Being Who We Are
October 15, 2017
“If religion is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, argues Amy-Jill Levine, then we should think of [this] parable as doing the latter. If we read the parables and find ourselves unsurprised and unchallenged, we haven’t read them honestly or well. Jesus was no teller of cozy bedtime stores; his parables are meant to disturb us—to wake us up, shake us out of our complacency, and compel us to ask hard questions about ourselves and about God.” – Debie Thomas, Living the Word, The Christian Century, September 27, 2017
If the musicians here this morning were to lead us in singing, “I’ve got peace like a river,” we likely would do so happily. And the river we most likely would be picturing would be quiet and beautiful, gently rolling along in its banks where it belongs, flowing happily to the sea. We probably would not be imagining a renegade river, rising higher and higher, crashing against the banks until they give way and the deepening water engulfs our houses and threatens our lives. I wonder how many people running for dry land during the recent floods were singing, “We’ve got peace like a river” as they ran? That’s not the sort of peace we prefer.
In a similar way, many of us learned Psalm 23 as children, and continue to turn to it for comfort. Psalm 23 is one of the best known of the Psalms, reminding us that we are not wandering through life alone but have a shepherd who sees to it that we want for nothing. We come into this life hungry, grasping for something we cannot name that will fill and sustain us. To learn of this shepherd who gives us everything we need is quite a discovery. With this shepherd I will find the kind of Life that is more than life—the waters will be still and quiet, the food a banquet, the beloved community so diverse and enriching that we see among them even those we once considered our enemies. No wonder we like Psalm 23. Even after we have passed from this life into the next, it continues to comfort those left behind.
I am going to make an assertion about Psalm 23 today, though, that it is not intended merely for our comfort. It is not a sweet little reminder of how special we are to God who provides every good thing for us. We only know the profound nature of this psalm when we have journeyed through the deepest darkness and felt utterly abandoned by God. When I read it paired with this gospel lesson, in which a king holds a banquet and the invitees do not come so he says to go into the streets and invite everyone and anyone—both “the good” people and “the bad”—I think I am going to be comforted by the king’s generosity who opens the doors to welcome everyone in. But the comfort is brief because when the king notices that one of the men from the streets is not wearing what is considered to be the proper wedding attire, he has him bound and thrown into a place of darkness and terror and suffering.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” sounds pleasant, like being invited to a wedding feast without having earned a place there, but held alongside this parable, where shocking violence is perpetrated by the one we think is generous and welcoming, it can’t easily be tucked into our pocket to comfort us throughout our lives. There is more going on here. What kind of generous and loving host would commit such violence against one of the guests? Could the shepherd I have trusted with my life ever do the same? How does that rod and staff end up being used to “guide” us? Surely giving us what we need would never include suffering, would it? Can we find acceptance just as we are, or only if we are wearing the right clothes—which means having the right attitude and making the right impression?
It seems the lectionary compilers deliberately pair these scriptures to shake us out of our simplistic interpretations. If the whole of life could be as simple as “the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing else that I need,” then life should be much easier than it often is. We wouldn’t need to work to earn a living, we wouldn’t become ill, we wouldn’t suffer the pain of loss and regret, we wouldn’t worry about fitting in or pleasing others, we wouldn’t find anything in life that needs to change. We could just show up at life’s banquet each day and enjoy what our shepherd gives us. But life usually doesn’t happen that way.
Sometimes we answer what we are certain is God’s call, trusting that all we need will be given, only to find ourselves later being cast aside. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether we are what the world would call a “good” person or a “bad” person. Hard times come to us all, and when this is not only an observation about life but a description of our own lives—when we are the ones lost in a dark valley, unable to pray, unable to forgive, sitting in the dirt without knowing which way to go—only then are we beginning to understand the depth of Psalm 23, which offers more than surface level comfort but reminds us that as difficult and uncertain as life becomes, we ultimately will be given what we need.
But if we have Jesus in our hearts, won’t all of life be joy and peace? Won’t the good things just keep getting better and better? When we are sad or angry or sick or feeling abandoned, shouldn’t we just think happier thoughts until we convince ourselves that we are not really sad or angry or sick? Happy thoughts make for happy people, right? Look on the bright side—things could be worse. And they do get worse if we keep pretending that everything is fine when it is not. If we lie to each other about our lives, we run the risk of believing the lie ourselves and forgetting how to be our true selves. For all we know, which usually isn’t much, what we call “good” might be only a pleasant distraction, while the so-called “bad” parts that we try to ignore hold the treasure we really need. Only by abiding in our pain, embracing it even though we might find it repulsive, will we begin to experience the deepest comfort of God’s abiding presence and care.
This means, also, learning to abide with another who is in pain. Not trying to convince anyone to feel or react in a certain way, as though we are the authority on these matters. Not searching on Google for ideas of what another person should be doing or not doing, saying or not saying, so that everything will be better. Only the shepherd knows what is needed. We have no business trying to get anyone else to be who we think they should be—our only business is to listen with no answers, no judgment, no analysis, and then get back to our real work: becoming who WE are meant to be.
When I was about 8 years old, I had severe leg pain, especially during the night, and would be awake many nights crying. My mom did not research how to numb or mask the pain; she didn’t say everything was fine, to stop making such a big deal out of it; no, as tired as she must have been herself, she just sat with me in the dark and rubbed my aching legs until I fell asleep. She knew we all have growing pains—later they would be even more intense, emotional as well as physical. To dare to let ourselves be seen and known when we are hurting and not feeling very brave about it, is risky. We prefer to be thought of as strong and capable and managing just fine so that is how we present ourselves as much as we can. No one recognizes us when we reveal our weakness. We don’t even recognize ourselves. Psalm 23 says the shepherd prepares a table for us “in the presence of our enemies,” which usually are those we don’t know very well. Maybe that’s because our friends don’t come around much anymore that our so-called enemies are all we have left. Our friends get nervous when we change, when we stop wearing our familiar masks and try to be simply who we are now, for better or for worse.
There IS an alternative. Instead of pretending to be who we are not—trying to appear as though we are further along the path of righteousness than we are—we can learn to be honest about our discouragement, our fear, our hurt, our reluctance to forgive or to accept forgiveness or whatever heaviness and pain we are carrying. Only then will we know the abiding care of the shepherd. We don’t depend on the shepherd to ensure we will never encounter wolves that want to devour us; we depend on the shepherd to be with us when we DO encounter the wolves. We get invited to the party; we get thrown out of the party. This simply is the way life is. In our humiliation, we discover another kind of party where we have genuine encounters with people we never thought we would associate with but who accept us and teach us to be ourselves. We no longer need to try to make our life happen—we just experience it in the depths of us, a new openness to all that life brings. All things, even those that we don’t prefer, lead us on the path of goodness and mercy to the house of the Lord where we can be our truest selves, fully known.
To close, I share a little story from 1975. I’ve heard that it is “fake news” but truth comes in many forms. In honor of Charlie Chaplin, a festival in France held a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. A man in the United States thought it sounded fun so he entered the contest and flew to France and lined up with the others. He thought he might win first place, or at least second, but he didn’t even come close. This surprised him not only because through the years people had told him he looked a bit like Charlie Chaplin, but because he actually WAS Charlie Chaplin! What about us? Would we win our own look-alike contest? If we dared to show up as just ourselves, would anyone recognize us? There’s only one way to get there: not by putting on the correct outer garments, having the right attitude, following the right rules . . . but by suffering through the growing pains that are ours to suffer, and following the shepherd, trusting the shepherd, to give us all that we need.