As some of you know, I spent part of Easter Week in Vermont. I posted some pictures of my trip on Facebook and said that I had decided that the easiest way to answer the question, “What are you doing while you’re there?” was to answer, “I am Vermonting.” One of my friends tried to be linguistically strict with me and tell me I wasn’t allowed to use a noun—especially a proper noun!—as a verb that way, but when I then explained what I meant—in lengthy word-salad text messages, she finally conceded that perhaps “Vermonting” was an acceptable abbreviation.
“Vermonting,” as I explained to one of you later that day, is what comes to mind when I read the second verse of the 23rd psalm, “He restores my soul”—I really do prefer that word than “revives” as found in some translations. I like the idea that God repairs and rebuilds the parts of my soul that get frayed, worn threadbare, in danger of tearing. For me, there is something about being in nature that allows God to do that restoration work. The fresh green grass, the wide stretches of earth newly overturned and ready for planting, the frothy yellow-green leaf buds on birches against the clear blue sky, mountains in the distance…it all causes me to stop, drop my shoulders, take a deep breath, let my eyes and jaw relax and just be still. In that quietness, God reminds me who I am, who I am called to be, and that God will help me.
Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval abbess and scholar, spoke of this as “viriditas”—a word combining the Latin words for green and truth. The best translation I’ve seen for the word viriditas is “the greening power of God.” The work of the Spirit that brings freshness, new life, healing. I think Hildegard would have intuitively understood what I mean when I say I’m “Vermonting.” It’s not something I do so much as something I allow God to do in and for me. I just have to be willing to let go of my need for control, and receive this healing, refreshing, restoring power of God.
That’s really the crux of it, though, isn’t it? We have to be willing to let go of control, and allow God to do things God’s own way in God’s own time.
In the reading from the Gospel of John today, we hear a story of people who aren’t quite ready for that yet. They want Jesus to tell them what they want to hear—that he is the Messiah, come to free them from Roman oppression, the same way the Maccabees had led them to freedom a few generations before. The Feast of the Dedication—what we would call Hanukkah—is a celebration of the restoration of the Temple after that revolt. They want a violent, warlike Messiah who is not afraid of shedding the blood of his enemies to achieve his ends. And they are growing impatient. Their question “how long will you keep us in suspense?” can also be translated, “how long will you continue to annoy us?!”
I think if we take an honest look at ourselves, we’ll all admit that we find a lot of what Jesus asks of us is annoying. We might like the idea that our souls are restored, but to what purpose? We are not made whole just to drink deeply of the living water and lounge by the lakeshore all day.
We are made whole so that we can follow Jesus and do what he teaches. All that “love your neighbor,” “turn the other cheek” stuff, the expectation that we follow him without really knowing where he’s going—and even worse, still expecting us to follow him once we figure out he’s headed for a cross. He tells us he’s the Good Shepherd, but that only means something if we accept that we are the sheep of his flock—we belong to him.
But we are not Jesus’ pets. We might convince ourselves it wouldn’t be SO bad to be part of the flock, eating fresh green grass, drinking clear water, being loved and protected and guided by Jesus…hearing him call our names—always in a loving, gentle tone of voice—getting sheared once in a while so that God can do something good with what we’ve produced. It’s not a bad image.
But it’s not the only use that culture had for sheep. Sheep were also an integral part of the religious life of the Temple. They were raised to be sacrificed.
I would hope that you know by now that I am not suggesting that God wants us to be victims of violence, any more than God wants us to be perpetrators of it. But if we read the 23rd psalm only as a sweet little picture of Jesus and me on the lakeshore, and don’t pay attention to the rest of it, we’ve missed some of its power.
The Good Shepherd does lead us to green pastures and beside still waters—but also through the valley of the shadow of death. The Lord does set out a sumptuous feast for us and anoints our heads with oil—but in the presence of our enemies. During Lent I introduced you to the idea of sacrifice as something other than destructive and bloody. One understanding of sacrifice is something that draws us closer to God. Something that demands us to let go of control and trust God—even when following Jesus means risking discomfort or even danger.
Six years ago the 4th Sunday of the Easter season, the one we usually call Good Shepherd Sunday, was six days after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Erin Wathen, a pastor and writer whose work often inspires and challenges me, wrote the following poem in response.
Psalm 23-and-a-half by Erin Wathen
The Lord is my shepherd,
whether I like it or not.
I shall not want.
Except for a bigger house, a nicer car, a slimmer waistline;
a newer device, a little more power;
and to always, always, every day, be right about everything.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
as the world grays with concrete
and browns with toxic fumes
and bleeds with violence and rage.
He leads me beside still waters
even though I pull away, and make a run for the choppy sea
of my own thoughts, complaints, and addictions.
He restores my soul.
from its own self-inflicted wounds
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake…
For his name’s sake,
even as I celebrate with my own signature.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
even as I log on, tune in, and worship at
the altar of fearful story
that we call news.
For you are with me;
even as the world spins into chaos, crippled by the hatred of others,
Your rod and your staff—they comfort me
They tell me a better story,
And call me back to your side.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
And ask only that I sit and dine with them.
You anoint my head with oil;
And call me to live a life worthy of this benediction.
My cup overflows
With sorrow, with remorse,
Because for all my selfish, wandering, fearful and faithless ways,
I know that
goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
Even on the worst day, the worst week, the worst moment
Of the created, human world.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long,
Singing a new song,
and telling the Shepherd’s story
into the darkness.