1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; 2 he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.Psalm 23 (RSV)
(In part one of this sermon series, we looked at the nature of the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23. In this sermon, we will look at the nature of the trust we are invited to embrace as children of God.)
This poem presents two images to help us comprehend the trust and the God who inspired that trust emphasized in the first part of this two-sermon series on Psalm 23. God is first presented as a good shepherd who cares for his sheep. So often, we have idyllic and sentimental notions regarding sheep, but in fact, sheep are not very bright; they are down-right dumb. They need a shepherd to lead them, care for them, and defend them. Or stated more correctly, they need a good shepherd to allow for their survival. And the psalmist praises the goodness of his shepherd.
- “My shepherd has led me into green pastures.” He has sought out the best grazing land. I have more than enough to eat.
- “Our shepherd has led us beside still waters.” He would never put us in jeopardy leading us into fast, rushing streams in which we might drown or guide us toward turbulent water which could frighten us.
- “Our shepherd has led us down safe, straight ways and not down narrow, rocky, winding, and steep paths or dark places where dangerous animals might lurk. He has guided safely over the terrain as we journey from pasture to pasture for grazing.
Good food, good water, and good paths—if you were a sheep, what more could you want? Notice that all the verbs in this passage refer to the shepherd—the sheep do nothing. We are presented with a life of trust surrounded by amazing generosity. There is no hunger, no thirst, no fear, no anxiety, no danger. The psalmist could sing, “It is well with my soul because of the Shepherd who leads me.”
The second image presented to help us comprehend this trust we have in Yahweh is that of a traveler going through dangerous territory. Think of the road in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That path was nothing like the kind of highway we are familiar with today. On this winding, steep, descending path there was no police protection or secure rest areas. But thieves, wild animals, and slippery slopes abounded.
“But Yahweh is my guardian and protector, so I will fear no evil. Why this confidence? Because you, O God, are with me.” The Bible is constantly telling us not to be afraid. Jesus repeatedly reassures his disciples with the words, “Be not afraid.” The invitation to abandon anxiety and embrace trust is central to the Sermon on the Mount. The first words out of the mouths of angels in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament are frequently, “Do not fear.” The Scriptures know that we are an anxious people and can become paralyzed by fear. But with Yahweh as our companion—with this God whose name is Emmanuel (“God with us”), there is nothing ultimately to fear. (That word “ultimately” is critical for a mature understanding of the kind of trust we are called to embrace.) When God is with us, things on the journey of life are not as they seem to be on the surface—certainly not as they seem to those who do not know God is with them.
So, the psalmist says, “Let me tell you about the valley of the shadow of death when God is with us.” In that valley we are comforted by God’s protective rod and staff (tools for guidance, defense, and protection.) The perceptive reader of this psalm will now realize that there is a transition from sheep to traveler. We should also remember that both the rod and the staff in the hands of a king were scepters. We are guided by God’s presence, truth, and word. By such guidance, we are safe from all that would rob us of abundant, joyful, and love-filled life.
We thought in this valley there would be no resources, but God has set a table of generous food before us. In this valley where we expected scarcity, God pours precious oil on our heads. Our lives brim over with God’s awesome grace and generosity. Where we expected dismay and mourning, we were met with jubilation and blessing.
These are all beautiful images, aren’t they? So, what’s wrong with this psalm? Asked bluntly, do these images square with life as most people live it? Doesn’t this poet seem to look at the world through rose-colored glasses? And even more bluntly, we may even ask if he is a gullible idiot who can’t see the world as it is.
What about the reality of suffering? Oppression? Evil? What about those mean people who would have no compunction robbing, oppressing, and killing their fellow humans? What about centuries of slavery? The Holocaust? Children stolen from their parents and forced to work fourteen-hour days chained to benches and beaten if they do not meet their daily quota of work? What about those thousands of children who will starve to death today in this world?
I am reminded of those who survive an air crash or a terrible car accident and who say, “The Lord was with me! God saved me! Hallelujah, Amen!” My question is always, “And what about all those who did not survive such tragedies? Was God not also with them?” Is God not their Good Shepherd? Does God not lead them into green pastures and beside still waters and bless them with tables overflowing with food and lives characterized by good times? Did the psalmist not think of those people even in his religious community who trusted Yahweh and suffered unspeakable pain, oppression, and death?
Of course, this poet lived in a culture well acquainted with hunger, drought, violence, and oppression. His society did not have the safety nets we take for granted today—there were no welfare programs, food stamps, hospitals, social security, pensions, investment funds, etc. The Book of Psalms, in fact, has many references to all that can go wrong within the human family (famine, war, injustice, oppression, disease, death). There are many different types of psalms in the psalter, but the type with the most psalms is called “lament.” A lament is uttered when a person feels the absence of God as he or she faces the horrible and painful dilemmas of life. Outside of the Black church, you will have a very difficult time finding a single lament in most church hymnals. Either we no longer experience such abandonment and suffering, or we are not as honest as the people of the Hebrew Scriptures about the harsh realities of life. Even our Lord cried out a lament from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22)
No, the problem is not that this poet is a half-witted Pollyanna who is blind to the suffering and injustices many face daily in this world. The problem is that we don’t know what he is really saying.
First of all, he assumes that God as Creator has made a world of harmony and abundance. The world has more than enough to feed the populations of the earth. God is not the problem—we humans who are driven by greed, arrogance, and fear are the problem. There is enough (more than enough) if as a world community, we lived according to the principles of compassion, justice, and sharing. In other words, much of the world would be spared suffering, oppression, and death if we were guided by the ways of this Good Shepherd. (The feeding of the five-thousand, reminiscent of the manna God provided in the wilderness, is an example of the miraculous power of compassion, justice, and sharing. A boy shares his sack lunch, and multitudes are fed. Everyone had enough, and there were baskets of food left over. People stupidly argue over the nature of miracle while missing the point—a very ancient point going back to the exodus. There is enough if we share and care.)
Secondly, the psalmist, like all authors in the Scriptures, assumes we live in a community, and when that community imitates the ways of God, there is blessing and joy. Even when people suffer from disease or face death or grieve the deaths of loved ones, within a loving community, there is strength, compassion, solidarity, and comfort to be found. Over and over as a pastor, I saw people go through their unique valleys of death aided by the Good Shepherd who was present in their brothers and sisters of faith. They came through those valleys through the presence and love of the Good Shepherd and all of Her under-shepherds (which is who we are if we are part of the Body of Christ and the human family).
In one of the most important passages of Scripture (in my opinion), we find deep insight into the nature and gift of this type of community. Jesus has just given his shocking teaching about how difficult it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciple Peter says, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you.” I doubt if we can hear the pathos in Peter’s words. Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecution, and in the age to come eternal live.” (Mark 10:23-31)
There have been so many mercenary and greedy interpretations of this passage over the years. The charlatans preaching the Prosperity Gospel are so quick to talk about all the material blessings Christians can have if they follow Jesus (They overlook his reference to persecutions, the price we pay for following such a radical Lord). Such blasphemy represents an intentional distortion of a deeper lesson about discipleship. Once we choose to follow Jesus, we become a part of a beloved community where all are family and where my possessions become your possessions and my pain or joy becomes your burden or happiness. As the Body of Christ, we are one. In that sense, whatever we left in our attempt to be faithful to God is more than made up for within the fellowship of kindred spirits. The spiritual blessings and, at times, the physical blessings we need can come from our sisters and brothers in Christ. If you are hungry and I have food, my food becomes your food. If you are homeless and I have a home, my home becomes your home. Every life must endure some pain, loss, and suffering on this earth. However, the impact of such tragedy can be greatly mitigated by a surrounding community which is dedicated to loving us into our healing.
In the New Testament, there is no Lone Ranger approach to discipleship. We are to follow Jesus as a community. As Clarence Jordan reminded us, Jesus went about creating “demonstration plots” of the Kingdom of God in the villages and hamlets of Galilee and Judea. He introduced a different way of living in this world, and that way was God’s way. And when we intentionally follow that pattern, there is joy, love, blessings, peace, purpose, and healing. Other than the first few centuries of Christianity, the church has rarely embraced that pattern. As a result, we have lacked the strength, inspiration, and community needed to “turn this world upside down” in ways that reflect God’s will and the world’s needs. As G. K. Chesterton said, “It is not that the gospel has been tried and found wanting—it has never been tried.”
And thirdly, the psalmist tells us not to live our lives in fear. When we trust God, we know that the worst life can do to us is never the last word. (That’s why I emphasized the word “ultimately” above.) With God as our companion, we will suffer no loss that can destroy us as children of God. (This is the point of that much debated passage in Matthew 10:28-31.) When we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God,” we are set on a path which leads home in every sense of the word. With the intimate experience of God’s presence in our lives, there is no need to fear. Perfect love casts out fear. And on our part, trust is the path we take in overcoming fear. Can we trust God even when the worst happens in our lives? Can we trust God’s love? Can we believe that with a compassionate and just God, ultimately “all will be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well” (Julian of Norwich).
The only permanent promise of God in Scripture is this: “I will be with you.” And when we actually experience that presence and live with God as our companion, we trust that ultimately nothing can harm us beyond healing and repair. We and the whole creation finally rest in God’s hands. The faith of the psalmist was that this Good Shepherd, this incredibly generous host, and this loving Abba can be trusted. When God is our fellow traveler, the journey is transformed into blessing, isolation becomes companionship, and scarcity become generosity.
Our poem concludes with an incredible affirmation: “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” “Follow” is a weak translation of the Hebrew in this psalm. “Pursue me/ hunt me down/grab me” are better translations. To paraphrase Brueggemann’s comment on this psalm, we are being chased by God’s tenacious and powerful love. We may run from it. We may try to escape it. We may fear such goodness because then we are no longer in control. We do not trust such a generosity, and we think our own best efforts are better than God’s grace and mercy. But God continues to pursue us with unending and stubborn love.
Lent is a time to quit running, to let ourselves be caught and embraced in that love, like that of a sheep with safe pasture, like a traveler who is served rich and unexpected nourishment. God does not intend our lives to be characterized by endless anxiety. Rather, God intends for each of us a loving embrace—but that divine intention entails our willingness to be caught by God.
God pursues each one of us—not for punishment, curse, or indictment. God pursues us for blessing. During this season of Lent, may we each stop running and allow God to bless us beyond all imagination. Only then shall we know that the Lord is our shepherd.