Imagine with me if you will, a scene given to us in our psalm for today. Here is a nice, pretty pastoral picture. Fields of fresh green grass, cool stream of gentle water, happy little sheep grazing, drinking and napping in this picturesque landscape. A shepherd standing by, watching over the little lambs with all things bright and beautiful. We can almost hear a lullaby in the background. Serene. Peaceful.
This was the peaceful scene I was looking for while preparing for my first hospital visit as a laycaregiver at my home congregation, I was, as most people are at a time like that, terrified that I wouldn’t know what to say. An older and far wiser woman offered some advice. “How will I know what to say?” I asked her. “What scripture should I read? What should I pray?” “The Lord will give you what to say” she said, and began to tell me about her visit to a very ill parishioner who had recently passed away. She said, “I felt just like that, and I always do, that I didn’t know what to say. She was in such pain and could no longer speak. Her facial expression was one of confusion and her son and daughter were equally as distraught. I had read scripture to her every time I had visited before, but this time, I didn’t know what to say. But then, I remembered my father’s funeral years ago and the comfort I felt in hearing the 23rd psalm. So, I began to recite it to her from memory, but I put her name in it. The Lord is Rosemary’s shepherd and she will not lack……her expression relaxed and, although I’ll never know for sure how she felt, her son and daughter told me that was the most comforting thing they could have heard. To know that the Lord was taking care of and protecting their mother in a very loving way was a relief in a way nothing else could have been.”
There is great comfort to be found in this psalm—particularly in times when life is frightening and it feels like God has left us alone. When we are in pain or when others we love are suffering, the truth that this scripture imparts is better than anything we could come up with on our own. Knowing that the Lord is the shepherd of both the parishioner I was going to visit and of me as well was, and still is, immeasurably reassuring.
However, is that serene image, comforting as it can be, all that there is for us in this psalm? Is there more here for us to learn? There is a point where this becomes for us merely docile sheep lazing away time in a field safe from all harm looked over by a benevolent herder. But could it also tell us something more about God and more about what it means to follow the Lord, our Shepherd?
The 23rd psalm was written during a period of exile for the people of God—a time when life was frightening and it may have been easy for them to feel as if God had left them entirely. They were far from home. Life was different from how it had ever been. There were lots of dark shadows, lots of enemies, and a deep need to know that God was still with them in the wilderness of their exile. This psalm was written as a song of praise to God as a shepherd of God’s people. But a shepherd meant much more than a herder of animals. If we read this Psalm and stop with this vision of placid fields and still waters, we are perhaps getting only part of the picture.
I do not know much about shepherds. In all honesty, I have only seen sheep grazing in a field from a distance and have never met a shepherd in person. So, I took some time to look up some information on shepherds. In addition to learning a little about the behavior of sheep and the culture of shepherds, I learned something about the use of the term shepherd itself. During the time that this psalm was written, the people looked to their rulers to lead and shepherd them. Rulers were often called shepherds and their job was to guide and protect the people in the same way a shepherd would guide and protect their flock. So, when the writer said ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ he was likely saying more than ‘I am a sheep’, but also ‘the lord is my king, my ruler, the one who leads, guides and protects me’ When we start the psalm with this idea, it may give us a new perspective.
The writer says I shall not want or lack for anything. The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures, by still waters, restores my soul. The Lord is my leader, my king. With him, I have all that I need—food, water, life itself and because of my king, the Lord, I fear nothing. This Shepherd is the source of everything.
There is mention of a shepherd in another place in our readings for today. In the gospel, Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd [fill in other stuff from the Gospel for the day ]” Since the early days of the Christian church, followers of Christ have read the 23rd psalm in light of these words, so that when we say the Lord is my shepherd, we are speaking of Jesus.
Jesus is our shepherd, our king, and with him we lack nothing and need fear nothing.
But this is not the end of the psalm. The Lord, Jesus, Prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. In the very face of all that could harm us, he prepares for us a feast. Who are our enemies? Pain, loss, fear. Worldliness, resentment, anger. Failure, abandonment, illness. Death. And yet, our Lord, our shepherd and king, looks at us in the presence of the reality of these, our enemies, and says to us: Rejoice! For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of My People, and YOU are my beloved children. I am the Good Shepherd and you are my sheep. I laid down my very life for love of you. I brought you out of your slavery to these enemies. I brought you through the troubled waters and oceans of tears. Now, I bring you through death into life and now I, the King of the Universe, prepare for you a banquet. I have defeated your enemies and claimed you as my own. I have bound up the broken hearted. I wipe away every tear from your eyes and I make all things new!
The Lord anoints our heads with oil as was the custom for kings and queens. Our greatest enemy—death—which gave us crowns of ashes mere weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, has been overturned in the resurrection of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, on Easter Sunday and now we walk crowned with God’s grace. We sit at the great banquet prepared for us, not merely with adequate food, not merely with earthly food, but with cups running over with living water. The banquet table is overflowing with all goodness. And who sits at the head of this table but Christ himself—our Lord, our king, Our Shepherd, the one who gives us his very body and blood here on the altar today in the bread and the wine.
With all this, goodness and mercy truly will follow us all the days of our lives. In fact, the Hebrew literally says that they pursue us. Goodness and mercy are inescapable with Jesus. He gives us ALL that he is and frees us from the fear of any enemy that could harm us.
So what does this mean for us? The Good Shepherd, our Lord and King, has laid down his life for his sheep. Who are his sheep—the sheep that know his voice? By virtue of our baptism, we are! If he has made us his sheep, and through the waters of our baptism we are his flock, then we follow where he leads us. Now that we are well fed and cared for and safe, is it so that we can graze at our leisure in the field and nap in safety? Because with him we lack nothing, because he gives us everything—even his very life, because he protects us from our enemies, we can follow the Good Shepherd out into the world. Out to find those who do lack—those who hunger and thirst—those who fear—those whose enemies still hunt them. There are dark, sunless valleys to walk through, dark with fear, death and pain, and sometimes that may be our pain as well, but we need fear nothing for we are with the Good Shepherd.
Are there sunless valleys right outside our doors? Are there hungry, thirsty, frightened people right in our neighborhood? There has been much talk lately here at Redeemer about the changing area around us, about those who lack who live right here. Are there those who hunger and thirst for food? Those who lack safe homes or adequate ways to care for their children? Are there those who have no one to tell them that the Lord is their Shepherd? Where is the good shepherd leading us? Where is our Lord and King leading you and leading me? Because he has given us everything, we can go freely, without fear, to follow him into the shadowy valleys to reach out to those who walk there in fear. In the past, Redeemer has reached out to those in need in Columbia by helping with the homeless shelter down town. We have responded financially to many local and churchwide calls for assistance to those who lack. How will we respond this time? How is the Good Shepherd leading us to reach out this time in our changing neighborhood right here? We are only beginning to look at these issues and the possibilities are exciting. I don’t know where we will go because we are at the beginning of discerning where we are being led to serve here, but I do know that we have been freed by Jesus to do so.
One thing to remember is this. Jesus truly is Lord of All, but the psalmist reminds us that he is also your good shepherd and my good shepherd. At that time, it was not very common for people to write hymns or prayers where they spoke in the first person and not as part of a larger group, but this entire hymn is a very personal praise of God. Jesus is, indeed, King of the Universe, but in that, he has not forgotten each of his sheep. Each of us, you and me, need not fear because of all he has done for us. Jesus leads us, the church, into the sunless valleys—and he also leads you and me there as well. Following him through those dark places is not just the job of the wider church, Lutheran Family Services or the ELCA, it is your job and my job too and he has freed each of us to follow him there.
With Jesus as our Good Shepherd, our Lord and King, surely goodness and mercy will pursue us all the days of our lives. We can walk the dark and sunless valleys with others and not fear evil. Because he prepares a banquet for us, we can freely share our overflowing cups with those who lack. Because he has defeated death by laying down his life for us, we can follow our resurrected Good Shepherd, Jesus, wherever he leads us without fear.