Since I whined about it so vociferously, I think I'll go ahead and post my classroom sermon from last week. I did learn some things.
As it developed over the weeks it became, at the suggestion of one of the young men in the class, a communion sermon. In my extremely limited experience, I have preached before in a few circumstances in which homily and situation needed to be completely aligned -- at my grandmother's funeral service, and during CPE last summer -- and I find that thinking in terms of specifity of context is more helpful and satisfying than not.
Memorizing? Not for this girl. I had been through the sermon some 40-50 times in the 10 days before the classroom preaching of same, and it had lost all of its vitality and freshness for me. My classmates tell me that that was not apparent in the preaching, but it certainly was in this preacher's heart. Other things for which I was fairly criticized were, I think a direct consequence of brain power being devoted to pulling words and phrases out of the air and concentrating on the ones that should be next in line. Sometimes we have to accept our (vast) limitations and, as some of my lovely commenters suggested, forego the grade in lieu of acknowledging who we are.
Text? We had three choices -- apparently all from the lectionary for the last Sunday in May. In my current life, most of the passages which speak to me are in Job but ~ probably no one would want to hear those sermons anyway.
Herewith, my little offering, unimaginatively titled at the last minute when it suddenly became apparent that a title was expected:
Come to The Table
You are with me – those are the words at the center of Psalm 23.
You are with me, God, as the gentle shepherd, the figure who perhaps most often comes to mind when Psalm 23 is read or recited or prayed. We seek it most often in times of trouble – lonely and isolated people in nursing homes mouth its words, chaplains pray through those words at the bedsides of the dying, pastors proclaim them at funeral services.
The Psalmist in those first few verses seems to be musing to himself about God – God makes me lie down, God restores my soul, God leads me. God is with us, he reflects, as a persistent, tenacious, and creative shepherd. Even in the darkest of valleys, God provides green pastures, still waters, right paths. Even as the darkness overtakes it, this valley sounds like a place of peace, a place in which one might rest.
And yet – so often, it’s not. The valley is not a place of peace. The valley is filled with conflict and anxiety. The valley is the place through which the cry of abandonment echoes out of the crater of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? “
"I shall not want” – that’s where we begin again --but we DO want. We want our lives back, we want our problems resolved, we want our loved ones restored to us, we want our foes flattened. We want to be who we were -- before we were shattered by our enemies. We want, and we want, and we want.
And in the midst of our struggles, when the restful allure of the valley seems to be nothing more than a mirage, God responds to our anguish and longing in a different way.In that desolate place in which we are surrounded by enemies, God emerges as the host of a meal. God goes to work and lays a table before us. God nourishes us and sustains our broken selves right in the heart of the chaos we are unable to escape.
The Psalm pours out of the experience of someone who had encountered his own enemy, perhaps in the form of a military enemy set upon destroying him, perhaps in the form of some other threat or danger to his well-being, but by those other predators in the dark that afflict us all: uncertainty, fear, confusion. Could he prevail in the struggles ahead? Would he survive? And in the face of his questions, he found that his God was still his sustainer – that his God would set a table and treat him like a king, anointing his head and filling his cup, despite the battle raging around and in him.
The Psalmist must have remembered how God nourished his ancestors, the ancient Israelites. Freed from the bondage to Pharaoh which had sapped their lives, the Israelites found new enemies -- hunger, thirst, exhaustion, confusion – and longed to go backward. However harsh their circumstances in Egypt had been, they had been settled in one place and certain familiar routines. Suddenly they were on the road – no longer able to grow and prepare food, no longer assured of a source of water, no longer able to relax in the evenings in the shelter of their own homes. Who were they, once they were no longer the slaves of the king? They were, as they discovered, God’s beloved people – the people for whom God provided food each day. Trudging through that lonely Sinai landscape, wondering how they would survive, they found that God remembered them every single day by setting a table and providing a meal for them.
Just as the Psalmist would have remembered the Exodus journey, so Jesus’ followers must have known Psalm 23 -- and they, too, had enemies. As Jews, they were under the thumb of the Roman Empire, and knew that their freedom to worship their God was always subject to revocation. As followers of Jesus, they could see that their recognition and security as loyal Jews was threatened. And as his intimate friends, they had heard his strange words, his recognition of the precariousness of his personal situation. The disciples must have begun to wonder what their loyalty to Jesus might be going to cost them. And there was a meal, laid before them and served to them by their Lord -- nourishing them not only with bread and wine but with mysterious words of assurance.
A table set for a beleaguered figure among his enemies. Manna in the wilderness. A Passover dinner before an execution.
We know about these tables ourselves, though we may not recognize them as such at first. Our son’s death last September was an ambush, and we felt surrounded enemies on all sides – the enemies that we would call death and bewilderment and anguish, enemies that seemed to have completely overwhelmed us.
And yet – there was a table set in the midst of those foes. Dozens and people came and went every day, and they were taken care of. Coolers piled up on the back porch, food covered every square inch of table and counter space. People arrived at the crack of dawn with breakfast, in the middle of the day with paper goods, in the evenings with casseroles. My friends commandeered my kitchen and fed us and everyone else who came by.
A table set in the presence of the enemy. Unexpected manna in the wilderness. God works through the people who care for us.
And God does it for us, here, at this table. God does not set a table for us only when times are good. God does not wait for the weather to be perfect, for the blended family to stop arguing, for the cancer to be cured, for the cease fire to be declared. God does not require the holiday china, the crystal stemware. God does not demand our victorious triumph over our foes or our certainty that we are on the right path through the wilderness.
God prepares a table in the absence of all of those things. Perhaps God’s finest table is laid out in the absence of those things. Perhaps God’s finest table looks something like the 20th pizza dinner in a row that a family shares in the lounge outside the intensive care unit. Perhaps God’s finest table is covered with the casserole dishes and paper plates that dozens of friends have quietly supplied when a a child has died. Perhaps it is served with bent utensils on broken china salvaged from the rubble of a bombed-out house in Iraq or a flooded house in New Orleans.
This bread and drink we consume – they remind us of all of those tables. They tell us that the Lord is our shepherd in turmoil as well as in tranquility, that the Lord leads us through raging waters as well as still pools, that God’s most delectable meals are prepared when we are most traumatized. They tell us that God is most with us when we are most alone.
God is not afraid of the same things we are afraid of. God is serene in the face of circumstances which threaten to engulf us, God in inventive where our imagination fails us, and when we think God is nowhere to be found, God is right there, shaking out the tablecloth, scrounging around for the silverware, placing the wineglasses on the table.
God is here with us – come and be nourished.