In pastures green? Not always...
Yesterday it was my turn to preach - I'm one of the Worship leaders at Christ Church. As is the case all over the world, France is still in confinement due to the Covid-19 virus. But I wanted to remind us all that we are not left alone.
Acts 2:42-47 - Psalm 23 - 1 Peter 2:19-25 - John 10:1-10
If I started today’s sermon with the words “Hello to Jason Isaacs” I wonder if that would mean anything to anyone – other than making you wonder if I had inside information on an international film star listening in. I don’t, by the way. If you were in the know, you’d recognise that I listened to Wittertainment – Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode discussing the recent film releases, and generally just wittering on about life in general. A gentle, interesting programme, which I recommend you try listening to.
The reason I mention it is that Mark Kermode, who is the film critic, has a quotation from the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” which, from time to time, listeners who are going through a hard time ask him to repeat. Everything will be all right, he says, and then continues and if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.
Mark Kermode is remarkably upbeat and optimistic, but there was one period when there was some political upheaval going on, and he lost his usual bright outlook. That week the guest was Tom Hanks, known among the listeners as “the man with the most comforting voice” and so Simon, who was interviewing their guest asked him to say something to remind Mark that everything would, indeed, be all right. Tom did indeed say some reassuring words, and finished by saying “No matter how dark, no matter how wonderful, this I know: this too shall pass”
In a way, I find these words reassuring, but at the same time, I find them a little bleak: basically the thought behind it is that everything is fleeting, and that in the end, it will pass. It will be finished. And to me there’s a little bit of “you’re on your own” about it as well. Yes, if it’s not all right it’s not the end, but until it’s passed, until it’s all right, you just have to keep trudging on regardless.
But what I find in all of today’s readings is a reminder that actually we are not alone. Whatever we are going through, as Christians, we are not left to battle on, relying on our own strength alone.
In the reading from Acts we heard how the first apostles, the early church, met together, supporting each other, and sharing fellowship. This must have been an enormous comfort to each individual – we must remember that although God added to their number daily, they were still the minority, wherever they were, surrounded by the polytheistic Roman or Greek cultures, or the Jewish culture who saw them as heretics and blasphemers for declaring Jesus as Messiah. And so the support of other believers would have been vital.
And haven’t we found that, in these strange, confined times? We have found ways to reach out and support others, and through this, found support ourselves. We have created a vibrant WhatsApp group, which shares chat and news through the week; we have found a way to meet on Sunday which feeds our souls, and, although it has been a challenge, has taught us new skills that we didn’t know we had; we have been able to re-connect with members from Christ Church who have moved away. I have received messages checking if I’m okay, from people I wouldn’t have necessarily expected it from, and I’m sure others have too. And this network is something that can only build us up more, encouraging and supporting. I firmly believe that this period, difficult though it has been, has served to strengthen us as a community, and as we grow stronger as a community of God, so he will add to our number. Maybe not in large numbers, but as long as we cherish, as a child of God, every new person who crosses our threshold, either virtually, or physically then God will bless us.
The reading from Peter reassures us of the fact that because Jesus suffered for us it is by his wounds we have been healed. Through Christ’s sacrifice we have been given wholeness. And when we are whole, we are at peace. We know that whatever befalls us, we are supported by a Lord who has suffered also. It is this Lord who leads us and shows us the way that he wants us to go – we follow him because we recognise his voice, we know that he is the Shepherd who will lead us in the right ways, who will protect us and keep us. In the discourse in John, Jesus reminds his followers then, as he reminds us now, that he came that we might have life in all its wonderful abundance. Not just in a fatalistic “this too shall pass” kind of way, but in a way where, even if we are going through difficult times, we can say that we rejoice in the Lord, because we know that he is with us.
I briefly want to look at three verses from the well known Psalm that again reiterate this idea that we are not left to stumble on alone through this world, but that God is with us, giving us exactly what we need, if we will only let him lead us there.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. Says verse two.
Sometimes I forget that God doesn’t always want us to be “doing stuff”. In February I wrote in my blog:
Recently I’ve been starting to wonder if I’m too “comfortable” in my relationship with God…
I’m not feeling challenged. I’m not feeling uncomfortable. I’m not feeling edgy.
I’m feeling loved, and contented, and safe.
I’m not feeling “on fire”. I’m not feeling called to “do” stuff.
I feel as though I’m “being”.
But then it struck me that the well-known and well-loved Psalm says: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters…
He makes me lie down, he leads me by quiet waters. Yes, there are valleys of shadows that need facing, but there are also green pastures to lie in.
A good shepherd isn’t always challenging his sheep to go higher, further…Yes, if it’s necessary for food, or for safety, then he will lead them somewhere else, but if they need to lie and recuperate, and “be” then he allows them to do that.
In the past couple of years I’ve been through quite a lot: my breast cancer, the treatment, the recuperation, the going back to work, the side effects of the hormone therapy, the worry of Andrew’s unemployment benefits ending, some financial crises, the changes at church that have meant I’ve taken on more preaching responsibilities… All of these things have taken their toll on me, and I think that God is telling me to just rest, and relax and enjoy the peace.
I am exactly where I need to be.
And instead of fretting and wondering and thinking about what I think I should be doing, I should be resting, as my Shepherd wants me to do, and feeling contented in the love of my Father.
And in these strange times of confinement, perhaps for some of us, God is giving us (if we are open to seeing it that way) time to rest and recuperate. He is also perhaps giving the earth the chance to recuperate. He is saying to us (if we are open to hearing him) “Take time to recover. Take time to find yourself again. Take time to reconnect with me.” Someone wrote: We set great store by activity and busy-ness. We want to be ‘in control’. We value what we ‘do’ more than who we are. So when we become ill, or retire from work, or suffer an enforced period of inactivity, our self-esteem is threatened. Perhaps God wants to remind us that our self-esteem should not be dependent on what we do, but rather in recognising, through being in his presence, that being a child of God, in a close relationship with our Father, is the most important thing
These times will pass, and we will have to go out once more into our busy lives, but if we have been able to make our connections with God, to draw a little closer, to listen with a little more attention, then he will have given us what we needed.
For others, however, this time has been a dark and difficult period: for those with mental health issues, or confined in a small apartment with energetic children who don’t always recognise the need for space, and silence, it has been tough. For those who cannot escape from an unbearable situation, or who are worried about the financial implications of not working, this has been a valley of despair. I do not wish to make light of these – and other – situations, and I recognise that this next phrase may seem trite and unhelpful, especially to those with deep rooted fears who are living through hell at the moment, but God IS There. He is with you. He weeps with you.
Verse 4 of the Psalm reminds us: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Note those words “though I walk through the valley” – not “though I live forever in the valley”. These words are telling us “this too shall pass”. I cannot tell you when, or how, but it will end, and while you must endure, you do not endure alone. For your Shepherd is leading you. He is there to comfort you.
Comfort is a word which perhaps gives us the idea of a pat on the shoulder, a gentle There, there, and a cup of tea. Not much good when you’re going through hell. But those of us who know our French will see another word there: “fort” – strong. God gives us strength, his rod, his staff, are there to help us, to pull us along, to get us through the day. As I think I have mentioned before, a verse which was an amazing comfort to me – in the sense of giving me strength to get through the next few hours – during my cancer treatment was from Isaiah: I am the Lord your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says “Do not fear; I will help you”
We have a shepherd who cares for our wellbeing, and whatever we are experiencing, he will lead us forward. If we have been in need of rest, and recuperation, he will let us have that, before – as any good leader will do – taking us forward into a place where we can use that renewed strength. If we have been going through a difficult time, he will continue to be there with us, calming fears, reassuring, comforting, strengthening, until we have passed through that valley of shadow and are able to rest in the light.
So, in a way, those words of Tom Hanks: “No matter how dark, no matter how wonderful, this I know: this too shall pass” they are true. But they are true in the way that we know that whatever comes to pass our God is there to comfort us, and we are there to support and help each other. And through the strength that that knowledge gives us, we can – at the end of this confinement period – go into the world to tell others what God has done for us, and what he continues to do.
• Lord God, shepherd all Your people on their different journeys with their different joys and struggles. Remind us all that we are honoured guests at Your table and that all may find a home in You. Give us rest when we need it, and comfort in times of trouble. Lavish the world with Your goodness and love so that all might know that in You they have everything they need, and that you walk with them.
After the service our church secretary, Mike, shared with me this poem which has comforted and blessed his family through generations.