Join us for the Second Sunday of Lent, as we continue our series Busy: Reconnecting with an Unhurried God.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye (b. 1952)
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness…
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Psalm 23: Which Version?
The ancient testimony of Psalm 23 is often read at funerals and memorial services, repeated at bedside by hospital chaplains, cross-stitched and framed over dining room tables. I memorized Psalm 23 as a child, like many of you here today, in the King James Version (KJV), Shakespearean “kingdom language.” The King James translation it offers familiarity and a connection with the generations who raised most of us. The KJV is not known for accuracy but is “the version Jesus likes best” according to my Tuesday afternoon Lenten Bible study small group! Our pew Bibles are the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), arguably the best version of the twentieth century.
The Lord is my Pace Setter, I shall not rush,
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals,
He provides me with images of stillness,
Which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency,
through calmness of mind; and his guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for his presence is here.
His timelessness, his all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity,
by anointing my head with his oils of tranquility,
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruit of my hours,
For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord,
and dwell in his house for ever.
Prayer for Illumination (Psalm 19:14)
The Kind Shepherd
How I wish the words of Naomi Shihab Nye were not true, but I have lived it, and she’s right. Losing things, like dreams dashed — is there any healing in that kind of pain? Realizing loss as an opportunity for liberation, that’s what this sermon is about. This is one of the most astonishing acts of faith available to us as followers of the Son of God who let go of a heavenly home and became fully human in order to suffer with us. He still endures insults and betrayals. He still releases control over his life and his reputation while holding onto that which is true. He does not return evil for evil. He honors all people, of all colors, of all genders, of all religions, from all places. This is our shepherd, the kind shepherd who makes us lie down in grassy meadows, who guides us beside quiet waters. When we lose parts of ourselves along the way, he restores our souls.
My mother called to tell me what happened. “They were discharging her from the hospital when her heart just stopped. She didn’t suffer, but she’s gone.” I loved her like I loved my mother, and she loved me. She died while I was away at a summer high school debate camp at the University of Louisville. At seventeen, I had said goodbye already to a number of relatives, all of them “old people,” but my Aunt Ella Ruth was the first loss that injured my soul.
Most people say that we feel our deepest joys and sorrows in the pit of our abdomen, the viscera—the stomach, the heart, the lungs. This is where the human soul is felt. In Hebrew, the soul is called nefesh, and it’s more than organs, it’s the fundamental grounding of sentient life. Nefesh means the life that breathes, has a sense of soul. Nefesh is the cusp of self-awareness. In Genesis, God gives nefesh first to the animals, then to us. The beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, their souls were given first. Then, the human animal. 13th century theologian Meister Eckhart wrote of the soul-body connection: “The body is more in the soul, than the soul is in the body.” The soul exceeds the body.
Manning Up Made Plain
When I lost my Aunt Ella Ruth, for the first time, I cried in front of my high school friends. They wanted me to feel better or, more to the point, they wanted me to please stop crying. So, not only did I feel the pain of loss, I felt the shame that the expectation of masculinity demands when a 17-year-old young man, who was raised in the Appalachian foothills of north Georgia, cries openly, weeps at the death of a woman, a woman who is not his mother nor his wife nor his sister but his great aunt who loved him. This unrealistic expectation of masculinity is societal poison, and it manifests as free-floating anger in the world. It insists that men are stronger than women, that women are inferior to men, and that the souls of men are immune to injury and sorrow and kindness. This “toxic masculinity” we hear so much about gives rise to violence and glorifies ‘power over.’ It clings to fantasies, the allure of intimidation and the superiority of one race over another. Fifty worshippers last Thursday in New Zealand, gunned down by a man who claimed racial and religious superiority over them. He even flashed a white power hand gesture for the cameras. Young men, old men, middle-aged men, women who have been driven to emulate men, hear me: it’s not only normal to cry, it is essential for your humanity. It’s natural to need other people, it’s natural to feel helpless and powerless and dependent. It’s also Christlike to do so!
The Soul’s Cold Storage Mechanism
Here’s how I dealt with sudden pain at 17. Within hours, my soul taught my body a life hack around the demands of unnatural manliness, and I fell into a deep sleep. A subconscious mechanism took over, and my body retreated into a state of sleep. I did not pass out; I went to my dorm room and slept. No one could wake me up. I didn’t know that I was prepared to deal with such pain, but my soul did. Can’t tell it to look at me, but whoever designed all this knew what they were doing. We might not supermodel material, but all of us have it going on inside, all of us, women and men and all variations thereupon! 13th century theologian Meister Eckhart wrote: “The body is more in the soul than the soul is in the body.”
What I had to face next was an eight-hour drive with my friends, eight hours south, from Louisville through Tennessee and into Georgia, and I slept most of the way. Only the Wendy’s drive-through could wake me. When our souls are injured, God knows the way to restore our souls.
Faith & Fear
At my Aunt’s funeral, guess what the Baptist preacher read? The 23rd Psalm, what else. Now, Ella Ruth was a Southern Baptist, and her preacher told her to believe in Jesus in order to avoid hell. I call this faith as “hell insurance.” My Aunt once told me that she believed in God because she was afraid not to. But Jesus used love to interpret the law of life and death. He hung out with the undesirables and loved unconditionally. This did not make Jesus popular. Our opinions on faith must begin and end with love, not fear. Not hell.
How do we arrive at our final destination with the nefesh intact? How do we break the cycles of abuse? How do we exceed the toxic expectations handed down for generations?
Victims of abuse often report that they learned to leave their bodies during the assault or rape, just as I went to sleep for two days when my aunt died. The body resides in the soul, but sometimes the soul itself must remove parts of itself from abuse. Such dissociation or detachment is necessary as a survival mechanism. I am forever shocked by the number of people who confide in me that they have been abused or assaulted.
With the rise of white supremacy and dog-whistle tribalism, I assure you that the church has work to do. The simplest commandment remains our biggest challenge: Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If we love God, we must also love this world, because this world is God’s self-expression. People of faith are responsible for bettering, stewarding, loving God’s yet-to-be-finished creation.
Retrieve Your Soul
Each of our souls has been injured in some way. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will. When the pain is too great, part of our souls break off and go into hiding. It’s like a cold storage where our true selves wait until it’s safe to come out again. This is part of an ancient shamanic practice called soul retrieval. It pre-dates Jesus. When a member of the community senses their brokenness, they go to their shepherd, their pastor, their shaman, and through prayer, surrender and meditation, their souls are restored. And then, after the storms and trials, our good shepherd gives us a grassy meadow where we may sleep it off, leads us to a quiet stream where we may drink our fill and replenish our bodies. And, because God through Jesus Christ knows the suffering of this world, our souls have a really good chance to come back to us whole and restored. If part of your soul is in cold storage, now is the time to ask God to retrieve it. Know this: you are not alone. We are all somewhat fragmented, compartmentalized. And we are all the sheep of God’s pasture. Our shepherd is more than capable!
A bonus for the printed version of this sermon, a prayer-song from the words of Meister Eckhart:
 Marg Mowcako, “7 Things You May Not Know About the King James Bible” accessed online at <https://margmowczko.com/7-things-about-the-king-james-bible/> (March 14, 2019)
 A joke, since Jesus did not speak English
 Busy: Reconnecting with an Unhurried God is our theme for Lent 2019.
 Accessible online at <http://www.postkiwi.com/2007/the-lord-is-my-pace-setter/> (March 14, 2019)
 The first four times nefesh is used in the Bible, it is used exclusively to describe animals: Gen 1:20 (sea life), Gen 1:21 (great sea life), Gen 1:24 (land creatures), Gen 1:30 (birds and land creatures). At Gen 2:7 nefesh is used as description of humankind.
 Maya Salam, “What is Toxic Masculinity?” New York Times, January 22, 2019 accessed online at <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html> (March 14, 2019)
 I realize that racism and toxic masculinity are usually separate topics, but recent events have melded them together, perhaps temporarily.
 Philippians 2:1-8 Though equal with God, Jesus did not exploit his power. He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and he was obedient unto death.
 Jean Denton, Good is the Flesh: Body, Soul & Christian Faith (New York: Church Publishing, 2005) , xi.
 Christine Ro, BBC, 2018, <http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181102-why-dont-rape-and-sexual-assault-victims-come-forward> (March 18, 2019)
 Sandra Ingerman, Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self (New York: HarperCollins, 1991, 2011).
 interplay.org is an Oakland-based spiritual practice that includes stillness, song, movement and storytelling. InterPlay is genius stuff. I dedicate this sermon to the wise instruction of Cynthia Winton-Henry (InterPlay co-founder) who introduced me to the concept of soul retrieval during my MDiv study at Pacific School of Religion, over a decade ago. I continue to regather parts of my soul and ask God to reintegrate me into this beautiful creation.