Well Tended

Imagine that you are on vacation, staying at a lovely cabin on a lake. You wake up to a morning that is bright and sunny, like today. The water is glassy and still. The grass is green and lush. A few birds are greeting the day. Can you feel your heart grow calm? Can you feel your breathing relax? Can you feel your troubles falling away? God is our shepherd. God is taking care of everything, and life is good.


Now imagine that you are a sheep, part of a flock, as in our second reading this morning. The main things you care about most days are good grass, good water, and being with your flock. And Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. Follow me, and I will lead you to green pastures. And look, here’s good water. You know you can trust me, and I am going to take good care of you.” 


So comforting! We are bathed in that loving, tender care, and all is right with the world. Our souls are restored, we feel hopeful, and the day looks promising.


In these scenarios, there are no deadlines. There are no relationships that are struggling. No sirens. No bombs or war. No famines or floods or wildfires. All of that takes a back seat.


We need those times of relaxation, healing, restoration. Times to sit in a lawn chair on the beach with a cup of coffee and just drink in the miracle that is sunrise.


So once in a while, it’s great to have readings like this. Psalm 23 is one of those that many of us learned decades ago and could probably recite, maybe with a few prompts here and there. It is often read at memorial services because it offers such comfort.


These two readings may give the impression that all we have to do is receive God’s goodness all the time and, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It sounds so pretty and loving and … passive. We just get to soak up God’s love.


And if that’s all there was to these two readings, we could stop here. But wait: there’s more.


We all know that the world is a big, scary place. That is for real. We don’t stay in that vacation place. Relationships fall apart. Jobs end, and we have to scramble to pay the bills. Health issues crop up out of the blue. Accidents happen. On a broader scale, right now, even as we speak, people are starving to death in Gaza, because their food supply has been reduced to a trickle for six months. Parents are perhaps giving up their own food so that their children have something to eat. These parents would give anything for their children to be well fed and safe from harm.


The threats and dangers are real, and if we read these two scripture passages more closely, we see that those dangers are present, even in these seemingly idyllic scenes.


I once memorized Psalm 23 in Italian—you know, as you do. And in Italian, Psalm 23 says, “Tu mi prepari una mensa sotto gli ochi dei miei nemici. You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies.” With the enemies right there watching, God prepares a table, covers the person’s head with oil (which is a blessing), and their cup overflows—with goodness, with gratitude, with love. Imagine what it would feel like to receive God’s tender care and blessing with your enemies watching the whole time. You would have to really make space in your heart to receive God’s love. You would have to be looking for it and open to receiving it in all circumstances.


So experiencing God’s love and tender care isn’t just about when everything is going well and you can afford to relax, take a vacation, get away from everything that’s stressing you out. It’s about when you are a sheep and the wolf just appeared out of the woods. It’s about when your enemies are right there, an imminent threat.


Some say that in the foxholes there are no atheists. But when bad things happen—when the wolf does attack the flock—many people walk away from their faith, saying, “How could God let this happen? There must be no God.” Experiencing God’s love in such moments takes practice and discipline. It takes a determination to be looking for God in all situations, to be asking God for protection, to be finding gratitude in the most trying of circumstances.


And then there’s this: Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Anne Lamott cautions about creating God in your own image. You will know you have done this, she says, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. What Jesus tells us here is that our enemies are not God’s enemies. Our divisions that we will not cross—race, class, religion, education, etc.—those are not God’s divisions. Perhaps to our consternation, for the Divine, all sheep are part of one big flock. So not only do we get to look for God in all things and at all times, but we also have to practice the humility of knowing that the Divine may be showing up in those whom you hate. Kind of like the story of the Good Samaritan. You may recall that Samaritans were considered enemies of the Jews. Yet here’s a Jew lying in the ditch, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite pass him by. It is the Samaritan, the supposed enemy, who stops to help so tenderly.


But we have to really consider the mention of enemies, the wolf threatening the flock. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” only has meaning when one is under threat from outside forces. Our God loves us and comforts us when things are going well, yes—and also when everything is falling apart. And we are not just passive recipients of this powerful, restorative, life-changing love; we have to practice looking for it and living into it and being open to receiving it and being changed by it.


Psalm 23 ends, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of God my whole life long.” This is not a promise of a long and comfortable life. You can hear the yearning for closeness with God and how this would be the ideal: to dwell in God’s house forever. Similarly, the sheep that follow Jesus’ voice know his voice and trust it because they have heard it before and have been listening for it. There is a relationship there, some past history. They yearn to go where he leads them, because they trust him and know that he will do anything to protect them, even at the cost of his own life.


So as much as these two readings paint pretty, bucolic pictures of how sweet it is to be loved by God, they also give us a divine presence in the absolute worst of times. Imagine the people of Gaza living into God’s love from Psalm 23: you lead me beside still waters. You restore my soul. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me. Imagine the depth of relationship with the Divine it takes to say such a thing in those circumstances, when the people literally are in the valley of the shadow of death—death all around them. Or the people of Ukraine. Or now the people of Israel living in fear of bombardment from Iran. Or Haiti, or the Sudan. Or so many other places in the world where life is that uncertain.


These readings sound pretty. They sound easy. They are not easy. We are invited into relationship with the Divine here and now and always. We are invited to fill our souls with goodness, because there is no promise of happy-ever-after, only a promise of God’s loving presence with us, no matter what comes. And if we already have that spiritual practice of living in relationship with the Divine, however we understand that, then when everything is falling apart around us, we have that relationship to guide us and comfort us.


During Lent we are always invited to practice drawing closer to God, giving up whatever may stand in our way. This is the payoff: being led by still waters, blessed in the presence of one’s enemies, called to follow Jesus as part of the flock.


We are in an election year. What is at stake is nothing less than democracy itself. Regardless of who wins the presidency, there will be chaos, people accusing others of cheating or stealing elections, recounts. Wars are killing innocent people by the thousands. Climate change is intensifying droughts, floods—all of it. We are living in interesting times. What a good time, then, to know through regular spiritual practice that God loves you and never leaves you. And that we get to be part of the whole, big flock. May you know this love, flooding into your being, tingling out your fingertips, giving you fortitude and hope to carry on. May you be blessed and comforted by this love. May it restore your soul. May you dwell in the house of God your whole life long. Amen.

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