Saturday, April 16, 2016

Nagging Grace

Psalm 23
April 16, 2016
Easter 4
William G. Carter

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

After all my years, I have a half-dozen sermons on the 23rd Psalm. As I stand here today, I’m still thinking about which one to preach.

Number three isn’t so bad. The focus was on “green pastures and still waters.” Not a bad image for spring time in Pennsylvania! Beyond the fury of life, there is peace. Beneath the concrete and pavement, there is the good earth. We are renewed by nature, so we ought to get outdoors more.

Number five was pretty good. I cooked it up for a Maundy Thursday communion service. “You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies.” Imagine that: Jesus gathers his friends for a final Passover meal. Outside a storm is forming. He will be betrayed by someone at that table. He will be abandoned by everyone else at that table. He will be arrested, condemned, humiliated, and crucified by the world he loves – yet he prepares a Table right there… right here. Some of the people who heard that sermon said they would never hear the psalm again in quite the same way.

Sermon number two is perfectly adequate, but you probably have heard it. Especially if you came to the funeral of somebody that none of us knew very well. The professors told me to come up with a sermon like that and keep it ready at hand. “Through the valley of the shadow of death” is the theme of that sermon. It points out that the Psalm shifts perspective in the middle. It goes from talking about God (“the Lord is my shepherd”) to talking with God (“You are with me”).

How about sermon number four? That one discusses the generosity of God. Green pastures and an abundant table are evidence of the God who provides more than we ever expected. The oil of blessing anoints my head. My cup runneth over. Wait a second, Lord! That cup is so abundant that it is spilling all over the ground! We are not accustomed to the generosity. Usually we measure out goodness in teaspoons, but God says, “Take a sip from this fire hose!”

When you heard the text, perhaps you simply wanted to hear sermon number one. The focus is pretty obvious: the Lord is my shepherd. Never mind that a few of us have ever actually met a shepherd. The shepherd shows up a lot in the Bible. It’s an ancient word from the farm fields used to describe leadership. Kings of Israel are described as shepherds, both good and bad. “He leadeth me” is the line. Of course, some people didn’t want to hear about the rod, the staff of discipline, used to chase away the wolves and tap the hindquarters of wandering sheep. People squirm when they hear about God disciplining the flock. It seems to bump against the oil of blessing

Then there’s sermon number six: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That sermon is pretty long, so I don’t preach it very often. People in the pews will give about 59 minutes a week. Some of our most ardent volunteers squirm if a committee meeting goes longer than two hours, even if the meeting had ten or fifteen minutes of interesting content. “Dwell in the Lord’s house forever”? Obviously that phrase is a metaphor, a comparison of the life of faith as dwelling in the house, as ongoing fellowship with God. It’s a good sermon, but it goes on a good long time.

I suppose I could preach any one of those six sermons. But here I am with all of you, and that makes it special. So how about a new sermon on the 23rd Psalm? I think you are worthy of that, so I have an idea of what that sermon ought to say.

You see, I visited the catacombs of my pastoral library this week. I lit the oil lamp and descended three floors to the quiet place of study. Surrounded by ancient manuscripts and learned tomes, I hunkered over the familiar words until I found something new. And suddenly, there it was, in the sixth verse: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” It is the Hebrew verb “radaph,” which is translated “follow.”

It turns out that “follow” is a lazy translation. It is much too passive. The better translation is the verb “pursue.” God’s goodness shall pursue us. God’s mercy shall chase after us. And so, sermon number seven is off and running.

A lot of people cannot imagine aggressive grace. Why, the very idea that goodness is not only present, but always   pursuing us – that is a most unusual expression.

Goodness and mercy chase after us. “Chase” is a word that carries overtones of danger. A movie with chase scenes will raise the adrenaline level. The bad guys chase after the good guys. As in the book of Exodus, “The Egyptians chased after the Israelites, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army.” (Exodus 14:9)  Normally a chase is not a good thing.

Last Sunday night, I sat down to watch the National Geographic channel. A group of forty baboons were chasing after a cheetah in the fields of Africa. Who knew that baboons are meat eaters or that they can run after a cheetah and sometimes catch it?

But then to hear that “mercy pursues us.” Grace chases us. When have we known that?

When my sister and I were small, sometimes we would get into a fight. I don’t know why; I was older and superior in every way. But you know how little sisters can be. Something would happen, the fur would fly. Our mother would step in to intervene. Not only did she break up the fight, but she created the reconciliation. She was absolutely forceful about it.

Here is what she would do. She would put out two chairs and make them face one another. One of us was put in the one chair, the other in the other chair. “Now, the two of you sit there and stare at one another. You are not allowed to smile. You are not allowed to laugh. You have to sit there and glare at one another until I tell you to stop.” How long did that last? About ninety seconds. Her smile would crack my frown. My giggle would prompt her chortle. A voice would say, “Don’t you laugh! I told you not to laugh.” Well, that would do it, and the laughter of love released us from our chairs.

I have long since thought that would also be one way to force grownups to get along. Demand mercy! Insist on forgiveness. Say it, in the voice of Jesus, “You must forgive!” (17:4) If you don’t show goodness and mercy, as God’s goodness and mercy have pursued us, what’s the point of being a human being?

This is the way to live the Christian life. A nearby Psalm lays it right out: “Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:14)  There’s that same verb -- pursue.
John Calvin and his followers gave this a lot of thought. Not only did they affirm that God will ultimately rule over all things, they believed that the grace of God was so generous that it is going to win us over. The adjective they used was “irresistible.” They taught of God’s “irresistible grace,” declaring when God decides to save you, God is going to get t done. No use trying to fight the love of God. Resistance is futile. God is going to win.

How many Bible stories can you remember of people that Jesus chose to heal or save? Some of them didn’t even ask him to do – he simply did it, with the generosity of God. That paralytic man lowered through the roof by his friends? He never says anything; his friends drop him at the feet of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he didn’t even ask for that. Then Jesus says, “Get up and walk,” and the man can now do it.

Or the man by the miracle pool in the fifth chapter of John? He was lying there for thirty-eight years, unable to get in whenever the angel stirred the waters. Jesus approaches to ask, “Do you want to be healed?” The poor man whines, “I don’t have anybody to put me in the water.” Jesus says, “Get up, take up your bed.” He’s healed and he didn’t ask for that.

Or the man born blind, in the Gospel of John. He never asked to receive his sight, but Jesus gives it to him anyway. That is when the man’s troubles begin. The authorities interrogate him, his parents refuse to defend him, the man is thrown out of his congregation because Jesus healed him… and then Jesus chases after him, and finds him at the end. That’s nagging grace.

Francis Thompson, an English poet, wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven,” somewhere around 1893. It became quite famous, describing Jesus as a fierce hound who pursued a man until he got him. “I fled Him, down the arches and down the days,” says the poet. “I fled Him, down the arches of the years. I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears, I hid from Him…” For some people, that is their experience of God.

But I think this favorite Psalm offers a gentler perspective, no less persistent, but always benevolent. Like the woman who in three kittens. She found them at the shelter, three kittens from the same litter. They were a trinity of meows. She named them Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, because everywhere she went, there they were. They were always nipping at her heels. She couldn’t get away from them.

The promise here: that no matter how difficult life is, God is gaining on you. God is going to win you over. How about that? The nagging grace, the aggressive mercy of God. 

Anne Lamott tells the story of her Christian conversion. She was making her way as a writer, but her life was much a chaotic mess. She had fallen into alcohol abuse, drug abuse, waking up in the wrong beds. She couldn’t straighten herself out.  Small advances could be made, yet it wasn't going well. Sometimes she went to a Sunday morning flea market in her town, and she would hear gospel music coming from a church right across the street. 

St. Andrew Presbyterian looked like a ramshackle building with a cross on top. She called it homely and impoverished, but the music wafting out of it was so pretty that she would stop and listen. In time, it was so compelling that she would wander over to stand in the doorway and listen to the songs. But when the sermon would start, and the preacher spoke about Jesus, it was enough to send her running back to the eh flea market.

But something kept pulling her back. She didn't want to be preached to about Jesus, but she realized she enjoyed singing about him. And the church smelled like it had nourishment in it. She stood in the door frame, often in the blur of a hangover or a cocaine binge, and find herself singing along. Then she had to leave before the sermon.

Life took a terrible turn. Her problems increased, and one night as she is sobbing in the shadows, she was aware that someone was with her, hunkered down in the corner. She knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. That appalled her. What would her brilliant hilarious progressive friends think? What would they think if she ever became a Christian? She said out loud, "I would rather die." And she felt him sitting there, watching her with patience and love.

She fell asleep. In the morning he was gone.

The experience spooked her. She shrugged it off. But everywhere she went, it felt like a little cat was following her, wanting her to reach down and pick it up, wanting her to open the door and let it in. But she knew what would happen. You let a sat in one time, give it a little milk, and then It stays forever. No way.

So a week later, she goes back to church. She was too hungover to stand for the songs. This time she stayed for the sermon, but it did nothing for her. Then the singing started, and it was so deep and raw and pure that she couldn't escape. They were singing between the notes, she said. It was like she was rocked in its bosom, held like a scared child, and it washed over her.

She started to cry, so she got up and got out of there. As she escaped toward home, it was like that little cat was running along at her heels. She got to her door, stooped there for a minute, hung her head and said, "I quit." She took a long breath, and then she said out loud, "All right. You can come in." That was the moment of her conversion.[1]

Goodness followed. Mercy nipped at her heels. Do you know what that's like? It means that God loves each one of us so much that God is going to chase after us with goodness and mercy until we are found, forgiven, welcomed, and won over.

That's what it means to have the Lord as your shepherd. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999) 48-50.

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