May 3, 2020
Whenever the 23rd Psalm comes around in the lectionary I think of Jack. Jack was the husband of the senior pastor I worked under during my first pastoral charge after seminary. He used to call me up and invite me to lunch. The first time he did it I just thought he was being hospitable and maybe acting on behalf of his wife (again, my boss). The next time, I kind of wondered if he wanted something. But, then it happened a bunch more times and I realized that Jack was simply offering his friendship. I was young, poor, and essentially friendless in a community of established wealthy people with children and busy careers. Whether Jack knew my loneliness or not, he called me up and made it clear that he was interested in getting to know me. He asked questions about my life and listened with interest. He shared a bit about his life too, as if it were perfectly reasonable to think that I would want to hear it. And I did. I especially liked hearing about his fishing trips as I remember. His natural kindness to me was definitely the touch of a certain kind of grace. He owed me nothing and if he had never reached out I wouldn’t have held it against him. Yet, he did. He cared. And, it made me feel good.
Jack was at the Monday Club in New York City, a gathering of clergy and spouses who met monthly for lunch and the wisdom of a fairly big-named speaker. I hardly went, but I understood that for many years the Monday Club was quite a thing, an important gathering to a lot of people. Jack was at the gathering when he had his heart attack. Friends described the scene to me, which was pretty scary. As they awaited the paramedics Jack slipped out of consciousness and everyone there surrounded him in prayer. Later, when he was able to reflect on the experience he said that he didn’t remember much of it at all, except that he recalled hearing the 23rd Psalm as the whole gathering recited its words together around him. He heard the words of Psalm 23 even in the darkness of his scare with death. And, that’s why Jack comes to mind when I hear the Psalm.
I think we’re all accustomed to hearing the Psalm as a word of great comfort. That’s why it is so commonly read at funerals as well. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” I can’t remember a funeral when I didn’t read those words. What a thing to know in the midst of our darkest times: “You are my shepherd. You will lead me to green pastures. By your goodness and mercy I will dwell in your house my whole life long.” What a promise and what a comfort we are given!
At the summer study I attended last year at Yale one of our sessions focused on the psalms. The professor reminded us that the psalms were originally sung. The psalms were songs. I’m not sure if they were set to music or if the instrument was the human voice itself, but certainly the psalms are musical. And, she showed us how the musical settings impact how we hear the message. The version she played of Psalm 23 really stood out for me and I thought I would share a bit of it with you this morning.
[Play Psalm 23 by Oscar James.]
Suddenly, this psalm of comfort, this psalm that had such clear and strong associations with times of sadness and loss and fear, became also a psalm of joy. Mr. James invites us to find a kind of liberating happiness in its message, an invitation from God to embrace the fullness and freedom of life lived by faith when sight isn’t always possible. After all, it’s not just a comfort in hard times; it is a joy in all times to know that our savior is “the good shepherd,” that he sets his table before us, and that our cups overflow with his love and his care.
A lot of churches observe the second Sunday after Easter as “Holy Humor Sunday.” It’s an opportunity to respond to Christ’s victory over death with some resurrection joy, to laugh a bit for the goodness of the Good News, and to embrace the happiness of being in the beautiful hands of God. A friend of mine who does this let me read his sermon, in which he shares some corny jokes and a few bulletin gaffes as he gets to his point. Coincidently, my father-in-law happened to send me some of these gaffes just last week! So, ready: “During our pastor’s vacation we enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon when Rev. Smith filled in.” Or, “Ladies, don’t forget about our rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping at the house. Bring your husbands.” Last one: “Our Associate Pastor kicked off our new stewardship campaign: I Upped My Pledge – Up Yours!”
On perhaps a more profound note, my friend moves on in his sermon to reference a Eugene O’Neill play in which the dead man Lazarus comes out of the tomb alive at Christ’s call – you know that story from John’s gospel, right? – and all Lazarus can do is laugh. He laughs an “irrepressible, unstoppable, infectious laugh.” He laughs because he know’s God wins. He laughs because love conquers. He laughs because God gets the last laugh.
Though the Gospel of John leaves it to our imaginations, I don’t think it’s wrong to imagine Jesus laughing right along. It’s not wrong at all to see the joy in God’s face or to think that it’s a joy to God’s heart to see one of God’s own come alive with the knowledge that they are endlessly and infinitely loved.
So, here’s a question for you. Can you trust that you are a joy to God – no matter what? Can you believe that God sees you, not just honestly, but even more, perfectly? And, seeing you, can you believe that God laughs with joy and delight?
Our gospel passage today ends with these words from Jesus. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Did you know that Jesus repeats that very same message at least 38 more times throughout the gospel? I think it is clear what brings God joy. I think it is clear that you do; we all do, which is a truth that in turn invites us out from whatever tombs we know to share in that joy.
 Adam Eckhart, April 19, 2020.