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.

Lent 2 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 5 March 2023 | Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Amen.

Friends, welcome to the Second Sunday of Lent. In this season, we turn our hearts to God, and we remember our need for God’s help. Our prayers and our practices and our stories help us turn to God and ask for help in this season. Some of our scriptures give us stories of journey, where people meet God in the wilderness of the unknown.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey away from the comforts of home, our needs are more apparent to us. If we’re out camping in the woods, or even just traveling, we have to think about how we’re going to eat each meal and where we’re going to sleep. We can’t just open up the fridge and eat something, or go to bed in our normal bed.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey, we’re vulnerable. We have to think about how our needs are going to be met. And so in Lent, these stories help us to call on God. Stories of wilderness and journey let us remember how we need God’s help, and they give us models for facing the unknown.

Last week we followed Jesus into the wilderness in the story of the temptation. And we saw that Jesus was vulnerable like we are—Jesus faced hunger and thirst and mortality, and limits to what he could control. And when Jesus was tempted, he drew on scripture to strengthen him. He was able to face that vulnerability in the wilderness without escaping toward easy answers or betraying his calling and his relationship with God. He made it through the trials, and angels came to care for him.

And today, we turn to other journeys into the unknown wilds. God calls Abram to leave his homeland. Jesus calls Nicodemus to imagine the impossible.

So today we’ll look at Abram, and a little at Nicodemus, and we’ll see what we can learn from them about our own journeys into the unknown. And we’ll turn to our reading from Romans and our Psalm to remember how God meets us and cares for us in this kind of wilderness.

Let’s start with Genesis. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household.” God is asking Abram to leave all the things that are most familiar and safe to him, the place and the people and the protection that he’s had for all of his life so far.

God calls Abram to go to “the land that I will show you.” Abram doesn’t yet know where he’s even going ahead of time. He has to trust that God will lead the way. Abram has never seen this place before and doesn’t know where it is or what it’s like there. At this point, he doesn’t even know what the new land  is called. It’s so deeply unknown that Abram can’t even tell anyone where he’s going, because he doesn’t have a name for it.

God is asking Abram to do something that’s very hard to do—and God is also promising world-changing blessings on the journey. God promises to multiply Abram’s people into a great nation. And God says, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram’s faith will bless the whole earth. And there’s a connection between this blessing and the call to venture into the unknown.

Finally we learn that Abram answers the call. “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” We also learn that he doesn’t go alone—his nephew Lot goes with him, and we later learn that his wife Sarai goes with him, and a whole household of flocks and herds and people. Even though Abram is leaving one community behind, there’s a community that goes with him into the unknown.

Friends, God calls us into the unknown too. Sometimes God asks us to leave what’s familiar and comfy.

Sometimes we have a clear sense of that call, even if there are some uncertainties. Maybe we know where we’re moving for a job or for school, but we don’t know how we’re going to find community in that new place. Maybe we know it’s time to retire, but we don’t know what life after that will look like. Maybe we’re feeling called to a new way to serve others, but we’re not sure what the next step is to do it.

And sometimes, we have a call and we can’t say what it even is—like Abram’s unnamed land. Maybe there’s a yearning in us to do more. Or maybe (and this one is just as important but sometimes harder to hear) we have a call to do less, to lay down some burdens and rest. Maybe we can tell that God is drawing us toward some new insight or some new change or some deepening of faith that we can’t yet put a name to, even as we feel it beginning to unfold in us.

Like Abram, we journey on in faith, and like Abram, we don’t travel alone. We are here for each other as we face the unknown. When God calls the church, we travel together.

And perhaps for us, like it was for Abram, God’s blessing is waiting for us in the unknown. When we have the courage to leave what’s familiar and expected and reassuring and take a step into God’s wild country beyond, we will be blessed and be a blessing. Our faith and our vision and our courage will expand as we go.

This is what happens with Nicodemus too, in our gospel. Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch to something new. Nicodemus can’t understand what it means to be born again. And Jesus expands his imagination by teaching him about the Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings new birth even after we think we’ve grown up. The Holy Spirit goes with us into the unknown, because the Holy Spirit is unknowable.

Jesus says, “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” In Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, πνεῦμα, and so is the verb Jesus uses for the way the wind blows. So we could translate it like this:

“The Spirit spirits wherever it wants, and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” The Holy Spirit lives in the unknown. The Holy Spirit hovered over the unformed chaos at creation, and the Holy Spirit is with us in all our journeys through the wilds.

And don’t miss what Jesus says next. The Spirit spirits where it wants to, and “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” If we listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice, she can teach us to walk the winds too. We can become people who know how move through the unknown with freedom and grace. With God’s help, we can be people who survive and thrive in the wilderness by faith. 

In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul praises Abraham’s faith as what blesses us; the law helped to guide people in living well, but it was faith in God, relationship with God, willingness to follow God into the unknown, that mattered most. And friends, it is God who cares for us when we face the unknown.

St. Paul describes God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is God who calls us toward what does not yet exist. And sometimes, like Abram, we have to let go of some things that already exist in order to make room for the things God is bringing that don’t exist yet. That takes a lot of courage. It’s one of the hardest things God asks us to do.

And yet, God shelters us in the unknown and the unimaginable. Our Psalm says God is our shade at our right hand. God guides us and protects us through it all. The maker of the heavens and the earth watches over our coming in and our going out, and all our journeys into the unknown.  

So friends, let us find courage for the wilderness in God’s care for us. In this holy season, let us always call on God’s help, knowing that we always need it. Let us venture forth together to claim the blessings of the unknown. And let us learn, little by little, how to hear the Spirit’s voice and walk the winds in faith. Amen.

Towards the Unknown (1950) by Mexican painter Gunther Gerzso and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.