Preached by Rev. Elizabeth Michael
University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
April 22, 2018
The Reverend Doctor Sam Wells begins his book, The Nazareth Manifesto, with three scenarios, each of them quickly familiar to most people of a certain class who have attempted to celebrate Christmas in our modern world.
First, he invites you to imagine shopping for a gift for the member of your family with whom you have the most difficult relationship—let’s say it’s your father. While your hands fill quickly with gifts for others in your life, the gaping hole in that single stocking feels for you a metaphor for the emotional landscape of your family life. Your inability to find just the right thing to fill the void only reminds you of other occasions when you could not summon the right words or do the right thing or make any real progress in crossing the chasm between you. So in the end you throw a lot of money at the problem, which does not solve it, for your dad’s overly polite reception of the expensive gift only underscores how much is lacking between the two of you.
In the second scenario, you are preparing your heart and your home to host the Christmas crowd. You have masterfully juggled cars in the driveway and bodies in the spare beds; you have made provision for the baby in the high-chair, the dog in the laundry room, and the guest whose strong allergies and weak immune system mean he must stay far away from both of them. You have tended to needs great and small and managed not to burn the gravy. There have been checklists and schedules galore, but everything eventually finds its place—except for you, who somehow find yourself absent from the crowd singing carols in the living room and the others laughing over mulled wine in the kitchen. And so as finally they leave your house by the carload, all you can do is collapse in a teary heap and wonder how it is that you didn’t get to really talk to any of them while they were there.
And in the third scenario, you feel your conscience pricked by your warm and cozy household when so many homes are neither at this happiest time of the year. So you “gather together presents for children of prisoners or turn all your Christmas gifts into vouchers representing your support of a house or cow or two buffaloes” for people who need Christmas more than you do. And while this effort provides you with a sense of purpose and pleasure, there is yet a gnawing feeling in your gut that it is insufficient, or at least that it has gone little ways toward repairing the breach that you know separates you from your kindred all year long and just feels particularly acute in the season of abundance and togetherness.
What do all these scenes have in common?, Dr. Wells asks. They are all based on one small word: “for.” When we care for those for whom Christmas is a tough time, we want to do something for them to make it easier. When we want to show hospitality, we find extra blankets and favorite foods for guests. When we seek to tend to a faltering relationship, we look for something to do for the other that will melt the tension and set everything aright.
There is, of course, much good in “for.” These are generous, and well-intentioned, and often much-appreciated gestures. But “for” can go only so far in crossing the lines that divide us. When “for” is the approach, the poor stay strangers and the father stays distant and the guests never manage to get close enough to chat.
“‘For’ is a fine word,” Sam Wells concludes, “but it doesn’t dismantle resentment, overcome misunderstanding, deal with alienation, overcome isolation.” The most important word, he concludes, in our life with one another and in our life with God, is “with.”
Consider what the scriptures tell us about God’s nature and work:
- “The young maiden shall conceive a son, and he shall be named Emmanuel, which means, ‘God with us.’”
- “In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God, and the word was God.”
- “Behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
- And, in Psalm 23, “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
In this most beloved of scriptures, we find the most important word.
The psalmist does not get there immediately, of course. Listen how the psalm begins with a polite distance between first and third-person voices: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Almost creed-like, it moves through a litany of God’s gracious acts, one by one enumerating the instances of care this shepherd shows his sheep. And then, abruptly in verse four, the psalmist turns to face the Lord and pivots to the intimacy of direct address. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“You are with me.” That affirmation is the dead-center of the psalm. In the Hebrew, 26 words come before that phrase, and 26 words after it, each of them held in place by the gravitational pull of this clear conviction. Green pastures and overflowing cups, still waters and anointing oil become a constellation of provision stabilized by the central with-ness of the Shepherd. Dark valleys and enemies do not disappear, but their place is fixed; they cannot intrude on the sacrosanct.
In the North American context, this psalm is most commonly read at gravesides and memorial services. There where death’s shadow looms large, we announce again our trust in the gentle provision of the One who holds evil at bay, who guides us through the darkness, and who leads us safely home.
In other parts of the world, this psalm is read as a political tract. Philip Jenkins, student of global Christianity, notes that for people suffering under tyranny and oppression, the simple statement “The Lord is my Shepherd” is a bold one, for it defies the power of any other authority to demand ultimate allegiance. In these contexts, the enemies gathered are political as well as spiritual, and so this psalm is read most commonly in services of healing, exorcism, and deliverance.
I wonder how Psalm 23 reads in your life—where you most need these words of God’s with-ness to resound. Perhaps it is for you less a dark valley and more a cloud of fog as you make your way through all that is dense and obtuse, seeking a clear path forward. Maybe you envy those who loll by the still waters while the waves of anxiety won’t stop churning in your own life. Maybe you have heard the voice of the one who calls out, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” but you find it laughable to imagine being freed of the weight upon your back or upon your heart as you keep trudging forward. Maybe you think the singular first person pronouns in the psalm are all well and good, but you’d really like to direct the Shepherd’s attention to the masses—to the students pouring out of schools for the sake of their lives and the war across the Atlantic that seems like it will never end and the pain of our fragile planet that will take more attention than one day a year to ease.
The Christian faith offers little by way of a timeline or a strategic plan according to which suffering will be assuaged or healing accomplished. But the core to our faith is the concept of covenant. “Christians simply believe that the greatest power in the universe is God’s desire to be in relationship with us. And that desire and that relationship are stronger than [any] other forces in our lives.”
Last Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine included a feature-length story entitled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-
or-Death Crisis.” The article surveyed decades’ worth of data on race, class, and both infant and maternal mortality; it chronicled persistent disparities along racial lines and concluded that, “For black women, something about growing up in America seems to be bad for your baby’s birth weight.”
One researcher proposed that a phenomenon called “weathering” could be responsible—African-American women, repeatedly exposed to racial discrimination, found that the toxic stress took up residence in their bodies, causing a premature deterioration of the systems needed to nurture and sustain life. Indeed one study found higher levels of preterm birth among women who reported the greatest experiences of racism.
The article follows Simone Landrum, mother of two, who lost the baby girl she’d already named Harmony when, seven months into her pregnancy, elevated blood pressure caused an abruption. When Simone becomes pregnant again, she is riddled with fear. Through a case manager, she meets Latona Giwa, a doula and co-founder of the Birthmark Doula Collective. Latona was inspired to found the collective after serving as a nurse in a New Orleans parish that had been ravaged by Katrina. Now twelve racially diverse doulas on staff companion women from the upscale Garden District to the Lower Ninth Ward as they prepare to give birth.
So Simone goes to the doctor to ensure that blood pressure, weight, and the baby’s size and position are all on target. Then she comes home and meets with Latona to talk about how she feels. Together the mother-to-be and her doula talk about the nightmares that still wake Simone up in a cold sweat. And then they scrawl crayons across blank paper, illustrating the convictions that give Simone courage. They draw the arms of God embracing the Landrum family and purple butterflies, which remind Simone of Harmony.
The time to give birth comes earlier than expected, but Latona is there immediately, with snacks and lavender lotion and the crayon drawings. And while the large medical staff forms a revolving door of strange faces poring over Simone’s chart and her vital signs, while complications arise from an epidural improperly administered, Latona sits by Simone’s side, coaching her through the pain, massaging her hands with lotion, pointing her eyes toward the purple butterflies. When at last the slippery baby makes his way into the world with a cry, Simone immediately takes him into her arms and christens him Kingston Blessed.
And there the shadow of death recedes for a time. There the specters of racial inequity and infant mortality take a step back for a moment, clearing out space for mother and child and the one who was simply with them both. The power of with is nothing less than the power of life.
I am in awe at the commitment of that doula. I confess to feeling out of practice at with-ness. It is easier to write a check than to offer my cell phone number to someone knee-deep in the daily challenges of poverty. It is easier to keep one eye on a screen or the gravy than it is to step away and be fully present with another. It is easier to become mired in the morass of societal trauma than to find someone to befriend in it.
I want to get there, I do. I think I will begin first, however, not by looking to Latona, but by looking at Kingston Blessed. His tiny wriggling body, his head full of curls, his brow anointed with the sweat of his mother’s labor, the banquet table filled with her own milk. He lays his newborn head on her chest. He is fully with her; he is home.
 Samuel Wells, The Nazareth Manifesto, Wiley: 2015. The vignettes paraphrased here are related in the Prologue, but much of this sermon draws from the wider book.
 Cited by Clint McCann, “Preaching the Psalms: Psalm 23,” in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2008.
 Wells, 264.
 The New York Times Magazine, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” by Linda Villarosa, 4.11.18.