“He maketh me to lie down”

Homily by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge

Church of the Intercession, NYC

Text:  Psalm 23:2a

In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This Sunday, we’re going to do something a bit unusual – we’re going to focus in on one half of one verse in today’s psalm, Psalm 23.  These days, Psalm 23 has a sad resonance with us, because out of the entire psalter, this is the psalm that we associate most with death.  We commonly pray it at funerals and memorial services because it provides comfort; in these days of physical separation and what feels like constant loss, it is a loving companion to us.  But out of the whole psalm, just a handful of words carry a very powerful message, particularly for those among us who can find no redeeming value in the sorrow and challenges of our time.

Those few words are the first half of the second verse:  “He makes (or maketh me, in the King James version) lie down in green pastures.”  The Hebrew here can tell us a great deal.  The “he” in “He makes me lie down” clearly is God – “el” in Hebrew.  But then follows a single word that we use four words to translate into English: “maketh me lie down” is “yar-bitz-ayni” – one word in Hebrew. “Yar-bitz-ayni” has a subtle double meaning.  The first is that of an event, an occurrence, something that happened makes me lie down; the other meaning has to do with being compelled, without a choice in the matter, to rest.  So we can translate this a little differently – God has compelled me to rest through circumstances beyond my control.

Now, this forced rest can be due to various circumstances, like the death of a loved one, which of course we don’t desire, and which lies beyond our control.  A death can indeed force us to lie down, to stop our normal lives in order to mourn, to reflect and be still.

Other circumstances can force us to be still as well.  For me it was the cancer diagnosis twelve years ago.  I was rocking along, fairly certain that I was doing just fine, if truth be told somewhat smug in my outlook on life and confident in my ability to handle whatever came my way.  I was wrong, and when I was compelled to lie down – a lot of the time literally as well as figuratively – I was forced into a period of stillness that led to self-examination.  What was I really doing with my time, when I had my time under my control?  How was I treating other people?  What was I contributing – or not – to the society around me?  And what was my relationship with God, really?

I was in the ordination process at the time, I certainly felt that I had faith, but did I really have the faith required to submit to what I wanted least, truly trusting God to see me through?  I certainly had no choice but to submit to the reality of my condition, but could I submit in my spirit, believing that Jesus still loved me no matter what was going on in my life, knowing that he would love me through and in the suffering that was certain to come, having confidence in him, no matter what the outcome might be?  That was what being compelled to lie down forced me to confront.

At the time, I was not aware of being in green pastures; I felt like I was in the wilderness. Green, verdant pastures bring to mind not only beauty and peace but also life, fertility, fecundity – the opposite what we think of when we are in a wilderness or a desert.  In a green pasture you are surrounded by life and potential for growth; think of animals in herds thriving on the lush, green grass in a sundrenched green meadow. This is where our verse joins earth to heaven and heaven to earth.  God is telling us that in the midst of suffering and even death, there is potential for growth, as well as beauty, peace, and healing if we allow ourselves to rest where we find ourselves, even though we wind up there through no choice of our own.

Right now we, and much of the rest of the world, are being compelled to rest by circumstances far beyond our control.  We didn’t ask for this, all of us dislike it or even hate it to varying degrees, but if we submit to these strange hard times in our spirit, God will lead us through them.  And once we do, we can experience peace, beauty, growth and yes, even healing.

This applies not only to us, but to our environment.  Take what has happened in a very short time to our planet.  We all know that we have been abusing the earth, particularly since the industrial revolution.  But now the huge amount of pollution that we normally spew into our environment has dropped sharply because we are unable to travel.  So guess what?  The air and the water across the globe are clearing.  We can now see and experience our surroundings in ways that were unthinkable just six weeks ago; many of you probably saw the remarkable footage of the canals in Venice, usually murky and smelly with garbage, but which are now so clear that jellyfish are visible swimming in them.  Or the equally astonishing photos of the Himalayan mountains now suddenly visible from the streets in Punjab, which are normally among the most smog-ridden on the planet.

It’s stunning, and we should learn from this interregnum in our 21st century over-industrialized lifestyle.  Giving the earth a rest has myriad advantages.  Not only can we enjoy cleaner, healthier air and water and spectacular scenery, but now we are certain that we can repair the damage that we have inflicted, and quickly.  Is it a bad thing that oil prices are now negative, meaning that producers are no longer selling oil but paying others to take it off their hands?  Could this mean the beginning of the end of our dependence on fossil fuels?  That would certainly be a green pasture for all living things in the midst of our current suffering.

God in the Hebrew scriptures had foreseen the need for rest, and not just for people. There are three kinds of Sabbaths commanded in the Bible.  The first is the most famous, the Fourth Commandments (of ten) which is: Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.  Moses in Exodus explains exactly what that means:  “you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates.”  Even the animals were mandated to rest on the seventh day of the week.

But there are also Sabbaths not only for people and animals, but for the land itself.  Just as one day a week in seven was commanded to be a Sabbath, one year in seven was commanded to be a Sabbath for the land.  Here’s the Lord speaking in Leviticus:

. . . the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. . . .  You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath— you . . . and your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.

God knew back then that even the land needed a rest to heal and recover from human activity.  And God knew something further – that if we are not forced periodically to rely on God for our very existence, then we will lapse into first self-reliance, then inevitably into pride, attributing our sustenance to ourselves.  So while the land rested, Israelites were commanded to do nothing at all to provide for themselves – God instructs them to go out and gather whatever food happens to grow through no effort of their own.  This takes them back to their days in wilderness of Sinai, where they relied on God to provide manna in the desert.

There’s one more kind of Sabbath.  Every 50th year God commands a “schmittah” or a “jubilee” year, which takes the Sabbath year to an even higher level.  In addition to freedom from toil, the Lord proclaims freedom to indentured servants who can return to their families, and the return of all property to their previous owners.  The Jubilee Year is one of the very few things called hallowed, holy in the Bible – and it is meant to heal not only people, animals, and the land, but human society as well.  The Lord was making all to lie down in green pastures, whether they desired it or not.

All of us have had the experience of having our lives stopped by circumstances beyond our control.  At the time, it feels like our lives are being interrupted, but while we are resting – or sometimes after the rest is over –we realize that despite the suffering we may have been going through, it was ultimately for the best.  We are always invited to correct our own course both personally and as a society during normal activity, but sometimes when we are stopped, we find ourselves compelled to face what we hadn’t before, like the inequities in our society.  We are now seeing in graphic, terrible detail how our heedless disregard of income inequality, racism, and bigotry causes rampant loss of life and squanders opportunities everyday among the worst served communities in our society.  People of color and all lower income folks who have less access to healthcare and who are often limited to service jobs that expose them to the Coronavirus multiple times a day while wearing little or poor protection have been passing away in droves.  Even the most typically thick-skinned among us have taken notice.  I’m not often given to quoting politicians in sermons, but even our Governor and Mayor have passionately declared that it is part of our job during this pandemic “pause” period to address these injustices, so that when we emerge, we will live in a more just, equitable, morally strong and compassionate society.

Being compelled to do anything is never pleasant, often painful – we have an innate resistance to doing anything that isn’t our idea.  To be clear, God does not cause evil or death – God is good all the time, and can never be cruel.  But our fallen world has evil in it – remember that Bible says that rain falls on both the unjust and the just – and we know that Jesus himself was murdered by evil among us.  But what Psalm 23 tells us is that God will be with us even as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death, and that God gives us rest in green pastures along the way.  Later in the psalm, God, through his servant David, promises to be with us all the days of our lives here on earth, and to welcome us to our dwelling in the House of Lord forever.  And there is nothing, nothing that can happen in this world – even a pandemic – that can ever make God break those promises.   Amen.