the crowds following him, crying out for healing, he had compassion for them. And he doesn’t say “I don’t have enough to give right now” and he doesn’t send them away. He instead finds what he does have to give. And he serves them with it.

Those two churches I told you about at the beginning of my sermon both did amazing things in their ministries. They touched many lives. But that little church, the one with 35 members, did something nearly unbelievable every night. They invited homeless men in from the streets, and let them sleep in cots in their sanctuary. They fed them hot meals. They helped them secure housing and healthcare. They walked with them on their journey.

The pastor of the larger church occasionally used to invite the pastor of the smaller church to speak in worship. And the big church pastor was a good Christian man who inspired great things, but he always struggled with the fact that his church never seemed to think they had “enough” to do more. Despite thousands of members and millions of dollars, there was always this sense of scarcity, and not abundance.

And so when the small church pastor would come, and tell the congregation about his ministry, the big church pastor would then slip in this fact, hoping his congregation might hear it. “You know,” he said, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.”

It was a sobering statement. And it brought into sharp contrast the difference between living a life ruled by the fear of scarcity, and one driven by belief in God’s abundance.

Just about every doubt we have as individuals comes from the fear of not having, or being, “enough”. Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not good enough. Not creative enough. Not old enough. Not young enough. You get the picture.

But just about every extraordinary thing that is accomplished comes from trusting that we can make what we have “enough”. And it’s not recklessness or foolishness that gets us to that place. It’s faith. That little church had stepped out in faith and started their ministry even though everyone had called them foolish or crazy. And yet, somehow that little they had was blessed. And the world was blessed for it. And, somehow, there always seemed to be “enough”.

There’s an alternative version of the story of the loaves and fishes that I’ve heard told by well-meaning commentators who want to give a more plausible explanation for what happened that day. They say that maybe Jesus didn’t somehow made those loaves and fish multiply. Maybe instead what happened is that people saw the first act of generosity, Jesus giving away those loaves and fishes, and their fear that there wouldn’t be enough ended. And they reached in their own bags, and pulled out their own loaves and fishes, and started to share. Maybe, the fish and bread were there all along on that hill.

I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I like to let Jesus’ miracles be miracles. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? The idea that maybe when we finally understand that abundance we have been given we can’t keep it to ourselves. The idea that we had “enough” this whole time and now we can share it.

You and I may not be sitting with that crowd on that hill, waiting for some bread and fish, but my guess is that we are all wrestling with what it means to have “enough”, and what we would do if we ever had it.

The good news is that like that crowd we find that when Christ is around we sometimes always seem to have enough…in fact, if we look closely, we might just find that we have abundance. Just like the overflowing baskets that were filled even after everyone was full, we find that Christ somehow has blessed what we refused to hold back. And we find don’t have to hold on out of fear anymore.

So here’s my question for you today? What would you do, if you finally believed that you had “enough”? Whatever that “enough” means to you, whatever it is “enough” of, what would you do if you felt like you had it? And how might that “enough” bless the world?

As we prepare to come to a table where a simple meal, begun in a time of great uncertainty, has for centuries proven to be “enough”, may we be strengthened by the bread and the cup to ask ourselves that question, and then to step out in faith to answer it. Amen.