Lent Four: worship notes...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the fourth Sunday of Lent. I am grateful to the wisdom of those at Working Preacher for some parts of this reflection on Psalm 23. BTW there is SO much schlocky "art" for Psalm 23 - and my days was so full - it has taken me a while to find some visuals that worked.

Introduction
The more I seek God’s love – and experience it as grace – the more I must live into that grace with others. That is, the more I encounter God’s loving patience with me, the more I am called to practice patience with others.  It is the practical part of praying the Lord’s Prayer, right? 

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is already experienced in heaven… forgive us our debts as – what? – as we forgive our debtors. Not as YOU forgive them, but as WE do unto others what YOU have done unto us.

Are you with me here?  The more I know and practice trusting God’s grace, the more I am called to share and honor this grace with others – even if that means in the presence of my debtors and enemies.

All of the readings for today point to this brilliant albeit counter-cultural truth:  left to our own devices, we want God’s mercy for ourselves and God’s justice for everyone else.  We ache for forgiveness and patience for our sins but have precious little room for the failings and wounds of others – especially if those others look or act or speak in ways that make us uncomfortable.  Each of today’s bible lessons casts a light on such selfishness:

+  St. Paul, who once lived as the master of judgment, tells us in Ephesians:  Once you groped your way through the muck, but no longer. You’re out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it!

+  The Old Testament lesson from 1st Samuel speaks of God’s word to the prophet Samuel who was asked to anoint Israel’s new king:  When you are searching for my beloved, do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

+  The gospel of John tells us a story of Jesus healing a man who suffered with blindness for 38 years only to find that after his healing this man is harassed and judged by the strict fundamentalists of his day. It seems he was acting and living out of joy rather than fear:  Obviously, some of the Pharisees announced, this Jesus cannot be a man of God because he does NOT keep a strict Sabbath like we do!

And then there is the ultimate Psalm of trust – the Shepherd’s psalm – that clearly tells us that God’s grace is with us always:  in every kind of circumstance, whether we recognize it or not; in dark times or in lightness, in fear as well as joy, beside still waters or surrounded by our enemies the Lord is my shepherd so… I shall not want.  From my perspective, the cumulative core of these lessons is clear:  those who know and love the Lord are called to share the grace and trust we have experienced rather than foment more fear and judgment – and that takes a lot of practice.
Insights
If you are anything like me – and I think you are – you know that sharing grace, withholding judgment and snarky comments, and trusting God more than self doesn’t happen quickly.  It takes a lifetime of practice – decades of trying and falling down – accepting God’s forgiveness and starting again and again and again.

+  Do you know the old gospel song “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer?” The chorus goes:  It’s me, it’s me O Lord standin’ in the need of prayer.  And that is certainly true, but it is the verses that cut to the chase:  Not my father, not my mother but it’s ME o Lord – not my sister, not my brother but it’s me o Lord – not the preacher, not the deacon but it’s me o Lord.

+  Sometimes we learn those songs when we’re small, but we can’t REALLY sing them until we embrace the wise and time-tested humility of Jesus the servant. 

And that takes practice:  in the school of applied spirituality we get it wrong at least as often as we get it right because that’s how we learn and grow, that’s how we mature in trust and grace. And therein lays the trap door:  if this is true for us personally then it must be true also for others, right? If God is eternally patient with me, then I have to accept and trust that God is eternally patient with you, too – and you and you and you… and everyone.

So here’s what I’ve observed over the years:  not only do most of us despise this paradox in our souls, but even when we try to embrace it, we’re not very good at it without lots of practice AND a loving measure of accountability.  We simply need help to live and share grace in our everyday lives because part of us doesn’t want to DO it and the rest of us doesn’t know HOW to do it.

That’s why we have Psalm 23 – the Shepherd’s Psalm – it offers us a prayer built upon trust to bring comfort and a way to practice living by grace.  And what I’d like to do right now is walk you through this psalm so that you might have one more tool to help you forgive your debtors as the Lord has forgiven you.  Psalm 23 is usually described as a psalm of trust.  And scholars tell us that “trust psalms presume a particular type of life setting and regularly include two types of language.”  So let’s look at this carefully and be clear about both context and contents in the psalm of the Good Shepherd.

A psalm of trust is different from a psalm of lament or a song of praise.  Laments are cries of complaint – I am suffering and help me NOW, Lord – but not so with a psalm of trust.  Here the emphasis is no less urgent, but the expression is about comfort rather than complaint.  Do you see the difference? In a lament there is an anguished cry for relief; in a song of trust there is a deep experience of blessing. 

Maybe that’s why psalms of trust use metaphorical descriptions of life’s suffering more than specific problems and pains. That is certainly true in Psalm 23 where the crisis has been called “the valley of the shadow of death” or “a feasting table set up in the presence of mine enemies.” In fact, much of the language of this psalm – and other psalms of trust – paint word pictures that allow us to bring our own experiences into them so that wherever we find ourselves, we can become open to trusting in God’s presence.
Can you think out loud with me for a moment about how you might use some of the images in this psalm to talk about your life?

·   If the Lord is my shepherd, then when have you felt like a lost sheep:  can you say something out loud about your experience?

·   When have you felt like God’s presence in your life was like lying down in a green pasture or resting beside a gentle stream?

·   What about the valley of the shadow of death?  Or feasting at a welcome table surrounded by the presence of your enemies?

That’s one of the ways to use this psalm:  let it bring to your mind both the times of comfort and the times of challenge because BOTH were saturated with God’s grace and loving presence.  The language of the trusting psalms offers us the reassurance of God’s intimacy no matter what our station in life, ok?

There is one more gift the psalms of trust offer us in their language:  “in
addition to metaphorical depictions of a situation of crisis, the psalms of trust also include language that expresses trust in God’s presence and deliverance. In Psalm 23, the person in crisis confesses: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul; he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake… and prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies and … my cup overflows.” (Working Preacher)

That is to say, this psalm gives us words to use when we’re in trouble to reconnect with God’s comfort. Sometimes people tell me, “I don’t really know what to say or how to pray.” Well, my friends, Psalm 23 are a great place to practice using words that have been time-tested and scrubbed clean over 4,000 years of use.  One of my friends in AA puts it like this:  sometimes we have to FAKE till we MAKE it.  So if you are in distress or confused and don’t know how to pray… try this.

·   You, O Lord, are my shepherd.  This is an invitation to let God be God so that you don’t have to try.  Give yourself permission to think about all the things a shepherd does – including feeding the sheep and sheltering them – rescuing them when they wander away and protecting them.

·    In you, O Lord, I shall not want.   What would that mean – to live in such trust that we don’t worry or fret – or judge or fear?  Any thoughts?

See where I’m going with this: there are a LOT of helpful words to give shape and form to your prayers, so why not USE them?  Practice them?  Fake it with them until you make it with them?

Conclusion
At the heart of our psalms of trust is a promise from God – I will be with you always – and we must decide whether or not we believe this promise. Either we’re going to trust that God is God, or, we’re not.  Either we are going to live our lives like there is a calling and meaning greater than our selfishness and fears, or, we’re not. Either we’re going to construct a way of being that honors God’s presence even in the valley of shadow of death, or, we’re going to live like the world revolves around us.

·   I know what I’m like when I live into my selfishness – and fear – and sin – and it is not a pretty picture.  When I read the NY Times every morning I see signs of what it looks like when others live into their sin and selfishness, too and it makes me weep.

·   That’s why God gives us an alternative:  I am with you always.

I have chosen by faith to trust that this is true.  I have elected to live in ways that challenge my own selfishness.  I have been embraced by God’s grace in such a compelling way that I have to practice sharing it with others. And so do you, if you have any sense of commitment to Christ.  It isn’t easy – I am rarely consistent – but it is so much better than the alternative.  And that, beloved, is the good news for today.

credits:
1) Michelle Keck @ www.thenewyorkoptimist.com
2) John Levesque @ First Church
3) observatory.designobserver.com

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