(Before you read this sermon transcript, keep in mind that I don't always stick to the manuscript when I preach and therefore those who heard the sermon heard something at least a little different than what you're reading...if you really want to be impacted by these sermons, you need to be there with our church family and travel together with us as we submit to the Scriptures together. Christianity is not a path to be walked alone; in fact, unless you're on a deserted island with no way off and no way to be with others, it is unfaithful NOT to be in a worshiping community. But enough of that. The following is the sermon).
"Psalm 23, Wendell Berry, and a sense of place," or
"The Lord is our Shepherd. Following our Shepherd in this Place."
Preached at Cincinnati Church of the Brethren
May 15, 2011
Turn with me to Psalm 23
I don’t know about you, but I have the tendency to take for granted the things or people I am around the most. This is a common human temptation. I don’t want to project my personal shortcomings onto you, but I’ll just settle for saying I suspect you struggle with the same tendency. We can quickly lose the intentionality we carried in the beginning of our relationship with these things or people; the meaning becomes dull because we think we know everything about that thing or person. In the Christian community, Psalm 23 is one of the things we are around the most. We often haul it out around funerals, around sicknesses we think have turned toward inevitable death. We see the Psalm as a psalm of comfort; we think we know everything there is to know about it, and as a result, when we hear it, we have a tendency to switch into autopilot, the meaning becomes dull and flat.
I would like to suggest this morning that Psalm 23 has not reached the fullest extent of its meaning with what we have given it, that it has the capacity to be used beyond funerals, and even that it can be a passage that leads a community like Cincinnati Church of the Brethren or my community Vineyard Central to certain practices, to a certain way of life that has a long-lasting impact on us and on the places (Walnut Hills and Norwood) we find ourselves in.
(Read Psalm 23 using collective terms we, us, our)
The LORD is our shepherd, we lack nothing.
At different times in our life, it is important to emphasize different aspects of our humanity. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we have been created by God with dignity and supreme worth; that our lives are given great meaning simply by existing as a child of God. The temptation of that aspect of who we are, though, is that we can begin to think we (and those closest to us) are the most important aspect of God’s creation; that somehow God cares more about our stuff than he does about others. We may not confess this openly, but we believe it to be true. This applies to churches too. In times like this, it’s a great practice to go to Psalm 23 and say, “We are like sheep. We are idiots, we too often follow the crowd blindly, and we don’t know what is best for us.” To confess “The Lord is our shepherd,” is to confess a deep human need to be led by someone who knows better than us how to live. To confess “The Lord is our shepherd” is to quit playing God and to let God have complete authority over us.”
The LORD is our shepherd, we lack nothing.
He makes us lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he refreshes our soul.
I didn’t take the time to look at the original Hebrew here, but I love the phrase “he makes us lie down in green pastures.” It’s as though lying down in green pastures isn’t normal for us, and we need God to rip us out of our lives and “make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside quiet waters” so we will finally slow down. What is David talking about here? What do “green pastures” and “quiet waters” stand for?
As we engage in these practices, God refreshes our soul.
He guides us along the right paths for his name’s sake.
This is, again, a confession that God knows the right path, and it’s our responsibility to abandon our own path where we’re in control to be shepherded on God’s.
Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we will fear no evil, for you are with us; your rod and your staff, they comfort us.
This is a confession of God’s power that is even stronger than death. We confess that we trust God’s path and even the darkest valley God takes us through without fear of consequence, because our life is held in God’s hands.
You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. You anoint our heads with oil, our cup overflows.
In the presence of our enemies. This life of being led by God is not one where we seek to insulate ourselves, separate ourselves from those we do not trust, from those who may do us harm, from those who hate us; it is one where we are led into the presence of our enemies
, and God cares for us there in abundance, “our cup overflows.”
Surely your goodness and love will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
When we confess the Lord as our shepherd, when we embrace the places and practices of “green pasture,” when we walk on God’s paths, not ones determined by ourselves, when we walk through the darkest valleys and choose to live life in the presence of our enemies, not apart from them; all of this adds up to a life marked by God’s goodness and love; and we are reminded that God is far stronger than the power of death and will hold us forever.
This is the general contour of Psalm 23. There is a certain changing of the tides quality to it; we need the green pasture, we need to be in the presence of our enemies, we need to walk on God’s path which sometimes will be easier, sometimes will lead us to frightening places, but always, always, always is good. Now I want to apply the general shape of the Psalm to our specific lives together in our specific place. And this term “place” is deeply significant beyond the chairs you are sitting in and the spot I am standing on.
Increasingly, Americans…are not from anywhere. And so they have in this “homeland”…no home place that they are strongly moved to know or love or use well or protect. (Berry, A Citizen’s Response, 6)
For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth. The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black soil…the old bucket started out a far better one than you can buy now. I think it has been hanging on that post for something like fifty years. However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself. And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time. It collects stories, too, as they fall through time. It is irresistibly metaphorical. It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself- in lore and story and song- that will be its culture. (Berry, TWOLC, pgs 153-55)
Before we reflect on the meaning of this story, I want to back up and ask, how does Wendell Berry notice this bucket? What practices in his life lead him first to see this bucket, second to a “deeper seeing” of this bucket, then third to reflect on the meaning of the bucket to life?
The bucket is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself- in lore and story and song- that will be its culture.
When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.” (Berry, “The Work of Local Culture” WAPF? 157)
What Berry is suggesting, and what I desire to suggest this morning, is that the most important quality of humanity is building memory of our place through learning and knowing one another’s stories, trusting one another, and moving beyond fear to invest in one another. Since Jesus prayed centrally, “God, may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and Cincinnati Church of the Brethren’s place on earth that you have chosen is Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, with Wendell Berry ringing in our ears, beyond all the sexy ideas about mission and growth; maybe the most important, most essential quality of your work as a congregation is actively and thoughtfully learning the stories of the people here in Walnut Hills, gaining the trust of the people of Walnut Hills, and seeking to follow the Lord as Shepherd for this place. It’s letting our mission be determined by our place, and committing to a place for an extended period of time, intentionally being present in a way that deeply listens, invests, and prays for God’s will to be done in our place.
Our church family VC in Norwood is struggling through this very issue too. We have a sexy phrase that we’ve created and put up on our website: “Practicing resurrection in West Norwood and encouraging it everywhere.”
Now, if we want to move beyond the sexy phrase and listen to the wisdom of Berry, practicing resurrection IN WEST NORWOOD means establishing west Norwood as the focus of our ministry. We have said West Norwood will be our place. In order for this to have a practical reality, we must spend a significant amount of time in West Norwood. This does not necessarily mean we have to live there, but it does mean we need to deeply invest there. A number of us, because we want a more natural flow to this commitment, have moved into the neighborhood; in theory, because living IN WEST NORWOOD means we will more easily practice resurrection there. But we find a significant barrier comes up whether we move in or not: we don’t know the people here, we may not share the same desires as the people here, we don’t know the story of the community, the story of the people, we lack the connection needed. We don’t know the place where we are.
For those who don’t live in our place, that means they often settle for commuting in when events take place and leaving afterwards. For those who do live in our place, that means we often settle for establishing a subculture with practices, habits, desires, and relationships centered around our subculture with which we are more comfortable. So, whether the barrier is expressed by the distance we live away or by still seeing our next door neighbor as “over there,” both barriers are very real.
Wendell reminded us just a couple minutes ago “If we do not know one another’s stories, how can we know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”
As the Psalmist said, “You make me
lie down in green pastures, you lead me
by still waters…you prepare a table before me in the presence
of my enemies.” Speaking personally, God is pulling me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone, all dramatic, saying, “But God, I. will. die. over there. I am uncomfortable over there. I don’t know the people over there.” And God responds saying, “What do you mean, over there? This is your place. And yeah, worst comes to worst, you do die. What do you have to fear about that?”
Knowing this uncomfortable truth, I now feel less satisfied with what was comfortable for me before. I identify with the Psalmist saying elsewhere, “You hem me in, behind and before.” The pathway of God can feel suffocating, like God is the clingy girlfriend I once had who never gave me space for myself, and I want to say, “LET ME BREATHE, LET ME BREATHE!” I’m complaining, but I know that because God knows better than I do what I was created for, because I am a sheep and God is the shepherd, what feels suffocating today will, I trust, feel like freedom at some point.
So, I have asked myself over and over again, “If West Norwood is our place, what practices, what habits do we need to help us notice others, to know other’s stories, and eventually, through time and practice, they begin to know and trust us? And isn’t this the most important aspect of our church’s mission?”
Your website says, “In 2008, we moved from a comfortable suburban location to our current urban location, seeking the peace of the city. We work to engage with the city and its people, embracing and celebrating the diversity that fills our world.” So, I ask you in conclusion, “If Walnut Hills is your place, what practices, what habits do you need to help you notice others, to know other’s stories, and eventually, through time and practice, they begin to know and trust you?” This is not just a rhetorical question. I’m interested in hearing your ideas of how you might intentionally, in a time-intensive way, own your neighborhood as your place.
(Walks, Front porches, Gardens)
An uncomfortable thing that I need to share with you this morning is a conclusion I and others are coming to in Vineyard Central. Our church family has been in West Norwood now for fifteen years, but that fifteen years has not been marked by intentional actions to connect with our neighborhood. As a result, in some ways we are needing to "start over again," to reassess and recommit to the sense of place and community Berry speaks of here. You've only been in Walnut Hills three years now. I encourage you to more thoughtfully consider this and act on it so you don't have to painfully confess it like we do just a couple neighborhoods over.
God, you guide us along the right paths for your name’s sake. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we will fear no evil, for you are with us…surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life together, and we will dwell safely in your arms no matter what may happen to us. Give us courage, give us patience, do not leave us to our selfish desires but hem us in behind and before, yank us kicking and screaming if need be to the place you desire us to be, as our Shepherd leads us, for we need your tender care, we are yours, you do befriend us, lead us to befriend our neighbors, be the guardian of our way, Lord. Amen.
Labels: church, Cincinnati Church of the Brethren, environment, faithfulness, neighborhood ministry, Norwood, sense of place, Vineyard Central, Walnut Hills, Wendell Berry