23rd Psalm (remix), featuring St. Francis

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Psalm 23, John 10:11-16

Do geese see God?

Tell me, do geese see God?

Not sure?  Let me say it backward?

Do geese see God?

Ah, this is a palindrome, a word or phrase that reads the same way frontward and backward.  Mom is a palindrome, as is Wow.  So is, Live not on evil; and, Desserts, I stressed.

Several years ago, I came across a variation of this kind of word play, something that when read backward says something very different than when it is read forward.

Here is a wonderful example, a video poem called Lost Generation (clink link to view before continuing).

The first time I watched the video, the dramatic reversal of the text and the message from self-centered cynicism to empowered hope brought tears to my eyes.

With thoughts of palindromes and clever videos in mind, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if there was some such meaningful word play embedded in our beloved 23rd Psalm.  I read it backward thinking there might be some hidden message in there.  Alas, the 23rd Psalm is not a palindrome, nor does its timeless and beautiful message of God’s tender care for us change when read backward.  But I was not to be deterred.

There is yet another form of word play that might inform this morning’s reflection on the 23rd Psalm, the remix.

Contemporary composers of popular music, hip-hop and jazz, remix standards and classics to create new music.  They do what is called sampling, recording recognizable words and rhythms from other popular songs and inserting them in their own composition.  Results vary.  Some people say that such sampling and remixing plagiarizes the talents of better composers and only succeeds in ruining the original classic.  Others find that this sampling and remixing gives the classic new life, helping people hear it in a new way.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe the 23rd Psalm doesn’t work as a palindrome, maybe it isn’t helpful to scroll the text backward.  How about a remix?  Now, I know what you are thinking.  Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare mess with the words and message of our beloved 23rd Psalm.  No passage in scripture is so treasured by so many.  It is perfect in its poetry, especially in the King James Version we heard this morning, and its message that God leads us, protects us from evil, and surrounds us with goodness and mercy provides timeless comfort and encouragement when we are feeling lost and bereft.

While written well before the birth of Christ, as Christians we associate the psalm with Jesus the Good Shepherd.  In this morning’s passage from the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  We understand that in Christ, our Good Shepherd, we shall not want, we lie down in green pastures, we are led beside still waters, our soul is restored.

As beloved as the 23rd Psalm is, as many times as I have heard someone say that for them, the 23rd Psalm “says it all,” I dare say, that taken by itself, it’s a bit self-centered. Bear with me.

Listen to the emphasis of the psalm.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me.  The words I, me, my and mine appear in the 23rd psalm 17 times.  17 words out of 117, 15% of the psalm is all about me!  No wonder I feel so good when I read it!

By comparison, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis speaks not of what God will do for me, but how we can serve God and others.

Don’t get me wrong.  The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful expressions of God’s love for us ever written, and it remains so.  But in the larger context of the gospel, perhaps there is something more for us here.

You know I often refer back to the Apostle Paul’s words in the 12th Chapter of First Corinthians where he refers to the church as the body of Christ.  He doesn’t say that the church is like the body of Christ, Paul says the church is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ.  Read with Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ in mind, the 23rd Psalm isn’t referring to some idealized image of God as a good shepherd “out there” who will take good care of me, myself and I (17 times), instead we, the church, are the good shepherd called to care for all God’s children.

God asks us to be his good shepherd, to go out into the world to care for all his sheep.  Listen to these words from this morning’s gospel lesson.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

About six months ago, First Church members gathered with other interested people from the community to consider sponsoring a refugee family. Working with a refugee resettlement agency in New Haven, our volunteers quickly organized into committees, took the name HANA, Hartford Area Neighbors Alliance, and satisfied all the requirements to host a refugee family. Unfortunately, this was the very moment when the U.S. refugee resettlement program was suspended.  HANA has been in a holding pattern for the last few months.

I got an email yesterday that HANA now has an opportunity to assist a Syrian refugee family, Ibrahim, Adeebah and their five children ages 4-16. They arrived in the United States last November and were sponsored by a community group in Manchester. But it was no longer safe for them there as they were receiving death threats, so they have been resettled in West Hartford where there are other Syrian families.

HANA is now preparing to support this family

And Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”  We, the church, are God’s good shepherd.  We are called to reach out as the Good Shepherd to restore God’s promised love and protection to the lost.

I promised a 23rd Psalm Remix, so here it is, the 23rd Psalm, featuring St. Francis:

Lord make us an instrument of Thy peace,

make us, Lord, Thy Good Shepherd;

for we shall not want, but shall sow love;

Where there is injury,

may we prepare green pastures for lying down;

Where there is doubt, help us still troubled waters;

Where there is sadness and despair, make us restorers of souls;

And where there is darkness,

give us light to lead in paths of righteousness.

O Divine Master,

As we walk with those who suffer

through the valley of death’s shadow,

May we fear no evil, for you are with us.

Grant that your rod and staff may provide comfort,

and that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,

Let us set tables before friends and enemies,

Not to be understood, but to understand

Anoint our heads with oil and fill our cups to overflowing

Not because we are loved, but so we can love others

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all

For it is in giving that we receive,

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

And it is in laying down our life for your sheep,

That we are born to eternal life

Where we will dwell in your house forever.  Amen.

Blessed Are the Refugees

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, January 29.

Matthew 5:1-12, Luke 6:20-26

On Friday, First Church staff and our spouses gathered in my home for a post-Christmas party. As you know, the holiday season is especially busy for our staff so there is no real opportunity for us to relax and celebrate the season with each other. By coming together in January, we are able to enjoy a potluck meal and some less businesslike interactions with one another. We ended the evening with a Yankee swap. Many will be familiar with the tradition. Everyone brings an inexpensive wrapped gift, then we take turns either picking a wrapped gift from the pile or taking, basically stealing, a gift that someone has already chosen and unwrapped. Yankee swaps always lead to lots of laughter as someone opens a gag gift, or as a coveted gift is snatched away; and I find that Yankee swaps are especially fun with church staff. For good reason, we are required to be pretty buttoned up during the week and on Sunday mornings. But once a year we can let our hair down, be silly, and laugh at things that might raise eyebrows within the church walls.

Uh-oh, I think I’ve said too much. Your imaginations are probably running wild. OK, I’ll share one story. One of the Yankee swap gifts was a small picture book called Hot Guys and Baby Animals. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Each page contains a picture of a gorgeous, shirtless man holding a cute little baby animal. On one page you might find Ty, a muscular young man with a seductive smile, holding an adorable little puppy named Jasper. Ty, we read, is proud of having served in the military. While Jasper is proud of his ability to chase his own tail. And so on. As you might imagine, there was much uproarious laughter every time the book changed hands!

Oh, and if you want to sneak a peek at those “cute animals,” see our Church Administrator Shannon Lindsay; she went home with the book.

So, my reason for beginning with this story are two-fold. First, I want you to know that members of your staff like each other; we enjoy each others company. Second, it illustrates, albeit in a silly, clumsy way, that what we say and the way we say it changes depending on our setting and audience. I will express myself one way when speaking to Nancy Crouch about the church’s clinic in Uganda, and another when I open a nose-hair trimmer at the staff post-Christmas party (Mark Mercier and I battled over that nose-hair  trimmer!). Context matters.

Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Matthew, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. The beatitudes are a series of proverb-like blessings, each consisting of two phrases, a condition and a result. Blessed are the poor in spirit (the condition), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (the result). The Beatitudes can be read as moral instruction; God will bless you when you act in this way, and many find comfort in these blessings, an assurance of God’s loving response to hardship.

Not one to mince words, Pope Francis recently said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian; you cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes.”

Some of you may know that there is a version of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Luke. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s telling of this story is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. While it is possible that Jesus preached two different versions of the same sermon, it is more likely that Matthew and Luke take the same story and interpret it differently for their respective readers.

Just as is makes sense for our church staff to present ourselves one way in the more formal professional setting of the church and another way in a more relaxed social setting, so it makes sense that the two gospel writers recount Jesus’ sermon about God’s blessings differently, depending on their setting and audience. What is said and the way it is said changes depending on the context.

I will spend a little time unpacking the difference between these two versions of the Beatitudes as this will help us understand what Jesus is saying to us today. First, let’s look at the setting and audience for each.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, near Jerusalem, while Luke is writing to a community of gentile or Greek followers somewhere in Asia Minor.

Matthew introduces the Beatitudes by saying: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them. So in Matthew, Jesus goes up the mountain to escape the crowd and teach the disciples.

Luke, on the other hand, writes that Jesus came down from the mountain with his disciples and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and cured of unclean spirits. Here, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the people in the crowd.

Let’s compare two verses from the each gospel and see how this knowledge influences our understanding.

While Luke writes, “blessed are you who are poor,” Matthew writes, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” You hear the difference. In Luke, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the impoverished people in the crowd. While these poor had been treated by the religious elites as if they were unloved by God and deserving of their lot in life, Jesus specifically affirms God’s love for them, for “you, who are poor.”

In Matthew however we find Jesus speaking privately to his disciples, teaching that if they want to experience God’s blessing they need to be “poor in spirit,” emptying themselves, letting go of their own way to let God in.

Similarly, in Luke, Jesus speaks to those in the crowd saying, “blessed are you who are hungry now,” while Matthew’s Jesus teaches the disciples, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s treatment of Jesus’ teachings is consistent with the whole tone of his gospel which consistently affirms God’s love and justice for the outcast and challenges the rich and powerful. Jesus’ blessing of the poor and hungry on the plain echoes the words Mary sings when pregnant with Jesus, “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Matthew, on the other hand, seems to spiritualize Jesus’ teachings, taking the focus off the poor, but is this really his intent? Notice that Matthew does not say that those who are righteous are blessed, but that God blesses those who hunger for righteousness, here meaning justice.

What does it look like to be poor in spirit and to hunger for justice?

Some of you know that with leadership from First Church members, a group named HANA has been formed to sponsor a refugee family in Connecticut. Some fifty excited, gifted and committed volunteers from area churches and organizations now comprise this group, Hartford Area Neighbors’ Alliance or HANA; they have been trained by a refugee resettlement agency called IRIS in New Haven and are now ready to receive a family.

Refugees are poor and hungry, right? Fleeing political or religious persecution, often leaving everything they own behind in their war-torn homelands. In Luke version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says of these poor, hungry refugees, God sees you, knows your suffering, and has something better in store for you.

Poor in spirit and hungering for what is right, “disciples” from HANA are responding to the plight of these beloved of God, emptying themselves of their own interest, putting love of God and stranger first.

Taken together, Luke and Matthew reconcile those who are poor and hungry in fact, with those poor in spirit disciples who hunger and thirst for justice. We need to hear the sermon in both ways if we are to come together and respond to the world’s poverty and hunger.

As many of you know, as of Friday, an executive order halted the entry of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. These countries would be the most likely homes of refugee families we would sponsor. I am heartbroken about this decision as I know the abject suffering these refugees are experiencing. For some, this decision to refuse entry to the United States could be a matter of life and death.

In the same speech in which he referred to practicing the Beatitudes, Pope Francis rebuked “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand are against refugees and other religions. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he says.

The two gospels offer other blessings, and here Matthew and Luke agree.

Jesus, in both accounts, says, blessed are those who mourn and weep. So together poor and poor in spirit, refugees and those who see and know their suffering, will mourn; and the hungry and those hungry for justice will weep together until we all experience God’s blessing.

And in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus preaches, blessed are you when people hate, exclude, revile, defame and persecute you.

Those in the crowd that gathered on the plain with Jesus that day knew such condemnation, and so do Muslim refugees today. Through no fault of their own, they have faced persecution in their own countries that has required them to run for their lives, and they now confront hate and exclusion anew as they seek new homes around the world.

And Jesus gives the same message to the disciples on the mountain top. And guess what, that’s us. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to lift our voices in defense of Jesus’ teachings, even as we face the real possibility that we may be reviled for it.

In addition to supporting the ongoing work of HANA to sponsor a refugee family, I have reached out to friend of the church, Imam Sami Aziz of the Bloomfield Muslim Community Center and let him know that he and his congregation have the support of First Church. He urged me, urges us, to publicly refute the false narrative about Islam that is being promoted by some evangelical Christians and used by politicians to exclude and persecute Muslim immigrants and refugees in the United States.

This is just one of the ways Jesus is calling to us in these times, called from this Sunday morning mountaintop to go among the poor and hungry. You poor in spirit, God’s realm is crying out to us. You who mourn, God will meet us here, now, that we might be encouraged and respond. You who hunger and thirst for justice, go. Go. Go knowing that God blesses and accompanies us always. Amen.

 

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