Sermon: Sunday 26 April 2015
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Genesis 7.1-5, 11-18; 8.6-18; 9.8-13
Where do we go when we are uncomfortable and unsure on our journey? To the safest place we can. Psalm 23, the psalm set for this morning, takes us there, whether our discomfort is caused by the boldness of the claim in Acts that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ Whether it is caused by the world’s volatility, circumstances in our own hearts and lives, or the uncertainty of working out where the choir stalls are going to be this week, and in our beloved sub-Dean’s case, whether we have just taken a nasty tumble over one of the rope barriers now legion throughout the Cathedral. (By the way, I understand he’s ok and is nursing his knee with a towel marked ‘born and bred in Yorkshire’ to fortify his spirit.)
Perhaps you think – oh no, that’s such a cop out. The Psalm which is all about trust, often seen on soft focus posters with lambs and daffodils and doesn’t really go there with lament – with the raw pain of what it’s like to be in our situation. So I want to begin taking us through this Psalm by looking at where it comes – directly after Psalm 22, the one which begins ‘My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me’, which we read on Good Friday, which speaks to the passion of Jesus. Far from being a wild guess or excuse that if we take it as being the place of trust reached after going through all of that, if we look at both the Psalms we can see points opened and answered between them.
Psalm 23 expresses confidence in God as shepherd to the psalmist. In Psalm 22, however, the psalmist accuses God of being far away and not answering the psalmist’s cry for help; of being silent when those around mock and shake their heads; of paying no heed when bulls and lions and dogs and evildoers surround; and of ignoring the fact that the psalmist’s body is shrivelled and emaciated.
Indeed, in Psalm 22, God lays the psalmist in ‘the dust of death’ (verse 15), ‘because’ (verse 16), ‘a band of evildoers surround’ (verse 16). The singer cries out, ‘but you, O LORD, do not be far from me’ (verses 11, 19), for ‘trouble is nearby’ (verse 11).
In contrast, in Psalm 23, even while walking through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ (verse 4), the psalmist will fear no ‘evil’ (verse 4), ‘because’ (verse 4), ‘you are with me’ (verse 4). In fact, God prepares a table for the psalmist ‘in front of my troublers’ (verse 5).
The power of Psalm 23 I am taking to come from having gone through the experience of Psalm 22 and ultimately having found God to be both present and bringing the Psalmist to a place of security. It is through those times of testing that our sense of trust in God is built.
Peter reminds the accusers from the religious establishment, in the passage from Acts, that the authority by which the disciples have healed the sick on the Sabbath is that of Jesus, who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead. It is that testing and vindication which enables us to know the reality of God the good shepherd through the life and work of Jesus.
Having just been on a conference with Jewish and Muslim leaders, I’m perhaps even more sensitive than we are anyway living in Leicester about phrases like ‘whom you killed’ and ‘no other name by which we must be saved.’ I want to run for cover to the gospel of John, and Jesus’ own words that as the Good Shepherd who knows his own sheep, ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.’ I, and I imagine we, are deeply uncomfortable with the kind of boldness we see in the passage from Acts. It seems aggressive and exclusive.
On Easter Sunday morning at our Vigil an extraordinary variety of people were presented for baptism and confirmation. There were two small children of an asylum seeker, with a traumatic and dramatic story, and it was a minor miracle that she managed to bring them – especially so beautifully attired – for baptism that day. Then there was the organist of St James the Greater, who had been playing there for five years before the event of his marriage opened him up to the desire and imperative to get baptized and confirmed. But the bulk of the candidates were people from All Saints’ Church in Belgrave, the Asian language congregation pastored by Sunny George, who is with us today. They included adults from at least two other faith backgrounds.
When we are faced with such a diversity of contexts from and through which people come to face, perhaps it reminds us to look at the context more deeply in which these passages were written. Perhaps Psalm 23 makes sense as the words of an asylum seeker, perhaps Acts makes sense as the words of someone who has found in their relationship with God through Christ something which heals and touches them, and who has had a great struggle to recognise its authority in their life in terms of the religious syntax they know.
Those words are not weapons to be brandished at other religions by the Christian religion. They are a bursting to life a naming of the reality of experiencing God’s salvation through faith in Christ.
This reality, this knowing God’s saving and healing power, even in the most difficult of situations. What does it look like? This is where I want to return to Psalm 23.
It looks like the movement from talking about God to talking to God, the movement from head to heart, the movement from God as concept to God as constant companion.
It looks like ‘I shall not want’ – the confidence that we shall never lack what we foundationally need. We want, the Psalm suggests (accurately I think), intimacy and true sense of home, we want to be kept safe from danger and we need to survive, but we want a place of deep relationship and belonging.
‘You spread a table in the sight of my enemies,’ the Psalmist says. A promise of being drawn from isolation to community and nurture even in the face of hostility. The enemy could certainly be an external one, but it could also be the enemy within – perhaps the one we might meet at a table for one, the one within ourselves. The one that makes us more isolated and paranoid, the one that is too self-absorbed to see the suffering of others, the one that is too worried about potential lack to reach beyond the search for our own comfort, the one that is so busy avoiding the pain of having been hurt by others that it builds us inside so that we become paralysed from loving, the one which has been too afraid to stand up for justice for fear of what it will bring upon us. God will even set up this table and meet us here.
So, if the bad news is ‘We have enemies,’ the good news is ‘God is watching our back.’ In fact, the Psalmist says, it’s even more than that; it is God who is the one in pursuit, hunting us down however hard our enemies from without and within make it for God to keep us safe. We know that sheep panic when they are isolated. They do very stupid things when they panic. Their only known defence tactic is to flock together. God has to have all the intelligence and skill and relentless focus of the shepherd and border collie in combination. Or indeed of the Terminator. But it is, thankfully, goodness and mercy that hunt us down all the days of our life.
Isaac Watts often recast Psalms into slightly different language. His metric version of the 23rd Psalm is eloquent, elegant, and moving:
The sure provisions of my God
attend me all my days;
O may Your House be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger or a guest,
but like a child at home.
Psalm 23 takes us from being completely overwhelmed and identified with the immediate situation to seeing the big picture of our lives in God’s hands once more – rather like the rainbow reminds us afresh, every time we see it, of God’s promise that we shall not be destroyed but kept safe, so we can breathe.
Jesus the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For all the sheep, black, white, spotted, Shetland ones that look like poodles, all our multifarious variety. Ones who call themselves Christians and ones who don’t.
‘For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
We can have confidence in the Good Shepherd.
© The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst