July 28, 2019

“Paths Out of the Valley”

Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

John 10.11-18

Psalm 23

July 28, 2019

Psalm 23 might be the best-known scripture passage. It is definitely the scripture passage most used in memorial services and funeral services because of the peaceful and calming picture it paints. This is the tone we want to hear when we are grieving, when we are anxious, when we are upset. We are reassured by God’s love when we hear of the great things God does for us in difficult times.

Since this passage is so familiar, I thought this would be a good time to use a new translation. I came across this version at the Summer Institute for Theology and Disability. One of the participants, Emily Ulmer, wrote this for a worship service. This version is incredibly comforting for people with disabilities, especially those with a caregiver. Yet, I think on some level we all need a caregiver. We all need someone to care for us, even if it is not physically, but spiritually. We are fully dependent on God, whether we realize it or not. God is the One who guides us, who carries us through the tough times.

This paraphrase states that God carries our “luggage.” What luggage do you bring? Think to the personal history you carry with you, or the quirks or abilities or struggles or addictions or abnormalities that weigh you down? What privilege weighs us down? What holds us back from being the person God created us to be, or holds others backs in their opinions of us? Whatever it is, God can carry it. God, who is in charge of the large and the small, is there for us, offering us hope. The God who created the earth, created us. The God who cares for the trees, cares for us. The God who pays attention to the largest details, also pays attention to the smallest.

The version we know so well talks about walking in the valley of the shadow of death. This paraphrase calls it “the loneliest of days.” Whether we translate it as darkness or valley or death or danger, what is the valley for you? What is the loneliest of days for you? How did you handle that valley? Where was God in that valley?

The example given is in a doctor’s office and waiting room. We have all been there, waiting for scary tests or results. We have all been in the unknown, whether it was for ourselves or for someone we loved, wondering the future. Of course, this is just another valley metaphor – the loneliest of days might be waiting for a job, or grieving a loved one, or fighting an illness. Whatever occupies those lonely days, God holds all the fears that come with it. God carries that luggage, too.

Ulmer states that God’s comfort is like a weighted blanket. If you’re not familiar with a weighted blanket, it is exactly what it sounds like – a heavy blanket. Usually it has beans or plastic beads that fill it to make it weigh about five or ten pounds. The idea is to put pressure on muscles and skin, which can be comforting for people – like a giant hug. God is this giant hug.

The ending reminds us that God makes “space for restorative conversations.” God creates that space so that we can begin to heal. The wounds that have been created by the baggage, the scars left from the valleys cannot begin to heal without God, our Caregiver, our Comforter, our Weighted Blanket, our Giant Hug.

Psalm 23 tells us that God is a shepherd. This is something Jesus knew well. Jesus read the psalms and prayed them and recited them out loud.[1] We can assume Jesus knew this psalm and carried it with him on his heart. He most likely taught it to the disciples and anyone who would listen. We read in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” We can probably assume that this passage was shaped by this psalm.

Jesus compares himself to other shepherds – the ones who are not caring for the sheep. There are those that care for sheep, like God in Psalm 23, and those that run away at the first sign of danger. The latter are the hired hands – the ones that are not invested in the care of the sheep, but are just filling a job. Those who have farmed know that you must be invested – or you won’t have any sheep left.

The shepherds that cared for the sheep would do more than lead them to the fields. Sometimes they would check out the fields prior to leading the sheep to make sure there were no dangers. This entailed ridding the field of any predator like snakes, and taking away anything poisonous.[2] This took time and dedication. The shepherd would try to prevent anything that would threaten the flock. This metaphor only goes so far, as we know that God does not clear out any troubles before we arrive. If that were so, we wouldn’t have wars, we wouldn’t have famine, we wouldn’t be asking the questions of “why does God allow bad things to happen?”. We have plenty that threatens our existence.

What are some of the things that compromise our community?[3] I’ve thought about this throughout the week. As part of the Zero Suicide group I am working with others on a project called the Facing Project. This is something that has been done across the country in a variety of ways. The Facing Project asks people to tell stories about a difficult subject that the community is facing. The people tell the stories, someone writes them, and then they are told, bringing hope and awareness to the community. We are doing stories of suicide, which is one of the many issues the community is facing. There have been some written about autism and poverty and other subjects. So, what are we facing in our community? This week a colleague sent me yet another flyer announcing the KKK coming to town for a picnic. As we shared our disgust, I realized this is what threatens our community, too – fear and hatred and racism.

Whatever we face in our community, whatever threatens our community, we cannot be stuck in that valley – in the loneliest of days. God is the Caregiver that takes our arm and pulls us through, as Ulmer so beautifully wrote. God pulls us up. Sometimes it is in an unconventional way. The 23rd Psalm is beautiful and comforting, but sometimes, to continue the shepherd metaphor, God has to pull us by the scruff and lead us, because we just won’t follow.[4] I’m reminded of the scene in the Lion King where Rafiki, the wise baboon, talks with Simba about the past, and learning from the past. Rafiki takes his magical stick, and smacks Simba on the head. “Ow!” Simba cries, “Geez! What was that for? Rafiki responds: “It doesn’t matter: it’s in the past.” Simba tells him that even though it was in the past, his head still hurts, to which Rafiki replies: “Yes, the past can hurt, but the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it.” The second time Rafiki goes to hit him with the stick, Simba ducks. “Aha!” Rafiki shouts, “you see – so what are you going to do?” The first thing Simba does is take the stick. Sometimes, like a parent, God allows us to take that valley, rather than guiding us around it. Sometimes God has to let us go through the valley, no matter how much it hurts, so we can come out the other side, wiser, and stronger.

Remember those valleys. Remember how you came out of it more aware of God’s presence. If you are in a valley now, take heart, for God is with you, guiding your arm along the way. Know that you aren’t alone in those times. We may feel like it is the loneliest of days, but we are surrounded by this faith community, and by God, our Caregiver. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Michael Lodahl, “Psalm 23” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 436.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1993), 251.

[3] Barbara J. Essex, “John 10.11-18” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, -2008), 451.

[4] Craddock, et. al, 252.