Holy Covenant UMC, April 25, 2010
Rev. Kate Hurst Floyd
Have you heard this scripture before?
I thought so.
It’s one of, if not the, most familiar passage in the entirety of the Bible.
Those of you who grew up in churches probably had to memorize it at some point. It’s most often read at funerals or said around those who are hurting or dying. We’re probably most familiar with the King James Version, with its poetic turn of phrase…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
But this Psalm doesn’t just have resonance within church walls: It’s ubiquitous in our culture. We use phrases from it in our colloquial expressions: “My cup runneth over” and “Goodness and mercy shall follow me”; even “days of our lives”—where do you think that comes from?
Even if you haven’t spent much or any of your life in church, this is probably one of the few passages from the Bible you know. Those of you who are my age probably remember the Coolio riff on the Psalm….made popular in the film Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer…It’s everywhere.
We know this Psalm like we know the back of our hands….and yet it might seem odd to read such a familiar passage on our Eco-friendly Sunday (after all, we’re not at a funeral or in a mediocre 90’s movie). We recite this Psalm in a variety of contexts…but we wonder, what does this Psalm have to do with creation care, sustainability, and environmental justice?
In a word: Everything. This psalm has everything to do with creation care. So let’s spend some time really exploring this Psalm, stripping away our familiar associations and looking at it with fresh eyes.
First, we can’t deny that this Psalm is full of imagery fresh from the earth. God is speaking to us here through metaphors of sheep and shepherds, still waters and lush, green pastures. Dark valleys and banquet tables overflowing with the bounty of the earth.
It’s easy to think that creation care is relegated to one or two texts in the Bible: The verses in Genesis when God creates the earth and then gives human beings dominion to care for all of creation. And this is a wonderful passage that calls on us to recognize the source of creation, praise God and care for what God has given us.
But we’re mistaken when we think that caring for the earth is limited to one chapter of the Bible, or that we should only be concerned with it for one Sunday a year. Because God speaks to us over and over again about the rich bounty of the earth…we’ve just got to pay attention and make the connection.
When we look carefully, we’ll find imagery of nature throughout the scriptures; and when we do this work we’ll realize that our connection to God is inextricable from our connection to the earth:
In the Hebrew Bible God speaks to us with images of mountains and hills and valleys in the Psalms; Ezekial hears God’s voice on a mountain, alone praying. The Israelites are able to escape captivity when God parts the red sea; then they are fed by bread while waiting to enter a land flowing with milk and honey; Ruth, the ancestor of King David, meets her husband while gleaning grain from the field. God’s story unfolds with women at wells. God’s people are commanded over and over again to not be greedy with the land, but to let widows and orphans collect from the harvest. We are to proclaim a year of jubilee in our fields so that all those who are hungry can come and eat from the land.
And Jesus, Jesus uses imagery from the earth over and over again to teach: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; or a wheat farmer; We should be like the lilies of the valley, who don’t worry, but trust in God; Through Jesus, the offerings of the earth–bread and fish—become abundant, expressing God’s love through sharing food, generously.
It’s clear throughout Scripture: Our relationship to the earth is inextricable from our relationship with God, and vice versa.
So let’s look back at our Psalm and all the ways the earth helps guide our relationship with God:
In the beginning, in this beautiful vision of trust and comfort, God tells us that the way to find rest and peace is to lie down in green pastures and sit beside still waters. In fact, God makes us lie down in that soft, sweet grass and leads us to those glorious waters. In this vision, God is like a shepherd and we are like sheep. And sheep, my friends, I’m sorry to say, are dumb. Really dumb. Sweet and cute and cuddly, but dumb. They need the shepherds because on their own, they wouldn’t lie down and rest. On their own, they wouldn’t stop and drink water.
I’m not saying we’re as dumb as sheep (although this might be what the Psalmist is saying…), but we are, as this imagery reminds us, totally dependent on God…just as the sheep are totally dependent on the shepherd for their livelihood and well-being.
Too often we forget this, though….God calls on us to rest and to stop, and we think we can just keep on plowing through…going to work and school and out with friends and watching tv and movies and running ourselves ragged….we think that we don’t need to stop and to rest in God. We think that we’re too smart, too wise, to need to nourish ourselves from God’s waters….we can fill up, self-sufficiently, on bottled water and never need to stop by a pond or a lake to consider where that water is coming from, where that bottle is going. We think we never need to stop and to pray and to rest.
But this text reminds us that like sheep, when we think that we live our lives of our own accord, independently without God, we will find ourselves thirsty for peace and weary from exhaustion.
And while this psalm uses metaphors of grass and water…we can all think of the things we need from God that are our grass and water: sleep, prayer, forgiveness, connection, justice, and more….I think we’d be mistaken to move too far away from the literal here.
Because part of what we do need to stop and slow down and remember our reliance on God, remember that we don’t create our own lives or the world around us, no matter how much we like to tell ourselves we’re ultimately in control….is to let ourselves be in God’s creation.
How often do we stop and remember God’s greatness and goodness by letting ourselves pay attention to grass and water? This is an important way to grow closer to God. Because when our toes are in the grass, we can’t help but give thanks for the earth and be mindful of how are actions affect the planet.
Because when the planet is in trouble, so are we. Because how do we find rest and peace and trust in God if that water is polluted and the grass becomes covered with asphalt?
Surely this Psalm is a wake-up call to care for our planet, not simply for the planet’s sake, but because without the planet we won’t adequately find God.
Let’s keep moving through the imagery:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for your rod and your staff comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The Valley of the shadow of death…often, we take this phrase literally, meaning that even the fear of death doesn’t overcome us, because surely God is with us. If you’ve ever read this at the bedside of someone who is dying or heard it at a funeral of a loved one, you know its power.
But I think it also assures us that when we are in the seemingly dark places, whatever those are, we are not alone. And when we think about caring for creation, this is really good news. Because when we work to care for the earth, we’re not alone. It’s easy to feel hopeless when we hear the grim statistics about carbon emissions, global warming, access to clean water. But the good news is: God is with us, even in this most difficult time for our planet. And where God is, so, too, is hope. We’ve got to work to save this planet….but as with any kind of salvation, we never do it of our own accord. We do it by trusting in God, knowing that God is the source of all that is and was and will be. This is when it can feel easy to give up: thinking we are the only ones working or the problems are too big or we’re not strong or powerful enough to make a difference. Well God is, even in the darkest valleys, so we aren’t alone: when we change out light bulbs; stop buying plastic water bottles; eat locally; drive less; advocate for public policy..
We can be assured that God is right there beside us, leading us, guiding us, comforting us with the rod and the staff…we don’t go about this work alone, but with the power of the One who is goodness and mercy. So we shouldn’t be afraid or paralyzed or hopeless…for God is walking with us in this work. And when God and God’s people work together, seas part and death is overcome with life.
The next image we find in the Psalm is of a banquet table…a bounteous feast, a cup that runs over; a table where we are dining not just with our friends but our enemies too, all reconciled and breaking bread together.
What does this image have to do with the earth? Everything! For the food at our table comes from the earth…now, today, a lot of our food is processed and doesn’t come out of our land, but that’s not real food, and it’s not the way God intends for us to be fed.
So much of our imagery of God and of Jesus comes with people gathered around a table. It’s why Jesus leaves us with a meal as our sacrament: feasting as the body of Christ brings us into communion with all of God’s children and with Jesus Christ. Food brings all of God’s children together: the prostitute and policeman; gentile and Jew; Samaritan and Nazarene; rabbis and tax collectors; gay and straight; senators and the uninsured; organic farmers and large-scale farmers.
And in this Psalm we know the table is the place where we will be reconciled with our enemies, sit down with one another, and feast on God’s grace.
It’s the place where the lion and lamb will come together and we’ll find peace on earth. Peace at the table. Because we find Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
So we have to ask ourselves, when we are destroying the world’s food supply, limiting access to clean water, denying sustainable agricultural methods both locally and globally….when we are making it difficult to break bread together in a healthy and sustainable way, how will we find communion with God? How will we be reconciled with one another? Taking care of the planet is inextricable from our relationship with God.
The final image, the final phrase in this Psalm brings it all together for us: I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. We will dwell in God’s house, all the days of our life. What is God’s house? Is it heaven? Probably not if it’s somewhere we live in our lifetimes. Is it the inside of a temple or church? A brownstone in the sky with really great lake views?
If this Psalm tells us anything, it tells us that we are living in God’s house wherever we are, wherever we go…for all the earth is God’s. When we walk by the still waters and roll around in the grass, we are living in God’s house. When we are in the deep valleys of life, but literally and figuratively, we are abiding in God’s house. And when we feast with one another, enjoying the abundance of bread and fruit and communion with each other….we are with God.
This whole planet is God’s house, and it’s the place not only where we live, but where God lives. So we’ve got to do some housecleaning if we want to honor our relationship with God. When we go all the way to the beginning of the Psalm we hear the line: I shall not want. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I shall not want. Which intimately connects us to this, the last line about dwelling in God’s house…because so much of why we abuse the earth is tied to our reliance on stuff instead of our reliance on God. We want so much that is not God because we don’t spend enough time seeking God.
And this is why caring for the earth is tied to our mission statement, and shouldn’t be something we only do in April, around earth day. Caring for the earth is about seeking God, loving all people, and changing the world. All the time.
First, when we seek God, we won’t be trying to control the world around us on our own. We’ll fill ourselves up on God’s nourishment instead of over-consuming objects that will never adequately satisfy us. We’ll recognize the gift of God’s creation, recognize God and then do all we can to care for God through creation. When we seek God through creation, we can’t help but wake up to the fact that God is calling us to love all people.
Because caring for the earth is directly tied to loving all people. Too often, we separate “earth” issues from human issues….But it’s all connected, friends. Destroying the planet means destroying healthy and whole lives for humans…not a hundred and fifty years from now, but right now: Environmental racism is alive and well; people of color are disproportionately affected by toxins and waste in communities; there are disproportionate environmental effects for those living in poverty in terms of access to food, cost of food, access to water. I could go on and on. God is setting a banquet before us and wants us to feast…and yet we control food so that some have an overabundance of choice that’s abusing the planet, while others are starving and malnourished.
So when it comes to being eco-friendly, we seek God, which leads us to loving all people, which helps us recognize our call to change the world . To go out of here making a difference, on individual and systemic levels. But this change is not about working for an isolated “issue”: our work for eco-justice is always rooted in our love for God and God’s love for us. It’s rooted, pun intended, in the transformational reality of resurrection. Rooted in the God in whose house we live and worship and love, all the days of our lives.
Thanks be to God.