A Companion God
I guess, if there is one thing we all want in life it is companionship. If we had all the money in the world and all the time in the world but not one person, spouse, child, pet, or friend to share the things money can buy and time can provide, then those millions and those hours would be meaningless. We are social creatures. In the first pages of Genesis, God says, “it is not good that the human should be alone.” And what happens? A helpmate is created, and so, husband and wife, the first family.
We recognize that same bonding today, in a new way, state by state, Michigan being the latest! We celebrate weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, graduations, confirmations, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving. These are all social events that bond our relationships.
We seek interaction from infancy. In an old sermon on our text (Psalm 23) I observed how amazed I was when our first grandchild, Robin, 11 months old at the time, was so into people. Cautious with a new face, he quickly warmed up and engaged you with a smile, a pointed finger, or copied a patty cake. He lite up when Mommy entered the room after being away.
That same boy, now 25 years old, is adored by his younger siblings, has become a great hugger, and is happily engaged to be married. Just last week he drove in from Topeka, Kansas, to attend his sister’s senior recital at Chicago Arts (Chi Arts) High School, followed by a fun-filled family dinner.
Companionship is not limited to us humans. Our new dog, Oliver, just a year old, wants social interaction beginning as soon as the bedroom door opens in the morning. He wants to cuddle, lick, play; I have to remind him I am not a dog! Out on the sidewalk he urges me with a pull to cross the street and greet the dog or just a person walking by! Ollie has become a dear companion very quickly. He lay at my feet as I prepared these words.
Our Hebrew forbears understood their God to be a companion too. From the earliest days as a people, they experienced a divine power, but also a companion leading them out of Egypt. They felt God’s influence but also God’s presence alongside of them. They understood God to be transcendent, that which they could not see or touch, who answered Moses with a burning bush and the awesome words, I AM WHO I AM. But they understood God also as intervener and guide in their lives and history. God was both “wholly other” and a trusting shepherd, both mystery and companion.
As we continue our journey through Lent, we are not alone. This is the message of a group of psalms called songs of trust.
Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd;
Psalm 27: The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Psalm 91: You who live in the shelter of the Most High;
Psalm 121: I lift up my eyes to the hills.
These psalms offer a profound sense of trust and reliance upon a companion God. Each one talks of a personal relationship, an I-Thou interaction between Creature and Creator.
This companion God was on my mother’s lips as she lay dying from a brain tumor. She was home, in her own bed with the aid of family and hospice when I arrived that last morning. It was March, 1987. My sister Cathy had on Mom’s tape of Mahalia Jackson singing spirituals, low volume. Then, Mom just started reciting Scripture. And what did she quote but the companion psalms! To my amazement, with all that damage in her head, she uttered most of Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord.” Then words from Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” And of course, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” In the King James Version of course! My mother felt the accompanying presence of God to her last breath.
Martin Luther called the Psalms “die kleine Bibel”, the little Bible. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and martyr, wrote from his prison cell on May 15, 1943, “I am reading the Psalms daily, as I have done for years. I know them and love them more than any other book in the Bible.” And a little later in that letter he declares, “I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly.” That’s a concept worth pursuing some time…
And here at All Saints, while we read the 10 Commandments throughout Lent, we sing or read a psalm every Sunday throughout the entire year! In its wisdom the Church has placed the Psalms at the center of our worship because they address us in the depths of our needs. The Psalms have enabled Christians and Jews to live life, to face life, to cope with life, even with this miserable winter!
Let us turn now to the 23rd Psalm. The profound simplicity and matchless beauty of this gem has touched the hearts of countless people through centuries. Confirmation classes learn it by heart. Adults are sustained by it in the perplexities of life. It is a peaceful benediction on the lips of the dying.
This psalm offers a double image: shepherd and host. The shepherd is protector of the sheep, but also host to travelers who find safety in the shepherd’s tent from dangers and enemies of the desert. Among the Bedouin people in the Near East today this strong sense of hospitality still prevails. The shepherd is guide to the flock and a friendly host. In the eyes of the psalmist, the Lord God is such a shepherd and host.
From our high speed travel along the interstates today it is almost impossible to see sheep. But this Biblical image is so vivid, so much a part of our Christian narrative, that we cannot escape connections to the lost sheep or to Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” We are humbled to see the almighty transcendent Creator God as a down-to-earth Shepherd, Guide, Savior, and Companion.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Nothing more is needed! That is hard to image in a commercialized world where we are constantly reminded of what we need, when a one-hour TV show gives us 14 ads telling us our desires! I am personally tired of Viagra ads. When I change the channel I get the very same ad on that channel! And just after you buy the latest high tech gizmo, you discover it is already outdistanced by a newer model with even more apps that you “must have.” Dare we admit that we don’t need more activities, more pills, more gadgets, more Facebook interactions, and more excitements of all kinds.
No, if God is our shepherd we can be content with our blessings; appreciative of our lives; secure in the palm of God’s hand; secure in lying down in green pastures and walking along a still brook and feeling renewed, restored in soul and being; supported in choosing the right path among the cross currents of daily choices and in doing justly in all relationships with self, lovers, neighbors and systems. Now that is a companion you cannot and would not unfriend!
To be sure there are threats to our lives: walking on icy sidewalks, driving our cars while skirting pot holes and avoiding texting drivers. Gun violence. Cancer. Escalating arguments. And a whole array of temptations. In the words of the psalm: “Walking through the darkest valleys.” But even there, especially there, God is with us. “I fear no evil; for though art with me.” Evil is present but with God as guide I don’t need to be frightened. Now that is a companion.
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Many years ago I attended the memorial service for retired Methodist Bishop Paul Washburn. One of the things he most treasured about the office of Bishop was the shepherd’s staff that came with it. He proudly carried that staff in Ordination services. He understood himself as shepherd. The carpenter who made Paul’s first staff carried it in the funeral processional and placed it at the foot of the casket. I did not always agree with Bishop Paul, but I respected his office. He certainly received comfort from that staff.
Then we shift to the image of Host. “Thou preparest a table.” Once a traveler is received into a shepherd’s tent that guest is guaranteed immunity from the enemy, from any outside threat. This concept was revived in the 1980s sanctuary movement which sought to safeguard undocumented persons who had fled for their lives from Central America. Many of these same persons now fear deportation from the land where they live, raise children and pay taxes.
When we offer sanctuary we do it in the name of our Shepherd God in whose tent we find a gracious welcome, a hearty meal, and a protecting Host. Then the Host anoints the head of the traveler till the cup overflows.
Now a reversal takes place. No longer does an enemy or a demon or a temptation pursue me; it is goodness and mercy that chase me and follow me all the days of my life. Suddenly the tent becomes God’s temple: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Now that is a companion whom we can trust!
Over the years, sitting with elderly people facing the sunset of life, I would ask, shall we read some Scripture? No passage has been chosen more that the 23rd Psalm. And usually people repeat the words by heart as they hear it read.
We may feel profoundly alone or sad, despairing or angry or confused, but our companion God is walking beside us, hand in hand. We may experience defeat, heartache, separation, hurt, illness, disappointment, or health, happiness, joy, reward. In all these situations and conditions God is present, God cares and intercedes and accompanies us through these dark valleys and bright mountain pastures.
One of my long time colleagues and seminary classmates, Fred Morris, served for several years as a missionary in Recife, Brazil, the diocese of the renowned Bishop Dom Helder Camara. Brazil was ruled by a brutal dictatorship determined to stop Dom Helder from meddling in politics, which for this priest was simply supporting God’s “preferential option for the poor,” in the words of the then liberation theology. Because Dom Helder was so popular, the regime chose to go after his colleagues. Fred was arrested, thrown into prison and tortured. Months later the US Ambassador finally secured Fred’s release and I invited Fred to come and preach for me at First Methodist Church, Evanston. Fred came and in his sermon confessed publicly that it was only repeating the words of Psalm 23 over and over and over again during torture that allowed him to endure the ordeal. That psalm and that God was his companion in the valley of the shadow.
In sum, when you feel the need for solace, quiet, guidance, and support turn to the God who is our companion and shepherd throughout life’s journey. This God is with us. This God loves us. This God will not unfriend us. Amen.
All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago
March 30, 2014