The Lord is My Shepherd Sermon
Psalm 23, April 26, 2020
Rev. David J. Clark
Some years ago the phone rang lat at night. It was a woman calling from her hospital room. She said, “Pastor Dave, I’m sorry about calling so late, but something is really bothering me and I can’t rest until I know.”
“What comes after ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.’ I can’t remember the next line”
I said, “I will fear no evil.”
She said, “Yes! O, thank you. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me before my enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. 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 could just hear in her voice how her anxiety shrank with every line. She told me later that she feel right asleep afterwards.
The 23rd Psalm is the go-to Psalm for when you are anxious and afraid.
A long time ago I came across a book called A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm in which Phillip Keller gives some great insights about this Psalm it’s worth a look. Those insights plus others gained in biblical studies put together a beautiful picture of what the Psalm means and how it can help us when we are anxious.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. When I had to memorize the Psalm as a kid, this made no sense to me. I thought it meant the Lord is my shepherd even though I don’t want him to be. I shall not want means I shall not lack. I put my trust in God that I shall not lack anything I really need because the shepherd is looking out for me, the sheep.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures. Green pastures are what it’s all about for a sheep. It’s really only green a few months a year in that part of the world. The shepherd commands rest and renewal. Maybe this coronavirus time is a time of lying down and reflecting on what is important.
He leadeth me beside still waters. Did you know sheep don’t like to drink from running water? They want it perfectly still. Still waters is a symbol of the peace that God brings to us.
He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Sheep on their own are really bizarre creatures. If you watch them they will follow each other around but not get anywhere. They will walk in a line until one veers off, then others will follow that one, and another veers off for no reason. We’re like that–chasing this idea or that, this leader or that. This new solution or that. But we aren’t aimless sheep. We have a one who is worthy to be followed. We have a moral code, a path to follow. A path of peace, of kindness, of generosity, of justice.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. There actually is a dangerous valley a shepherd lead his sheep through to get from one area of feeding grounds to another. It was rocky and dangerous, so narrow only one sheep at a time could get through. And sometimes the sheep would get stuck and need to be pulled out by the shepherd’s staff.
When we go through scary valleys, we are being watched over. Led through. Even when we die our faith is that we will always be surrounded by the love of the caring shepherd.
You may make up your own little Yea, though litany. I think of the song Day-yo. Daylight come and me wanna go home.” Yea though I walk through this unsettling time of coronavirus… Yea though I’m not sure where the money is going to come from… Yea though I don’t know how long I have left in this world…Yea though I am afraid, “I’m gonna trust cause he’s leadin’ me home.”
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies. There are a few fun nuances going on here. First, there was a hill called the table rock where shepherds would take their sheep. From atop this plateau, the shepherd could more easily watch out for predators and secure the sheep. We don’t need to focus so much on our worries when we have the shepherd. Even though there are threats, we can eat.
I always think about the communion table. Jesus once said, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.” Again and again, we are led back to a table of forgiveness, of love, of grace. The Lord is my shepherd.
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. At the end of the day the shepherd looks over every sheep. Looking for scrapes and bruises and put healing oils and ointments on them.
Remember this Psalm is attributed to King David, the shepherd boy who became king. When he and all kings of Israel were coronated, someone would anoint their heads with oil. Now you’re king responsible for caring for the people around you. I always think about making the sign of the cross on someone’s head at baptism. Now you are claimed as the beloved child of God, responsible for caring for the people around you.
I also think of healing services we have. There is a tradition that goes all the way back of saying prayers for people and anointing them with oil as a sign of spiritual and internal healing we need. You can do it for yourself. A little oil–nothing you are allergic to and make a small dot or sign of the cross on your forehead. Or do it for whoever you are with. A sign of being the anointed of God looked after. That we pray for healing of mind, body, and soul.
After the sheep were anointed with the oils, the shepherd held up a cup for them to bury their faces in to drink and stay hydrated. Water would spill over the rim of the cup.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Okay, for some of you we just have to get this out of the way. Surely? Don’t me Shirley, my name is Dave. The Hebrew word we translate as follow is much more intense. It really means pursue. Goodness and mercy are after you, purusing you, trying to hunt you down. But you keep running away from the goodness and mercy God may be trying to give you. Why don’t you just stop and let them catch up to you. Embrace the goodness and mercy.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Whether we live or die, we are with God. Watched over, cared for.
My friend who called in the middle of the night took comfort in the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is My Shepherd. You can too. I suggest memorizing it–make it your go-to passage in times of trouble. Amen.
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