Year A; 4 Easter; Good Shepherd Sunday, May 3, 2020
A few years before my mother had the stroke that put her in a nursing home, she sat me down one day during a visit and handed me a folder. In it were a couple of her favorite childhood photos; darling photos of her! There were some prayers of her mother’s and a couple of funeral service leaflets of friends whose funerals she had attended. She showed me some things from her life that she wanted me to include for her funeral and items she wanted included in her obituary.
Some of you have done this with your loved ones and I applaud and admire it very much. I was helped by my mother telling me her clear likes and dislikes for her funeral. Mom never shied away from giving her opinion, and so when she said, “DO NOT say the Twenty-third Psalm at my funeral. I don’t like it. It’s read too often at funerals,” I took her seriously. Now, what I consider a clear-eyed song of confidence and transformation, she considered saccharine, sentimental and overly used.
So, in June when I was planning her funeral with my siblings, I steered clear of the Twenty-third psalm surprising her pastor. However, I discovered a surprise tucked back in her file folder as I went through each piece of information. There, with her writing on it she instructed, “I want someone to read this at my funeral,” was a poem entitled, “Native American Shepherd’s Poem.” Had Mom known that this was a paraphrase of the Twenty-third Psalm transformed into beautiful language of nature?
I’ll never know if Mom knew that she actually had over-ridden her orders, “DO NOT say the Twenty-third psalm at my funeral.” But I do know that, for me, over the years, the Twenty-third Psalm is perfect reading for a funeral or in times of doubt when our tired and flagging faith needs a boost of trust in God. Far from saccharine and sentimental, it is a bold declaration of those things of God that God calls us to trust; to trust from our deepest souls in times of human vulnerability.
Take for example, the image of a shepherd “spreading a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” Who goes out of her way to sit down with enemies for a meal and feel safe doing so? Who does this unless there is complete trust that you won’t be harmed and can have your meal in peace?
I learned something about the character and “job description” of shepherds in my reading this week. Bible scholar Alice Hunt teaches us that in this ancient setting where the shepherd is utterly responsible for the herd, “A sheep almost always eats in the presence of enemies…” Threats did abound daily. She writes, “…and [the sheep] eats safely only when accompanied by a trustworthy shepherd.” Trustworthy. “The LORD is my shepherd” is trustworthy.
She goes on to write, “The themes of trust and a complete yielding to God…permeate both the imagery and the text…” of this unique psalm. Of the 150 psalms, there are a variety of categories: there are psalms that are hymns for worship, hymns for the coronation of kings, psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of lament, and psalms of wisdom. But scholars have been unable to categorize the 23rd psalm into any of these. Instead, they call it a “Song of Confidence because of its overarching motif of trust.”
Trust is what we desire most in these uncertain times.
I wanted to talk about trust today because I think trust is hard to come by right now. I have had a hard time trusting some of the opinionated and biased cable and social media news reports and commentary. I do not trust many of the things that are reported from the White House. I do not know why the medical and science and epidemiology experts are now sidelined while those who give inaccurate and speculative comments replace them with unreliable information.
And this mask-wearing mandate! I have personally taken a hit on my attitude of trust. It’s been subtle. I have realized a change of attitude as I encounter people whether they are wearing masks or not. Normally, I am a friendly extrovert when I encounter someone on a walk or at the store. But recently, I have developed an untrusting attitude toward my neighbor. For example, I wear a mask outside and to the grocery store. And when I walk Sophie, I at least wear one around my neck to place on my face when I encounter someone on the street.
But, when I see a person coming toward me wearing a mask, I find myself looking down or away as if they are not there. As if their mask makes them disappear. It’s been a troubling and subtle shift for me.
At the same time, if I pass you in the grocery store, or you are walking or jogging and YOU AREN’T wearing a mask, a strong feeling of distrust, gosh, and even anger comes over me. During this pandemic and the requirement of wearing a mask has bruised the trust I’ve had in my neighbor. It’s just a mask! It’s essential for our health. And yet, it’s done something to my
trusting nature. And I’m a little frightened by it.
Just a month ago, we as a faith community walked the road of Holy Week with Jesus. In that week, we remembered every aspect of the road that led to the cross. The Gospels are full of narratives that describe broken and corrupt institutions and unreliable, even betraying best friends! False witnesses came forward. Judas sold Jesus to the religious officials. The Roman governor set before the people a false choice between Jesus and Barabbas. The disciples vanished. There was failure at every turn.
And yet, on the cross, Jesus held onto his trust of God. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus was betrayed and broken down as he “walked through the valley of the shadow of death.” In the end, he trusted that God was with him.
There is a reason that in 12-step programs the first two steps are to admit our powerlessness and inability to manage our lives on our own and to acknowledge that a Power greater than ourselves is where we must put our trust.
Leslie D. Weatherhead, a pastor and theologian who helped his London congregation gain back their trust in God after World War II, wrote about faith, fear, anxiety and courage in his book, “Prescription for Anxiety: How you can Overcome Fear and Despair.”
He wrote, “Jesus was in an agony of fear in the garden and those hours come to us all.…Let us…set before us a picture of the real God, utterly loving, whatever we have done, infinitely strong, resourceful and purposeful, finding this way for us when that way is closed for whatever reason, who will not allow us to be lost and defeated [and anxiety-ridden and masked and threatened] if we trust [God] who is generous beyond all thoughts of generosity.” “Cup-running-over-generous.”
In God we trust. Don’t we? Trust in God. Period. Whatever the officials and talking heads say. However we feel behind the mask from day to day. Whatever argument we may have had with a loved one or whatever insecurities appear without bidding during these weeks and months of mask-wearing. The functional and operative phrase of this faith community and for our lives is TRUST IN GOD.
Our challenge is to choose to trust God every single day.
And so, what must we do to live each and every day trusting in God?