A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 23, 2011
Selection from John Muir
“He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.”
These are some of the most familiar and most comforting words in the world. It probably would astound us if we could know how many times these words have been read over the millennia and how often they have brought comfort in the hour of death. Psalm 23 is without a doubt the most popular passage read at funerals and memorial services.
However, we need not be in the midst of grief or a state of mourning to draw inspiration and comfort from these familiar words about green pastures and still waters. They are words that can speak to us every week—if we look at them from another angle.
At first glance, many of our day might question that last statement. What possibly can an ancient passage that talks about sheep and a shepherd have to say to us today? “I don’t know a shepherd,” some might say. And we may contend that we have no interest at all in sheep! Again, one need not be familiar with shepherds or sheep in order to appreciate the beauty and universality of these beloved words.
Green pastures. Lush, verdant, green pastures. Something that is not always easy to find in Israel where this passage came from. Much of the terrain in that part of the world is dry, arid, and barren. In fact, during my trip to Israel in 2000, I saw very little areas that would qualify as “green pastures.” So when a shepherd of the ancient world found a green, verdant pasture for his sheep, it was a real blessing. It was what every shepherd dreamed about. Being able to lie down in green pastures, for the shepherd, was as good as life gets.
The truth is, all of us need our green pastures. We need to get away to that ideal place of blessing. That place where we can “lie down,” in the metaphorical sense of the term, and relax and be rejuvenated. We are not made to go and go and go in a fast-paced world, hours and days on end, without being revitalized in the emotional and spiritual sense of the term. So green pastures becomes for us of the 21st century those special places where we can go to be revitalized. For many of us, it is a return to the natural world. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book on the 23rd Psalm, notes, “to work in an air-conditioned, all-electric office is to inhabit a world that is the product of human minds and hands. I appreciate the comfort, but I must remember that it takes me out of the world God created, and I lose something precious in the exchange. To lie down in green pastures is to live in God’s world. The noise of car horns and fire engines keeps us awake at night. The sound of crickets chirping and waves lapping the shore lulls us to sleep.”1 So to seek out green pastures is to consciously return to a simpler, more natural way of being.
As I have already stated, each of us needs our green pastures. Each of us needs that ideal place where we can be rejuvenated. What is yours? Green pastures may be somewhere far away, or it may be as close as your own back door. For some, green pastures may be a cabin on the lake. Or a visit to the seashore. Or a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains or some other National Park. For others, green pastures might be that back deck under the trees, or that backyard hammock. For some, green pastures might be nine holes of golf, or sitting on the river bank quietly fishing. Still for others, green pastures might be a weekly visit to this Chapel on the Hill. Wherever it is, green pastures become a place of restful bliss, a place of rejuvenation and revitalization of the soul. And we all need them.
Still waters. I read somewhere long ago that sheep need still waters, as opposed to swift, turbulent, fast-moving water, rapids. Still waters might indicate peacefulness and calm. Kushner notes, “When the psalmist praises God for leading him beside the still waters, he is not only thanking God for providing him with refreshing water to quench his thirst. He is thanking God for keeping the waters still, keeping them manageable and less threatening.”2 Still waters might be a metaphor for periods and places where we can find rest and relaxation, but also feel secure and free of threats. Again, for some that might mean being alone in nature. John Muir wrote a lot about America’s national parks as places “full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety.” For others it might mean a special, comfortable chair in a special room or corner of the house, enjoying a good book or a cup of tea. For others it might mean sitting on the back deck listening to the birds sing. Still for others, it might mean being in the company of a partner or spouse or special friend. And again for others, it might mean that weekly service of worship. The key is, it is a place or setting—a sort of sanctuary—where one can escape and relax and feel safe and secure. We all need our “still waters” just as much as we need our “green pastures.” What satisfies the bill for you?
Green pastures and still waters can take many forms for me. Walking on the beach in the early morning. Sitting in a rocking chair on a wrap-around porch at a log cabin in Townsend. Enjoying a nice, quiet dinner at the end of a long week. Sitting on our back deck and relaxing while listening to the birds or the insects. Reading a good book.
It is a cliché, but the truth is “sometimes the world can get to be too much with us.” The pressures of life can be great. In a manner of speaking, we all have our turbulent, swift-moving rapids to deal with on a weekly basis. There are times when we are thrown into life’s rapids, whether we want to be or not. So we need on a regular basis to navigate our way out of the rapids to safe, still waters where we can regain a sense of calm. We need the calm, still waters so we can have time to reflect on the rapids and where they might be taking us and whether or not we might need to actually change courses in life.
For many people, with the present difficult economy, the rapids are getting all the more common. That is, the pressures of life are growing even greater. Many are out of a job and can’t find one. And many who have a job are concerned and stressed about keeping the one they have, and some are working long hours in attempts to survive. Many are struggling with their mortgage payment. The number of foreclosures is not getting any better. Millions are struggling to put food on the table. The percentage of Americans living in poverty and the number of families visiting community food pantries continues to rise. And then there are the pressures that come with divorced parents and shared custody. Others are dealing with aging parents and all the issues related to that. There may be members of this United Church who fall into one or more of these categories. And if so, it is nothing at all to be embarrassed about. Those who do fall into one of these categories are in a good, growing company of Americans.
And so, with all of that having been said, how we need green pastures and still waters, ways to rest and relax and have our confidence restored. Places we can go and things we can do to seek out calm and reclaim a sense of security in our lives. We need opportunities to reflect and see ourselves as we are, reflected, as it were, in the surface of still waters.
So, do you have green pastures and still waters you can retreat to every now and then? We do ourselves a great disservice by not taking care of ourselves by taking time for ourselves for rest and relaxation and for regaining a sense of calmness and confidence in our lives. May each of us, then, make a point to seek out “green pastures” and “still waters”. Amen.
1Harold Kushner, The Lord Is My Shepherd. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p. 43.
2Ibid, pp. 53-54.