You Are with Me; Your Rod and Your Staff, They Comfort Me
Where do we see the face of God? It was probably third grade or so, and we were headed on a field trip to the symphony. It I don't remember much about the experience, but our teacher's words still ring in my ears, as she reminded us to behave: "Remember: you are representing the whole school."
I was so annoyed at that comment! And as with many things, I later realized that my teacher was right. The ushers might not remember whether it was the redhead or the blonde kid that acted up, but they would certainly mark the school whose children misbehaved. But at the time, I knew this wasn’t fair. I knew I wouldn't misbehave, that I would act responsibly. How much more could she expect from me than that? Isn't everyone else similarly responsible for their own actions? Or am I my classmate's keeper?
Like I said, my teacher was right. And the reality is that this truth is not limited to field trips. Wherever we go, we are always representing something, whether we want to or not. On a road trip, people will note the state on your license plate. Folks will notice your age, your skin color, your accent, and will make generalizations based on the way you behave. It's probably not accurate, it's definitely not fair, but the truth is that this is how our species interacts with the world. Wherever we go, we represent something.
That is partially what is at work in our text from Psalm 23 today. We have shifted from talking about God to talking to God. The psalmist has been telling us all about the divine shepherd who leads us and guides us and restores us. Now, as we continue through that valley of death and fear, the author has turned from us in order to address God directly: "You are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me." In other words, God is close…close enough to speak to.
There's not a whole lot in Hebrew to distinguish rod from staff; the truth is it sounds better than "your big stick and your other big stick." The rod and staff represent power and protection. They fend off attacks from those things that want to harm the sheep. And yet, curiously, it is not power which the psalmist chooses to highlight, but comfort. The rod and staff may represent a threat to attackers, but to the sheep, they represent reassurance and comfort.
The same is true in our two Scripture lessons this morning. In Exodus, as the people of God wander in the desert, newly freed from their Egyptian captivity but before they are dry and safe on the other side of the Red Sea, they are desperately in need of direction. After all, they have spent generations under the watchful eye of those who had enslaved them, being told what to do. And so, during the daytime they followed the cloud, and at night, the fire led them. Normally, smoke and fire would not be the most reassuring of signs; but here in the wilderness, struggling to find a way, with the Egyptians hot on their trail, they are surest sign of comfort.
Our lesson from Matthew is similar, but stands in stark contrast to our Exodus lesson. It is not the elemental powers of nature that will represent the divine; instead, God will now appear in human form…and not just any human form, but as the most vulnerable of all, a newborn baby. This child will be known as Emmanuel, God with us, and will save the people from their sins! The infant Jesus, to be born to Mary and Joseph, he will be the comforting presence. He will be the face of God.
Where have we seen the face of God? Where is that symbolic rod or staff of protection and comfort? Where are the smoke and the fire that represent not destruction but direction? Where is Emmanuel, the infant Jesus, the royal Christ?
Over time, whether I like it or not, the truth is that for some people, the pastor represents the face of God. Now if our theology is intact, we know what is wrong with that thought: pastors are just as human as the rest of us, prone to the same errors and triumphs that we all are. And yet, I have been at this work long enough to recognize both the burden and the joy it is to wear these vestments and carry the title of “pastor”.
I have said it before, but probably not often enough: what a privilege it is to represent Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church beyond the doors of this building. Whether it is to officiate at a wedding or a funeral, or to be on a panel at Oglethorpe University or the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, or even to stand at the door as our little Preschoolers are dropped off at carpool, most everywhere I go I am reminded of the role that this church plays in the community. Even a simple trip to the grocery store is a guarantee that I will run into someone who recognizes me, even if I have now reached the point where our Preschool children are more likely to call me “Ramsay’s dad” or “Cyrus’ dad” than “Pastor Sanders.”
I cannot think of a better word to describe this all than “privilege”. It is my privilege to be your pastor. In the past few years, I have been invited into difficult situations not only in your lives, but in the life of the community around us: the untimely death of a high school or a college student; the grieving of a school community over a beloved teacher; the agony of a young couple whose first pregnancy ended not in gain, but loss. And each and every time, even though it’s part of my job, that’s not why I go. I go because I should. And I don’t go because I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. I go because I know that it’s somewhere I need to be. I need to be there because it’s where God is already…some folks just need to be reminded of that fact.
But…here’s the catch: I’m not the only one that represents this church. My teacher was right: every single one of us, warts and all, represent Oglethorpe Presbyterian. You are the face of God to a world that is desperately looking for that rod and staff, for that smoke and fire, for those signs of comfort and presence, for Emmanuel.
When I was in Chicago, the church I attended was exploring using a youth program called Logos. While most youth programs look to a handful of leaders to chaperone “the kids” of the church, Logos requires the whole congregation be on board with youth ministry. Directly. We had several mid-week suppers and meetings about the program, and whether or not it would be a good fit for the church. One evening, I remember a member making a really good point: “Some people are good with kids, and some aren’t. We want people who are good with kids to lead the youth. Why should someone who is grumpy and negative be there, too? That seems counterproductive.”
The statement caused a lot of heads to nod around the Fellowship Hall in agreement, mine included. Then one of the elders then spoke, saying, “You want to know the truth? Whether you are involved in the youth program or not, the youth of this church will look to you as an example. If you are 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 years old, you put a face what a 40 or 50 or 60 or 90 year old Christian looks like. So whether or not you want to be directly involved in the youth program, you are already.”
That elder was a teacher, by the way, and she, too, was right.
Each of us here represents the face of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church to those we meet: not just the pastor, not just those of us who are paid to be here, not just the elders or deacons, but each one of you. You intersect with people every day who hunger to see the face of God: friends, neighbors, co-workers, customers, providers, even the stranger sitting at the next table or walking their dog past your house. Like it or not, you are the smoke and fire, the sign they are looking for.
So: are you ready for your homework this week?
If you’re not already, I encourage you to spend one month in a daily discipline of prayer. Make it easy: five minutes. No matter how busy we think we are, all of us can carve out five minutes a day for God. And here’s what I want you to pray for: pray that some time during the day, God would stir you, would quicken your heart for someone or something. Now here’s the tangible part of your homework: we have these generic Oglethorpe Presbyterian cards in the back with the church info. Grab a couple on your way out; and when God moves you and you suddenly find yourself in that moment as the face of God, use those cards as seems fit to do. Invite that person to church. Give them your contact info, or the church’s. You may not know what to say, but you do know where to be. And the shepherd is there, protecting and comforting. Emmanuel is, as promised, right there with us, each step of the way.