a sermon on Psalm 23
preached on April 21, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants,
beyond my fears,
from death into life.
—Psalm 23, paraphrased Marty Haugen
These are days when we need a shepherd. It might be a bit strange for us to need a shepherd when there are no sheep nearby, when the last pastureland in Queens shut down before many of us were even born, but the last week made me long for someone to be present with us through difficult times.
This past week has been one of the toughest in recent memory. If we look back, it had plenty of difficult history, as it already held anniversaries of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the Columbine massacre, to name just two. But the new horrors of this past week were almost too much to bear. First, the bombing at the Boston Marathon killed three people long before their time and injured hundreds of others, then the ensuing investigation and manhunt for the perpetrators consumed the nation for much of the week and culminated in an intense 24-hour search for the two bombers that left two more dead and shut down an entire city for a day.
But that wasn’t all that shocked us this past week. In Iraq, a wave of bombings continued across the nation as local elections were held yesterday, and some 33 people were killed by bombs on Monday alone. An earthquake on Friday in the Szechuan region of China left over 150 dead and thousands injured. Closer to home, the city of Chicago witnessed its 100th homicide of the year on Thursday. Two letters laced with poison were mailed to the president and a U.S. Senator. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured in a terrible explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas. And somehow our United States Senate came up four votes short of passing a bill favored by nearly ninety percent of the American people to finally require background checks on most gun purchases.
The violence and strife around us is just too much to bear, and that’s without considering all the other stuff that is going on with our friends and families and neighbors, all the unemployment, the sickness, the cancer, the addiction, the depression… It’s all just too much to bear. There’s just not much we can say. These are days when we need a shepherd.
It’s not even that we just want a shepherd—we actually need one. What are we supposed to do with all these things? We are used to dealing with grief in our lives—in fact, I think we have gotten pretty good at it over the years. Yet it seems that nowadays we are constantly bombarded with news of deep pain and hurt: so many deaths, so much violence, wars and strife escalating around the world, so many things that show us the deep brokenness in our midst, so much that reminds us that we are not the people God wants us to be. And the more we learn of all this, the less we know what to do with it. We need something, someone to show us the way. These are days when we need a shepherd.
Our psalm from the Lectionary today reminds us of the wonderful shepherd we have before us. These incredibly familiar words are often the first on our lips in times of loss, the first attempts at comfort when we face confusion and pain and hurt, the first thing that comes to mind during a week like this. Psalm 23 is so often recited at funerals or offered in times of deep loss, seemingly giving us comfort and consolation for days yet to come, in a world separate from our own, but if we read more closely we might just see that this is a shepherd for the here and now, a God who brings us what we need and frees us from our want not just in the future but even more in the present. God shows us the way to a new wholeness and peace in the midst of the uncertainty and confusion of our world. God invites us to lie down in green pastures and find rest. God leads us beside still waters to bring calm to our busy days and restore our souls. God walks with us and shows us how to journey in the pathways of new life. God guides us and directs us and comforts us even in the darkest valley, and there is nothing that we should fear—no terrorist who can do us harm, no earthquake that can shake us to the core, no threat that can separate us from God’s deep and real and present love.
And so the psalm speaks incredible words of comfort and hope just when we need a shepherd. t shows us the way to emerge from the darkness that surrounds us in days like these. It helps us find our way into new life when there seems to be nothing but death around us. And it helps us to recognize God’s presence among us, shepherding us “beyond [our] wants, beyond [our] fears, from death into life.”
But in these days when we need a shepherd, Psalm 23 also tells us that there is more to this shepherd’s work than just bringing us comfort right where we are. This shepherd might bring us comfort in a surprising and unusual place: at a table prepared in the presence of our enemies. This table is not just for our comfort— it is for our growth, for our real peace, for our honest engagement with the places where we fall short, for our hope of new relationship with those who seem to be set against us. Our comfort and peace amidst strife, then, do not come at the expense of the life of others but rather as “a banquet of love in the face of hatred” (Marty Haugen). Only then, after this strange and incredible feast, are we anointed as God’s own with oil that overflows, bringing us grace, mercy, and love beyond our wildest dreams.
And finally this comfort becomes all the more real as “goodness and mercy… follow [us]” throughout life. Strangely, they do not come before us but rather follow after us, maybe partly because we are as responsible as anyone else for bringing them into being in our world, but maybe also because God gives us these things in ways beyond our understanding, in glimpses that are clearer when we look back upon our most difficult days. And this goodness and mercy then sustain us as we find a new home in the house of the Lord for the fullness of our lives and beyond.
These familiar words of Psalm 23 are perfect for days like these when we need a shepherd, for these weeks when our hearts seem so heavy that they cannot bear anything more, for these moments when we can do nothing more than turn to God and offer a cry for help. And so in these Easter days when the resurrection still seems so far away, in these moments when it seems nearly impossible to believe that Jesus is alive and at work in our world, may God shepherd us through the darkness, pain, and sorrow of our world, beyond the want and fear and despair of difficult days and guide all of us into new life. Lord, come quickly! Amen.