The Lord is My Shepherd (a sermon in 5 parts)
May 2 2004
Psalm 23.1-3 (Good News Version) “Lack Nothing”
It is not often that we can honestly say “I have everything I need.” In fact, it may not be something I’ve ever said in complete seriousness. Sure, at a restaurant I might have everything I want on the table, or at school I might have all the things I need to take notes. But are these my real “needs” and do I have all my needs supplied? As soon as we push on the word “everything” we start to think of new things. I need new shoes. I need a new dress. I need a vacation. I need a new car. I need this or that book or CD. I need to eat chocolate right now. As much as Jesus might tell us not to worry about tomorrow, for God will provide all that we need, it’s hard to say the first line of Psalm 23 and really mean it. The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need. I am literally lacking in absolutely nothing that is necessary for me.
We all know that it is trite and irresponsible to say “if you just trust in God, everything will be provided for you.” No one wants to hear that. Saying “don’t worry, God will provide” sounds to Reformed ears like license to be lazy. It also makes you wonder—how much do I have to trust? How long do I have to wait? Do I do nothing until everything I need has dropped into my lap?
But think for a moment…what is it that you truly need? Is it new clothes or a haircut or a new CD? Or is it to know that God loves you and will never forsake you? Do you need more money, or do you need to be led to a quiet meadow where you can rest? Do you need to eat at a super-expensive restaurant to impress your friends and colleagues, or do you need to be drawn toward the springs of fresh water?
Anthony DeMello, who was a Jesuit priest in India, tells the story of a Quaker man who put up a sign on a vacant piece of land next to his home. The sign read: “This land will be given to anyone who is truly satisfied.” A wealthy farmer who was riding by stopped to read the sign and said to himself, “Since our friend the Quaker is so ready to part with this plot, I might as well claim it before someone else does. I am a rich man and have all I need, so I will certainly qualify.: With that, he went up to the door and explained what he was there for. “And are you truly satisfied?” The Quaker man asked. “I am, indeed, for I have everything I need,” the wealthy farmer replied. “Friend,” said the Quaker, “If you are satisfied, what do you want the land for?”
What do we want the land for? If we have everything we need, why do we always think we need more things?
Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd. With the risen Lord as our shepherd, what more do we need? Jesus said “I am the bread of life.” Jesus said that he gives water that gushes up to eternal life. Indeed, all that we need will be provided—but “things” aren’t necessarily part of that. “stuff” quickly becomes an idol—it takes the place of God in our lives, and, unfortunately, it’s so easy to fall into this. And we can’t just say “I don’t need anything” because it’s not really true—we need food and water and shelter and clothing, we need education and community, but most of all we need God, without whom there would be no earth, no stuff, no breath of life. So we try to affirm that the risen Lord is our shepherd, and because we have died to sin with him and risen with him to new life, we will lack nothing—or at least, nothing that is ultimately important.
So we come together and declare that sometimes we think we need more things, forgetting that God is, in some sense, our “all in all.” We declare that what we do need is forgiveness. We come and pray together, in the sure and certain hope of the love of the one who laid down his life for his sheep. Let us pray together, using the prayer of confession printed in the bulletin.
God of hope and safety, like sheep who go astray, we have wandered from your paths of life and light. We have heard the Shepherd’s voice calling us by name, but we have turned instead to our own way. Show us your tender mercy; restore us in the security of your fold. Lead us back to still waters, seat us again at your bounteous table. Fill us with your Spirit, that we might bear glad witness to your saving mercy, revealed to us in the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Beloved of God, hear these words of the psalmist: Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven, for they shall be like trees planted by streams of living water. Friends, anyone who is in Christ is a new creation through these waters—believe the good news! In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.
Psalm 23.1-3 pt. II “Paths of Righteousness”
One of the phrases often used in baptisms at my home church is “for the promise is unto you, and to your children, and all who are far off…as many as the Lord our God shall call.” In baptism the community recognizes that we are all God’s children, children of the covenant, children of the promise. Here the psalmist has reminded us that part of the promise is that God will lead us, God will guide us, God will be with us, and we are followers, we are disciples, we are sheep.
I don’t know how many of you have seen a flock of sheep. Sheep are often considered dumb animals, but they really aren’t, I promise. My grandfather had sheep when I was growing up, and I used to help him tend them. It’s very interesting, how the herder moves sheep from one place to another. Cows, as we all know from the movies (I used to watch Dr. Alley move his cows—it really works like this), are herded from behind. The cowherd rides around behind and the cows move in a group to wherever he or she wants them to go. Sheep, however, have to be led, because if you try to herd sheep from behind, they will scatter in a hundred directions. Instead, the shepherd goes ahead, to show the sheep that the way is safe. Sheep follow their shepherd, they know their shepherd, they trust that the way is right because the shepherd shows them that it is ok.
From the baptismal font we are led out by our good shepherd in the paths of righteousness. We follow in the right paths that God has promised to show us. We live as God’s chosen people, following the commands to love God and our neighbor. Righteousness means “to be in right relationship with.” So the paths of righteousness are paths that lead us into right relationship with God and our neighbor. And so we will walk in the path that seeks justice and pursues peace, for we are to follow Christ’s example to love one another, and we go out into the world to share the good news. As children of the promise, we have received grace upon grace, and we follow in the paths of righteousness. And so, as we are God’s reconciled children, those who seek right relationship with God and one another, let us share the peace of Christ.
Psalm 23.1-4 (New International Version) “You Are With Me”
The valley of the shadow of death sounds like something we’re probably going to avoid, don’t you think? Not exactly the big vacation hot spot this year. Death is something we fear in our culture, something to be avoided or put off, something that is generally a tragedy. The shadow of death is dark indeed, which is why some translations of this say “even though I walk through the darkest valley.” What is the darkest valley? Is death the darkest thing? To suffer from a long illness? To be the victim of a crime? To lose a loved one? To be completely unable to have a good hope for the future?
Whatever is the darkest valley, the psalmist claims that there is no fear there because we know that God is with us. No fear? I am reminded of all the times in Scripture when an Angel of the Lord meets one of God’s people. The first word the angel says is always “Do not be afraid.” In Isaiah God says to the people, who are in exile, “do not fear, I am with you…I am your God…I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my right hand.” Exile seems like it’s probably a dark valley—to be taken away from everything you know, plopped in the middle of Babylon, and forced into labor, all the time wondering about those who were left behind, about the status of the temple, about where God is in the midst of this.
How often we are in exile—we wonder about things we have left behind, we wonder what the status of our church is, we wonder what to do about war and sickness and fear and hunger, we wonder where God is in the midst of our pain and the pain of the world. And we get these good words from the Lord: “Do not fear, I am with you, I am your God, I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my right hand.” And we gather together every Sunday and proclaim that the things we so often feel control our destiny really don’t, because Jesus the Christ was raised from the dead. In the resurrection, death as the determiner of our lives, as something to be feared as the ultimate end, as the thing that holds power over us, has been shattered. The valley of the shadow of death maybe isn’t so dark after all, because we have hope—hope in the Risen Lord that death is not the final say; instead God has the final say and God is the God of the living, not of the dead. The grave holds no power, death has no victory, for we are an Easter people. Because of this hope, we believe that the dark valleys need not be feared—which is why we pray. We pray for light in dark places, in the darkness of hunger and war and despair and illness and loss. We pray for healing, because healing doesn’t always mean what we think it means. We pray for hope and for strength to keep walking, even through the hard places. The staff of the Good Shepherd is our guide, our comfort, and our strength, for Jesus has been in the hard places… Gethsemane, Golgotha, hell.
So indeed we shall fear not, for Jesus promised to be with us, even to the end of the age. God is indeed with us, fulfilling God’s promises. Even in the darkest valleys, there is a glimmer—of resurrection hope, of Easter morning sunrise.
Psalm 23.1-5 (New Revised Standard Version) “A Table and Cup”
Most of us have hosted a dinner party of some kind—for a few friends, for the family at Thanksgiving, for a large party, or just a special dinner for the two of us. It’s a lot of work to get ready for a dinner party. There’s the setting of the table, making it look pretty, figuring out how the silverware goes, whose glass is who’s, etc. There’s figuring out the menu. Are we going vegetarian tonight, or having chicken? Are we having rice or pasta? What kind of vegetables, what kind of bread, which kind of wine goes best with this menu?…it can be very complicated. Then, there’s the actual cooking, and the cleaning, and finally we enjoy the meal.
Jesus spent a lot of time eating, but usually it was at someone else’s house. Remember how he dined with tax collectors and sinners? Remember how he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner? Remember how he told the story of the banquet given by the king, where the invited guests wouldn’t come so the beautifully prepared feast was opened to everyone who happened to wander by, and some who were sought out in the dark alleys and abandoned buildings? Only once in the gospel story is he the host—at the Last Supper (which, by the way, the disciples prepared and was hosted at someone else’s house…he simply presided over the Passover ritual). And, of course, here at this table, he has prepared it for us. God prepares the table for us—it lacks nothing.
God has a history of providing abundance in the midst of our perceived scarcity. In the wilderness, God provided the Israelites with food every day for forty years. God also has a history of providing abundance in the midst of our perceived abundance that is really lacking. In Isaiah God invites all who hunger and thirst to come to the waters, to come buy wine and milk and bread without money, to feast on the good things which God has prepared rather than on those things that are not what we need. Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread, trusting that tomorrow we will still lack nothing.
This table has been provided by God, in the midst of our lives. We have been invited to a royal dinner party, hosted by the King of Kings…not because we are worthy but because God loves us and is with us, God has claimed us in baptism and has anointed us with oil. And the cup which we bless does indeed run over—for this is a true feast, where the wine never runs out, there are always 7 baskets of bread left over, and those who hunger and thirst are filled with good things.
This dinner party required much preparation, just like any other dinner party. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts, healed the sick and made the wounded whole, taught and prayed. He was tortured and crucified and raised from the dead. All in preparation for this dinner party. Then, of course, someone in this congregation had to get the bread, the wine, and the grape juice. Someone had to fill the cups and set the table. Someone had to write a communion liturgy. Someone had to go through years of education and examination in order to stand behind that table. And we all had to come to this place this morning—the guests who were not necessarily the first invited, but those who were brought in because the doors are so wide open. Indeed, this dinner party required much preparation—but now we are all guests, not the busy hosts, and we are seated around this table, each in a place of honor…the table, which lacks nothing, has been prepared for us. We have been washed, we have been claimed as God’s own, and the cup of blessing overflows.
Psalm 23.1-6 (King James Version) “Shall Follow Me…Out From This Place”
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. What an affirmation. What a statement of trust. What a relief for the psalmist, who one poem before this one was so sure she had been forsaken by the Lord. From “why have you forsaken me” to “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” is quite a leap.
Jesus said to his frightened disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms—I go to prepare a place for you.” How great to live in the house of the Lord forever! Wait…in the Old Testament, the House of the Lord meant the Temple. Do we want to dwell in the Temple forever? Do we want to dwell in the church building forever? Maybe not…that’s where the goodness and mercy come in. The Lord is our shepherd…he leads us to green pastures and still waters…he is with us so that we do not need to be afraid…he has fed us with good things here at the table he has prepared…and now goodness and mercy shall follow us forever. In order for goodness and mercy to follow us, we have to go somewhere. So we go out from this place, and goodness and mercy follow us wherever we go, and we still dwell in the house of the Lord. We all know that the church is not the building, the body of Christ is not just one person—the house of the Lord is indeed great, beyond our imaginings.
So, friends, as we go out we share the goodness and mercy of our Lord with all whom we meet. It’s hard to share when your cup is empty. But here we have all been filled, even to overflowing, so we can share with those whose cups run dry. We can say in all honesty that our needs are met, that we are fed, that we need not be afraid, that indeed our cups run over with goodness and mercy.
The Lord is our shepherd, he leads us in his paths, and we follow. And the goodness and mercy of our Lord follow us wherever we go.
And so we must go out, and we must share the good news, and we know that the psalmist’s amazing affirmation of faith is one we too can use. We leave this place but we do not leave the love of God behind. We leave this place, but we follow our shepherd. We leave this place, and surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives here and there, and we shall indeed dwell in God’s house forever and ever. Amen.