Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
A Psalm of David.
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.
Healing and Sheltering: Psalm 23
I read an article about four years ago and I’ve wanted to preach on it since. I just couldn’t find the right time. Today might be a right time. As we are in a time of social isolation and maybe even sheltering in place, of prayers for healing, of the need for good leadership, this story might serve as a guide and a buoy for us. I hope you will hear this story about a basketball coach and her players and remember all the sheep and their shepherds and all the people who need healing and guidance through the valleys.
In 2016, Coach Pat Summitt, storied coach of women’s basketball at the University of Tennessee, died after having been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. In the days and weeks after she died, I was not at all surprised to hear former players and rival coaches speak of her deep skill, tenacity, and fierce care for her players. One of her former players, Abby Conklin, said, “There's something about that woman. She gets things out of you that you never knew were in you." Another player, Candace Parker said, “She taught me hard work. She's the hardest-working woman I've ever met in my life. She just didn't just say things; she did what she said. That was evident in the way she lived and the way she taught us as players." While I read those two quotes in an article by a journalist named Mechelle Voepel, they echoed something I always heard growing up in Tennessee. Pat Summitt was a really good coach.
Another article, though, showed me parts of Coach Summit’s career that I knew less about. Professor Jonathan W. Gray wrote about her for Fusion Network. He said, with a clarity that I appreciate as an East Tennessean, that Pat Summitt was the greatest college basketball coach of all time. He also said that it wasn’t just her impressive win record (She did lead the Lady Vols to 1,098 wins in her 38 seasons as coach) that helped her merit being called the greatest. He said, “her character and her quiet commitment to her players’ well-being, both on and off the court” was what made her the greatest. You see, Coach Summitt cared deeply for her players. She worked for the well-being of their whole selves in a way that few coaches have reproduced.
Dr. Gray argues that you can look at the diversity of the background of her teams, teams that she began cultivating in the 1980’s in East Tennessee, to see evidence of the trust she was able to build with her team and their families. She was able to convince black families from Chicago, New York, and Atlanta that her program would be a safe place where their daughters would flourish, even though it was in a smaller, less diverse, southern city. Many of these students flourished under her mentorship. Some of the players with the greatest legacies as Tennesse Volunteers are black women like Semeka Randall, Tamika Catchings, and Chamique Holdsclaw. They trusted her with their college careers and she made sure they could thrive in Knoxville. Coach Summitt would also find great players in rural and small towns across the country, many of them white, and convince their parents to send them to a city, any city, to play. They may have never even had a conversation with someone who was black, much less played on a team with black players. And, Coach Summitt would take all these players under her wing and teach them to be a team.
Dr. Gray held up Chamique Holdsclaw as a particularly powerful example of Coach Summitt’s dedication. While she was a Lady Vol, they won three back to back national championships. She has also been called the best women’s basketball player of the 20th Century. Holdsclaw played professionally after college, too, but struggled with physical injuries and significant mental health issues. At one point, she didn’t believe she should live anymore. At her lowest, she was arrested and ended up on probation for three years for assault. She is doing better now. She has a treatment plan for her bipolar disorder and depression and has worked hard to help break the stigma around mental illness. In talking about her recovery, she has talked about Coach Summitt’s role in her life.
Holdsclaw began to have depression symptoms while she was in college. She came to Coach Summitt and Coach made sure she could go to a therapist off campus, where she felt more comfortable. Holdsclaw herself talks about hard it was for her to actually engage with that first therapist and she didn’t go for very long. She would have another low point several years into her professional career, disappearing into her home and not responding to anyone who came to check on her. Coach Summitt came to her city to try to help. Later, after her arrest for assault, Coach Summitt asked her to come to Knoxville to check in. Holdsclaw credits that conversation as being a start to a recovery of her health. When Coach helped her see that she’d need to work hard to be well and work with a healthcare team, Holdsclaw would begin put in the work she needed to, with this different kind of team, to get to a better place.
Also important to this story is that Chamique Holdsclaw had come out as a lesbian while is college. It wasn’t widely known in the media, but her coach knew. It was not easy to be an out college student in the late 90’s, especially with all the attention that was on her for her basketball skills. Other coaches during that same era would demand their players be in the closet and would recruit players by assuring homophobic families that there were no lesbians on their teams. At least one division 1 coach actually had a reputation for forcing players who she assumed were gay off her team. Coach Summitt never did that. She never insisted her players remain closeted. She never chased them off her team. She just coached them.
An author named Heath Hogan told me something that helped me figure out how to tell this story. Chamique Holdsclaw wore number 23 on her jersey when she played for the volunteers. In that era, most people assumed she did so because it was Michael Jordan’s number and he was her favorite player. But, she actually wore 23 because of Psalm 23. Her grandmother June was deeply religious and had raised Holdsclaw. She had been a deep well of support for her whole. Chamique Holdsclaw wore 23 because Psalm 23 was her grandmother’s favorite Psalm.
Today, when I hear these words from scripture about a God who is a good shepherd, I think of Coach Summitt’s work as a shepherd to her players, Chamique Holdsclaw in particular. Imagine what Holdsclaw’s life could have been had she ended up with a coach who did not support her mental health or tried to run her out of basketball because she was a lesbian. Imagine how things might have been had her coach not continued to care for her long after her college ball days were over. It seems clear that, even when her life was the hardest, she was confident, with Coach Summitt, that she was always welcome at the table... That she would be offered mercy... that in their relationship, that she could find stability in the valley of the shadow of death. When I hear this story, and the Divine Spirit that connected these two women, I am sure that it is one place where scripture comes alive.
Right now, we are living in our own deathly shadows. Those of us who are lucky have safe homes to shelter, flexible jobs, and family and friends that can run errands for us if we are sick or worried about getting sick. We have working phones and internet to keep us connected. And, even if we are lucky, we’re still fearful for our health, the health of the people we love, and the health of our nation and world. It is good to be reminded of the ways that we see the Good Shepherd reflected in the good shepherds in our midst, be they be basketball coaches or the directors of the Maine CDC. It is good to be reminded that good shepherding looks like hard work and fierce care for the most vulnerable. And, it is good to be reminded God is here, in our valleys, with us. And, if our Good Shepherd is here, we can find a way into the green pastures. May we find comfort this valley as well as a path to get us out of it.
Sources I mention in this sermon
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.