A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 12, 2019 (Easter 4, Year C)
Ah, Psalm 23. Like many of you, I’ve heard it a few times over the years. And I’m not gonna lie: I tend to tune it out. Or if not tune it out, at least hear it without really listening. The 23rd Psalm is to funerals what First Corinthians 13 is to weddings. It’s hard to know what’s better known to non-regular church goers: “The Lord is my Shepherd” or “Love is patient, love is kind.”
But in honor of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, what’s traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, I tried to hear it anew this past week; I sought to really listen to it and enter into it and engage with it and rediscover it. Psalm 23 is beautiful and poetic, if overused. And for so many among us, hearing that first line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” evokes strong memories of loved ones. The psalm speaks powerfully to those in the midst of raw grief – to those walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And the imagery of lying down in green pastures and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is indeed comforting.
Bob Dylan famously said, or sang to be precise, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” And you can hear that familiar first line of the 23rd Psalm in a similar vein. You’re gonna have a shepherd. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have a shepherd.
And it’s true, I think. There is a human desire to be shepherded and comforted and taken care of. And there are many potential shepherds out there other than the Lord, all competing for our attention. Our screens offer virtual comfort and relationship. Our politicians promise protection and hope. Our jobs hold out a sense of meaning and purpose. Closer to home, our friends and family members bestow love and companionship. More cynically, advertising executives offer products promising to meet our every need, want, and desire.
But all of these are, in the end, fleeting. At least in contrast to what is offered by the Good Shepherd. At least that’s how I heard this psalm as I sat with it this week — with the word Lord italicized. The Lord is my shepherd. Again, there are other shepherds out there competing for your attention. But the psalmist is stating unequivocally that the Lord is his shepherd. He has perhaps considered other shepherds, sought other ways to fulfill the deep yearning of the human heart. But with the confidence borne of a life fully, if not easily, lived, he is able to state that “the Lord is my shepherd.” And he invites us all to consider whether we will allow the Lord to truly be our shepherd.
And in order to do that, I’m going to ask you to do something very un-Episcopalian like. Don’t worry, this won’t involve hugging anyone. Or raising your hands in the air. I’m going to ask you to open up your Bibles to page…you all brought your Bibles, right? Oh, who am I kidding? Well, open up your Prayer Books to page 476 — that’s the red book — and we’ll take a look at the 23rd Psalm. And we’ll consider exactly what it is that a true shepherd offers. We may as well look at the King James Version, which is the one towards the bottom of the page, because that’s the one that rolls off the tongue; the version that more people than you’d think are convinced Jesus himself used.
So what is it that a true shepherd offers? The second verse gives us the first clue. He makes us lie down in green pastures. In others words, he offers sabbath time. He makes you stop and rest. He knows you’re weary. He doesn’t run you to the point of sheer exhaustion. He compels you to stop your racing around, because even when you yourself can’t see it, the shepherd knows that you need time for rest and renewal. And this is a gift.
And in the same vein, he leads us beside still waters. He bids us to drink deeply and slowly. To be filled up and to be nourished and nurtured and replenished. He knows our reserves have been depleted and that we need to have our energy restored.
And the shepherd restores not just our energy but, as we see in the third verse, our very souls. That transcends physical restoration and gets into the realm of the spiritual. The Good Shepherd restores us body and soul, recognizing that we are broken vessels in need of restorative healing and wholeness.
And then the shepherd leads us. Not aimlessly or in circles but in paths of righteousness. He guides rather than compels; invites rather than insists. But when we listen to his voice, when we tune out the noise and the competing demands that cry out for our attention, these paths of abundance and joy are cleared and made known to us.
Which doesn’t mean that they are always easy. The true and good shepherd knows that we will encounter things in this life which will terrify us and keep us awake at night. And so, in verse four, we hear of that valley of the shadow of death. And we are reminded that the shepherd walks with us through whatever fears and obstacles we endure. The shepherd abides with us and comforts us and stays near at hand.
And then in verse five, the shepherd prepares a table for us. He feeds us. He serves us. And he anoints us. In other words, he blesses us. He pours out such abundant blessings upon us to the point of overflowing. The vessels of our souls can’t contain such blessings and they spill out, running over, streaming down upon us. Until we are left with goodness and mercy and God’s sustaining presence until the very end of time.
So when we claim that the Lord is our shepherd, we are claiming that our shepherd will renew us and refresh us and restore us and replenish us and lead us and comfort us and bless us. That’s a tall order. And you begin to see that the only viable statement, the only one that makes any sense at all is that the Lord is our shepherd and that through him alone we will never be in want.
And so one of the things I personally discovered this week, is that I really need to stop complaining about hearing Psalm 23 all the time. There’s a circular, mantra-like rhythm to it that invites us to begin the psalm anew just as we finish that last line. The first and last lines seem to dance with one another in a way I never noticed before. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” precisely because “The Lord is my shepherd.” And because “the Lord is my shepherd, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
And so to end this sermon, let’s say this psalm together. Some of you may know it by heart. Some of you may want to turn back to page 476 of the Prayer Book…
The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
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 thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; *
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019