Date: May 22, 2022
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 23
Sermon: The Lord Is My __
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
It’s been a rough week or so. There was the tragic shooting targeting Black people in Buffalo. And the shooting in a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California. In the US, we have surpassed one million covid deaths. And there is the continuing war in Ukraine.
And those are just a few of the latest horrors that are assaulting us. When I saw the flags at half mast last weekend, I didn’t even know why. It was the covid deaths. It could have been one of many things. It’s a rough time! And today we turn to beautiful Psalm 23 often recited at memorial services but really a psalm about how to live – how to live given the threats and perils and stresses that life inevitably and inexorably holds. Implied in the image of the shepherd is the idea that there are sheep needing a shepherd.
Most of us are not from an agricultural background. What do we know of sheep? Apparently, they are affectionate, docile, and defenseless. And they need care and supervision. Kind of like small children. Sheep were an integral part of life for the people of the Bible. There are over 500 references to sheep and shepherds in scripture. Sheep were part of sustaining a livelihood. They provided food, milk, wool, and skins. They were a measure of wealth. And a medium of exchange. And they were part of the cultic system of sacrifice. Sheep were integral to life. So those hearing of sheep and shepherds in the holy writings of the Bible were very familiar with what these images conveyed.
So, with our time and culture gap, let’s explore this image and see what it might mean for us. The psalmist, given the reality of the threats that life presents – death, enemies, evil, lack of food and drink – chooses “The Lord is my shepherd” as an image of being provided for, protected, guided, sheltered, and cared for. So, if you were wanting to express that kind of sentiment today, what might you say? What word would you use? The Lord is my _. There ’s a blue scrap of paper in your bulletin. Give it some thought, then write something down. I’ll collect the papers and we’ll read them.
These are the responses from the congregation:
Life guide, father, inspiration, protector, kindly neighbor, enlightener, caretaker, guardian, friend group, candle, mother hen, mother lion, beloved friend, guide, rock, strength, floor, refuge, teacher, ever present reminder, my comfort and stillness, umbrella in a rainstorm, shelter in a hurricane of life. The Lord is my soundtrack of life, bringing joy, rhythm, love, light, unity, energy, understanding and peace. Connection, strength and comfort, guiding presence, refuge, healer, inspiration, joy of light – loving – kindness.
These are wonderful expressions of guidance, care, and provision.
Because we are so removed from the imagery associated with a shepherd in Biblical times, we don’t see straight away that the word shepherd in Hebrew connoted the image of a king, a monarch, a ruler, a sovereign. There was royal authority implied. The rod and staff were not only for guiding the sheep but were also meant to imply the staff, the scepter of royal authority. So this shepherd image was much more than an idyllic agrarian reference. It had strong political overtones.
Now, we Americans are not ones to immediately resonate to monarchical imagery. We’re the ones who rebelled against the king and established a governmental system that intentionally did not have a king and did not concentrate power in one person, or office, or even branch of government. That’s why we have three branches – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – supposedly with checks and balances. We don’t like the idea of one leader with complete authority, power, and control no matter how benevolent or enlightened they may be. And as we look at history, it seems like the leaders that have had complete power and control over their people have often abused that authority for personal gain in ways that do not protect and provide for the people. In a situation where power is concentrated in the hands of a human, what we often see is that power abused at the expense of the people, not for their welfare.
So, this idea of a shepherd as a political, royal figure, to whom complete loyalty is given, this rubs against our American grain. The statement, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is a pledge of loyalty, of fealty, of devotion. It is a commitment. A choice. A vow. A bond binding one to this shepherd. This ruler. This sovereign. Placing complete trust in God. Alone. No other. Period. That implied message is well beyond the agrarian connotations of the shepherd image that we may see. Yet that deeper message would have been immediately recognized by the original hearers of the psalm and those who came after for centuries.
The Lord is my shepherd. This is a vow made by someone who will have no other loyalties or competing claims for allegiance save God alone. There will be no rivalry or conflict. It is a statement affirming devotion to God alone. With no competition from an economic system. A political party. Liberal or conservative values. Allegiance to social systems that perpetuate racism or sexism or capitalism or patriarchy. To say, “The Lord is my shepherd” is to express loyalty, allegiance, and trust in God and God alone. As God is portrayed by the psalmist. It is to be freed from all other attachments and competing claims. It is to be answerable to and to serve God and God alone.
To go back to sheep, if they have more than one shepherd and one tells them to do this and the other tells them to do that, how do they decide? No. “The Lord is my shepherd” eliminates all of that. There is but one authority and allegiance. No division or digression or competition. The “Lord is my shepherd.” I will follow the way of Divine Love.
And when that loyalty is established, that commitment made, to the exclusion of all other potentially ultimate allegiances, how do things unfold? What is that like? To commit exclusively to the reality of God?
Well, as the first verse of the psalm tells us, “I shall not want.” That means we will not be in need. Spiritually or physically. We are led to green pastures, beside still waters, our souls are restored, there is food and drink. Later we are told a table is laid out before us and there is oil. I shall not want. We are provided for – body and soul.
I shall not want. I shall lack nothing. I will only want what I need. This assurance of provision is in direct conflict with the consumer society around us that is dependent on making us feel that we continually need something that we do not have. Our society is based on greed not need. When we live in the reality of God, we disentangle ourselves from all of that. We refocus our desires on what we need and on the needs of others, not on endless perceived, contrived wants. And then we can see the incredible generosity of God and the abundance of the world around us. To choose the reality of God is to choose to live in abundance not want. It is to have no other desires that fall outside the generosity of God. To trust that. I shall not want.
To name God as shepherd, as primary authority and to hold allegiance to Divine Love alone is to live not only without want but also without fear. Yes, there are perils and threats to our safety and well being. There are enemies. There is evil. There is the valley of the shadow of death. Oh yes! But God is with us, God is within us, and we do not need to live in fear. The love of God is our protection and comfort in whatever circumstances we are faced with. Love powers transformation.
There are those who think that churches should be protected with guns and armed security guards in light of recent incidents. I try to appreciate the fear and the threat that leads to such a conclusion, but that is in direct conflict with the way of the shepherd, the God of Love, as well as the embodiment of that love in Jesus. How is shooting your enemies loving them? Only love has the power to transform a situation. Violence just perpetuates division and hatred. It does not heal it.
Here we remember the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was personally, directly threatened by violence and eventually assassinated:
“Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. . . violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
King also reminds us, “. . . the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. . . . The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.” We can hear the echoes of the twenty-third psalm: “You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
In the recent shooting at the Taiwanese Church in California, apparently the parishioners subdued the gunman, disarmed him, held him down by the neck, and tied him up with an extension cord until the police arrived. Apparently the only words he uttered during the entire horrific encounter were said while they were awaiting police. In an interview, the former pastor of the church, Rev. Billy Chang, tells us, “I knew he was Chinese when he said, ‘I can’t breathe’ in Chinese, probably because someone was holding his neck, and then they loosened up a bit so the gunman could breathe.” [https://www.voanews.com/a/interview-pastor-billy-chang-describes-california-church-shooting/6582258.html ] The church people had disabled the threat, but even though he had killed a doctor in their midst and shot 5 other people, they did not seek to kill him. They sought to stop him from harming others, but they did not seek his death. They were Christian. They were following the shepherd, the one who leads in love.
Those words, ‘I can’t breathe’ bring to mind another incident that ended in a very different way. The people at the Taiwanese church were following the shepherd.
We also want to notice that to choose to have God as our shepherd means that we are part of a flock. We are part of a group, a family, a community. Life in God is communal; it is not rugged individualism. It is not DIY. It is living in God’s house together, devoted to God, and serving God’s family, one another. The intention is that the provision of God comes to us through one another and in this way of relating we find our highest good.
Several years ago I had the delight of going to a dog herding exhibition in the hills of Wisconsin. The whole day was spent watching the dogs herd the sheep. It was amazing. In one display, the dog drove the sheep down a hill as a group. The sheep all had ribbons around the neck – some red, some blue. The dog sorted the sheep into two separate groups, the ones wearing red and the ones wearing blue. Then the dog got the red ones into a pen and shut the gate. And then the dog got the ones with blue ribbons into another pen and shut the gate. Was the dog amazing? Of course! But there was also the cooperation of the sheep. The twenty-third psalm reminds us that we are part of a flock, a community, a group. Meant to live together. It is not an individualistic, solitary image, but one of communal life that includes even enemies.
Now it can look daunting to choose this path even though it promises so much providence and protection and comfort. And all the original hearers had was the psalm and the Hebrew scriptures. But we also have the witness of Jesus to reinforce the beauty of life in God. In the New Testament, we are told of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He embodies the care and comfort and providence of Divine Love. He lives out the promises of God in this psalm for us to see and experience. Still waters. There is the story of the stilling of the storm. Green grass. There is the story of the feeding of the multitudes. And hosting the Last Supper. Who taught that his burden is light? Who charged his followers to love their enemies, neighbors, themselves, and one another? Jesus’ ministry is a testimony to the truth of the psalm. It is a witness to the wonders of life in God. It is an assurance that trust in Divine Love is not misplaced. We have Jesus showing us the alternative life waiting for us in the reality of God.
I read this week about a pastor who was speculating about having to teach an impromptu church school lesson. What story would she choose? What would she share with the children? She knew exactly what she would pick. The story of the lost sheep. The shepherd who leaves the flock to search for one sheep that is lost. The shepherd who is so concerned about the well being of each and every sheep. The shepherd who forgets none of the sheep and leaves none alone in danger. The shepherd who searches out the one separated, lost, in peril. This pastor wanted the children to know they were loved by that kind of a God.
The last line of the psalm is usually read as, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” Well, that word, ‘follow’, is actually a word that means pursue. So the original meaning was that goodness and mercy do not follow us, but pursue us, all the days of our lives. It is an image of the shepherd coming after us, seeking us out, to bless us with goodness and mercy,
Isn’t goodness and mercy what we need in these difficult days? And a table set in the presence of our enemies? God is the good shepherd. Made known to us in Jesus. It is our job to be part of the flock placing our ultimate trust not in money, not in a political ideology, not in nationalism, but solely in the shepherd. Amen.
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