How many of you have ever had a reoccurring dream? If you have, take just a moment to recall it. What do you remember? How does that dream make you feel? I have two reoccurring dreams. One causes me anxiety to the extent that while I’m in the midst of the dream, I am aware that I’m dreaming and in my sleep I am trying to wake myself up. But I can’t. The other dream is very different. The colors I see in this dream are more vivid. The air that fills my lungs is clearer. The sensations on my skin are sharper. It calms me, it brings me peace and a deep bliss that I have never felt in my waking life. When I have that dream, I hope that I will never wake up.
The Psalm 23 Scripture passage is powerful and deep. To recite it is to feel it. It is a profound, personal experience. Usually, all someone has to do is start saying, “The lord is my shepherd” and people can fill in the next part, “I shall not want.” So I won’t bore you with stuff that you may have already heard before. Nor will I pull it apart so much that we can no longer recognize it.
Psalm 23 is very personal. It is David’s testimony about his personal experience with God. For Pastors, this Psalm is precious and healing, and what makes this a constant friend for us is that it covers all of life. Like the trajectory across the seasons of the year, it speaks of green pastures and still waters as well as dark valleys and enemies and adversity. The trajectory of David’s writing is illuminating. In the first three verses, David refers to God in the third person
The Lord is my Shepherd . . .
God makes me lie down . . .
God leads me . . .
God restores my soul . . .
Then, David shifts, referring to God in the more intimate second person:
I will fear no evil, for . . .
You are with me . . .
Your rod and . . .
Your staff, they comfort me . . .
You prepare a table before me . . .
You anoint my head with oil . . .
And then, David returns to the third person: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
David experienced God in a way that created more intimacy; his switch suggests that something deep has happened amidst their relationship. Like David, we are more prone to talk about God when we are in the green pastures and more prone to talk to God when we’re in a bind, in a crisis, or backed into a corner. In the light, we are prone to wander off in pursuit of greener grass. But in the dark, we cling to God’s hand because often, only God knows the way out. “God guides me in paths of righteousness for God’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”
David really believes this about God. For David, this isn’t poetic exaggeration or high-minded theology. He has experienced God in these ways, he heard God’s voice, and felt God’s care. What is happening in our world, in our country, and in our city feels like darkness—much more like deep winter—and we can rest assured that God knows the way out. But God needs our faithfulness. This is the psalm we turn to when we just need to hear that God is in control and David tells us that his confidence came from experiencing God in three ways: David stayed in God’s presence and he believed that God would be with him; David believed in God’s power; David let God lead.
When we experience God in our lives, we are transformed and we begin the process of becoming the people God created us to be. When we experience God’s love in our lives, we become infused with the understanding that God’s realm is more than something to learn. When we experience God’s love in our lives, we become God’s partners in creation. We are invited to be in a real relationship with God that goes beyond just care and comfort. A partnership between us and God means bringing healing and wholeness to all of God’s creation. Making God’s will manifest here on earth. In this relationship, God needs and trusts us just as we need and trust God. In any relationship, there are risks involved and this one— between us and God—is no different. We have a purpose—God’s purpose—and it’s too important for us not to buy into it as the living Body of Christ here on earth.
The entire body of Christ needs to know that they are claimed and named, that they are God’s Beloved, and in whom God is well pleased. Taking this relationship with God more seriously leads to the realization that it is not just about me and God anymore. God knows that once we’ve experienced the daily realities of God’s grace and love in our own lives, we will seek a deeper partnership with God. In solidarity with God and with each other. God’s livelihood is at stake when we share the Gospel message and God’s own reputation is at stake when God takes a risk and calls us into faithful relationship. God takes our relationship seriously. God takes our partnership seriously. Maybe we should as well. But how? What does a deeper relationship with God look like? The very first line of the Psalm gives us a clue: “The Lord is my friend and my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Another way to say that is, “I have more than enough.” More. What if we started this deeper relationship, this deeper partnership with God by doing more and giving more, to carry our God’s desire to heal the world? God’s realm is too important for us not to buy in. The welcome of God is too important. The evidence is all around us that the healing of God’s creation can’t wait. We are God’s partners in our faith and God’s very being is at stake.
Last Monday, an undocumented El Salvadoran man was arrested by ICE at 42nd and Portland on his way to work. ICE broke out his car window and dragged him out of his car. He has no legal remedies, he’s at the Sherburne County jail and will be deported any day now. He is tormented knowing that ICE now knows where his home is, where his undocumented wife lives with their two-year-old child. As he talked with me, he was sobbing. When I asked him how we can help him, through his tears he said that his wife and child need to move but their car needs repairs and they have no way to pay the rent on their home, pay for childcare, buy groceries and pay for car repairs. Car repairs, or even a newer used car in better condition, will not solve his deportation case. but it will make a wife child safer and it will bring some peace of mind to the man who is in jail and who feels guilt and shame that he is unable to help his own family.
Doing more and giving more to be in deeper relationship with God and to carry out God’s desire to heal the world. This won’t be easy, for sure, walking with God put us at odds with the rest of the world. The recurring dream that I don’t want to wake up from is a flying dream. It always takes place in my hometown of Rifle, Colorado. When I first started having the dream a few decades ago I couldn’t fly. But now when I have the dream all I have to do is jump and the autumn wind takes me wherever I want to go. That dream always takes place in the fall. I know this because autumn is my favorite season and every detail about the dream is peaceful and safe. Just like the Psalm. Here is an alternative version of Psalm 23 by Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian Minister, author, and poet:
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.
May it be so. Amen.