Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sermon: "The Three(ish) Stages of Life", Acts 2:42-47/Psalm 23 (May 3, 2020)


Psalm 23 may seem to be a pretty straightforward description of God’s care, but it’s not quite as simple a passage as we might think. If we look closely, we can see that there are actually three distinct movements that grow naturally out of one another and reflect the rhythm of human life in relationship with God.

In the first part (with the green pastures and still waters) God nurtures us and meets all of our needs in order to restore our souls and give us strength for what comes next. As God leads us down the paths God has planned for us, we inevitably encounter danger and difficulty. This is the second movement—“Though I walk through the darkest valley…”. Everything offered in first section is intended to prepare us for this moment, and God remains with us through it all. Finally, the third section shows us the results. It describes our “prize” for making it through the difficulties on our path. We get to share a feast with God, a blessing so great that not even the presence of our worst enemies can ruin it. Goodness and mercy are our constant companions, and the psalm all but ends with “…and they lived happily ever after”. Everything is tied up in a neat little bow in three easy steps.

The passage from Acts that I read before the hymn seems to be a real-life example of what we can expect when we get to “stage three”. Lots of communal meals, celebration, mutual respect, and sharing. Reminiscent of Eden and prescient of God’s Kingdom, the Church community as described here is idyllic and blissful. They were prepared through Christ’s ministry, challenged by the crucifixion, and finally rewarded in the end. They followed the Psalm’s recipe flawlessly for a perfect happily ever after.

But wait a minute…this story comes from Acts chapter 2. Out of 28. And believe it or not, the rest of Acts isn’t 26 more chapters of the same stuff. There’s a LOT more conflict and difficulty ahead—not just between Christians and non-Christians, but within the community itself! And if you think about it, our community today looks a lot less like the blissful one described in Acts 2 than we might be willing to admit. In other words, while this passage seems to describe the “happy ending” at the conclusion of Psalm 23, it obviously doesn’t represent the end of the story.

The truth is, while the movement within the psalm does speak to the reality of a life lived in relationship with God, it isn’t a linear model. It doesn’t correspond to the beginning, middle, and end of our lives. Instead, we experience this pattern over and over, again and again. We all know that life consists of more than just one major difficulty—the second stage is a place that we return to time and time again, with each new challenge requiring a different type of preparation in the first stage. And (in our earthly lives, anyway) the third stage isn’t actually an ending, but a place where we’re reminded of the promise of God’s kingdom—reassurance that this recurring pattern of preparation and hardship isn’t in vain.

We move freely among these stages throughout our lives, and each of us moves at our own pace. Although we can support one another on our journeys, the particular path we take is ours alone. Its pattern and rhythm are unique to each of us. The beauty of Psalm 23 is that it has the potential to speak to us differently depending on which stage we’re currently at and which challenge is foremost in our lives at the moment.

Several times this week, I came across a piece of writing described as “A Japanese translation of Psalm 23”.[1] I don’t know its exact origins, but it takes the general movement of the psalm and interprets it in the context of a specific challenge that the author was experiencing in the moment:

“The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush,/He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals./He provides me with images of stillness, which restore my serenity./He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind,/And His guidance is peace./Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,/I will not fret, for His presence is here./His timelessness, His all importance will keep me in balance./He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity./By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility;/My cup of joyous energy overflows./Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours./For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord and dwell in His house forever.”

This person was clearly struggling with the pressures of toxic productivity, suffering from “There’s-Not-Enough-Hours-In-The-Day-Itis”. But they recognized how God was providing for them at each point of that particular challenge: offering calmness and quietness in preparation for a busy day, presence and balance in the midst of the struggle, and promises of harmony and energy that make the efforts worth it.

This week, I don’t have any great, profound takeaway about how to change the way you live. Sometimes, we don’t need a reminder of what we should be doing. In this time of great turmoil and uncertainty, it can feel like we need to be doing something, anything, when what we really need is a reminder to pause and take stock of where we are. Only when we realize what it is that we need in this moment can we recognize the blessings being offered to us.

You may think you’re in the second stage, facing the challenges of anxiety or homeschooling or unemployment, and you’re fighting with everything you’ve got. You wonder why you’re so exhausted if God is truly with you. But what if you’re actually back at stage one? Maybe God is trying to tell you, “Breathe deeply, beloved. Take care of yourself. Let someone else carry the world on their shoulders for a while.” Or maybe you think you’re stuck at stage one, tired of sitting and doing nothing, feeling helpless, when God is really trying to reassure you at the third stage: “Look around, beloved. See humanity working together. See Christ’s love unfolding all around you, even in your own seemingly small actions. My kingdom is not as far away as it may seem. Take heart!” Or maybe God is trying to convince you that it’s actually time for action: “You’re ready, beloved. I’m with you. Let’s do this!”

Which stage are you at right now? No, REALLY, which stage are you at? Which “dark valley” is closest to you at this moment, and where are you in relation to it? What is it that you need from God, and what is it that God is offering you? If you don’t know, take some time to figure it out. Maybe rewrite Psalm 23 to fit your current context, Mad-Libs style, and see what you discover. “The Lord is my…” What? What figure provides you comfort or care right now? “God lets me rest…” Where? Where do you find peace? “Even though I walk through…” Which struggle is weighing on your heart the most in this moment? You don’t need to stick to the exact formula laid out in the psalm—the Japanese translation didn’t—but if you’re not used to creative writing, it might be a helpful place to start.

Consider this your formal invitation to pause. Where are you? What is your spirit crying out for? Once you figure that out, I suspect that you’ll find it easier to sense God’s presence: after all, God doesn’t meet us where we want to be or where we think we should be, but where we are. So look around you. Locate yourself within the familiar pattern of Psalm 23. And whichever stage you’re at in this moment, may you be able to feel God’s presence and embrace the journey. Amen.


Mad-Libs Psalm 23:

The Lord is my _[figure of comfort or care]__. I lack nothing.

God lets me rest in _[peaceful place]__; God leads me to __[restorative place]__; 

God restores my soul.

God guides me _[place God is calling you to]_ for his name’s sake. 

Even though I walk through _[situation that you fear]__, 

I fear no danger because you are with me; 

your _[item that reminds you of God’s omnipotence]____ & 

_[item that reminds you of God’s goodness]__—they protect me.

You prepare __[gift from God]_____ before me in the presence of my enemies; 

you __[gesture of love or favor]__; my cup overflows. 

Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life, 

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.



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