July 22, 2018 – The Rev. Larry Harris

PRAYER

 

            God is Good.

 

            With this title,

 

            a man from West Africa named George Browne,

 

            one of my seminary classmates for a time,

 

            began a sermon on the 23rd Psalm.

 

            Liberia, the country where George Browne had become the Bishop,

 

            was in the midst of a horrible civil war.

 

            You will recall, said the Bishop,

 

            that on the first Sunday in May,

 

            I asked all of our people to pray,

 

             not to say, but to pray,

 

            the 23rd Psalm.

 

            Carefully.

 

            Meditatively.

 

            And prayerfully.

 

            At least three times a day.

 

            In the morning.

 

            During midday.

 

            And before going to bed.

 

            I asked that you do this for seven days.

 

            Almost all of us did.

 

            And I have received reports of good results in strengthening your faith.

 

            Browne’s sermon included a story about the 23rd Psalm

 

            That’s been around for awhile.

 

            Some of you may know it.

 

            An old man and a young man

 

            were on the same platform

 

            to speak before a large audience.

 

            As a part of the programme,

 

            each was to repeat from memory the 23rd Psalm.

 

            The young man, well-trained in speech and drama,

 

            repeated the words 

 

            in the language of a dramatic silver-tongued orator:

 

            "The Lord is my Shepherd…"

 

            When he had finished,

 

            the audience clapped and cheered.

 

            Many rose to their feet with applause.

 

            Then the older gentleman,

 

            leaning heavily on a walking stick,

 

            stepped to the front of the same platform.

 

            In a feeble, shaking voice, he repeated the same words –

 

            "The Lord is my Shepherd…"

 

            When he was seated, there was silence.

 

            No sound.

 

            No applause. 

 

            The silence suggested a mood of reflection, and deep respect. 

 

            After a minute or so the younger man who had spoken earlier

 

            rose to speak again.

 

            "Friends," he said,

 

            “when I spoke, you filled the air with applause.

 

            Now, following my friend’s words,

 

            you have been silent.

 

            I – think – I – know – why. 

 

            You cheered, because I know the Psalm.

 

            What this man knows is the Shepherd.

 

            And the Shepherd-God he knows is Good.”

 

           

            The abiding presence and goodness of God

 

            are expressed poetically

 

            in the 23rd Psalm.

 

            The metaphor of the shepherd,

 

            in today’s gospel as well as the 23rd Psalm,

 

            together with the Psalm’s other images:

 

            a lush and fertile pasture,

 

            water flowing steadily and quietly,

 

            a well-trodden walkway,

 

            the steadying assurance of a cane – or walking stick,

 

            a festive dinner-table, and a place reserved to honor YOU,

 

            the gentle soothing of cleansing oil,

 

            a thirst-quenching cup,

 

            the sense of divine presence and holiness in a house of worship:

 

            each of these an image of support and affirmation;

 

            and together, conveying warmth, safe-keeping, and abiding care. 

 

            God is good – good indeed!

           

           

            Another a passage of scripture,

 

            this one from the heart of the New Testament,

 

            uses the language of prose

 

            to declare the same theme:

 

             the eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

 

            A single verse from that chapter, verse 31:

 

            If God be for us, who can be against us?

 

            A wonderful member of the clergy

 

            writes about how he was embarrassed

 

            about the conditions of the grounds

 

            around his church.

 

            The appearance, he wrote, suggested the appearance of a neglected ball park.

 

            I found I was up against obstacle after obstacle,

 

            not insuperable obstacles to be sure,

 

            but obstacles nevertheless.

 

            The first was the apathy of the people.

 

            The barren ground, neglected, deserted,

 

            had become so familiar

 

            that it was hard to arouse any interest in it.

 

            There was not a great deal of money available

 

            for anything that was not a necessity.

 

            And grass was definitely viewed as a luxury.

 

            Then too, the choir boys had developed a habit over the years

 

            of entertaining themselves before rehearsals

 

            by playing baseball on that area.

 

            And there was a question whether they could be persuaded

 

            to change their habits

 

            so that we could grow a lawn even if we planted one.

 

            And on top of all this, when we got closer to the time of planting,

 

            we realized the area suffered not from a lack of moisture, but from too much;

 

            and the area would have to be properly drained. 

 

            Finally, when the seed had been sown by experts

 

            who did everything they could to ensure success

 

            pigeons flocked to the area

 

            and feasted noisily on quantities of the seed.    

 

            So it was, he wrote, that I thought deeply about Paul’s words,

 

            If God be for us, who can be against us?  (Ferris, This is the Day, p. 112-ff.)

 

            One point which came out of this thought was along these lines:

           

            Is it not true

 

            that in the adversities that come to us

           

            we sometimes find our greatest advancements?

 

            Where would the courage of Jesus be

 

            if the Pharisees in all their legalistic fury

 

            had not consistently challenged him and confronted him?

 

            And how long would Paul be remembered

 

            were it not for the forces in the early church

 

            that so vigorously opposed him?

 

            Or closer to our own time, How far would the Wright brothers have gone

 

            if the wind had not been against them?

 

            Can we not say, then, in genuine honesty,

 

            that it is by learning to persist and to overcome that we rise to our best?

 

            And from here we can go on to say

 

            that the human spirit can indeed rise above

 

            even the  most overwhelming  circumstances

 

            that sometimes seem almost beyond belief.

 

            This can happen because the very spirit of God resting deeply within

 

            translates into an indomitable spirit:

 

            If God is for us, who can be against us?

 

            And we know and see examples

 

            of people who become “More than conquerors” through Him who loves us.

 

 

            So whenever and wherever we may be down,

 

            and whatever may stand against us,

 

            we can say take a few quiet moments to say to ourselves,

 

            God has made us.

 

 

            God is for us.

 

            God knows exactly who we are:  the best and he worst.

 

            Whoever we are, God loves us.

 

            And God will give us the power and the spirit

 

            to go through and beyond

 

            just about anything that life puts before us.

 

            This is the assuring reality

            conveyed through the images of the 23rd Psalm

 

            when our devotion and faith lead US

 

            to trust the Shepherd

 

            because we, too, know

 

            that God is Good. 

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