MESSAGE: “The Lord Is My Shepherd”
Text: Psalm 23
Liturgist Text: John 10:11-18
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to remind the parish that we have a shepherd who watches over us.
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A week ago, I had the privilege of baptizing Wyatte Veilleux, age 9, and his brother, Dean Easterling, 5 months old. I was reminded of the feelings I had when presenting my own children for baptism: delight in their tiny features and happy smiles, thanksgiving for health, hope for future, and trust in Creator. I recalled the words I spoke and offered them once again, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It isn’t that I expected God to be an insurance policy against trouble in my children’s lives, but I did trust in God’s ability to champion their spiritual growth. I wanted guardian angels for my children, and knew that God could parent them even when I could not.
Something there is in the human heart which longs to be taken care of. My children trusted in me as I trusted in my parents. Generally, that is the seed of faith development. But one day I learned to trust the One my parents trusted, and, though some days were rocky, God has not disappointed me. No matter how stoical or independent we may be, there are times when we need to hear, “It’s going to be alright.” Maybe that is why we like to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” because it reminds us that God is on the job, in heaven and on earth, and all is right with the world.
But all is not right with the world, really. Even as we tuck our children or grandchildren in their beds, we think of tragic events flexing in our headlines: indiscriminate shootings, 53 crew members on a routine submarine exercise who never return, COVID casualties even among the young, racial fear which turns deadly. What of their guardian angels? Like children ourselves, we look not for answers, but assurance. Assurance that God cares. Blessed assurance that God will still be present when twister winds yank stability away from our grip. For many, the 23rd psalm, also called the shepherd’s psalm, a psalm of David, serves such a purpose.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Have you ever been to a funeral where the 23rd psalm was not spoken? I am not sure that I have. I use it at almost every Celebration of Life over which I officiate. Why? Because it is a joyful profession of trust which calms spiritual adrenalin. Often, I quote scripture from the New Revised Standard, New International or Living translations, but not when I use the 23rd psalm at a funeral. On such occasions, I almost always use the King James Version because the Shakesperian English, idiom and cadence comfort the human heart.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want:” When we are young, Mom or Dad might be our shepherd. For others, a guardian, other relative or special friend might be our shepherd. How tragic it is for those who grow up without an earthly shepherd. Trust is especially difficult for the abandoned or abused. But it is also difficult for adults who have become too wise for faith.
Let me give an example. When I was 12, I went to a county fair with a mechanically-minded friend, convincing him to ride the ferris wheel. I delighted in the ride, rising above the landscape and dipping almost to the ground. My friend, however, did not share the delight. For him the ride was torture—a test of endurance—not from sickness, but from fear. All he could do was stare at the nuts and bolts of the machinery and speculate about when they were last greased or how securely they may or may not have been tightened. He endured the ride; I enjoyed the ride.
If we are self-sufficient types who trust only in self, we will endure life—always fearful that a bolt may loosen, causing things to fall apart. If we accept God as our shepherd, we learn to let go so that we discover joy in the journey. There may be ups and downs, but on the whole, it will be a meaningful, if not enjoyable ride.
Incidentally, David, who composed the 23rd psalm, was considered a shepherd of his people. For the most part, he was careful with their gift of trust. But he continually lifted their gaze heavenward to the Lord who is shepherd. Sometimes pastors are given such a trust, and it is a precious gift indeed. But if we have integrity, we lift that trust toward heaven, reminding all that the Lord Jesus is the true shepherd.
“I shall not want…” Oh, there are lots of things we want. We want a better car, an exotic vacation, a promotion, or a larger return on investment. We want to lose a few pounds, a potato from the garden, or those we love to love us back. We want lots of things, but if we trust in God, do we truly lack anything of great importance? I hope you can hear the implications of what David is suggesting. He is saying that there is no circumstance of life which can overwhelm God’s support. He anticipates the Easter triumph of life over death, forgiveness over punishment, grace over judgment.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters…” Do you remember the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff? They need to cross over a bridge, guarded by a troll, to reach the fertile meadow beyond. Sometimes we hesitate over taking the next bridge, afraid of trolls which may emerge. What if the problems are bigger than we are? Will they eat us up? If the Lord is our shepherd, we enter the future with confidence. We will not be alone as we cross over trouble or engage the challenge.
“He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When I was 7, my Mom insisted I go to summer 4-H camp for a week. I hated the idea. I was shy and a loner. I would not know anyone. She insisted, and I spent a miserable week away from home. The next year, she suggested I try another camp. You can imagine my reaction. “No way!” But she persisted and demanded I give camp another try. This time, I attended Camp Fireside in Barrington, NH where Pastor Jerry Ellis, Joel Ellis’ brother, was a chaplain. That made all the difference. I loved it, attended several years in succession and went through counselor training. As I look back, I can see that my formative spiritual experiences there shaped my capacity for Christian discipleship and pastoral ministry.
Our shepherd does not promise to take us on the easiest path—after all, the way to the cross was not exactly a picnic—but he does lead us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. God takes us into places that are good for faith development. God even uses tragic experiences of life to teach, never wasting a hurt. I do not believe God causes such things, generally, but God can bring music out of any lament. In so doing, we become part of God’s purpose, often healing others who feel broken in singing the blues. I would not be a pastor today, had I not been carried through the fears which paralyzed me.
“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 staff they comfort me.” The structure of psalm 23 is like a teeter totter, verses 1-3 on one side, verses 5-6 on the other. Verse 4, which I just quoted, is the fulcrum. Maybe this is why psalm 23 is recited at funerals so much—not because it is morbid–but because it holds grief in reassuring balance. It does for the heart what the hymn “Amazing Grace” does for the soul. It is a ‘hug’ from God, simple as that.
In the darkest time, God is still present. Do you remember the lament Martha met Jesus with when he belatedly arrived for the funeral of Lazarus? “Sir, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And then what to the scriptures say? “Jesus wept.” There in the middle of death’s shadow, right at the fulcrum of human frailty, Jesus wept with Martha, Mary, and all of us who grieve. But he didn’t leave it there. He did something new, igniting resurrection and life, “Lazarus, come forth!” Wonder of wonders, that is what Lazarus did!
The rod of the shepherd is a symbol of authority. All heaven and earth bow to God’s authority. When we trust in the good shepherd, we trust in one who can bring the dead to life. The rod, or staff, pulls us back from the brink. We lean on God, finding rest from the shifting sands of the hourglass of time.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In the ancient near-east of David’s day, a meal signified friendship and solidarity. Treaties and covenants were often established among kings in this way. The vassal was the guest of the over-lord. What a comfort to sit at the table as a guest of the good shepherd! No enemy would dare threaten in the presence of such!
When we visit others, often we are offered a cup of coffee. In David’s day, a guest arriving for a banquet might be offered a foot-washing and an anointing with oil. It was a sign of hospitality and a pledge of protection. “As long as you are a guest in my house, you will be safe.” God promises safety even in the midst of the enemy. No one can take hope from us, without our surrender.
“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As sheep follow their shepherd, as we follow our Lord, so shall goodness and mercy attend our way. These are fruits of listening for the voice of Jesus, and no vicissitudes of life can rob them from us. When the day is done, we will dwell in God’s house—not for a day, a week or a lifetime, but forever and ever. Amen.