OCtober 12, 2014
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
When we were planning our big anniversary trip to Turkey this year, Tim and I could hardly believe it was true. We had to keep telling each other, “We’re going to TURKEY!” Even now, when I flip through the pictures, I have trouble believing I was really there. But there is a whole book full of pictures that proves we really explored Istanbul and hiked in Cappadocia and we were actually in Turkey. And when I hear myself telling other people about it, it really does sound too good to be true.
So I have to remind myself about my wet shoes. Then it all feels more real.
You see, there comes a time in every vacation when the excitement and rosiness of just being there wears off but before you’ve realized you don’t have long left there and have to really enjoy the little bit of time you have left. It’s this weird holding pattern when you’re not fresh and excited. You’re just tired.
So. . . very. . . crabby.
One day during this strange and stressful emotional void of our trip, Tim and I were hiking in a place called the Ilhara Valley. It’s a beautiful, lush valley that’s cut into the desert plateau by a small river. There are cave churches all along the sides of the valley and bridges every so often so you can cross over the river to get to the churches on the other side.
We were both pretty tired and we had to head back to the city of Konya that night, but we wanted to soak in as much of Cappadocia as we could before heading to the last leg of our journey. So tired and cranky and with a long car ride ahead of us to a place we were less than enamored by – Konya is a story for another day – we hiked up and down the Ilhara Valley to explore more churches.
We got most of the way down the valley and were trying to make a decision about which bridge to cross back over on and how far it would be depending on where we went and when and where we stopped for lunch. Did I mention that I’m not the friendliest person in the world when I haven’t eaten? We finally realized that there was not a bridge to cross the river to the side where our car was without going something like 2 miles out of our way through some pretty gnarly nettle bushes. Now, normally 2 miles is not something that either of us would consider a big deal but I was hungry and we were tired and Tim’s legs hurt from being stung by the nettles. I was advocating just sucking it up and hiking the 2 extra miles when Tim found a fallen tree spanning a low point in the river.
My sweet husband has earned the nickname “Grizzly Adams” rightfully, and it was plain to him what we had to do. We had to cross over by walking across the tree. I once had a panic attack on a high ropes course on a church staff team building trip. It was plain to me that he was wrong.
But protest as I might, he started crossing that stupid tree anyway. I was left with two pretty terrible options. I could hike 2 miles out of my way alone in a country where I don’t speak much at all of the language and clearly stick out as a foreigner or I could suck it up and walk across the stupid tree.
I made it most of the way across the tree when I noticed that there was a place it dipped under the water. “Just hop over to the other side.” Tim called from the dry land. That was easy for him to say. . . he was a gymnast for years. There was no way I could just hop over to the other side: Not without falling in and soaking myself. But I was most of the way across and I was pretty sure trying to turn around and go back would also end up with me in the river. So I just kept walking across the tree. . . right through the water and up the other side. And proceeded to hike the remainder of the way back to the car with one wet shoe and one dry one. I was so upset with Tim for not just agreeing to take the further route and for forcing me into having to cross that dumb tree. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say a single word to him for the rest of the hike back to the car.
I was not a happy camper. But in retrospect, the tree bridge and my wet shoe is a great reminder that things aren’t always as rosy as they seem. Even on a too good to be true dream vacation, there were times that were not so dreamy. It’s almost like the wet shoe incident helps to anchor the trip in reality in my mind.
Many people today don’t bother with church or the Bible because the promises they have heard seem “too good to be true.” And there are preachers out there preaching stuff that is too good to be true. “If you just have enough faith, your life will be perfect.” “Just give more to the church and God will bless you with a new house and car in return.” “Trust in God and you’ll never have to struggle with anything.” It just sounds too good to be true. People today don’t want something that is too good to be true. They want truth.
The experience of the world around us is that even those who have great faith have great obstacles in their lives. That even people who give to the church have been hit by the economic difficulties of the past decade or so. That people who put their full trust in God still struggle. And that sometimes terrible things happen to really great people.
That’s the thing that makes Psalm 23 such a favorite verse of comfort – it’s up front about what we’re facing when we step out our door each morning. Or for some. . . what we’re facing even in our own homes.
This Psalm admits that even with God at our side, the nature of the world today is that sometimes we’re going to have wet shoes. It doesn’t say “Yay! I don’t walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” It says, “God walks through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with me.”
It doesn’t say, “There will not be evil.” It says, “I’m not afraid of the evil that will come my way.”
It doesn’t say that our enemies will disappear. It says that God will prepare a banquet for us right under their noses while they watch.
There is a joke that says there are 3 sacraments in the Presbyterian church: baptism, communion. . . and potluck suppers. We like to eat. And that’s because mealtime means so much more than just sustenance. Sharing a meal is comforting. It’s peaceful. What do we do when we want to celebrate something? We EAT.
The table is more than just physical provision in this Psalm. In scripture, the idea of the table is a reminder of God’s presence and participation in our lives. It represents God’s promise. In other words, God’s promise doesn’t negate things like evil and enemies, but is given in the midst of a world full of enemies and evil.
This morning’s passage from Isaiah has a similar sense of God’s activity and promises and it’s set in a book of the Bible that is all about God’s action. God in Isaiah is always up to something new. There is always a fresh promise from God to behold – even in troubling times.
In the Psalm, God is our shepherd, our protector, our host. . . even in the worst of times.
A God who is presented as preventing all the bad stuff in a world we know is full of bad stuff is too good to be true. That is just a little god. But a God who loves us so much that he came down, entering into history as a human being to walk through the Valley of Death with us. . . that is too true, too gritty, too honest to be ignored. That God, the God of Isaiah and the Psalms. . . that is a great, big God. A god who only walks with those who pay a certain amount of tithes or goes to church at all the right times? That’s a pretty small and petty god. But a God who wipes away every tear even when his comfort goes unnoticed and even when times are less than ideal? That is a God I want to worship. That is the God that Isaiah is worshiping and that the Psalm is praising.
This morning, as we baptize sweet Brooke, we aren’t promising her that things will always be easy. But we are promising to love her so that she might know God’s love. To protect and to guide her so that her eyes will be opened to God’s protection and guidance. To teach her and to point her to God even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, even in the presence of evil and enemies.
There is a hope that is not too good to be true and that is what we celebrate when we baptize someone. Today we celebrate that hope that promises we can be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. With our new life offered in Christ Jesus, we are granted faith that looks into the face of evil and says, “I’m not afraid of you.” And a trust in God that says, “We know there is something beautiful in this child you have created and we offer her into the care of your Grace.”
It not too good to be true. God doesn’t ignore the wet shoes. He walks in wet shoes too. He gives us peace in the weirdest places and hope in the darkest valleys.