Princeton University Religious Life

All Will Be Well

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
April 17, 2016
Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17

            “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”  So wrote the mystic Julian of Norwich; she was the head of an order of nuns in England some 8 centuries ago.  “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”  Her words capture beautifully the spirit of both of our readings for today, Psalm 23 and Revelation 7.  They, too, are words of assurance and comfort. 

            And yet, right behind them is destruction.  Really grasping these verses’ power – the power of their assurance, the power of God and Christ, and the power we are given to endure deepest challenges – really grasping the power of these words means really grasping what they refer to.  Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust.  It’s attributed to David, and is written by someone who, with their community, has just survived calamity.  Is it the destruction of a city, of a whole society and many of its members?  Our text from Revelation sends strength and encouragement to followers of Christ who have seen their friends killed in public arenas for sticking to their faith, others who have lost their entire livelihood, gone to jail, seen loved ones die or desert them.  They, like the Psalmist, may have seen whole communities wiped out.

            Psalm 23 follows right upon (of course) Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes from the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Psalm 23 answers as a testimonial to trust in God, trust in a divine plan, trust that the lowest point in any person’s human experience is a single moment, and the opposite of one’s destiny.  Both Psalm 23 and Revelation 7 insist that we are not saved from challenges but in spite of them.  We are not exempted from challenges but prepared for and strengthened for them by the fact of our insistent, unflagging faith in God, and God’s insistent, unflagging support of us.

            Our Psalm boldly declares that God has made to us a promise of love and redemption, and no calamity or hardship or tragedy will force God to abandon that, nor do they signify that God has abandoned us.  Here’s what the Psalmist knows about the present and future after having been flattened by calamity:  “I shall not want; I am led in right paths; I fear no evil; goodness and mercy will follow me; I shall dwell in the house of God forever.”  That’s what we know!

            And John of Patmos, writing his revelation in exile from his rock in the sea, calling to the young Christian community around the Mediterranean to hold fast in the face of every persecution by Rome and its satellites:  he tells them that the church that suffers today actually coexists with the living church triumphant.  He writes not of a church triumphal – one that lords itself over everyone else – but of a church triumphant, in which a resurrected Christ has ascended above all the human deprivations that put him to death so horribly, a church that reigns in the here and the hereafter, while human empires rise and fall.  We struggle and testify as we must on earth today, while we coexist with the community of saints who are there already.  John of Patmos calls to us all – then and now – saying “Do not conform yourself to the empire” – Rome, power, money, nationalism, pride, bigotry – don’t conform yourself to the things your society says create value – no matter what happens to you.  Loss, violence, anger, deception, slaughter, meanness, abandonment, unfairness, unfairness, unfairness.  Don’t conform – keep testifying to the truth you know through Jesus Christ.  Identify with the Church Triumphant even as you know yourself to be the church in the dirt.  The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, once wrote, “People who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”  (Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”)  Let’s hear Yoder again:  “People who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”  The daily work may be awful, dangerous, crucifying, but the people who bear crosses advance the work of God and Christ, especially in ways that may never be noticed by anyone, but they do it, and they do it, and they do it.  And they help us all to get “there” – to get to a new and ever-striving level of conformity with the church triumphant.

            Of our two texts for today, Psalm 23 is historically the one that has been so much more accessible.  Fundamentally, it is a poem of faith, and it has spawned many more over the millennia.  There are no rose-colored glasses on this text, yet always the grace is paramount.  I think of the composer and performer Bobby McFerrin, whose deeply faithful engagement with the 23rd Psalm led him to use it as the text that our choir will sing for us next Sunday morning.  In his meditating on the Psalm he found that female imagery for God was much more potent for him, because it had been his own mother who most embodied God’s love within his own life.  Of all human beings she was most like this Shepherd.  When McFerrin permitted himself to write the verses to God in memory of his mother, it all came together for him.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need.  She makes me to lie down in green pastures, she leads me beside still waters, she restores my soul” – so begins Bobby McFerrin’s poem of faith.  “I have all I need,” he adds.  This phrase sticks with me most in McFerrin’s rendering.  I may not have all that I want, but I have all that I need.  His poem of faith is an expression of thanks for the love, guidance, and acceptance that provide a life with that kind of fulfillment.  Surely, indeed, goodness and mercy flow from these things.

            A poet named Shelley Hamilton has written her own version of this poem of faith.  For her, also, the shepherd is mother.  She writes:

                        “God is our mother, we shall not want.

                        She brings us rest, peace, and truth.

                        For the sake of justice in the world

                        She calls us forth to be liberators. 

                        When we walk through anguished streets

                        cluttered with lies and brokenness,

                        we won’t be afraid

                        because God is like us.

                        She holds us to her heart and breasts.

                        She comforts us.

                        She cares for us to care for each other.

                        She feeds us, loves us, heals us in the presence of the world.

                        Yes, for all to see.

                        God is good to us.

                        Our lives continue to overflow with her blessings.

                        God has called us to be truth-tellers.

                        We answer that call.

                        Goodness and mercy go with us each day of our lives.

                        We live in God’s heart forever.”

            We live in God’s heart forever.  Truly, anyone who loves has his or her beloved inside their heart.  What a thought – that we live inside God’s heart, that the shepherd – God in Christ – who loved us so much as to die for us, holds us close inside the heart.  That is safety.  That is the assurance that, as Hamilton describes it, the work for holy justice that God calls us to do, or the evil we may face in the process, will never overwhelm us.  We reside in the very heart of God.  We have nothing to fear – not even death. 

            And here is the 23rd Psalm in the words of a Native American Christian:  “The Great Father a shepherd chief is.  I am his and with him I want not.  He throws out to me a rope and the name of the rope is love and he draws me to where the grass is green and the water not dangerous, and I eat and lie down and am satisfied.

            “Sometime, it may be very soon, it may be a long time, he will draw me into a valley.  It is dark there but I will be afraid not, for it is in between those mountains that the Shepherd Chief will meet me and the hunger that I have in my heart all through this life will be satisfied.

            “Sometime my heart is very weak and falls down, but he lifts me up again and draws me into a good road.  His name is wonderful.  Sometimes he makes the love rope into a whip, but afterwards he gives me a staff to lean upon.  He spreads a table before me with all kinds of foods.  He puts his hand upon my head and all the tired is gone.  My cup he fills until it runs over.  What I tell is true.  I lie not.  These roads that are away ahead will stay with me through this life and after; and afterwards I will go to live in the Big Tepee and sit down with the Shepherd Chief forever.”

            The 23rd Psalm is so familiar, but as I think these versions show it is always revealing something new to those who will infuse their own spirits through the text.  Trust, grace, and mercy are reblended into a wholly new poem of faith – the same ingredients, but with completely different seasonings flowing from our very different experiences of our personal encounters with God.  Let us all reflect in coming days and weeks on the words and the terms of our own poem of faith, that by this infusion of Spirit into Psalm our whole lives might be a breathing, walking poem of faith.

            Amen.

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