Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent + Sunday, March 22, 2020
Prepared for the Television/Online Broadcast of Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester
Text: Psalm 23
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Here’s how I know God is alive and speaking to the world: in this time of great fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, Psalm 23 shows up in our lectionary today.
Psalm 23, one of the most familiar and comforting psalms, used commonly at funerals, and the only psalm, of many that I read on pastoral visits, that people recite along with me from memory.
At the heart of the psalm is the promise: “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Let’s take a closer look at Psalm 23 …
First, we have to get the setting right.
One commentator suggested the risk in reading Psalm 23 is that we domesticate it, that we make it a lovely picture of a simple shepherd in idyllic pastures caring tenderly for the sheep. But that forgets what lies at the heart of the psalm.
Right in the middle of the psalm is the valley of the shadow of death. We can understand this valley as any terrible place of agony, pain, and loss. The kind of death that lurks in the valley need not just be physical death, but death to dreams, employment, relationships, finances, lifestyles.
A note in my Harper Collins Study Bible suggest Psalm 23 may have been evoked by an experience of deliverance such as the one described in Psalm 22. In that psalm we hear the haunting words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? Why are you so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you are quiet. You do not answer; I cry by night, I cannot sleep, I find no rest.”
That is the valley of the shadow of death!
Psalm 23 doesn’t speak about some fairy tail, fantasyland, where all is beautiful and perfect. Psalm 23 speaks of places where people are crying out in anguish. Psalm 23 speaks of places where people are in quarantine and isolation, of ICU’s and hospitals where medical professionals are overwhelmed and under-equipped risking their own health to serve others, places of economic pain where employers lay off cherished and valued employees and workers wonder when their next paycheck will come.
Now that we get the setting right, now we can truly hear the promise. In the valley, in the face of death, in the lowest places of despair: in faith the psalmist is able to say: “I fear no evil, for you are with me!” The promise of Psalm 23 is the promise of God’s presence with us even when all the circumstance around us might lead us to think God has abandoned us, forgotten us, or even rejected us.
Next … in faith, trusting that God is with us in the valley, we can look to what God promises to do with us in the valley.
The shepherd leads the sheep to still waters.
One commentator suggests the NRSV translation of still waters is incorrect –that the translation really should be “peaceful” waters. Not “still” waters without ripple or wave, but “peaceful” waters without enemies and opponents. The shepherd leads the sheep to safety from that which devours and destroys.
In the presence of sin, and evil, and viruses, the shepherd leads the sheep to the waters of safety, to health, to wholeness. Waters free from the presence of thine enemies.
The shepherd comforts the sheep with rod and staff.
Now I have to confess, I’ve always wondered how a rod, a club was comforting? How does the psalmist find comfort in a rod, a club used to inflict pain? In preparing this sermon I read a commentator who gave me some insight. The commentator pointed out that the rod, the club, was used not on the sheep, but on the wolves! The rod was a weapon of defense and protection – it was used on behalf of the sheep against the wolves.
The staff, on the other hand, was used to guide the sheep. The staff was used for course corrections, to pull the sheep back in, to guide the sheep.
Years ago, at my other church, I had members of the Church Council each choose a book to read about church leadership. After they had read their books we then gathered for a Church Council retreat and each member gave a brief book report. Even today, probably ten years later, I still remember the summary given by the Council President of the book he read: he said it’s the leader’s job to do two things: to guard the people and to guide the people. Leaders guard the people from dangers and guide the people to safety and to the fulfillment of their mission.
That’s the call of our leaders, and that’s the call to each and everyone of us in these times: to guard one another from danger: to practice social distancing, to avoid contact with each other, to follow public health directives to prevent the spread of the virus. And, to guide one another, to guide each other, as best we can, to waters of physical, emotional, and social health and safety.
The shepherd becomes host – leading the sheep to the banquet table of blessing.
Another thing I didn’t realize, until I prepared this sermon, is that there are really two images of God presented in Psalm 23. The first image is obvious, it’s how the psalm starts: the Lord as shepherd. Less obvious, but clear once it’s pointed out, is that the psalm presents God as banquet host.
There it is in verse 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The shepherd leads the sheep to the place where the shepherd becomes host: hosting us at a table of goodness and mercy – filling our cup to overflowing.
These two images together, shepherd and host, proclaim our hope in God, who,even in the deepest valleys where the stench of death is most overwhelming, terrifying, and threatening, IS WITH US! In places of death, in places of real pain, loss, and anxiety, the shepherd is active and alive comforting with rod and staff, leading to waters of peace free from enemies, and setting a table of blessing before us.
Friends in Christ, in this time in which we walk together through the valley of the shadow of death, the good news for us today, is the good news proclaimed in Psalm 23.
The promise of Psalm 23 is the promise of God:
- who goes before us – leading us along right pathways;
- who is with us in the valley – guarding and guiding us with rod and staff;
- And who follows after us – with goodness and mercy.
The promise of Psalm 23, is the promise of baptism, that sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, nothing can separate us from the shepherd who leads us through the valley of death.
In faith, alive in these promises, we can hear Jesus speaking to us today: “I am with you!”
- To those terrified and anxious: “I am with you.”
- To those quarantined and isolated: “I am with you.”
- To those who have lost jobs and incomes: “I am with you.”
- To those infected with the virus: “I am with you.”
- To those confused and upset: “I am with you.”
For a time, we must set aside our table of blessing, and withdraw from one another. But as we do, in faith we know the table is already set and that when we join together again at the table our cups will be filled to overflowing with the Lord’s goodness and mercy. Alive in Christ through faith, may we be held and sustained in the promises of Psalm 23 and live in the Lord’s house forever.
Thanks be to God.