Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sermon for May 3, 2009 Psalm 23

May 3, 2009
Scripture: Psalm 23
Sermon: “The With-ness of the Lord”
Rev. George N. Miller

Last week we talked about the sensuality of Luke 24. How the resurrected Jesus is heard, seen, touched and eats. We discussed how Luke not only utilized the body, but the mind and spirit, and we examined the sensuality that exists within this particular Body Of Christ, the church

Last week, we also shared the news that due to finances, I will be leaving July 26, and that at the Annual Meeting we will vote to stay open, close our doors, or follow another option the Spirit presents. It’s sad that we have reached this point.

We’ve accomplished so much, reaching out to the community and to one another. Perhaps if we were a corporate business we could have turned this whole Body around.

Think of successful businesses, how they create customer loyalty. For instance, I will only buy gas at Speedway, purchase last minute supplies at CVS and see movies at Celebration Cinemas.

The reasons are simple: their membership cards. At Speedway if you buy enough slushies you get one free. CVS offers $2 coupons. Celebration Cinemas gives out free passes and popcorn. And I love me some slushies, coupons and popcorn.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that? If we could give everyone a “BCUCC Club Card”? We could attach card swipes to the pews. Every time you worship you swipe the card.

Install card swipes in the Fellowship Hall. Every time you have a cup of coffee, swipe the card. Put a card swipe in the library. For each committee meeting you attend, swipe the card.

But what would the rewards be? For every 10th worship experience you get a free one? For every 10th cup of coffee, one’s on the house? Every 10th committee meeting get a...well, maybe the reward would be that you get to skip a meeting.

What if we came up with a point system that said for every 25,000 points you can skip an offering, every 1,000,000 points you are saved?

We are not a traditional business: we are part of the living, breathing Body of Christ. Unlike Speedway, CVS or Celebration Cinemas, what could we tangibly offer as a reward?

We could alter our theology. We could say our church offers the only true path to salvation. We could say we’re the only righteous ones and if you don’t worship with us you’ll burn in hell.

Or we could say “Worship with us and God will increase your checking account 10 fold.” That would put a spin on today’s tough economy.

There’s a myriad of things we can say or do. But we are not a business. We are members of the UCC and historically and theologically the UCC believes that we are called to use acts of social justice and compassion to assist in making real the Kingdom of God here on earth, not to judge or condemn others.

We worship the Still-Speaking God, the God that loves us, the God that is with us. But is that enough?

Is it enough to simply know that God loves you? Is it enough knowing that God is with you, no matter where you go, no matter where you are on life’s journey?

Is it enough to keep going to church, to continue praising God, to hold onto our faith, to get you through the day? Or do you need something more tangible, like slushies, coupons and popcorn? Listen again to today’s scripture.

“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.”

Since age 20, I’ve been a traveling man, living in Minneapolis, Long Island, St. Louis and Grand Rapids. I’ve lived under 9 roofs, in cities and suburbs, on 2 college campuses, by lakes and zoos, by millionaires and those on welfare.

With all that moving, there has been one constant: God. I can say without a doubt that it was God who called me to live in Minnesota, it was God who called me to seminary in St. Louis, and it was most certainly God who lead me to BCUCC.

God and I travel very well. Since I enjoy driving cross country, I often experience God’s presence when I am behind the wheel of a car. God is right beside me. We talk, we laugh, we listen to music, we get swept up in the majesty of the countryside.

And when there’s bad weather or poor visibility, I find myself repeating the opening words of this psalm. It provides comfort, it gives clarity, it encourages me to think straight and drive right.

“The Lord is my shepherd,” I will say, followed by “Ok Lord, shepherd me.” Those simple words gives enough comfort and reason to continue forward, to adjust my wind-shield wiper and speed to get me to where I am going, feeling safe in my travel.

“The Lord is my shepherd.” What a reassuring image, what a marvelous metaphor. As one writer stated, religious metaphors are serious business, becoming the image by which God is seen and understood, drawing on a variety of experiences and evoking our imagination.

No one metaphor could ever sum up our infinite God, Yet, the image of the Lord as shepherd is a powerful one indeed.

The people who first heard this Psalm knew about shepherds. They were living an agrarian life, so shepherds were a part their culture. They knew the role required long hours, and demanded great bravery and skill.

The shepherd’s tasks were many: protect the flock from enemies, lead the sheep to places pregnant with possibility, seek out the lost. But perhaps most important was the role of presence.

The shepherd was present with the flock. The shepherd did not desert the flock. He remained and watched over them. Or as the Psalmist so clearly states “For you are with me.”

Interestingly, in its original Hebrew, the phrase “For you are with me” is in the exact middle of the song, making the notion of with-ness the very center, the very core of this scripture.

With-ness, the presence of God is an important part of the Christian and Jewish narrative. See Genesis 39, when Joseph is sold into slavery, and we’re told God is with him not once, but 4 times.

See Judges 6 when the Lord visits Gideon, the lowliest member of the weakest family and states “Go and deliver your people, I will be with you, and you will be victorious.”

For Christians, the ultimate example of the Lord’s with-ness is Jesus Christ. As Matthew 1:23 states “...’the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us.’”

For Matthew, Jesus being “God With Us” was important. Jesus was “God with Us” when he saw the crowds and began to teach them “Blessed are the poor in spirit....”

Jesus was “God with Us” when the waves were battering the boat and he said to the disciples “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus was “God with Us” when he had compassion on the hungry crowd and fed them with five loaves and two fish.

And it was the resurrected Jesus who closes out the Gospel by saying “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The statement that the Lord is with us is crucial to the testimonies of the Bible. Often times these testimonies occur at moments when hope seems lost: when Joseph is enslaved and so far away from home, when Gideon’s people are victimized by the enemy, when Mary is unwed and pregnant. When Jesus has was nailed to the cross and placed in the tomb.

Those are the times when it seems as if God is the most absent. Those would appear to be the times to give up, assume defeat, and cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

And yet, biblically speaking, it is the complete opposite that transpires. As Joseph, as Gideon, as Mary, as the disciples discover, God is not absent, God has not forsaken them.

In fact God is present and with them in such a manner that God’s presence breaks through reality in a non-traditional way.

Such as when the Lord broke through reality in the form of an infant boy, on a sea besieged by waves, during a picnic in which food was in short supply, and in a garden in which dead people lay.

“For you are with me” becomes the central proclamation of Psalm 23 and what a wonderful proclamation it is. What an appropriate message for us to hear as a congregation.

For as long as the Lord is with us we have hope, as long as the Lord is with us we still have every reason to go on.

For as long as we proclaim the Lord is with us, we hold to the truth that no matter where we journey, no matter where we go, the Good Shepherd is right by our side. Ready to comfort us, ready to lead us, ready to provide restoration.

Slushies, coupons and popcorn are fleeting, what the church has to offer is so much better, for God’s presence is forever.

For you are with me- for me personally, it means if I stay in Grand Rapids or I am called away, the Lord will be by my side.

For you are with me- as a church, it means that regardless if we stay open, or nest with another congregation, go part time or close our doors, the Lord will be by our side.

For you are with me- as individuals, it means that regardless if you are at home or on vacation, if you are in the hospital or a nursing facility, if you are living abroad or away at school, the Lord is with you.

For you are with me- as Christians, it means that regardless if we are in green pastures or dark valleys, if we are beside still waters or in the presence of enemies, the Lord is with us, and is restoring our souls.

No matter what, no matter where, the Good Shepherd is leading us. The Lord is with us and in the with-ness of the Lord we are blessed, in the with-ness we find comfort and in the with-ness we discover that we can never be lost nor will we ever truly be forsaken.

All thanks to the Spirit, not knowing where it will take us, to Jesus who has promised to be with us always, and to God, our great shepherd. Amen.

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