Lent 4 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 19 March 2023 | 1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23| Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our shepherd. Amen.

Friends, we are more than half way on our journey of Lent. This Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare means rejoice. This Sunday is a chance to catch our breath and remember that Eastertide is on the way, even though we’re still in Lent. Springtime is on the way, despite the snow this morning. Resurrection is on the way, even if we find ourselves in the midst of grief. 

And today we pray the beloved Psalm 23. It’s a Psalm that has comforted the dying and the grieving and those in peril. Many of us know it by heart in the King James Version, whether or not that’s the Bible we grew up with. It’s a Psalm that gives us a glimpse of joy even when we’re still in the thick of it.

And so we’ll look at the psalmist’s faith that God is with us even when all is not well. And we’ll look at the Psalmist’s vision of God’s care for us, and the ways God wants to help make things well, the ways God wants to lead us into joy and abundance and rest. And we’ll reflect a little on how we might be called to receive God’s shepherding love for us in this season, and how we might be called to be good shepherds to each other.

The first thing I want us to notice about Psalm 23 today is that this Psalm already knows that all is not well with the world. Even as this Psalm expresses a deep faith in God’s goodness, it’s not written with naïve expectations that everything will be easy.

The valley of the shadow of death is right in the middle of the Psalm. It’s not always green pastures and still waters. The Psalmist’s enemies even make it in here—there are people who want to cause hurt and harm. And the Psalm doesn’t turn away from either of those things.

We have the valley of the shadow of death, which is a mythic, larger-than-life image of the hardships that come to us in this mortal existence: death and loss, and all the fear we experience knowing that we will die someday, and that so much of what we love is vulnerable to loss. So much of what makes us happy can be taken away. The valley of the shadow of death is not something we can avoid in this life, though we may feel we’re in it more intensely sometimes than others.

And then we have the Psalmist’s enemies, maybe an image of those more particular and petty struggles. Maybe these are the conflicts could have been avoided if people had been kinder, or if we’d been wiser. But they’re not always avoided; they’re still in the picture for the Psalmist.

Yet in the valley of the shadow of death and amid the threat of enemies, God is there. God does not make these difficult things go away, but God is with us to lead us and to feed us even there. Sometimes there’s no other way but through the valley. And yet, God is always, always with us.

As we come toward holy week, we are preparing to celebrate God’s presence with us even in death. We confess our faith in a God who became human in Jesus “to live and die as one of us” as our prayer at communion says. God is with us even when we are at our worst as humans, and even when we are facing the hardest parts of being human.

And God gives us courage because we know that we’re not alone in what we face. The Psalmist says, “I will not fear, for you are with me.” All of us are afraid sometimes. And a little fear is sometimes a good thing; it might help us avoid some of those dangers we can avoid. And yet, because God is with us, fear doesn’t have to be our way of life, even when we know that some dangers can’t be escaped.

We can walk with courage because our shepherd is with us even when all is not well, and we are far from thriving, and when (as the 1928 Prayer book says) “there is no health in us.” God is our shepherd even then, and God is always with us.

And at the same time, we see in Psalm 23 that God wants to lead us toward our flourishing. God wants to make all things well for us. God wants us to have what we need and more. God wants us to rest and enjoy. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters; he restoreth my soul; my cup runneth over.”

These images of beauty and plenty and peace remind me of Isaiah’s prophetic visions of the world God wants to bring about. It’s a world where everyone has enough, and all hurts are healed, and all creatures can enjoy the beauty of God’s gifts together. It’s a resurrection world where death doesn’t get the last word.

It’s a glimpse of the life where God wants to lead us. The green pastures and still waters are what God wants for us. It’s abundance—there’s plenty to eat and drink. It’s beauty—enjoying the peaceful and lovely parts of God’s world. And friends, it’s also rest. And I hear so much exhaustion in our community; rest is something we need.

I hear the tiredness from teachers and healthcare workers and students and parents. Folks who work in demanding jobs are tired. A lot of retired folks are tired too. Folks who do the hard and holy work of caring for family members are tired. Folks struggling with food insecurity are extra tired right now as they try to meet their family’s needs. Folks dealing with health crises are tired. I’m tired too even though I’m well and have everything I need. And sometimes it’s a lot of work to be a person and to be aware and to witness this world’s troubles.

Now, a Psalm is holy poetry, and I don’t want to reduce it to advice or directions, because it’s more than that. But at the same time, when I read this Psalm in light of the exhaustion I see in this community, “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures” really looks to me like God wants us all to take a nap if we need one. There is much more to the Psalm than “go take a nap.” But I do firmly believe that God longs for us all to flourish and be well, and resting is part of that.

Our value and our purpose in God’s sight are more than the work that we do. We are not just here to accomplish things—though our accomplishments can be good and worthy, and part of the paths of righteousness in which God wants to lead us. And this may be controversial: we are not here just to help others—though helping others is part of our calling as we share God’s dream for everyone to flourish.

Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse of purpose other than being useful. Maybe we are here to walk with God and follow God’s leading. Maybe we are here to witness God’s presence in the good and the bad. Maybe we are here to delight in the gifts God wants to give us. And so maybe our rest is just as good and holy as our work. Maybe we are called to lie down and rest instead of get up and do another thing. Maybe we are called to pause and let goodness and mercy catch up to us.

And so as we continue this holy season of Lent, I invite us to listen for where God might be leading us toward rest and joy.

I invite us to reflect on what the path of righteousness might look like for us in this season—because it doesn’t always look the same. Maybe we are called to prayer or study or listening. Maybe we are called to go outside and enjoy creation. Maybe we can enjoy the beauty God has given us through one another’s creativity in music and art and literature. Maybe this week we’ll taste God’s goodness in a delicious meal. Or maybe we’ll lie down for a God-given nap.

And perhaps we’ll be called to be good shepherds to others as God has been a good shepherd to us. Perhaps we’ll be called to share what we have so that someone else’s cup can run over instead of running dry. Perhaps we are even called to walk with someone through the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps we’ll see a moment to offer rest or joy to someone else, knowing God wants us all to have rest and joy.

So friends, let us listen for the leading of our good shepherd. Let us claim the goodness God offers for ourselves, and let us share it with others freely. Amen.

Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon, The Good Shepherdess.

The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |13 November 2022 | Isaiah 65:17-25 | Canticle 9 | 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 | Luke 21:5-19

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who calls us amid crisis and creates the world anew.

Today’s readings find the people of God awaiting various crises. In our reading and canticle from Isaiah, the prophet anticipates a new and better world that God will create—the end result is beautiful, but it will take drastic change to get there.

In Luke, we have Jesus being apocalyptic—he’s describing the terrors of a chaotic time to come, which is partly the destruction of Jerusalem and partly the end times. And in Thessalonians, we overhear a conversation with folks who expected the end of this world to come a lot quicker than it did, and need to figure out what how to keep on living when the world is not ending yet after all.

These readings on change and crisis and anticipation hit close to home for me these days. We are also living in a world that’s in flux in so many ways, and we are not sure what happens next. So many things hang in the balance—the state of democracy, the future of our planet, the lives of indigenous children, and the freedoms of many, and the impact of the next COVID wave. Many of us have had more personal crises on top of the shared ones in the news. It seems like the last few years, we’ve just been moving from one crisis to another, always in anticipation of the next one.

And there are moments of relief and moments of joy and connection, but for some of us, it’s just been a long time since we’ve felt safe enough from major threats to fully relax and let our guard down for very long. Some of us tend to feel like we’re always bracing ourselves for the next crisis. It makes sense that we would be, given the state of things—and it’s also a really difficult way to live. Our brains and our bodies aren’t built to be in crisis mode for this long.

And this is where the second letter to the Thessalonians comes in. This letter is also addressed to people living in perpetual anticipation of crisis. It’s addressed to people under threat from persecution. It’s addressed to people who are not sure what happens next.

Whenever we read the New Testament letters, we’re always doing some guesswork because we’re only hearing one half of the conversation. But it’s pretty clear from the rest of this letter that there was confusion about the second coming of Jesus in this community. We think that many early Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes, and when he didn’t show up, they weren’t sure what to believe.

In this community some people thought that Jesus had already come and they’d missed the signs. Some people thought that they were either already living in the end times or else they were just about to be, and so there was no point in continuing to do their regular work and build community and keep on holding things together in this world.

And that’s the context of our reading today. When the writer warns against idleness, it’s for a specific reason. It’s not about people just being lazy, it’s about people misjudging the nature of the crisis they’re in. It’s about people thinking it’s already over when actually there’s a long ways to go yet.

This saying “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” has been taken out of context and used for harm. Some Christians have used this verse to speak against giving help to folks in need, and some have used it to label all people who struggle as lazy, and to justify letting God’s children suffer.

But this letter isn’t about what causes poverty or how we should respond to it; it’s about how to discern our calling in the midst of crisis. It’s about learning how to recognize when we’re in a marathon rather than a sprint, and pace accordingly. Because even in the midst of crisis and chaos and uncertainty, it turns out that there is still life to be lived and labor to be done and hope to be found in this present world. So we need to find our work and find what sustains us.

Our world and our people need us not to be weary in doing what is right. Amid ongoing crises, there is work to do—on the one hand, we can’t ignore that work, and on the other hand, we can’t throw ourselves into that work so frantically that we burn out. Even though some of the crises we’re facing might seem like the end of the world, we can expect there’s a long ways to go yet. And so as we keep doing whatever work we’re called to do, we also need to keep eating and breathing and praying and reflecting and resting together.

At Diocesan Convention last weekend, Bishop Jennifer charged the people of this diocese to rest. She acknowledged the exhaustion of these past few years and the difficulty of the work that’s yet ahead of us. And she called on us in this coming year to claim whatever rest and recovery we can. Because we’re going to need it. The crises will continue—but if we stay in crisis mode every day, we might become too weary to meet them with the compassion and conviction and clarity to which God calls us.

And so we could turn the letter’s phrase around: “Anyone who cannot eat cannot work.” We need to claim nourishment and rest in order to do the work we’re called to do. We need to pay attention to what feeds us, and seek out whatever that is. We need to claim time for rest and rebuilding as we’re able, and we need to come together and help make that rest and rebuilding possible for those among us who are overwhelmed and can’t see the way to restoration.

We need to give our bodies and our brains time to come down from crisis mode sometimes, even if not all of the actual crises have gone away. Time in quietness and prayer can help with this, and so can taking a long walk, and so can spending time with people who help us feel safe and connected. This is how we stay steady in anticipation of crisis.

And through it all, we are not alone. Jesus says it’s not all on us to prepare what to say. When unpredictable things happen, the Holy Spirit is with us to give us the words and the strength and the call to meet that moment as it comes.

And through it all, we hold onto Isaiah’s hope: Another world is possible. Another world is on the way. God is making all things new. We are being re-created for God’s delight and our own. Our prayers will be heard. Our divisions will be healed. Our labor will not be in vain. All creatures can flourish together in peace and plenty.

We will draw water with rejoicing from springs of salvation. The lion shall lie down with the lamb. God’s love will draw all creation together in joy.

And even now, friends, in this broken world, we see glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth that God is creating. We see people standing up for what’s right with their words and their money and their actions, and we find our call to follow Jesus boldly. We discern together amid crisis, and we find our quiet bit of work to do amid the chaos. We become part of God’s love transforming love when we care for each other and our neighbors. We claim the peace and flourishing and rest God offers whenever we find it.

We follow a vision of hope. We labor to make this world even a little bit more like the world God creates anew. We rest to sustain our work and ourselves, knowing that we are created for delight.

So may we trust that the Holy Spirit is moving among us to inspire our vision of hope, to strengthen our hands as we labor for what is right, and to give us rest and delight along the way.


The beginning of 2 Thessalonians in Greek from the 10th-century Egerton Manuscript (accessed through the British Library online).