Sermon preached on May 7, 2017 at Church of the Nativity, Raleigh.
When I was in kindergarten, we memorized the 23rd Psalm. Of course, it was the King James Version, so different from what we read here today since we’ve all moved on to the modern translations that change so often we can’t keep up our memorization habits. Still, after all these years since kindergarten, I think if I had to do it, I could recite the 23rd Psalm for you in the King James Version.
I also still recall some of the images that formed in my five-year-old head when learning those words. We are so literal as children, you know. My daughter, majoring in psychology, can spend an afternoon laying out for us the mnemonic possibilities for young children – faulty memory, she says, under the age of five or six – and their reasoning skills – concrete moving toward abstract. I was still very much in the concrete stage with Psalm 23 but I clearly have the memory.
I remember, the first line got me off to a bad start because in recitation I didn’t hear the comma. I heard: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” and that meant: “I don’t want this shepherd.” Confusing for a five-year-old attending Sunday School and worship every week, Bible School in the summer, and loving every minute of it. I was the child who rode home with the neighbors on Sunday if my parents decided not to stay for “big church” that day. No, really, I did. In elementary school…
So, not wanting the Lord I was learning to want didn’t compute, until we got to the next line: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” That sounded suspiciously like nap time to me. I hated nap time. I hated it at school; I hated it at home; I hated it when visiting my favorite aunt who took a nap after lunch every day, cutting into the fun and games and undivided attention she otherwise lavished upon me. No wonder this shepherd was unwanted. Nap time, really?
There are other images that tripped me up: “thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” sort of ran together in my imagination and became someone pouring a cup of oil over my head. Since I routinely helped, also known as watched and got in the way, when my dad changed the oil in the car, I couldn’t see how having a cup of oil on my head would be a good thing.
I’m sharing all of this with you, not because I think my five-year-old self ought to qualify for “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” but because I want you to think about how scripture imbeds itself in our lives and how easy it is to misinterpret what God is really trying to embed in us.
Psalm 23 is a clear example of a simple truth: We have everything we need for abundant life. All of us have everything we need. Every single person in the world has everything needed. It is ours without asking, freely given by a creator who loves each one of us lavishly. The hardest thing we have to do is figure out how to take care of all this abundance, how to share this abundance. That shouldn’t be too hard. There are so many of us. If we all take care of our own bit, everything should be fine. Not too much work for any one person, but just enough to give us purpose. The purpose-filled abundant life. Someone should write that book…
The Psalmist shows us a world with:
- Lush life – still waters and green pastures
- Safe surroundings – God’s staff for protection
- Food enough for all – a table prepared
- And the oil
But what the Psalmist describes is not the world we have. We don’t have green pastures, we have an agribusiness industry that drives the gifts of our pastures into toxicity. So, we must inoculate our pastures to get crops to grow and weeds to die. Same crop, acre after acre, year after year, creating a spiral of: add nutrients, plant seeds, kill weeds – and bugs too for that matter, harvest a crop. Only it gets harder and harder to harvest a crop because we need more and more nutrients in the ravaged soil to get anything to grow; and we killed the bees that pollinate the plants that produce the food. I’m not even going to talk about feed lots and hog farms and chicken houses that are totally devoid of anything green that might be confused with a pasture.
The world we have is a world of colorless pastures.
We don’t have still waters, we have raging storms. We’re learning that water is even more destructive than wind, and wind is pretty bad. We see destructive water on the news nearly every day. When water comes rapidly, like a flash flood creating instant and devastating destruction, everyone pays attention. We need better levies, we need flood insurance, we need someone to fix this – and sometimes we get that. A fix for the crisis moment.
But when the waters come slowly creeping toward our beach front property and seeping into our low lying cities, we don’t pay attention. When someone points out the connection between that extra inch of water every year on the streets of Miami at high tide and the greenhouse gases and the melting polar caps and the air conditioners at a temperature so low we could hang meat in the office buildings, we don’t connect that excessive use of energy to the water seeping up through the storm drains. But friends, I’m here to tell you what you already know, it’s a straight line. The mayor of Miami denies this along with a frequent and famous visitor to one of the resort islands just off the coast of Miami who promises to restore the coal industry. Wonder where they set their thermostats.
The world we have is a world of unstill waters.
Clearly, the pastures and the waters I’m describing are not part of the scene witnessed by the Psalmist. He saw green pastures and still waters — pasture and water that gives abundant life. I do believe the Psalmist understood scarcity and greed, threat and fear, absence and longing. But the Psalmist generates my sermon claim: We have everything we need for everyone to have abundant life. It’s greed, fear, and longing that keep abundant in the hands of a few rather than in the hands of all. It’s greed, fear, and longing that drive our treatment of soil and water.
By now most of us know what’s really going on with the environment and yet, not much is changing. We have the Paris Accords, we have the Clean Power Plan (we still have that, right?), we have environmental groups, conservation groups, recycling committees. All of these things are a positive influence on us and offer more resources than we can absorb. But the needle is still going down or, perhaps I should say, the temperature is still going up, the carbon particles are still increasing. Human behavior continues to have a detrimental effect on our climate, which has a detrimental effect on vulnerable people – thwarting God’s intention for every single person to have abundant life. Documenting the rising sea in Fiji that is flooding the fertile farms, measuring the creeping desert in Darfur which is erasing the fertile farms, doesn’t seem to have an effect on personal behavior or governmental policy. In this case, knowledge is not power because we do know what’s going on.
I think we need a different approach. Many of our faith leaders have said as much. And you are taking it to heart by immersing yourselves in the Bishops’ Pastoral Teaching on the Environment. The resources we have as people of faith should be our approach. Beginning with scripture, the Word of God is full of care for creation references even more strongly worded than Psalm 23. If you’re having trouble parsing out the places where creation is privileged in scripture, you can buy the Green Bible – how many of you already have one? All those green words in there are places where God is saying: Pay attention to the abundant creation I have given you.
Even without isolating particular verses, the entire arch of salvation history is a record of God’s provision for abundant life. That means caring for the provisions of this abundant life is deeply spiritual. Where I set my thermostat is an act of faith. What I do with my garbage is an act of faith. How I plan my meals is an act of faith.
When these things become an act of faith and not a policy driven mandate, it changes the dynamics. We don’t recycle because we’ll get fined if we don’t; we recycle because it shows respect for the tangible gifts of creation. We don’t cut our carbon emissions because failing to do so will insure sea levels rise 23 feet by the end of the century, and we’ll lose our beach houses, maybe London; we cut them because failing to do so inhibits our ability to share God’s abundant life with some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Vulnerable people, by the way, always have a special place in God’s heart. We would do well to notice them. I could go on and on with a to-do list for us or we can find that list for ourselves.
The gift we have as people of faith is to take that list and transform it from obligation to opportunity, from requirement to responsibility, from fatalism to faithfulness. We are the shepherds, entrusted with the green pastures, the still waters, the gift of abundant life. God has created us to be those people. May the day hasten when abundant life belongs to all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.