On The Other Side

by | Jul 18, 2021

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On The Other Side
Hadley Kifner
July 18, 2021
Psalm 23

 

Preface to Scripture
Before we read and hear God’s Word together, I would like to offer a brief introduction to the text and translation. Today’s sermon explores a treasured passage from Scripture – one that God’s people throughout the ages turn to again and again for a measure of grace and comfort. Many of you will likely know the King James version by memory and heart. In the hope that we might hear these familiar verses anew, I will read a modern version, translated by John Cotter.
Prayer for Illumination
Please join me in our prayer for illumination. God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and live into your love, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Scripture Reading: Psalm 23
Dear God, you sustain me and feed me:
like a shepherd you guide me.
You lead me to an oasis of green,
to lie down by restful waters.

Quenching my thirst, you restore my life:
renewed and refreshed, I follow you,
a journey on the narrowest of paths.
You keep me true to your name.

Even when cliffs loom out of the mist,
my step is steady because of my trust.
Even when I go through the deepest valley,
in the shadow of darkness and death,
I will fear no evil or harm.

For you are with me to give me strength,
your crook, your staff, at my side.
Even in the midst of my troubles,
with the murmurs of those who disturb me,
I know I can feast in your presence.
You spread a banquet before me,
You anoint my head with oil,
you stoop to wash my feet,
you fill my cup to the brim.

Your loving kindness and mercy,
will meet me every day of my life.

By your Spirit you dwell within me,
and in the whole world around me,
and I shall abide in your house,
content in your presence forever.

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Sermon
Here we are, a handful of us, in the sanctuary together, in real time, for the first time in a long time. Our official regathering is not for three more weeks, on August 1st, but today’s livestream worship service is, in many ways, the beginning of a new chapter. The past 18 months have been chapters defined by the coronavirus pandemic, political tension, racial reckoning, international violence, and so much more. We, like today’s psalmist and God’s people throughout the ages, recognize our exhaustion and unsteadiness. We need restoration and reconnection. And we are expectant about how God’s grace and mercy shall show up in the chapters ahead – not just in our lives as beloved children of God but as couples, families, communities, and institutions.
As Meg and Jarrett have referred to it throughout these several months and as some of you have discussed in your small groups, we are in a liminal space. “A liminal space is a place of transition, one where we often feel unsettled or anxious. Life is not as it was before, but we don’t yet know how it is going to be.” (Barr, 2020) Examples of liminal spaces include the time between the death and the funeral, the pandemic and vaccination, the paperwork and the divorce, pregnancy and delivery, diagnosis and recovery, virtual worship and singing together in the sanctuary… Liminal space can sometimes feel like living in between the valley of the shadow of death and abundant life in the house of the Lord.
The thing with liminal space is that, most of the time, we want to get out of it, past it, through it as quickly as possible. We want to move on to the other side. We convince ourselves that the other side, whatever it is and whenever we arrive there, must be easier, better, surer. But the other side of things can be just as complicated. And if we pause our lives and postpone our love until the pandemic passes, or when we secure the dream job or marry our sweetheart or finish the degree or depart the plane or finish the cancer treatment or lose the pounds, then we take the risk of arriving to the other side indeed but once there still disoriented, disillusioned, disconnected, and disappointed.
Let’s consider this: what if we understood liminal spaces as more than just transitions from one season of life to another? What would happen if we entered trying times in life with holy curiosity and wondered as we wandered? What if, like sheep following a shepherd, we allowed ourselves to be led to unknown places, trusting that we would be provided for and fed along the way? Said simply, what if we anticipated liminal space as a sacred time?
This may be getting a little too abstract, or moving us into our heads a bit much. So let’s bring it back down here (touch heart), to the 23rd psalm, and try to connect it all with our own experiences of late.

Barr, A. (2020). Liminal Space. Onening: An Alternative Orthodoxy from the Center for Action and Contemplation (Volume 8, Number 1), 37.
Cotter, J. (1989). Psalms for A Pilgrim People. Harriburg: Morehouse Publishing.
email, V. U. (2020, July 11-17). The Hardest Thing. (H. Kifner, Interviewer)
Miller, P. D. (1986). Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Peterson, E. (1989). Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. New York: Harper & Row.

The Psalms tell the stories of what it is like for God’s people in relationship with God to BE God’s people in relationship with God. Eugene Peterson, a modern Presbyterian theologian and biblical interpreter, understands the Psalms to be “raw data of the human condition”. (Peterson, 1989) In preparing this sermon, I reached out to many of you, asking what has been hardest for you over the past 18 months. Your responses were candid and heartbreaking, courageous and thoughtful. Here is a sampling of that raw data (email, 2020) , our own psalm:
– “we missed being together as a community, doing simple things like Sunday School, choir practice, and church worship”
– “being in the medical field and expected to continue on, sometimes even tread harder than before” to meet all of the needs was exhausting
– “we didn’t see our adult children for more than a year, missing holidays and birthday celebrations”
– “our business closed. We stayed home. Our kids did not go to school.”
– “we were depressed, alone, restless – we didn’t feel like we could share our needs with anyone because we figured they were already overwhelmed with their own stuff”
– “there was a sudden pause on life. Everything just came to a screeching halt and there wasn’t a real end in sight”
– “I was scared that I would get sick or someone I love would get sick or that I would give the virus to someone else”
– “seeing my loved ones struggle with depression, not being to visit or cheer them up” was the hardest
– It was confusing to know whom to trust, who had the wisdom we needed to be safe
– “It wasn’t just the pandemic that was hard. Witnessing the glaring disparities in our nation was devastating”
– “I was disappointment in how the pandemic became politicized, and further divided people instead of bringing us together.
– “More than fear, I felt guilt – about being privileged and having greater access to resources than others, getting vaccinated before others, knowing that there were so many people around the world suffering so greatly, even when we were mostly enjoying more down time together in our safe comfy home with secure jobs
– “The daily conversation regarding boundaries, precautions, and restrictions wore me down

This list is heavy; it is deep and real. It is our psalm, our story of walking through the valley of the shadow of death over the past year and a half. (pause)

Many of you shared that even though you felt exhausted, disoriented, and anxious, the challenges of the pandemic helped you grow into better spouses, parents, colleagues – even Christians. The resources and activities that previously kept you feeling fulfilled and engaged, adding purpose and depth to your life, were no longer possible: with offices, gyms, schools, churches, libraries, cafes, and parks closed, it was necessary to seek more internal, spiritual resources to be sustained. No longer could external distractions, immediately gratifying experiences, or packed calendars alter your mood. And with even the church unable to gather, spiritual sustenance required creativity, resourcefulness, and independence more than ever before.

In the naming of what was hardest, you also named where you found nourishment. You talked about the community you did find in neighbors you hadn’t known before, in colleagues you’d never met in person. You pointed out the blessings of meaningful, purpose-driven work; unstructured time at home and connecting with your children; nature walks and home cooked meals; vaccinations; zoom reunions with family; seeing kindness in strangers despite all of the terrible things on the news; board games, fire pits, time to volunteer in the community. You recalled the rich provision of God – proof that indeed even when afraid and anxious, goodness and mercy abound. You recalled the ways your cup overflowed and your head was anointed with oil.

Your words, like those of the 23rd Psalm, tell the story of what it is like to be in relationship with a God who promises not to protect us from everything but to abide with us in everything – in the blessed moments when we are aware of God’s presence and provision and hopeful about the future, in the devastating moments when we feel lost and abandoned and struggling to trust that all shall be well, and in all the moments in between – the liminal spaces. This psalm then and now, is – all at once – a confession of faith, a memory of lament, a poem, a prayer, a hope in the other side.

So, as we find ourselves here and now, focusing on regathering and entering the new chapter that is ahead on the other side, what shall we do? (pause)

Our beloved psalm offers some guidance here, too. The closing phrases point us in the direction in which we should go: toward lovingkindness and mercy. We are to be led into paths of righteousness, following Christ in the way he walked toward justice and peace. (Miller, 1986) If I have already been too bold to preach on Psalm 23, might I also be bold enough to suggest that while we are yet sheep, it is a good time for us to be shepherds to each other…and the world. Because, as we have learned while the sanctuary has been closed, WE are the church. The building is where we gather but it is not the body of Christ. God created us to live and love fully not so our personal, individual lives could overflow with green pastures and still waters on Sunday mornings but more – so we could be active participants in the restoration and wholeness of all of creation all the days of our lives.

Finally, when we regather as a congregation on August 1, we will see this sanctuary differently. We will see each other differently. Perhaps and thanks be to God, we will even recognize God differently. We are not the same sheep we were on the other side of the valley. With grateful hearts we claim that we have been guided by a good shepherd. May it continue to be so. Amen.

Charge and Benediction
You have all you need.
Led by the good shepherd,
trust in the direction of your life.
Allow goodness and mercy to journey with you.
Look out for the lost and lonely,
Lead them with love and patience,
and live in the house of God all the days of your life.

Now, go out into the world with the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the peace of Christ, this day and forever. Amen.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Barr, A. (2020). Liminal Space. Onening: An Alternative Orthodoxy from the Center for Action and Contemplation (Volume 8, Number 1), 37.
Cotter, J. (1989). Psalms for A Pilgrim People. Harriburg: Morehouse Publishing.
email, V. U. (2020, July 11-17). The Hardest Thing. (H. Kifner, Interviewer)
Miller, P. D. (1986). Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Peterson, E. (1989). Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. New York: Harper & Row.

 

Other books and texts used generally in the preparation of this sermon:
John Mogabgab, Weavings, The Upper Room, The Things that Make for Peace, Volume XIII, number 6, nov/dec 1998, P3

David Rensberger, God is Love, Weavings, Volume XIII, number 1, Jan/Feb 1998, p20

Jones, Love at The Center, Weavings, Volume XIII, number 1, Jan/Feb 1998, p33

Daily Feast, Meditations from Feasting on the Word, Year B, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, Editors: Bostrom and Caldwell, 2011.

University Presbyterian Church: A brief History by William W. McLendon, Sept 1999,

Karoline Lewis, The Other Side, June 14, 2015, Dear Working Preacher, Mark 4: 35-41, Pentecost 4, Year B

Debie Thomas, Crossing to the Other Side, June 17, 2018, Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church. Journeywithjesus.net

Northminster Presbyterian Church, “The Good Shepherd”, Fourth Sunday of Easter

Joseph S. Harvard, “Who Needs A Shepherd?”, April 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church, Durham NC

Weavings, Volume V!, number 5, Sept/Oct 1991, The Psalms

Brueggemann, Walter, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2007.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis, MN. Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.