Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

Green Pastures and Still Waters

Sunday, May 24, 2009

 

 

Ezekiel 34: 11-24

 

 Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Johnny Ray Youngblood was studying the 23rd Psalm and he came to the line that says the Lord, the shepherd, “makes me lie down in green pastures.” He struggled with this line and asked God why it says the Lord makes me lie down in green pastures. Why makes me? He says he heard his mother’s voice in his head saying: “It says makes me, Johnny Ray, because sometimes we don’t know what’s good for us.”[i]

 

Life sometimes makes us do things we would rather not do. I guess you might say, life inevitably makes us go through certain things we would not choose to go through if it were our choice.

 

Sometimes we can not understand, for the life of us, how a good and loving God could be behind certain things that happen in our lives. In his first sermon after his 24-year-old son died in a car accident, Bill Coffin said his son’s death was not the will of God. “For some reason,” he said, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths.”[ii]

 

Friday morning I took a long walk through the war memorials on the mall. School children were laughing and pushing each other the way they do at the World War II Memorial. A group of Asian tourists were somberly visiting the Korean War memorial. At the Viet Nam memorial they were two women one older, the other younger, holding each other and weeping. The grief there was as raw and fresh as yesterday.

 

God’s will is a world of peace, justice and inclusion. There are some things that happen that are not God’s will although God will work out God’s will in the midst them.    

 

But there are other times that things happen to us in life that are hard to live through, that we would never choose, but when we are on the other side of it we realize that we are the better for it. There are some things that life makes us do in which we can see, in retrospect, the grace of God.

 

I suspect, if we had to choose to err on one side or the other, it would be better for us for life to be too hard rather than too easy.

 

There are things that life makes us do and experience that it is impossible for us to see the hand of God in, at least in this lifetime, (read Leslie Weatherhead’s little book written during World War II The Will of God[iii]), but there are other things that life makes us do that we can discover grace in. And there is nothing, no matter how difficult, that we can not learn from.

In his sermon, after his son’s death, Bill Coffin said: “Another consolation, of course, will be the learning – which better be good, given the price. But it's a fact: few of us are naturally profound. We have to be forced down.”

He quoted a poem by Robert Browning Hamilton:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne'er a word said she;
But the things I learned from her
But oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.

The liberation theologian Leonardo Boff says that the green pastures of Psalm 23 are a metaphor for peace. Still waters are a metaphor for peace[iv] Isn’t that an interesting association…the idea that the things life makes us experience or go through that we would not choose if it were our choice are the very avenues to finding peace in our lives?

Isn’t that an interesting idea?

I confess that inner peace has not been a particular spiritual gift of mine. I fit in well with all the rest of you Washingtonians, I’m afraid. Lots of us who make our way to Washington have a certain inner driven-ness that makes us good workers and successful at what we do but that also makes inner peace difficult for us. We are always wanting accomplish more, to know more, to have more impact.

Inner peace is not a Washington thing. Down on the 1400 block of P Street just this past week they opened a new gelato shop. ($4.85 for their smallest dish of gelato. Unfortunately, they have my favorite flavor – green tea gelato.) Ten years ago the 1400 block of P Street was vacant buildings and paint stores. Today on just the north side of that one block, you can buy yoga, Starbucks, gelato and alcohol. It has become a dangerous and expensive block to walk on. So Washington! Yoga, caffeine, gelato and booze. Peace does not come to us naturally in Washington, DC.

Craig Barnes used to be the pastor of National Presbyterian Church. He was called there after a very long and intensive search process. After he accepted the call, he noticed a lump on his throat one day. It turned out to be thyroid cancer. One of the things that happens to you when you get thyroid cancer is that it literally becomes impossible to work beyond a certain amount.

Craig Barnes says that he had never considered himself particularly gifted but he always prided himself on his capacity for hard work. He had always assumed that every degree he got in life, every job, and maybe even every relationship in his life was a result of trying really hard. And he has just accepted a call to a church in Washington, DC where, he says, the local myth is that anybody can come here and work hard and hustle themselves into becoming a somebody. He said he had the perfect neurosis for Washington, DC until he got thyroid cancer and suddenly no longer could work from 7 in the morning until 10:30 at night.

He says he had to learn to become a minister of God’s grace.[v] He had a great ministry at National Presbyterian, but a very different ministry…effective in a much more powerful way, I think, because he had to learn to become a minister of the grace of God which few of us who minister in Washington, DC are.

It is the things life makes us experience or go through that we would not choose if it were our choice that teach us that our control over our own fate is very partial, very limited. We can eat healthy, exercise, take vitamins, drink at least 8 glasses of water a day, avoid the new gelato store but still there is so much we have no control over.

I had lost weight as a result of a rigorous exercise program and a strict diet just before I went for my annual physical a couple of years ago. My doctor had just returned from a seminar at Harvard where he had learned the latest findings about the impact of diet and exercise. “You’ve done great,” he said. “The latest research shows that if you keep it up you can extend your life as much as three years.”

I said, “Three years? Is that all? I’m going to the gym and rowing and running and walking and doing the weight machines and giving up pretzels and wine and all I’m going to get out of it is three extra years?” I left the doctor’s office discouraged. I was hoping for 20 or 30 extra years.  

The things in life that make us to lie down teach us, I think, how little control we have over our own fate and can lead to a strange peace…a peace that passes understanding. I know this because I’ve experienced it but also because so many parishioners have told me about this peace that passes understanding during my years of ministry. It can take a long time to come, but it comes.

Phillip Keller, who wrote the old pietistic classic, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm says that, based on his experience as a sheep rancher, sheep – in order to lie down in their pasture – need their herd to be free from friction. If there is conflict within the herd sheep will not lie down.[vi]

Keller says that in every animal society there is an order of dominance or status within the group. In a penful of chickens, it is called the pecking order. With cattle it is called the horning order. Among sheep it is called the butting order.

“Generally,” he says, “an arrogant, cunning and domineering old [sheep] will be the boss of any bunch of sheep. She maintains her position…by butting and driving other ewes or lambs away from the best grazing or favorite bedgrounds… The other sheep all establish and maintain their position in the flock by using the same tactics of butting and thrusting at those below and around them.

“Hundreds and hundreds of times I have watched an austere old ewe [sheep] walk up to a younger one which might have been feeding contentedly or resting quietly in some sheltered spot. She would arch her neck, tilt her head, dilate her eyes, and approach the other with a stiff-legged gait. All of this saying in unhittable terms, ‘Move over! Out of my way! Give ground or else!’ And if the other ewe did not immediately leap to her feet in self-defense, she would be butted unmercifully.

“This continuous conflict and jealousy within the flock can be a most detrimental thing. The sheep become edgy, tense, discontented, and restless. They lose weight and become irritable.”

Make your own Washington analogies.

Keller adds, “But…whenever I came into view and my presence attracted their attention, the sheep quickly forgot their foolish rivalries and stopped their fighting. The shepherd’s presence made all the difference in their behavior.” [vii]

Perhaps the things in life that make us lie down help us find peace by putting all our struggling for power and prestige and status into perspective.  

Life has a way of helping us to learn sometimes that the pastures that we saw from a distance and thought were so green are really a mirage. And the pastures we thought were rocky and hard from a distance are really rich with hidden delicious grasses.

We get our hearts set on things – the promotion, the good-looking guy or gal, the house, the car, the vacation, the degree, the achievement. We suppose it, her, he will fulfill us, but it rarely happens.

Changing the circumstances of our lives in some longed for way rarely leads to peace. Green pastures are always inside ourselves.

Max Lacado tells the story of a man who was a prisoner in a prison camp in Mao’s China for 18 years. One of Mao’s goals was to eradicate Christianity from China. Christians were treated harshly in his prison camps. This particular prisoner, because of his faith, was assigned to the sewage pits where the work was so ugly I will not describe it in church. The man said being assigned to the sewage pits was a blessing. “I was thankful for being assigned to the cesspool,” he said. “This was the only place I was not under severe surveillance. [The guards didn’t want to go near it.] I could pray and sing openly to our Lord. When I was there, the cesspool became my private garden.”[viii]

The man then quoted the words of the hymn:

 

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear falling on my ear

The son of God discloses.

 

And He walks with me and He talks with me

And He tells me I am His own

And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known.

Green pastures are always within us.

It was some years after Psalm 23 had been composed. Israel was going through a tough time. The nation had been invaded by the Babylonians. Those Israelites who survived the invasion were carried off into slavery in Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” (Psalm 137:1)

The prophet of the exile Ezekiel remembered the 23rd Psalm. He said that the good shepherd would gather her sheep again from all the nations of the world where they were scattered. That she was preparing green pastures for them where they could lie down in safety again, watercourses where they could safely be nourished.

Does God do this? During tough times, is God preparing green pastures and still waters for God’s people?

Mary thinks so. In fact, you couldn’t convince Mary otherwise.

We met Mary in Galway, Ireland a few weeks ago. It was the second Sunday of our vacation and I had decided I didn’t want to go to church. The previous Sunday we had spent an hour trying to find the Methodist church in Dublin. There are no street signs to speak of in Dublin and the Irish don’t know how to give directions. By the time we found the Methodist church in Dublin it must have been the middle of the sermon, and  I was in such a bad mood I wouldn’t go in.

The next weekend when we got to Galway, nobody could give us direction to the Methodist church there, there was no service time on the internet, no one answered the phone at the church. I told Jane I was going to spend Sunday morning reading my book and drinking tea.

Jane got restless. So around lunch time, we got in the car to try to find an open-air market that was supposed to be held Sunday afternoons in downtown Galway. We, of course, got lost, and while we were trying to find our way, we turned a corner and there right in front of us was the Methodist church.

It was almost 1 o’clock. We assumed the service was over but we stopped to take a look at the building. I checked to see if the doors were unlocked. They were. I opened the doors of the church and the place was packed. I immediately closed the doors but in the moment I’d had them open I noticed that the congregation was racially diverse and mostly young.

A man came out of the church and invited us inside. “Isn’t the service almost over?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “but we are about to have lunch. Please join us.” So we did.

We were there for the last hymn and the benediction and then this church full of Africans and Irish young adults uncovered a feast of rich African food and thin Irish tuna fish sandwiches and everybody spread the food out and ate together with lots of children running around and conversation and laughter.

There was one older woman who was overseeing the meal. The pastor told us the church was there because of her. Her name was Mary. Jane had a conversation with her.

The Methodist church in Galway had been for all intents and purposes dead. Mary’s husband was assigned to Galway for his job. They were Methodists and he and Mary attended the little Methodist church but if 5 or 6 people showed up they were lucky. He asked to be reassigned to another town where there was an active, more vital Methodist church.

But strangely, after they moved, they could not forget the Methodist church back in Galway. They had this sense that they belonged there, even though it had been a depressing place for them. It bothered them so much, he asked to be reassigned back to Galway. They went back and they worked to keep the church doors open. They didn’t know why. He had heart problems; she had cancer. Life was hard enough. But it was what they felt they had to do. He died. Mary continued to try to keep the doors of the church open on her own.

African refugees seeking political asylum from places like Zimbabwe and Liberia began arriving in Dublin. After a time, the government decided that they should not all be trying to live and find jobs in Dublin. They should be distributed throughout the country. A number of them were moved to Galway.

Wherever there are Africans, there are Methodists. They began showing up at the Methodist church. They attracted other Africans. Mary began a Sunday school. The church grew and grew. The Methodist conference sent a clergy couple to serve there – he was from Sierra Leone; she was English.

The worship was so vital; the community life so strong that curious Irish young adults became attracted to the place. This is how it happened to be jam-packed full of people the Sunday we happened upon it.

Try telling Mary that God does not go ahead to prepare a place for God’s people. Try telling Mary that God does not prepare green pastures of safety and still waters of nourishment for God’s people in tough time.

 

 

 

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[i] http://calvarymemphis.org/media/audio/podcasts/lps2009/20090318.mp3

[ii] http://www.pbs.org/now/society/eulogy.html

[iii] Leslie Weatherhead, The Will of God (Abingdon Press).

[iv] Leonardo Boff, The Lord is My Shepherd (Orbis Books), 64-6.

[v] Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Intervarsity Press), 90-2.

[vi] W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm (Zondervan), 33.

[vii] Keller, 36.

[viii] Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot (Thomas Nelson), 100-1.