Scripture: Psalm 23
The Great Pursuit
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
You make me lie down in green pastures,
You lead me beside still waters,
You restore my soul….
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall swell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
There are passages of scripture that follow us all the days of our lives.  Psalm 23 is one of them. We don’t follow this Psalm, it follows us, we don’t turn to this Psalm, it turns to us, we don’t seek out this Psalm, it seeks us out. It pursues us with guidance, protection, presence, comfort.
This Psalm finds all people in all places at all times….
This Psalm finds us in life’s beginning, as children sitting in our Sunday school chairs memorizing verse after verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
It finds us in adolescence, struggling with life’s great existential questions, “He restores my soul.”
If finds us as parents, walking that fine line between tough love and love that’s not tough enough… “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
It finds us at the side of a hospital bed of a loved one before surgery, together recalling our childhood memorization of it, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
It finds us in the ritual service to mark the passing of a loved one,
“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
Psalm 23 finds all people in all places at all times.
It found Jesus while walking in the temple. It inspired him to proclaim to those challenging him: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).
It found the Puritans on the surface of the Atlantic sailing into an unknown future, toward whatever they would find on the other side.
It found slaves picking cotton in between rounds of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
It found Jews on concentration camps and worshippers in African American churches throughout the country during the civil rights movement in between verses of “We Shall Overcome.”
The profound simplicity of this Psalm finds all people in all places at all times.
It finds us, here, today, picking up the pieces after explosions on the streets of our city and on the bodies of our neighbors.
How many, we wonder, did this Psalm seek out this past Monday, at ten to three in the afternoon in the midst of the chaos and the shock and the trauma and the terror?
How many marked and maimed, discovered these words naturally rise from within? Familiar and cathartic.
How many, after realizing what had happened, dropped to their knees, lost then found by these words:
“The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want
he makes me to lie down in green
pastures, he leads me beside still waters…”
Because those are the words that found them in their moment of greatest need – those are the words that sought them out in the deepest recesses of their heart, in a place where human eyes cannot see
nor human ear hear
nor human mind comprehend.
How many of the good, brave, precious helpers/shepherds: the EMTs, the fireman, police officers, nurses and doctors were asked to recall and pray these words while holding the hand of a stranger or pushing a wheelchair or rolling a stretcher down Boylston Street?
Over the past six days, how many chaplains at MGH, Brigham, Beth Israel, Boston Medical Center, Mt. Auburn, were asked to open their travel bible and turn to the 23rd Psalm and begin to read?
Even those who are spiritual but not religious, even those, it finds them too.
It finds us here this morning. It brings us to a comfortable, familiar place. Psalm 23, you might say, is like coming home. Safely and securely. Coming home.
Safe and secure.
As the marathon bombing is one of many in a long line of random, violent acts over the past decade, our sense of safety and security is perhaps not what it once was. It can happen here. It has happened here, it has happened to our children and to our brothers and sisters and to our parents. To our neighbors and friends. It has happened here. Here where we are peaceful and free. As our Conference President heartbreakingly noted this past week, "Now we stand in solidarity with the people of New York City, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Oklahoma City, and tragically, so many other places."
Perhaps what is most unsettling is that we are being pursued by an eerily illusive enemy found among those with whom we learn and work and socialize. Evil lurks, freely and uncontained. We fear. Even after the death of Bin Laden and Tamerlan and Adam Lanza and Dzhokhar’s capture, we don’t know when or where or who is pursuing us...We fear.
But Psalm 23 reminds us of a different pursuit, of the True and Great Pursuit from which we can never escape. In a moment of scripture so well known, it is easy to gloss over the familiar words and images, but in that place where David writes, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” – "follow" is not the Hebrew, the verb that David chooses to use actually means to pursue: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.”
God is active. God is with us. God is good.
Every other place in the Psalms where David uses this verb, pursue, he uses it in the context of the enemy pursuing and killing him. But here, David reverses this pursuit. It’s not the pursuit of the enemy’s evil; it’s the pursuit of God’s goodness and mercy.
When we get lost in another’s hate and are in danger of becoming haters,
when we are lost in fear and are in danger of becoming fearful,
God’s quality of goodness will pursue us, it will chase us;
God’s mercy will hunt us down.
The enemy’s pursuit of evil and violence that struck the finish line on Monday has launched God’s pursuit of goodness and mercy within the Boston community more fiercely than ever. We see it every where we look, we experience it everywhere we go this past week ~ in a culture of independence, in a society that is increasingly falling away from each other, when the importance of civic life is waning ~ God is bringing us together, God is bringing us home to one another. One Boston. Boston Strong.
I felt and knew this to be true as the news reported hundreds already in line at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning outside of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in South Boston for the interfaith service. Thousands and thousands of people waiting to enter a church!
God is bringing us together, God is bringing us home to one another.
I felt and I knew this to be true yesterday when my voice was one among the thousands in the Fleet Center singing the Star Spangled Banner – the many voices that melted together to become one.
God is bringing us together, God is bringing us home to one another.
I felt and knew this to be true yesterday as pedestrians stopped to thank law enforcement officials on street corners for their service, as flags were carried into and proudly waved within the grand sports arena - flags: American and the City of Watertown - and as MIT banners were in full force.
It is in our darkest moments, in our greatest hour of need when we come home to one another and to God.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we stand with one another despite our differences of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, politics.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we stand with one another in our common humanity to celebrate the just laws of democracy and freedom.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we tear down fences in order to run toward one another in a moment of crisis and chaos and trauma and terror.
God’s goodness and mercy pursue us when we welcome terrified strangers seeking shelter into the privacy of our home.
God's goodness and mercy pursue us all the days of our life so that when evil sneaks in, we are reminded of the seed of innate goodness that God planted in each one of us upon our coming into the world. We are reminded that the darkness never overcomes the light. We are reminded that we are - each and all - children of the good and loving and living God. Many, yet one.
~Rev. Leanne Walt
 Thank you to Dr. Michael Milton’s blog for inspiring my reflections on Psalm 23:
 “Providing Light for this journey through darkness is what churches do”, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, April 18, 2013
Scripture: John 20:19-31
Believing is Seeing
This past Thursday evening a dozen of us gathered in the center of Braintree, on the top floor of the Thayer Public Library to hear from the Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, Rabbi Or Rose. The mix of us was Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian. Professor Rose is also the co-Director of CIRCLE: the Center for Inter-Religious & Community Leadership Education, a joint venture of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. So, he was speaking to us while wearing both hats – a person of the Jewish faith and culture and a professor invested in promoting interfaith discourse and dialogue.
Rabbi Rose opened his lecture with the statement that America is, at the same time, the most religiously diverse and the most religious country in the world. That we live in peace – for the most part – and do not experience religious violence and hate on a daily basis and on widespread level is not to be taken for granted, the Rabbi reminded.
And, he distinguished between diversity and pluralism, urging us not only to accept or tolerate the diversity of our neighbors, but through dialogue and education, to engage with diversity, to actively seek understanding across lines of difference. That is, in the Christian context to live out the new commandment made manifest in Jesus, where in John’s Gospel he said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34).
We talked about the implications of loving one another, of pluralistic engagement between and among individuals and communities who hold competing commitments and beliefs. We talked about the threat of difference and the nature of truth, difference as threatening to the integrity of our own belief systems, difference as threatening to the identity of our own communities, and difference as threatening to the preservation of our own traditions and rituals and truths, which we hold to be unassailable and incontrovertible.
It was the scientist, the pragmatist, the psychologist William James who proposed that: “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.” Competing commitments, conflicting beliefs. He maintained that the truth of an idea or belief can never be proven…so, our doubting, dear Thomas in the shadow and glow of the empty tomb doubted – waiting and wanting for Jesus to prove the truth he needed to see in order to believe.
After nearly two hours of lecture and discussion, inquiry and assertion perhaps the only truth to come out of Thursday’s interfaith dialogue was one that the Rabbi offered, that, the only thing universal about humankind is our particularity.
Indeed, we are different. Indeed, we are diverse.
In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart. Created, each, every and all, in the image of God.
Not only between religions, but among communities of faith, there is difference. There is diversity. In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart.
Here, among us, at First Congregational Church there is difference. Look around. Is there any one among you who is of exactly like-mind or appearance or experience or even belief? Together we are the body that Jesus calls us to be – hand to serve, foot to lead, eye to cast vision, mind to question, ear to listen, heart to understand, calloused heel to remind us where we have been, intestine to process and digest – to do the dirty work. We are one though many.
Following worship this morning, we will gather in the lower parish hall to discuss potential changes to the chapel space in the church. Space that has been set aside and apart by our First Church forbearers as specifically holy, sacred, and worshipful. Space that is full of memory and meaning for so many here in this place. The chapel, with its pews, their remaining or being removed, and their potential replacement with chairs – is an issue where our differences have been brought to bare, where they have been pronounced and exposed over the past year.
Over and over again, I’ve thanked God for this – for the ways that the chapel has served as an avenue for us as a congregation to discuss change in the church in a real and tangible way. I thank God for, through the chapel pews, challenging us to love one another across difference and through utter frustration and even annoyance, at times. For the ways that we are able to disagree and, yet still obey God’s new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.
There is no winning side to any vote taken in this church – whether it pertains to removing pews or transferring funds or terminating a long-time pastor or calling a new pastor. There is no losing side to any vote taken in this church. Each vote, each decision if our hearts are pure and true, as God intends, will not be political but faithful, not in the best interest of the self, but of the whole. If we are truly seeking to serve God and make the gospel of Jesus Christ manifest in this community and world, then no issue will ever be a tug-of-war, exhausting us and distracting us from doing the real ministry of the church. But the question of the chapel and others like it will be an exercise in conversation, in diversity, in difference, in love and understanding.
Many summers ago now, when I had a job at a golf course that allowed me to spend much of my time outside, sitting in a golf cart waiting to sell adult beverages, peanut butter crackers, and sandwiches to the thirsty and hungry players as they passed through. Many hours that summer I found myself under a large weeping willow tree between the front and back nine, so much so that I decided to read the classics. Some I trudged through with a prideful commitment to reach the final page, so that I could then wear the book like an internal badge of honor: Moby Dick and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss I must admit, were a commitment that I couldn’t but wished I could quit. But, others I adored: Jane Ayre, The Sun Also Rises, and Anna Karenina, page earmarked and underlined where Anna reflects:
“If it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” There are many kinds of love when it comes to the sacred and holy space of the chapel in this church, they are deep and diverse.
My love for the chapel isn’t for what it was, or even is, but for what it could be. When I look in the chapel – I don’t see what it once was - the family baptisms or weddings or youth fellowship gatherings or Vacation Bible School because, quite simply, I don’t carry those memories in my heart. When I look at the chapel, when I stand in that holy and sacred space, I see potential and hope for meaningful, productive, faithful ways to learn about and serve God through the vessel of that room.
But the truth is, it is difficult to trust what we can’t yet see, what we cannot yet experience. Ever the more difficult when it feels as though our truth and our tradition is threatened and in danger. So, enter Thomas: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Everyone wants their own experience of the truth.
“But,” Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
Resurrection is more than about how much God loves us, or the power of God, but it’s a about creating new realities. Realities of trust, love, and forgiveness. Realities liberation from oppression an discrimination – equality (but not sameness) amidst difference.
When I look upon us, when I imagine our community, I see a beautiful garden variety – and what a Sunday to play with this image – in the presence of such exquisite bouquets offered in the memory and memorial of two of our unique and irreplaceable members – Bob Fink and Nancy Capron. We are, each, our own flower, carefully crafted and formed and fashioned by God. Some lilies – strong, with a lasting fragrance, some roses – maintaining the beauty of tradition, some butterfly trees – attracting friends and offering sweet prayers and comfort, some hostas to mark needed boundaries; others wildflowers, reminding us of a beauty that surprises, that pops up in new and unexpected places.
Indeed, we are different. Indeed, we are diverse.
In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart. There in our difference we find the vastness and beauty of God reflected into the world.
Isn’t this what we teach our children? Boy or Girl, black or white, smarter or slower, scientist or artist, athlete or actor… Isn’t this what Paul was getting at: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:6).
Our differences make us special. Our differences make us stronger.
Perhaps the highest stake of bridging difference is sameness, of losing that which makes us wonderfully unique and particular – our traditions, history, and experience – change is hard and the risks are real.
In the process, may we not learn to always agree, may we not seek to become the same – of like mind and fixed belief - but to cultivate understanding across lines of difference. To love one another as Christ loves us.
~Rev. Leanne S. Walt