Date: June 12, 2016
Title: “Marching Off the Map”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 23
This morning we begin a new sermon series entitled “Sabbath Sensibilities”. It is just a three week series, meant to be a little respite, to help us all take a deep breath or release a deep sigh of relief after our very busy General Conference season. Today I had intended to preach a sermon based on Ecclesiastes 3, focusing on time – our relationship to it and our relationship in it to God.
But then I woke up early this morning, and turned on the news. And once again my heart broke with yet another mass shooting, this time in a gay nightclub in Orlando where reports say there are now 49 people dead and dozens of others injured.
So I am abandoning the sermon I wrote in favor of the one I need to hear. Because sometimes, life is what you want it to be. And sometimes, life is just what you get. We do not always choose the circumstances or the situations of our lives. We cannot always foretell where life will take us or how life will surprise us. It seems capricious at best, downright mean at worst, the certain uncertainty of human life.
And yet, as someone else once put it, The lions never get out of the road of the person who waits to see the way clear before beginning to walk. Life is uncertain. At times it is tenuous, frightening, even devastating. We all know there are countless lions lying in wait in the path ahead of us. Yet still, life is to be lived. And we have no choice but to keep walking.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the Roman soldier caught up in a battle who had to decide what to do about those beasts in front of him. In his day, much of the world was unexplored, unknown and unmapped. Roman mapmakers portrayed the unexplored areas with pictures they painted of dragons, monsters and large fish. And their message was clear: uncharted territories were frightening, fearsome places, where terrors lay buried just beneath the surface.
So this poor guy had fought his way into that territory where all he sees are dragons on his map. In panic, not knowing whether to forge ahead into the unknown or admit defeat and retreat back to safety, the soldier sends a messenger to Rome with this urgent plea: “Please send new orders. We have marched off the map.”
On days like today, with news of mass shootings and refugee crises and melting ice caps and political structures which have done nothing more than divide us more deeply than ever before, it is easy to feel as if we have marched off the map! It seems as if we are in uncharted lands and that we are marching off relational, familial, economic, political and even religious maps every single day.
Which is why this morning we read one of the most enduring, cherished pieces of Scripture – Psalm 23. This is probably the most memorized, and most often quoted of all Biblical passages. I think it is also one of the most real. Part of the power of this Psalm is that it pulls no punches. Clearly, the author of these verses has experienced pain and loss and adversity. The author knows what it feels like to be marching off the map, and still the twenty-third Psalm faces the inevitable, proclaiming not “if” but “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The writer is honest enough to point out that life is not all loaded tables, overflowing cups, green pastures and still waters. Sometimes our heads are not anointed with oil, but plastered with sweat. Sometimes we are not drinking from still waters, but hanging on for dear life in Class 10 rapids.
Every one of us has a valley. Every one of us has a valley where God is walking with us. God is walking with us, leading us for God’s name sake. God leads us in right paths for God’s own sake – not because of anything we have done or will do; not because of what we have or who we are – but because of who God is. It is for God’s sake, for the integrity and wholeness of the God of life that we are led and fed, filled and freed.
Now I know that some valleys are longer than others. I know that right paths are not always easily discernible. But I also know that God does not abandon us to the valley, nor leave us in the dead end. Because these are not meant to be resting places so much as they are intended to be passageways. Taking the wrong job, choosing the wrong marriage, enduring a difficult illness, persisting in self-destructive behaviors, even being in the wrong place at the wrong time…none of these is meant to be a resting place so much as it is intended to be a passageway into deeper understanding and a chance at new life.
We may have to walk through several valleys to arrive, at last, in God’s home. The Psalmist promises we shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. God offers us a place in the family and a share in community. And when we live there, we have to remember that we are not on our own. We belong to God and we belong to each other. We are standing in the pathway, staring down at those lions together. We will continue to walk, we will continue to live together with God and with one another.
When I see you marching off the map, or when you hear me crying in the valley – we owe each other more than just a passing nod. Our Sunday School teachers know this, our musicians remind us of it, and our Volunteers of the Year model it. We belong to God. We belong to each other.
Marty Haugen writes a beautiful setting of the 23rd Psalm in which there is this refrain, sung repeatedly: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. Life is uncertain. Sometimes it is what you want; sometimes it is what you get. But in spite of all the lions in our path, God is waiting for us. God is waiting for us at the very edge of our maps, beyond what we think we want. God is waiting for us at the very edges of our lives, beyond what we need. God is waiting for us, even beyond all that we fear. God is waiting to take us from death into life. Shepherd us, O God, shepherd us, we pray. Amen.