Easter 4 A, 2017 Good Shepherd

Easter 4 A, 2017
St. John’s Lutheran, Phoenixville
May 7, 2017
Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  Psalm 23: 1

Many of you know that a couple of months ago, John Manney, beloved husband of Helen and who at 97 is the oldest member of St. John’s, fell and broke his hip.  Right before being taken to the operating room for surgery at Phoenixville Hospital, Helen and I stood by his bedside, praying for healing and a successful surgery.  As we concluded, we began praying the 23rd Psalm when John, who was filled with pain-killers and was rather confused because of that, joined in and with a clear and sure voice, prayed the whole Psalm – King James Version. He began “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” continue through the whole psalm, not missing a word and then concluded “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”  The Psalm is imprinted upon his soul.  How about you?  Do you also know this psalm by heart?  Or maybe another piece of scripture?  Psalm 100 – Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth?  John 3: 16 – for God so loved the world?  I Corinthians 13 – If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love?  Do you have a “know-by-heart” verse?  If not, John Manney will surely share his with you.

That’s what my Grandmother Krommes did with me and my sisters, Beth and Amy one cold and rainy afternoon in Hazleton.  She was babysitting us and I suspect we were driving her crazy. To quiet us, she got out her Bible and had first grader, Beth and second grader, me copy the six verses of Psalm 23.  Amy was just in kindergarten and not yet much of a writer, so my Grandmother worked one on one with her, going verse by verse reading with Amy repeating.  She said she’d give each of us a dime if we could memorize the whole psalm.  I remember her smile when we successfully completed the task.  The dimes were soon exchanged for bags of penny candy at the corner store.  While the sweets were immediately consumed, the Psalm has stayed with us.

How about you?   When did you learn this psalm?  Sunday school?  A parent or grandparent?  Maybe the first time you encountered it was on a memorial card given out a funeral?  Or perhaps this morning when we sang “Shepherd me, O God.”  Let’s do the refrain again: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

The image of the Lord as our shepherd doesn’t really connect to most 21st century Americans.  If the Lord is our shepherd, that means we’re sheep.  And most of us want to be anything but sheep.  So much so, that instead of knowing God is our shepherd, we tend to treat the Lord as our consultant.  We turn to God for advice or a way out of a tough situation, but reserve the right to respectfully disagree.  Love your enemies, but surely not “that enemy.”  Forgive, but certainly not forget.  Give to the poor, but only the deserving ones.  We amend the shepherd’s job description telling him the green pastures better have a good school system and the still waters a terrific view.  We replace the shepherd’s authority with our own, proud in our self-determination and persistent in our individual pursuit of happiness. The problem is instead of not being in want, we always want, more and more and more. Before we realize it, our wants are in control.

Lutheran theologian, David Lose invites us to try an experiment.  Take a piece of paper and divide into two columns.  In one column list the top things you want.  In the other list the top the things you are grateful for.  Then consider this question:  Which would have a greater impact, losing all the things for which you are currently grateful, or gaining all the thing you currently want?   Then ponder, what does it mean to be shepherded beyond your wants – to trust that God gives us green pastures, still waters, restores our souls and lead us along paths of righteousness.

Let’s sing the refrain again: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” I think the old King James’ translation of the next verse is the best.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:  for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  Did you notice, it’s the valley of the shadow of death, not the valley of death?  My favorite Seminary Professor, Joe Sittler explained the difference.  He wrote, “The valley of death is constituted by the moment of death itself, but for all of life one walks through a valley over which the shadow of death moves.  One moves towards death.  We live towards nonliving; we move toward nonbeing…The whole of life is a valley under the shadow of death, and the only way to celebrate the gravity of life is to know that.”[i]

We’re all in the valley of the shadow, even the infants among, even Emilio as he is baptized this day.  For right after being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he will be marked with the cross of Christ forever.  That cross, that sign of our Lord’s death, will always be on him.  As it is always on each one of us.  It’s our invisible tattoo.  On Thursday in our grief group, we talked about the valley of the shadow of death and how real that was for each person as they cared for their beloved one in their dying – how the shadow was there in every doctor’s visit, in the hospice room and at the moment of death.  But also, how shadow is still persists in their grief – some days darker than others, but it is always there.  Nonetheless, the shepherd’s rod is at work in the group, beating back despair, and the staff with its large hook yanking them out of danger.  Just to know that the Good Shepherd is with them provides comfort and courage to live another day.

Again, the refrain:  “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”  Now the shepherd turns into a host.  And not just any host, but a host who even in the midst of enemies provides for the guests, blessing those at the table, letting their cups overflow with abundance.  My grandmother who imprinted this psalm on our souls, was such a host.  She wasn’t fancy.  She never owned a dining room set, just a metal kitchen table that when extended could seat twenty, with plenty of room on the kitchen couch for overflow. On the wall above the couch was an old clock that chimed the hours and above that a picture of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Her garden provided much of what the table held.  Even weeds were turned into dandelion salad heaped with sweet bacon dressing.  I remember great feasts which much laughter.  Afterwards the cousins did the dishes while the adults talked into the evening.  They were sacred days overflowing with goodness and mercy.  When I was a child, I thought they would last forever.   And they have, in part because she gave us this psalm and made sure the words were etched on our hearts.

Today along with Amy and Juan and their Godparents, Kevin and Angelica, we promise Emilio the same gift when we say we will support and pray for him in his new life in Christ, just as we have done with every other child who has been baptized at this font.  It happens through Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Confirmation, Youth and Family ministry.  It especially happens when we gather in worship, dwelling in the house of the Lord.  Here the table is prepared and our cups overflow with goodness and mercy.  Here we are brought from death into life.

And now the grandmothers – Margie and Carla – know when you get out your Bible to teach Emilio, Layla and Chole this psalm — I suggest one of you do Psalm 23 and other Psalm 100 – because all three of these children make lots of joyful noise – it’s going to take more than a dime. Each one of those penny candies goes for at least a quarter now, but the gift given will be priceless.

The Good Shepherd promises to be always with us.  That’s good to know – for you the people of St. John’s and for me and my family as we begin a season of sabbatical.  It promises to be a time of beautiful gardens and still waters, of restoration and renewal of being shepherded into life.  So let us sing, one last time, “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” Amen. 
Pastor Cynthia Krommes

[i] Joseph Sittler, “Anything New in Psalm 23?”  Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1981, 21.