April 21, 2013

Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17

“Shepherded Through the Ordeals”

John of Patmos, writing in the midst of exile and persecution because of his faith and his leadership in the early Christian Church, shares a vision he has of heaven – a vision of the kingdom of God when it comes. He sees a great multitude of people, more than he could count – people from every nation, tribe, and language standing together before the throne of God. And they are singing: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Then a question is raised, “Who are all those people? Where have they come from?” And the answer is given: “These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal… For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship [God] day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Of course, the metaphor of God as the Shepherd of the people runs through most of our scripture readings today. God is the one who cares for us like we are precious sheep, guiding us through danger and providing for all our needs. But the phrase that stood out to me as I was reading the Revelation passage this week was, “These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal.”

John’s words are usually interpreted as being about some kind of apocalyptic battle – the trouble and chaos of the world coming to an end before God’s kingdom is established as the new reality. But even if the world is not about to come to an end, “ordeal” is a pretty good word to describe what many people experienced this past week.

From the safety and security of Saskatoon, where our daily concerns may be as minor as the winter that won’t seem to end or the pot holes all over our roads, most of us probably joined our hearts with and offered our prayers for the marathon runners and spectators, the individuals and families that were hurt or killed, and the people of Boston in general as they endured the ordeal of the last week since the bombings that occurred on Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, in West, Texas, another ordeal was just beginning. A fire at a fertilizer plant got out of control and there was a terrible explosion. With many homes, and a school, and a nursing home in the immediate vicinity, the human impact was huge. And the ordeal continues as there are still many people missing and unaccounted for, with the number of confirmed dead rising day by day.

I don’t know if anyone here today has been through an ordeal of the magnitude of the ones experienced by the people of Boston and West this week. I know that I haven’t. Nor have I had to deal with the kind of danger and persecution that John and his early Christian cohorts had to endure.

And yet, most of us can probably reflect on our own current or past experience and say that we know what it’s like to be in the midst of an ordeal. For some, it was the tragedy and trauma of the sudden death of someone we loved. For some, it is the agony of a chronic illness or a rapid decline in health and wellbeing. For others, the disappointing ending of a relationship or a painful divorce has been our ordeal. Or perhaps a terrible failure at work, or a sudden and life-altering loss of financial security has thrown our lives into turmoil.

For many people of faith, both Jewish and Christian, Psalm 23 has been a source of strength and encouragement in the midst of the great ordeals of our lives. I cannot count the number of times that this special psalm has been requested for funeral services, or the number of times that I have read it aloud to a grieving family or to a person in the midst of their dying.

A couple of years ago, in a short sermon series on the Psalms, I reflected on the psalms of trust with a special focus on Psalm 23. In that sermon, I shared about a story of tragedy and transformation that I had watched unfold on the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” that week. Although the show is obviously just fiction, it was a story that mirrored the ordeals that happen in real life, and I was encouraged by the opportunity to witness a transformation from fear to trust, from despair to hope, and from giving up to determination to work for the good of those who are suffering.

First of all, you need to know the background. During the previous season, the Seattle hospital and its employees had experienced a traumatic event. A grief-stricken man entered the hospital with a gun and terrorized the staff and patients, injuring many people and killing several as well. And many of the characters of the show had not been the same since. One surgeon was too scared to operate. Another continued to struggle with feelings of powerlessness when she was unable to save a patient. Still others were crippled by fear and the memories of that awful day.

Not everyone has experienced that kind of trauma in life, but most of us have seen it on TV. And not just on dramatic television programs… We’ve seen it on the news… from shootings in schools and churches to bombings in the streets or on the subways, from beheadings on buses to planes crashing into towers.

The events of this week remind us that it is true… These are things that really do happen in our world, sometimes even very close to home. And even if we know that the chance of our being directly affected by something like this is very low, we are affected because we now live in a culture that is deeply shaped by fear. (Perhaps not as strongly as in the US, but fear still has a huge impact on us.)

Beth LaNeel Tanner, in her book “The Psalms For Today” wonders when the US became a society based on fear. She writes, “It is easy to answer that 9/11 changed everything,” but she argues that we were being sold fear long before that fateful day.

“What happened to Roosevelt’s brave answer in his 1933 Inaugural Address, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’? We have become a society where fear sells everything from the latest weather forecast to new cars. Much of our economy is fuelled by tapping into our fears. If we own the right things, we can protect ourselves and our family from harm and that will make us happy.”

Though it may seem like there has been an increase in terrorism and fear over the last 10-20 years, Tanner points out that people have struggled with fear throughout history. She explains that “in ancient days the people not only believed in other gods, they also believed in magic and the ability of enemies to curse an opponent. This practice seems odd and superstitious to a modern reader. [But] to the ancient, an amulet was a powerful talisman against evil and the curse of another. A selected psalm or verses from several psalms were written and placed inside an amulet. They believed these amulets protected and surrounded the person with a constant prayer and acted as a shield from the evil in the world.”

Tanner does not suggest that we should write out psalms and wear them around our necks, but she suggests that reading, and reflecting on, and praying the psalms of trust may actually act as mental amulets against the negative messages of the society in which we live.

The ancient times, when these psalms were written and used, were also fearful times. Life was not easy. Starvation was a constant threat. Wars ravaged the nations again and again. Women and children had a very high mortality rate, and forty was considered old. The people who prayed these prayers may not have had twenty-four-hour news channels, but they knew life could be scary and violent.

In response to all the fears that surrounded them, they prayed and sang psalms that centre on trusting God instead of giving in to fear and violence. More than any other psalm, and perhaps more than any other text from the scriptures, Psalm 23 has provided comfort and encouragement, help and hope for people of faith throughout the centuries.

It’s not that the psalm magically erases our problems or frees us from the difficulties of life. It can’t do that. But it proclaims God’s loving, caring, guiding presence through all the circumstances of our lives, and it gives us words in which to express our hope and trust in that God.

If you read Psalm 23 carefully, you will notice three distinct scenes in the psalm. First, there is a field or meadow. It’s an open space with green grass and a quiet lake nearby. The shepherd God has led you to this place, and provided for your basic needs. Life is good. You can imagine the warmth of the sun, the taste of the cool, clean water, and the rest on the luscious grass.

But just as our lives are rarely all sunshine and roses, in the next scene of the psalm you find yourself in a dark valley. I imagine it something like that dark forest in the movie “The Princess Bride.” There are dangers lurking around every corner ready to attack. It’s frightening and awful, and you emerge from it with scars. But there’s no avoiding it either, if you’re going to get home.

But the point of the psalm is that the shepherd God is right there with you. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

I said that I witnessed a transformation on the show “Grey’s Anatomy”. When their hospital was attacked by a crazed man with a gun, many of the characters were paralyzed by fear. In the midst of that traumatic event, they felt alone, powerless, and vulnerable. It was like they were crawling through Death Valley, each one struggling alone through the darkness.

But then on a later episode (months later in the lives of the characters) another trauma takes place. A young man rages around his Seattle college campus shooting students until he is taken down by a police officer. Once again, the hospital staff are overwhelmed by victims of a horrific attack, and many of them seem on the edge of breaking down from the pressure and the memory of the earlier attack.

Of course, no one stops to read Psalm 23, and there’s only a passing reference to the presence of God. But there is a moment, in the middle of the crisis and chaos of tending to so many severely injured students… A few medical staff and a few family members of the patients stand on a walkway at the hospital and look out the large windows at a crowd gathered outside. The people are gathered in a massive vigil of support. They have candles in their hands, and they are singing the college’s song.

And the point is that the staff and families are not alone. They are not abandoned. They may be walking through Death Valley, but there is a rod and a staff to comfort them, and they will make it through. And they do.

The final scene in the psalm is in a house, in a dining room. I see it in my mind’s eye kind of like the dining room in the Harry Potter movies… with long wooden tables overflowing with platters of delicious food and jugs of wonderful drinks.

The host at the meal is that same shepherd God, and the Lord has given you a special invitation to the feast. Maybe it’s the heavenly banquet that awaits us in the next life.

Maybe it’s a hope and a promise for the future when God’s kingdom is finally complete. But I can’t help but notice the final line of the psalm: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” I don’t think it’s an experience reserved for heaven. And it’s certainly not a special privilege meant for only a few special people. Even your enemies are there with you at the table, because God has the power to bring us all together.

Psalm 23 does not carry the magical power to remove us from danger or protect us against negative events. But it can help us to know and to trust and to believe that God is with us through all the circumstances of our lives.

We can give thanks to God for the green pastures and still waters. We can lean on God through the dark and dangerous valleys. And we can respond to the invitation of God to come to the table… to worship, to be fed, and to be a part of the family of God.

During this season of Easter, we are reminded again and again that after death there is resurrection, after illness there is healing, and after the small or the great ordeals of our lives, there is hope for the day when the Kingdom of God will be fulfilled. We look forward with hope and expectation for the day when we will be gathered together in peace and harmony with all God’s people from every nation, and tribe, and language… when we will be gathered around God’s throne, singing together in praise and thanksgiving to God who is our Shepherd and our Lord. Amen.