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No More a Stranger or a Guest

Psalm 23
A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
May 14, 2017

Last weekend we celebrated the confirmation of 23 of our youth.  Yesterday I shared briefly in the celebration of another sizable group of seniors in the Presbyterian Campus Ministry, and tonight is the senior dinner for a remarkable cadre of seniors in our Presbyterian Youth Connection. All three of those events were or will be celebrations of a commencement of one sort of another – the commencing of a new life of discipleship, a commencing of a higher educational experience, or of a new practice in the workplace or graduate school.  All of those new beginnings involve a certain degree of reflection and thought, and no small measure of accompanying grace.

And personally, as I look toward my own commencement next week, I have been doing a lot of thinking forward and looking back. Milestones always seem to afford a chance for taking stock, and in recent weeks I have been thinking back across the course of my years in ministry. I have spent all but six of those years in and around university and college campuses – first in Auburn, Alabama, then in Covington/Oxford, Georgia, and for better than a third of my life, here in Chapel Hill. The six years in another setting occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, where I served a suburban congregation. But I have cherished the ties to colleges and universities across the years.  It has been a most remarkable privilege to get to know so many talented and creative people – students, faculty, administrators, coaches and staff – who have brought so much life and energy to the congregations I have served.

I have been especially grateful for the chance to get to know so many wonderful students across those years.  And today, as the members of the Class of 2017 are receiving their diplomas in Kenan Stadium, I have in mind particularly the students who are so much a part of the life of this particular church community.  A few years ago I had a poignant conversation with a UNC senior who was getting ready to graduate.  She was long past the homesickness she had felt early in her time on campus, she said, yet on the eve of her launch into the real world, she told me that in some ways she longed just to be a child at home again.  I told her that well into my advancing years I still felt the same way.  And that was before these last few months.

I don’t know what your home was like when you were a child, but my father and a carpenter neighbor built the house where I grew up in Florida.  It was not remarkable on any architectural scale.  By today’s standards it was quite small, about 800 square feet. Two bedrooms, one bath, a living room, a kitchen, and a screen porch that we would later enclose to make a third bedroom.  We never locked the doors, because they had no locks.  There was little or no insulation, so it was chilly in the winter, heated only by the single oil heater in a central closet.  With no air conditioning, summertime seemed to invite the humidity out of the air right onto the walls of our house, and by the middle of every August we fully expected to die of heatstroke or mildew.  But it was home.  Even more, it was a place of refuge and security for me.  It didn’t matter what kind of day I had had at school, or how I had been treated or mistreated by my friends… when I came through the door of that house in the afternoon, I knew I had found sanctuary.  My mother or my grandmother were almost always waiting to welcome me home.  In that little house with the green gable roof there was always a surplus of warmth and welcome and laughter.  Every child should be so fortunate as to have such a home. I know not all do; I wish they could.

Such memories of home almost always bring me back to the psalm we just read.  “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” sings the psalmist with confidence – a house where we are welcomed and fed, no matter what enemies or difficulties lurk outside the door, a house where a lavish welcome is afforded us in every time of need.  In fact, it is more than a house.  It is our shelter from every stormy blast, our eternal and truest home.

My mother and grandmother taught me the refrains of the twenty-third Psalm when I was a young boy by having me say the words every night as I said my prayers.  My Sunday School teachers made sure I knew it as well. Its words are written indelibly in my memory; its images have comforted me in countless circumstances.  Over the years, in every time of darkness and dread, its verses have been strong and steady anchors for me, particularly the latter verses where God is described as a gracious and generous host and shelter.  The whole Psalm expresses confidence and calm, even in the face of troubles and tragedies that threaten us: the valley of the shadow, evil, and enemies.  Over against such troubles the psalmist sets forth the environments and instruments of God’s comfort and care: green pastures, still waters, rod and staff, table, oil, and cup.[1]  Thus, the psalm has a power to lift us up in the face of every trying circumstance, for it says we have a shepherd, a lavish host, in whose presence, “we shall not want” for anything we need. Here is a God who spreads a table before us even in places of torment. Here is a God who pursues us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. Ours is a God who sees and senses our needs before we ever acknowledge or admit them. Ours is a God who knows us intimately and well.

Some of you have met my friend Michael Lindvall, who is a pastor in New York City.  One day some years back he penned a personal reflection on this psalm that harkened back to his own memories of home, and of his mother; maybe they speak to your own memories of home, too, on this Mothers’ Day.

“Mothers,” my grandmother said to her daughter,
“must have eyes in the back of their heads.”
She spoke this regally,
a silver ladle wrapped in a tea towel for a scepter.

I had just pulled the coffee percolator to the floor,
wondering (naturally) what was at the other end of the cord dangling over the counter.
The kitchen table loomed eye-level, a bountiful pile of Wonder Bread toast,
and raspberry jam with the seeds taken out.
I heard her pronouncement with the ears of a five-year-old
who did not yet know that he too was a speaker of metaphor.

The secret knowledge her words revealed was both terrible and comfortable.
Terrible for the obvious reason,
but comfortable, too.

Good to know that when she lay me in my bed
and tucked the silky edge of the lime-green blanket under my chin
and turned downstairs, back to her McCall’s,
that she could still see me.

I liked never being unseen.
Good to know that I was seen,
even though I lay [unmoving],
holding my breath in the bathtub,
only the circle of my face rising above the warm, motionless water.

Terribly comfortable to know that even silently mouthed,
any taunt delivered to my sister in the back seat of the car was heard.
Terribly comfortable to know that even the best-timed kick to her shins
under the dinner table was seen.

All was heard; all was seen.

And she saw the dark things before I did, and lay her hand on my head
and ran her fingers through my hair, always at last pulling the forelock that fell over my eyes
and tucking it back behind my ear where it belonged.

Surely some hand will pull away the forelock that yet falls over my eyes.
Surely a high table is set with Wonder Bread
and raspberry jam with the seeds taken out.
Surely I am seen, even when her face seems to be turned away.[2]

We are seen.  We are known.  And under God’s gracious care, we have everything we need.  Maybe not all our hearts’ desires, but all our needs. Such is the promise inherent in the confidence of the psalm, a promise I pass on to you today.

I share these words with you because we are all in need of such confidence. Personally and as congregations we need it. The young graduates in Kenan stand today at the threshold of a great new beginning.  There is much excitement and anticipation, as well there should be. But there is also the challenge that now lies ahead. And confidence may be a bit in short supply until they test the waters and find out that they are, after all, prepared for this challenge.

And it’s not just new graduates who harbor such feelings. Others of you, no longer students, are facing or have faced confidence crises of your own.  At any given time some of us in this room are dealing with unwanted diagnoses or the untimely deaths of loved ones, with biopsies or CT-scans or catheterizations, with exhausting protocols and treatments.  Others are affected by great stress in the workplace, or in a marriage, or by loved ones struggling with darkness, by parents raging against declining capacities or teenagers testing the limits of capacities on the rise.

Looking for something else on YouTube this week, I found once again the haunting refrains of that old Sarah McLaughlin song, “Angel,” and particularly the line about “vultures and thieves at your back,”[3] and I thought of the encampment of enemies around so many people in these days.  Life simply takes its toll on us at times, and we may feel it as a tightness in the chest, or as a weariness even early in the day, or as quiet tears and fears that will not cease.  And it does feel at a time like this as though we are in the presence of enemies, beset by forces seemingly greater than our energy and strength. It is precisely for those who know such distress that the psalmist speaks a strong word of encouragement and confidence. His psalm offers us “poignant words of trust” [4] to voice in the face of whatever enemy still camps at our door.

Even in times of great stress, when difficulties press upon us and we have our doubts about ever finding our way back to what is good and familiar, even then…especially then… God is waiting to embrace us.  Even then God is waiting to welcome us home.  The hymn writer Isaac Watts perhaps said it best in his wonderful paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm:

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
O may Your House be my abode, and all my works be praise.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.

Like a child at home.  In a place of safety and security, of rest and peace.

Home is such an important place for us.  Home is where the heart is, they say.  Home, said Robert Frost, is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Home is where a mother nurtures her own, where a father runs to welcome a prodigal.  But even more, home is a place of sanctuary… a safe port in a storm, a safe refuge when the “vultures and thieves” are at your back.  The psalmist found his home in the strong embrace of God, where indeed his every need was supplied.  It is our home, too, friends.  It is our best and truest home.  We may not be there just yet.  But the promise is that we will be.  We will. And the church… maybe this church… can point us in that direction.

In one of her books the writer Anne Lamott shares a story told by her pastor, a story about her pastor’s best friend as a child.

When she was about seven, her best friend got lost one day.  The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single [familiar] landmark.  She was very frightened.  Finally a policeman stopped to help her.  He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until finally she saw her church.  She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You can let me out now.  This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”[5]

Friends, we may at times find ourselves lost… struggling… unsure of where we are or where we are headed.  In such times we may be overwhelmed by the lack of anything familiar.  We may feel as though we will never find home again.  Don’t be afraid.  Stay close to the church.  By God’s grace and the Shepherd’s hand, this is your church.  And the promise is true: you can always find your way home from here.

 

[1] Craddock, et.al., Preaching Through the Christian Year – A, Trinity Press International, 1992, 171.

[2] Michael Lindvall, “A Twenty-Third Psalm,” poem presented at the January, 1998 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Memphis.

[3] Sarah McLaughlin, “Angel,” on the album Surfacing, © 1997 by Arista Records, Inc.

[4] James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation Commentary, John Knox Press, 1994, 119.

[5] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, Anchor Books, New York, 1999, 55.

Bob Dunham , Pastor

Email: dunham@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Bob is grateful for the privilege of serving as pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is particularly thankful for the colleagues, officers and members who have served the church with great love and care during the last quarter century. Bob is a Florida native and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School. He began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired English professor, and they have two grown children and a wonderful granddaughter: son Aaron, his wife Natalie, and their daughter Catherine live in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah and her husband Prentice live in the Asheville area. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading and music of all kinds, and he finds relaxation on long walks in the woods (whether on hiking trails or near fairways, while chasing golf balls).