Scripture: Psalm 23
I want to tell you a true story. Please forgive me if you’ve heard me tell it before. But my records show that the last time I told this story in public was more than 50 miles from here and more than 12 years ago, so I think the statute of limitations on repeating a sermon illustration has run and I’m safe.
Back in 1977, a German tourist named Erwin Kreuz, who spoke no English, was traveling from Germany to San Francisco, his first trip to the U.S. The plane had a long stop-over for refueling in Bangor, Maine. They let everyone off the plane for a while and Mr. Kreuz went through customs. Unfortunately, he hadn’t understood the announcements they’d made, so he thought he had actually arrived in California.
Poor Edwin left the airport and started to sightsee around what he thought was San Francisco. Amazingly, this went on for a couple of days until someone he met finally figured out the mistake. He was interviewed by the Bangor Daily News and became something a local celebrity.
I read this story many years ago in a book written by Mac Warford, who was President of Bangor Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the early 1990’s. Mac wrote, “Can you imagine those few days as Mr. Kreuz walked around Bangor trying to fit what he was seeing into the image of San Francisco in his mind? As he walked past the local Chinese restaurant he must have thought, ‘Chinatown is not as large as described in the guidebook.’ And he may have wondered why the famous streetcars weren’t running. When a local reporter asked, ‘Wasn’t there any moment when you suspected you were not in San Francisco?’ Mr. Kreuz replied, ‘Well, I was a bit disappointed by the bridge.’”
I love this story because I know what it’s like sometimes to need a reality check. It’s good every once in a while to see if what’s playing on the movie screen inside your head matches what’s really going on out in the world. Like that movie that played in my head a lot when I was a teenager — the one where I’m constantly wondering if the people around me really like me, if I’ll ever be good enough to fit in or figure out what I’m supposed to be in life. Maybe you’ve seen it too?
Or the one about how I’m sure the sad or scared feelings I’m having are never going to go away, if being sad or being scared is really just who I am. There are others, and I thank God I’m not prone to watching all of them. Like the one where the person who dies with the most toys wins, or the one in which if one person wins, someone else must lose. Or the one about how no will love you if you’re not beautiful enough, or thin enough, or fill-in-your-own adjective…enough. There are a million variations. And a lot of these movies, these false narratives, tend to play at three in the morning when you can’t sleep anyway. By comparison, Mr. Kreuz’s mistake seems relatively harmless. At least he got to see Bangor!
One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, once said that sometimes when she can’t bear to read the morning paper, she “tells herself that reading the Psalms is keeping up with the news.” I think the Psalms also work as a good substitute for those false narratives that run in our heads a lot of the time, too.
Somewhere in the Psalms you can find just about every human emotion you can think of: gratitude, love, joy, hope. But also sadness, grief, regret, loneliness, nostalgia, and anger – including anger at God for not preventing bad things from happening and not fixing them when they do.
The thing about the 23d Psalm is that we’ve all heard it so many times. There’s a risk of not really hearing the astounding depth of the story that is behind each of its images. It’s the story of a people who had experienced trauma and tragedy. A couple of generations before, their nation had been conquered. The Temple where they believed God dwelled had been destroyed. They had been dragged off into exile and returned to a ruined and impoverished land. Just about everyone was a recently-arrived refugee, having to re-invent everything, even what “home” felt like and how to worship God, if God was still around. They used these songs, not only to praise God, but to set their pain, their fear and their longing squarely at God’s feet.
Some Psalms are just pure cries for help. Others express the worshipper’s exasperation with God for remaining hidden and silent. Five hundred years later, Jesus’ own last words on the cross came from the Psalm right before this one, Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But the 23d Psalm is from a group called the “Psalms of Trust.” It’s not a trust that comes cheaply or easily. The Psalmist knows about the silence and hiddenness of God, yet still seeks for God. Just to ask the question, “where is God?” is the beginning of trust. It assumes the possibility of an answer. It’s the start of a quest, and you don’t set out on a quest unless you believe there is something worthy that can – somehow – actually be found.
For the seeker, the 23d Psalm is a kind of road map for the quest. In Hebrew, the Psalm starts and ends with the same word: the Name of God – Yahweh. “Yahweh is my shepherd” at the beginning; and at the end, “I shall dwell for all my days in the house of Yahweh.” The Name defines the outer edges of this map. We are inside God’s realm, held in God’s arms.
As we move from these outer edges to the center of the Psalm, we encounter contrasting images, from nature and from human culture. They show us that nothing is or can be outside of God’s realm. We find the shepherd, the still waters and green pastures, the shadowed valleys, all the beauties and dangers of the wilderness, death itself. Everything in nature is encompassed by God.
Then we see important images of human culture: a rod and staff, a table, a cup, the oil used in ancient times for anointing a king, or honoring a guest. Everything human is encompassed by God.
Even enemies are encompassed by God. They are not outside the picture, not outside God’s power. The “enemies” might be real people who really want to destroy us — the ancient Hebrews certainly knew about that. But we can also think of the enemies as any thing, any system, any addiction, any false narrative that is trying to keep us from taking our rightful place at the Feast of Life, the table prepared by God for God’s beloved.
So we follow the map, right to the very center of the Psalm. And there, we find the one, true thing, the most important thing the Psalmist has discovered on this quest. Precisely 26 words in Hebrew from the first word — which is God — and 26 words in Hebrew from the last word — which is God — are these words: “For You are with me.”
The God we seek is everywhere and every-when — seeking us. No matter how disoriented we are. No matter if we don’t speak the language or didn’t understand the announcements and got off at the wrong stop, God is there, with us. No matter where you are on life’s journey – God is there, with you.
By the time we get to the end of the song, the other edge of the map, the whole meaning of “the house of the Lord” has been transformed – it’s not a building in Jerusalem that can be burned down. God’s dwelling place, God’s presence, is everywhere, every moment, and we’re living inside of it, already.
Now, what does all this have to do with our children and our church? Well, to me, the greatest thing we could do for our children is to give them this gift: a map for navigating through their world – now, and for the rest of their lives. It’s not so much a belief or a creed to hand them, it’s not an instruction book or a set of rules or a graduation certificate. Those are all things that can be dropped or lost or set down along the way. The gift is more of a way of being, an inner trust, a spiritual resilience that will dwell in them as they travel – and quest — through their own green pastures and shadowed valleys.
Most children already know about those valleys. Given what’s in the news every day, the world they have to navigate, it’s the least we can do to give them a trustworthy road-map and show them how to use it. The paradox is that the truth at the heart of the 23d Psalm – and of Jesus’ message — is hard to describe with words, yet the smallest child knows it when they feel it. Maybe that’s why Jesus used parables and actions more than words, and why he said the littlest children already belong to the Realm of God.
Every Thursday night, I take my granddaughter Eilee to the Center for Grieving Children. At the end of the evening’s small group meetings, everyone – people of all ages — gathers in a big circle, holding hands. The last words of the evening are always the same, “Take the strength of the circle with you, because Love really counts.”
I want my grandchildren, and all our children, to feel this church holding their hands, giving them a strength they can take with them. And when they grow up and leave here, I want them to know, in their bones, that the God who is love is with them, all the time. I want them to know that even in those moments when you can’t believe in God, God is still there, believing in you.
Once Israel realized that, they could rebuild after the devastation. They wrote down these Psalms and we still have them and use them 2,500 years later. When you know there is nowhere you can go from God’s love, you know one true thing, a true thing that makes so much else possible: no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you – just as you are, right now – are in God’s house, and “God is with you.” Amen.