Pastoral Message

May 3, 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
"The 23rd Psalm In Time Of Pandemic"

From the Rev. Dr. Brenda M. Pelc-Faszcza, Pastor

And audio version of this message is posted on the church website,
https://www.cantoncenterchurch.org/music/recordings/sermons.html

 

PRELUDE       Sheep May Safely Graze                                J.S. Bach
Mary Lou Keefe, organ; Thirzah Bendokas, cello; Dec., 2016

Written by Bach in 1713, with words by Salomon Franck:

Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful Shepherd's sight.

Those who rule with wisdom guiding
Bring to hearts a peace abiding
Bless a land with joy made bright

 

SCRIPTURE READING           Psalm 23

 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
    he restores my soul.[b]
He leads me in right paths[c]
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.[g]

 

REFLECTION        “The 23rd Psalm in Time of Pandemic”

I know what you might be thinking,
that for today I picked this text --
the one we almost always hear at funerals --
because there is so much death, loss and grief
in our psyches right now,
it’s like we’re all living in a giant, perpetual funeral.
And what we people of faith do at funerals
is to remind ourselves that the Lord is our shepherd,
that ultimately we want for nothing.
No, I didn’t choose it for today,
the lectionary did;
the texts with God-as-shepherd (Psalm 23)
and Jesus-as-shepherd  (John 10:1-10)
appear in the lectionary of the church
each year in Easter season,
so here’s the 23rd Psalm for this fourth Sunday of Easter.

 

But I did decide to use it as today’s focal text
not so much simply because it names death,
but because it says something profound to us
about our own internal response to suffering
that I find helpful:
specifically, it gives us something other than
the language of “battle” or strife
with which to frame our experience of suffering.
It gives us the language of serenity and gentleness,
the language of calm,
the language of trust.
It tells us not that we are warriors girded for a great fight
with a great enemy,
but that we are beloveds led to green pastures
and still waters
by a kind shepherd,
even in the presence of “enemies.”
This I find worth hearing,
at a point where I think we may all be exhausted
by disruption, isolation, fear, boredom, anxiety,
the no-end-in-sight feeling of where we are,
and, of course, the many rallying cries to be “at war”
with this pandemic.

In an intriguing Christian Century article this week
entitled “Are We Really ‘At War’ with the Coronavirus?”
Jason Mahn raises the question
of whether the most helpful way for us
to be framing our experience with this pandemic
is to think of it as being at war.
Our political leaders have certainly framed it that way,
the president has declared himself “a wartime president,”
other nations’ leaders have declared that
“We are at war with an enemy.”
Mahn suggests that the reason this may be
the framing we’re reaching for
is that in a time of such widespread loss, fear and dislocation
we really lack any other large national narrative
to help give us meaning or make sense of all of this,
and so we reach for a framework that,
historically, has given us ways of making meaning:  war.
Journalist Chris Hedges, quoted in the article,
has said that war is a force that gives us meaning,
in the sense that the goal is clear (to defeat the enemy)
and so are the rituals:
“We honor the fallen, pray for soldiers, hang flags,
sing ‘God Bless America,’ and have military flyovers.”
We share a sense of a common battle,
even though most of us are on the sidelines.
So it is with this pandemic, as some would see it:
we’re in the fight of our lives, this is war,
let’s see it as such.

Yet, Mahn offers that while he certainly hopes we “beat” Covid-19,
he is also concerned about what he calls
“the collateral damage to our collective character
and individual dispositions
that might result from using the language of war,”
which, he points out, is always the language of power
over the language of compassion.
Power means winners and losers.
The power of war means that somebody is seen as discardable.
It generally demands the dehumanizing
of whoever is seen as the enemy,
so that they can be more easily overpowered or killed,
and that is part of its price.
Sadly, there have been incidents of racial slurs and violence
against Asian Americans,
who have become associated with what some have called
“the Chinese virus” and our war upon it,
and, by extension, upon them.
In general, the language of war
keeps us hating something,
more than trying to understand it.
And when applied to disease
and the grief that comes from bearing a lot of it,
it can keep us in a mindset
where our energies are about conquering and overpowering
what we hate,
as though the basic human response in time of suffering
should be to hate and to fight.
It is a framing that aims to make us feel,
above all, powerful.
Especially when circumstances have made us feel
rather powerless.

I get why this may be appealing,
but I’m not at all sure this should be the main way
we think about suffering,
or the main thing we might seek to activate within ourselves
in time of suffering,
especially suffering that comes from illness or grief.
As Mahn insightfully puts it,
“Much of the work ahead is going to involve
patiently waiting out this infectious storm,
learning to care for the infected and affected,
and grieving the loss of loved ones.
There is much that we will need to bear and survive
rather than conquer and control.
War language may be not only irrelevant to these efforts
but also rather counterproductive.”
Much that we will need to bear and survive,
rather than conquer and control.
Yes, yes.
So maybe there is something else in us
that needs to be deeply empowered right now,
that is not about hating or fighting?
Yes, yes.

 

One of the things I love about the 23rd Psalm
is that it is the language of bearing and surviving
in time of trial,
and not the language of hate or battle.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I know you’re with me, so I don’t fear evil.
And although it includes the word “enemies” –
you prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies –
it’s restful and trusting,
not hateful or violent.
I trust you’ll supply what I need.
You lead me beside still waters,
you restore my soul.
I can find serenity, even here in the midst of this trial.
Here is deep trust in the One who loves us,
rather than an oppositional energy
that has us in an all-out fight with what doesn’t love us.
Oh, there are psalms that are all about the fight and the hate
and the wish that our enemy (other people, not viruses)
be crushed –
browse through them some time, and you’ll see.
Some are full of rage.
But not this one.
This psalm puts us in the place of serenity
even while we are also in the place of suffering.
It reminds us that those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive,
as though we can have only one or the other at a time,
but rather that even in time of distress,
peace can accompany us
because God will always accompany us:
You are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
It helps us remember the gentle, guiding goodness of God
that is more than, and bigger than,
any suffering we might be presently in:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Staying conscious of the grace and goodness
that is beyond the moment
is, I think, a big part of the way we bear and survive the moment.

 

Don’t get me wrong –
I surely know we have to address this disease,
and others, aggressively.
I trust the medical experts to lead us in how to do that.
What I don’t want is to be carrying a raw, raging spirit
within myself,
at a time when I need to be especially compassionate
with everyone and everything, including myself.
I know that the language of warfare,
of “battling the disease,”
works for some people.
It just doesn’t work for me.
It did not work during my experience with breast cancer
two and a half years ago,
when I discovered that many well-meaning people
talked about “fighting that cancer with everything you’ve got,”
“waging war against it.”
Of course I did everything my doctors told me
I needed to do,
and I still do.
But I never felt like I was in a war with my own body.
Cancer cells are our own bodies,
our own cells just reproducing more than they’re supposed to.
It’s not like some poisonous foreign substance gets into us.
It’s that our own tissue somehow gets mixed-up instructions
for how to behave and starts doing the wrong thing.
I tried to be compassionate with myself,
as I would try to be compassionate with others.
I cringed then, and I cringe now,
whenever I read an obituary of someone who is described
as having “lost their battle with [some disease.]”
The losing-the-battle language is not helpful,
or even, I think, particularly compassionate.
It suggests the patient was a soldier
who didn’t have enough fight,
let the enemy win, and so, basically, failed.
I doubt that’s the case with most deaths from disease.

 

We have more than enough, right now,
of the language of power
among those who covet power
more than they care about anything.
What I crave is not the energy of strife,
but the calm of trust, the serenity of hope.
The still waters deep within us,
the green pastures we can still imagine.
The one who walks there beside us,
and in whose house we will live forever,
no matter what this present thing is like.
I remember the words of a prayer I once read,that began
“Gentle us down, Lord, into an unclenched space.”
That’s what I want for us all,
an unclenched space,
within us and among us.
While I’m sure that front-line workers,
medical and other,
who are dealing with this pandemic close-up every day
may feel something like embattled,
God bless them,
what I hope and pray they feel most is
sustained.
Led.
Accompanied.
Guided.
Strong.
Brave.
Loving.
Loved.
At the end of the day, unclenched.
Even though they are walking through the valley
of the shadow of death
more than the rest of us are.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us
all the days of our lives,
and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is the spirit I hope and pray for --
for them, for you, for all of us.
Amen.

HYMN

The beautiful hymn “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” based on Psalm 23, was written by Isaac Watts, in the 18th century.  It’s in our hymnals, we’ve sung it quite a few times. Here are two versions I like (and there are many others online):

A cappella, by Eclipse 6:

 



Another version, on piano, performed by Catherine Schane-Lydon:


 

JOYS AND CONCERNS OF THE CONGREGATION

Prayers for Earle Young (husband of Peg), at Cherry Brook Health Care Center, who has tested positive for coronavirus.

Prayers of condolence for Doug and Jan Tanner and their family, upon the death of Doug’s mother, Estelle Tanner, on April 19 (non Covid-related).

Prayers for Kate Pradhan (daughter of Kim, sister-in-law of Sarah), hospitalized with respiratory distress and being tested for Covid-19.

Prayers for Meghan (a co-worker of Rev. Brenda’s daughter Nina),
in her 40’s with a husband and children, just diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer.

 

PRAYER

Loving God,
may we feel your love today
in whatever ways we need it most,
calming us, strengthening us,
gentling us down into unclenched space.

May those who are in time of distress,
because of illness, grief or loss –
their own or that which they witness in others --
feel your love in whatever ways they need it most.
May those who struggle with other challenges in life
be strengthened for resolving them.

Help us to keep moving forward
in these days that aren’t “normal,”
to remain diligent in doing our own part of this work,
to remain caring toward each other and the world,
to be the patient, resilient, faithful Body of Christ.

We pray for all those who have such great responsibility
in these times –
medical workers, hospital staffs, pharmacy staffs,
grocery store workers, delivery workers,
all “front-liners” who are working so hard and bearing risks
for the sake of the rest of us.
We pray for parents who are doing the holy work
of helping their children continue to learn
while they can’t be in school.
We pray for all leaders who need to make public health decisions,
that they will be rightly guided.

God of all things everywhere,
as your creation blooms into springtime around us,
we pray that we will not be so preoccupied
with our current limitations
that we will not see our current blessings.
Help us not to miss beauty, or goodness, or grace,
or renewal, or resurrection,
or life.

All things we pray as Jesus prayed,
that your will might be done, on earth as in heaven.  Amen.