Readings: Acts 9 36-end; Ps 23; Rev. 7, 9-end; John 10, 22-30
Hymns: Now the green blade; Where love and loving kindness dwell; The King of love; Thine be the glory
The 23rd psalm is one of the shortest summaries of theology, that in a sense hopeless and at times tediously argumentative subject of exploring God which can only ever be an inept approximation of God. This was the psalm preached on in a rural Anglican church in Australia on this Sunday in 1986 or 1989, and it was a kairos moment, an opening to God, a risk to risk , of understanding God was and is there for me, that I too was included. In common with others resolutely attending other local churches in that small town, though more than most as I was doing research, I usually felt more miserable after a service. No longer! Old Father Ben, preaching on Psalm 23, said ‘You’re all doing your best, so just love God, Love your neighbour, and don’t forget to love yourself, and you’ll be right.’ It was not a conversion moment, but a jolt along the way, showing that I could be counted among God’s people too, I too could trust in God’s sustenance and comfort set out in this psalm.
The faith journey from that glimmer of acceptance and hope has included gloom as well as joy. People who reckon God is an immunisation against sadness, or who like Job are mocked by others for keeping faith even in bad times, may give up, because Christian babies do die, Christian marriages do fall apart, Christians’ health does fails and Christians do lose jobs. To take a maritime image from Daoism, the thrust down towards what looks like the depth is already contained in the crest of the wave, just as the sweep upwards to the crest is contained in the depth. The only way to avoid the depths is to do nothing, make no relationships, and fail to live the life we have been given. And it is life which is set out in this psalm, not death with which it is too often associated by Christians due largely to the wrongly translated ‘valley of the shadow of death:’ life can never be roses, roses all the way. Crucially, therefore, the psalm states unequivocally that if we think and act in love for God, our neighbour and ourselves, whether we are plunged into ‘deepest darkness,’ that total absence of light, or whether things are going pretty well, we will be pursued, not just followed, by goodness and mercy.
If we accept God, if we listen, not getting caught up in petty detail – can a Christian dig the garden on Sunday – but rather giving ‘blessing and glory and wisdom and honour and power to our God for ever and ever,’ then we live under God’s protection. The Book of Revelation – not my favourite book- makes clear that even when we are persecuted for our faith, or in modern Europe more often mocked or met with incomprehension, we are cared for by God, shepherded by God in Christ and guided to the springs of the water of life. But we have to make an effort to hear and take in God’s word. Jesus got weary of people failing to see him for what he was, failing to listen to what he was saying, failing to make an effort to comprehend who he was by his actions and words, but lazily demanded a cut and dried answer from him. ‘If you hear my voice, if you let yourself understand, not quibbling about fiddling details but grasping my word and living it, you will know me.’ In other words, if you can’t be bothered, through intellectual pride, idleness or apathy, to know me, then you will indeed not know me.’
Tabitha clearly knew God, working as a disciple all the day long for others. Perhaps ill from a specific sickness, or perhaps worn out by not loving herself enough to care for her own body, she died. And Peter, following the example of Jesus with Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus, and growing into full faith, raised her from the bier, alive. Yes, Peter, that same Peter who earlier had denied Jesus three times, was now taking on the mantle of Christ along with the other disciples. There is always hope.
This is my last sermon for you as priest in charge here, and whatever I have contributed to this lively inclusive congregation growing in faith, numbers, and outreach, each of you in this congregation have given me back a thousand fold. I go back to England for some Tabitha-like tasks in my family with a faith deepened, an understanding sharpened, and a confidence in God’s love affirmed. Each of us need to be able to say that until our dying day: what we understood last year was one thing, and what we understand today quite another. This group, as other churches, this country, as other countries, is made up of individual and collective needs for justice and mercy, individual and collective capacity to shed light in the darkness. There are risks in this, risks in growing in understanding, risks in acting for justice and mercy. It is too easy to get bogged down in detail, to let anxiety or fear of failure get in the way of bold loving action. Jesus found this in teaching the Pharisees, and the Pharisee in each of us so easily comes to the fore as we individually quibble and wriggle to avoid the challenge of a life in Christ, as we quibble and wriggle to avoid thinking about tough things, as we silently chose the easy comfy or the ‘critical of others’ way. This old problem is nicely summed up by the 17th-century Lutheran, Dinckel, moaning the then current tendency for hair-splitting disputes: ‘True theologia practica (that is the teaching of faith love and hope) is relegated to a secondary place and the way is again paved for a theologia spinosa, (that is a prickly thorny teaching) which scratches hearts and souls.’
Dealing with personal disaster, or just the banal failures of ordinary life, can challenge our faith and our willingness to reach out to others. Grappling with difficult and contentious issues in church life and rules challenge our charity and love. Is our individual response to pull down the blinds and huddle in the dark? Or risk living, risk reaching out, risk growing, risk being Christ’s hands and feet on earth, and go up from the pitch darkness to the sparkling light? The decision is ours to make as is the subsequent action: but we will be upheld by God pursing us with goodness and mercy. Let us therefore chose life!
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, April 17th 2016