by David Baer, June 25, 2017
Text: Psalm 23:1-6
“How’s that?” asks Lucy Van Pelt as she holds the football for Charlie Brown. “Is that about right?” Charlie Brown says to himself, “She must think I’m a complete fool!” “I’ll hold the ball, Charlie Brown, and you come running up and kick it…” “Every year,” says Charlie Brown, “she pulls the same trick on me! Well this year it’s not going to work! This year I’m not going to be fooled.” He walks back, grits his teeth, and charges at Lucy and the football, only to stop short. “Well?” she asks, as they look at one another. “You thought I was going to pull the ball away, didn’t you? Why Charlie Brown, I’m ashamed of you! I’m also insulted! Don’t you trust anyone anymore? Has your mind become so darkened with mistrust that you’ve lost your ability to believe in people?” Chastened, Charlie Brown backs up and takes another run at the football. And this time, Lucy pulls the ball away, Charlie Brown falls on his back with a “wump!” and Lucy stands over him, looking down. “Isn’t it better this way, Charlie Brown?” she asks. “Isn’t it better to trust people?”1
How would you answer that question, “Isn’t it better to trust people?” It depends on the person, doesn’t it? It depends on whether someone is reliable, whether they can be counted on to make good on their promises. Lucy Van Pelt is not someone you should trust. She’ll do her best to lure you into believing her, and then she’ll pull the ball away every single time. But there are people you can put your trust in.
We trust because we are finite creatures with finite knowledge. We don’t know everything. We can’t see what others are up to when they’re apart from us. We can’t look deep into their hearts and see whether they want to or are even capable of doing what they say. God doesn’t need to trust—God simply knows what we intend and what we do. But for us, trust allows us to make it through the day, even though we don’t have perfect knowledge. I trust that the ingredient list for my breakfast cereal reflects the materials that are actually in there. I trust that the bridges I crossed on the way here this morning were constructed using sound engineering principles. If I had to double-check these and other similar facts I take on trust, I’d never go anywhere or accomplish anything. Trust allows us to live with a sense of safety and sure-footedness, even in the midst of uncertainty.
This summer we’ve been looking at some of the psalms. These are ancient songs that reflect prayers spoken to God—prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and celebration, but also sadness, anger, and distress. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies the psalms as psalms of orientation, or prayers that reflect a life where everything is on track, where the usual patterns of living are working; psalms of disorientation, those that reflect a crisis where those patterns have broken down; and psalms of new orientation, where a crisis has passed, but there is a new way of understanding ourselves and relating to God. Two weeks ago, we looked at a psalm of orientation that was all about joy—celebrating the good gifts of God who created us and provides for us. Last week we heard a psalm of disorientation, a cry for help. Today’s psalm is one of new orientation—it’s one that shows God’s presence and goodness even in the middle of fearful and threatening circumstances. It’s a psalm about trust.
If you’re familiar with any of the psalms, or if you just watch enough TV and movies, you’ve probably heard the opening words of Psalm 23 before: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This is a prayer of trust from someone who sees God satisfying their every need. It starts with the image of a shepherd who provides food in green pastures, who brings his sheep to still waters, where it is safe to drink. The shepherd provides the sheep with the necessities of life, and guides the sheep in "right paths for his name's sake." In other words, the shepherd is a reliable, trustworthy guide, because it's in his nature, his character.
Now, the shepherd in the psalm also guards the sheep against threats. The darkest valley, or the “valley of the shadow of death,” is the scariest possible thing that could happen to you. But the words of the psalm find trust and assurance even here: “I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” The word for “rod” also means a royal scepter, so what this means is, “I am not afraid, because God is in charge, and God is more powerful than anything I might fear.”
The psalm moves from anxiety to blessing and gratitude. Instead of a shepherd, we see a gracious, attentive host. “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies...” Notice that this is not someone whose troubles have been banished forever. That’s not what this psalm is about. No, the enemies are still very real and present. But what makes the psalmist grateful is that even in the presence of things that threaten, God is good and gracious, exceeding our wildest expectations: “my cup overflows.”
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." That doesn't mean that all the days of our lives are joyful ones. We know that’s not true—there are hard and challenging days for all of us. No, instead, what the psalmist is celebrating is that no matter what kind of day we’re living right now, God's goodness and mercy are following us—the Hebrew word here means “chasing,” “pursuing.” God’s goodness and mercy are racing after us, even on our hardest days. And so this psalm of trust ends with hope: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” You can also translate that last bit “forever.” While the words invite us to imagine living forever in the place of worship, the larger sense of them is an ongoing relationship with the living God who is everywhere. And the psalm invites us to trust that this is a relationship that never ends.
Psalm 23 is a prayer spoken out of a posture of trust. Remember what I said earlier about trust allowing us to keep our footing when there’s uncertainty, when we don’t have all the information? God is one who tends to our basic needs day in and day out, who is with us in the darkest valley, who when we are threatened or feel afraid nonetheless spreads a table of rich blessings. This is a psalm full of uncertainty, but also goodness and the presence of God. It’s a psalm that expresses and invites trust.
As Christians reading the psalms, I’ve been inviting us to imagine what these words might mean on Jesus’ lips. And it’s not such a stretch, is it? Jesus shows us what faithful trust looks like. He trusted God to give him the things he needed. Out of love for us and obedience to God he laid down his life to save us--he descended with us into the valley of the shadow of death. He makes our story his story, he makes our fears his fears, he makes our sadness his sadness, he makes our sins his sins, and he makes our death his death. Jesus puts flesh on the love of God who conquers sin and death and frees us from their power. And what came of this was abundant blessing in the face of death itself--an open, empty tomb; a crucified but risen Jesus anointed as the ruler of all; a table spread for us with lifegiving bread to strengthen, and a cup overflowing with the wine to gladden the heart. Jesus made our death his death, and he makes his resurrection our resurrection, his blessing our blessing, his life eternal our own.
I want to end with an image that I believe I’ve shared before. Henri Nouwen, whose writing we sometimes see here in our Advent and Lenten devotionals gave a talk once where he spoke of how he had lived with a profound emptiness, even in his superficially successful academic career. He spoke of how he had accepted an invitation to leave his tenured faculty position in order to live as part of a community of mentally handicapped adults and their caregivers. And he spoke of the deep sense of joy and belonging he found there. He spoke of the vulnerability he felt as he stepped out of a place of security and certainty (where he nevertheless felt very uncertain and insecure). And he told a story about an acrobatic troupe in a circus that he had met, and how they had invited him to watch them practice and explained how they performed their amazing stunts. There are fliers and there are catchers, he said, and when you are flying through the air there is a temptation to flail with your hands and try to grab onto the catcher. But if you do this, you will break your wrists or the catcher’s wrists, and you will fall. Instead, he says, you have to trust the catcher. You have to reach out both arms and trust that the catcher will take hold of you and pull you up into the safety of the cup. And Henri Nouwen describes this act of trust using the words of Jesus on the cross: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”
Our lives so often send us flying through the air on a trajectory we can’t control. Or sometimes, like Henri Nouwen, our search for a more fruitful life means we have to jump out into the unknown. Having a strong faith doesn’t mean that we’re always happy or in control. Having a strong faith means trusting that there is a catcher who will lift us up. Trust… Trust that God is with you in the darkest valley. Trust that God’s goodness and mercy are following you today and always. And trust that there is no end to the Shepherd’s love and care for you. Amen.
Charles Shultz, Peanuts. Sep 10, 1961. http://www.gocomics.com/peanuts/1961/09/10. Accessed 6/23/2017.