Today’s sermon is a little different – a mutual reflection on Psalm 23 rather than proclamation by a preacher. That’s why it’s printed in the bulletin under sermon instead of being part of the readings. Let’s begin by reading together the first verse of Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
Identities are established. God is the shepherd, and we, you and I, are the sheep. How does that feel to be called a sheep? An animal in need of herding, who according to the prophet Isaiah and Handel’s Messiah, sheep who have gone astray. Is that you today? Lost – lost in missing mom or missing a child or missing that no one has ever wished you Happy Mother’s Day or by extension, Happy Father’s Day. Acknowledging that we are sheep is accepting our vulnerability. In the land of the free and the home of the brave – such stark honesty is often viewed as pathetic, even weak. And yet, when we realize the Lord is our shepherd and we are his sheep we do not want for anything and in our vulnerability become stronger. Our identity is given to us by God and can never been taken away. We count.
Jesus tells a story about this – how one evening a shepherd was gathering his flock or her flock for women were and are also shepherds, and counts – one sheep, two sheep, three sheep, all the way up to 99 sheep, one is missing. The shepherd sets off to find the lost one. Oh, there are so many ways for sheep to get lost – tempted, they wander off to the greener pastures; self-centered, they don’t care about the rest of the herd; worried, they circle around and around in anxiety; rebellious, they decide they don’t need a shepherd to protect them…so many ways to get lost. Maybe the shepherd staples some posters to telephone poles, “Have you seen my sheep?” Or she calls the neighbors or he sets off into the woods beyond the back pasture and when the 100th sheep is found, carries it home and throws big party for the entire neighborhood. We count, everything single one of us. We do not want for anything.
The next verse tells us how. Let’s read it: The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. In the same way, parents make children take naps and provide for their needs. I remember as a young mom, picking up my sons from day care and stopping at the grocery store before going home to make dinner. The melt-down happened in the cereal aisle with a crisis over Cocoa Krispies. Both children were in tears, the youngest screaming. I picked him up, firmly held the other’s hand and left the shopping cart right there. As we made our exit, I shouted to the check-out clerk, “There’s nothing frozen in the abandon cart is Aisle 3.” She held up her hand in a blessing. God makes us lie down. God leads us to still waters.
Such astonishing grace brings the revelation of verse 3 – You restore my soul, O Lord and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake. Did you notice how instead of talking about God, we’re now talking to God? You restore my soul! How does God restore your soul? Prayer? Music? Gardening? Worship? Take a moment and share with your neighbor or if you’d rather not, simply thank God. How does God guide you along right pathways? At Wednesday morning Bible morning when we got to this verse Atea said, “Jesus helps me. I talk to him all day long. I can’t keep calling up my kids for every little thing. Jesus and I figure it out.” A restored soul.
Together, verse 4: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Theologian Joseph Sittler wrote of this: “for all of life one walks through a valley over which the shadow of death moves.” This week, not fearing evil, 18 year-old Kendrick Castillo became the most recent martyr to school gun violence in our country. Since Columbine, 20 years ago, over 228,000 students have experienced the trauma of gun-violence in their schools and 202 students, staff and teachers martyred. And while it is true that for all of life, we walk through a valley over which the shadow of death moves, apparently, our nation lives in such fear of this evil that we continue to permit its perpetuation instead of confronting it. Know that God, with his rod and staff by which God disciplines and defends his sheep, including us, provides comfort that goes beyond the platitudes to courageous action that embraces attention to mental health issues, and the easy availability of guns and assault weapons. When we know that God is always with us, we are comforted and out of that comes courage.
The next verse shows us how: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil and my cup is running over. When this psalm was first sung the table would have been the weekly Sabbath meal or perhaps a Passover celebration and the oil was a sign of blessing, the overflowing cup, of abundance. That such gifts were received in the presence of enemies acknowledges their life-giving power. For us the communion table is where we receive the body and blood of Christ, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Our heads were also anointed with oil at baptism and then again at confirmation, marked with the cross of Christ forever. We belong to God who is with us, now and forever, even in the presence of enemies, so that we do not fear, but can have faith.
Now, the final verse: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I like how Eugene Peterson translates this one – Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. Think about that – how has God’s beauty and love chased after you? For me it was one of our sisters in Christ noticing I looked tired called me to tell me she was praying for me. In that gift she gave a pastor – a word that means shepherd — time to be a sheep, just a sheep. And because the Lord is our shepherd, that was more than enough. God’s beauty and love was chasing after me, just as God’s beauty and love chases after you. Together let us dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.