The Psalm that Won’t Go Away (Thank God!)

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | May 3, 2020

Psalm 23

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
    he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

A young woman shared the story of her mother who has a fear of tunnels which isn’t unusual. Anyway, one spring this Mother had to drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike to visit her daughter at college. Knowing the mother’s fear of tunnels, the daughter was a little concerned about the trip. When Mom arrived safely the daughter asked: “Did you have any trouble?” 

“Just the tunnels,” Mom replied. “One of them was 2½.” 

Puzzled, the daughter asked if she meant 2½ miles or 2½ minutes. Mom answered, “Neither.  2½ times through the 23rd Psalm.” (The Pastor’s Story File)

Many of us could identify with that mother, as we find this 3000-year-old psalm to be a source of comfort in challenging times.  

As you know, I have had the deep privilege of ministering alongside of hundreds of people with end-stage dementia.  What I have found is that for many people, when they can no longer summon up their own name, they can still recite two things: The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.

It’s certainly one that is germane to our time, so many  years after it was written.  This virus situation we are all in, could certainly be described as “walking through the valley of the shadow of death,” couldn’t it?  Even if we have not yet been touched personally by Covid-19, we are all living each day in death’s shadow because of it.

Let’s walk our way through this beloved psalm.  

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

There’s an old story of a Sunday School class who was given the assignment of memorizing the 23rd Psalm.  One little guy just did not have the gift of memorization.  He tried and tried, but when it came to the day to recite the psalm in front of the entire congregation he said, “The Lord is my shepherd…and that’s all I know.”  

There’s a sermon right there.

He makes me to lie down in green pasturesSheep are Nervous Nellies.  They will not lie down and rest unless they feel safe.  God, the Good Shepherd, leads the psalmist to a place of safety and refreshment.

He leads me beside still waters.  Two things to note immediately.  The shepherd leads, he does not drive from behind like cattle.  We’re all familiar with the phrase, “It’s like herding cats!”  Well, sheep are like that.  It’s very difficult to herd sheep.  But sheep who have come to know the shepherd’s voice and have come to respect and trust the shepherd may be led.  The shepherd goes before, is not prodding from behind.

Beside still waters.  Remember that this psalm comes out of a culture in which water is hard to come by and much valued.   Also, sheep do not like running water.  They are afraid of it.  They will not drink from a running stream.  They will drink from mud puddles filled with their own manure and all the bacteria and parasites that might entail.  The shepherd needs to find sources of good, clean water for the sheep.  

Jesus himself picks up this image in calling himself “living water.”

He restores my soulFor the sheep, if they have good water and safe pastures life is good.  They are able to rest and be restored.  For us, if we allow the shepherd to lead us and we rest in God’s grace, our spirits are restored. 

There is a Native American version of this psalm.  This verse reads: “He puts His hand upon my head and all the ‘tired’ is gone.”  

He leads me in paths of righteousness or better translated, “right paths.”  The right way to go, as we talked about in the children’s sermon.   Long ago I read a book entitled, A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty-third Psalm, written by an honest-to-gosh shepherd, Philip Keller.  A wonderful book.  The very favorite thing I learned about sheep from that book is how sheep get lost.  Keller writes that the sheep will be in a pasture and happily eating.  The sheep chomps a nice green tuft of grass.  When done with that he sees some more juicy stuff out of the corner of his eye and goes over there.  From tuft to tuft.  Now over here and then over there.  Nibbling, moseying, nibbling, moseying, head down.  After a long period, the sheep looks up and, “Hey!  Where’d everybody go?!  This doesn’t look familiar…”

So, how do sheep get lost, according to Keller?  “They nibble themselves lost.”  Just like us.  We are “good” people.  Most of us have had good moral instruction.  Not an ax murderer in sight.  But maybe we decide to take a questionable tax deduction, and then we take a little ethical shortcut at work, and then pretty soon we’re cooking the books …and before we know it, we’ve nibbled ourselves lost.  

Or we’re happily in a committed relationship for years.  And then a little “harmless” flirtation, followed by just a “casual lunch” and pretty soon we’ve “nibbled ourselves lost.”

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake  “For his name’s sake,” which means “as a matter of reputation.”  If the sheep are not kept on the right paths the shepherd would be embarrassed.  If those of us who are God’s sheep do not follow down the right paths, we tarnish the name of God.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort meHere the psalm changes from a third person account about God, to the personal, you are with me.

The valley of the shadow of death.  Such an evocative phrase!  The valley of the shadow of death.  I have read that there is a valley not far from Jericho which was literally known as the “valley of shadow,” a narrow pass through rugged terrain with cliffs rising on both sides, plagued by wolves and robbers, extremely dangerous to a flock of helpless sheep.  (John Harnish).  I’ve never been to that specific valley, but I’ve been through the valley of shadow.  Haven’t you?

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evilWhy do I fear no evil, for you are with me.   So often as a pastor (that word “pastor” means “shepherd” and is the term I prefer over minister or reverend) so often as a pastor as I wait with people in hospital rooms, or in a courtroom, or with a family meeting with the funeral director, all I can offer is the ministry of presence.  To be with someone.  God’s presence with us in the valley of the shadow…

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  Here the psalm changes from the shepherd and sheep motif to one of host and guest.  

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  This comes from the idea of the tent of refuge; in that culture they are places of sanctuary in which enemies may not enter.  The psalmist declares that because of God’s presence, “I am safe.  My enemy may stand and glower outside, but he cannot pursue me into the tent.”  

You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflowsIn God’s tent of sanctuary, I am not only safe, God prepares a great feast.  Anointing me with sweet perfume.  Pouring an overflowing cup of wine.  It’s a banquet!

Isn’t that a wonderful image of promise coming immediately after the image of shadow of death?

Now, before we get to the concluding line, let’s go back to the beginning.  Perhaps the most important word in this psalm is the fourth word: my.  The Lord is my shepherd.  God gives us great freedom.  We’re not herded from behind.  We are led from the front and may choose to follow the shepherd or not.  It’s not enough to know the psalm.  We need to know the shepherd.

Dr. Fred B. Craddock tells of growing up on a farm and playing the old game of Hide & Seek.  He was really good at it because he was tiny.  One time he hid under the porch, sneaking through a hole just big enough for him.  His sister, who was it, found all the other kids but could not find him.  He thought, “This is great!  She’ll never find me.”  After a while he thought, “Hmm.  She’ll never find me.  Not so great after all.”  So, he stuck out a toe.  She didn’t see it.  Then he stuck out a whole leg.  She yelled out, “I see you, I see you,” and ran back to the base and declared I was now it. I said, “Doggone it, you found me.” 

What did I really want? Did I want to hide or did I really want to be found? 

Dr. Craddock shares that this often is a parable of the way we hide from God. But we really want to be found by God.  Craddock then declares that the only stronger and deeper desire than that is the desire of God to find us. 

When we stop running from God and accept the guidance and direction that God is so eager to share, then we find the green pastures and the still waters where we can be nurtured and find authentic life. 

As Jesus put it in John 10:10, my favorite verse in the entire Bible: “I have come that (my disciples) might have life and have it abundantly.”

“The beautiful thing about this shepherd (as embodied in Jesus) is that He doesn’t just give us everything we need; He is everything we need.  If you’re hungry, He is the Bread of Life.  If you’re thirsty, He is the Living Water.  If you’re in the dark, He is the Light of the World.  If you’re lost, He is the Way.  If you need it, He has it.  If He doesn’t have it, you don’t need it.”  (James Merrit) Finally, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord foreverAn old Scottish preacher picked up on the theme of shepherd and talked about sheepherding dogs as well.  He concluded his sermon by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd, aye, and more than that.  He has twa fine collie dogs, named Goodness and Mercy.  With the shepherd afore and the dogs behind, there’s hope that poor sinners like you and me might win home at the last.”  Amen and amen!

Eugene Petersen’s Paraphrase of Psalm 23 from The Message

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
you send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

A Prayer for this Time of Pandemic

From Christianity Today, March 18, 2020, by Jen Pollock Michell.  She writes:

The crisis is urgent, and I feel powerless. But perhaps feeling small is the best reminder to pray. Prayer is how we actively practice believing, so simply, so confidently, that God has the whole world in his hands. It’s where we “let petitions and praises shape our worries into prayers, letting God know our concerns” (Phil. 4:6–7, The Message). Prayer is never the last resort of God’s people. It is our first point of action.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of 20 prayers to pray during this pandemic. Each one addresses the specific needs of a specific community. I’m fortunate to be a part of a church with many medical professionals, some of whom gave me advice on how best to pray for them at this time. I’ve included their responses here. I’ve also tried to think broadly about how the rest of us are impacted by the current crisis.

This list isn’t comprehensive, of course, but it’s a good place to start. My hope is that it can provide words for us as we pray collectively (if also virtually!) as a church body. We believe there is a God who bends his ear to listen, and so we pray:

1. For the sick and infected: God, heal and help. Sustain bodies and spirits. Contain the spread of infection.

2. For our vulnerable populations: God, protect our elderly and those suffering from chronic disease. Provide for the poor, especially the uninsured.

3. For the young and the strong: God, give them the necessary caution to keep them from unwittingly spreading this disease. Inspire them to help.

4. For our local, state, and federal governments: God, help our elected officials as they allocate the necessary resources for combatting this pandemic. Help them to provide more tests.

5. For our scientific community, leading the charge to understand the disease and communicate its gravity: God, give them knowledge, wisdom, and a persuasive voice.

6. For the media, committed to providing up-to-date information: God, help them to communicate with appropriate seriousness without causing panic.

7. For consumers of media, looking to be well-informed: God, help us find the most helpful local information to equip us to be good neighbors. Keep us from anxiety and panic, and enable us to implement the recommended strategies, even at a cost to ourselves.

8. For those with mental health challenges who feel isolated, anxious, and helpless: God, provide them every necessary support.

9. For the homeless, unable to practice the protocols of social distancing in the shelter system: Protect them from disease, and provide isolation shelters in every city.

10. For international travelers stuck in foreign countries: God, help them return home safely and quickly.

11. For Christian missionaries throughout the world, especially in areas with high rates of infection: God, provide them with words of hope, and equip them to love and serve those around them.

12. For workers in a variety of industries facing layoffs and financial hardship: God, keep them from panic, and inspire your church to generously support them.

13. For families with young children at home for the foreseeable future: God, help mothers and fathers to partner together creatively for the care and flourishing of their children. For single mothers and fathers, grow their networks of support.

14. For parents who cannot stay home from work but must find care for their children: God, present them with creative solutions.

15. For those in need of regular therapies and treatments that must now be postponed: God, help them to stay patient and positive.

16. For business leaders making difficult decisions that affect the lives of their employees: God, give these women and men wisdom, and help them to lead self-sacrificially.

17. For pastors and church leaders faced with the challenges of social distancing: God, help them to creatively imagine how to pastor their congregants and love their cities well.

18. For college and university students, whose courses of study are changing, whose placements are canceled, whose graduation is uncertain: God, show them that while life is uncertain, their trust is in you.

19. For Christians in every neighborhood, community, and city: May your Holy Spirit inspire us to pray, to give, to love, to serve, and to proclaim the gospel, that the name of Jesus Christ might be glorified around the world.

20. For frontline health care workers, we thank you for their vocational call to serve us. We also pray:

  • God, keep them safe and healthy. Keep their families safe and healthy.
  • God, help them to be knowledgeable about the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, as well as the changing protocols.
  • God, help them to stay clear-minded in the midst of the surrounding panic.
  • God, deliver them from anxiety for their own loved ones (aging parents, children, spouses, roommates).
  • God, give them compassion for every patient in their care.
  • God, provide for them financially, especially if they fall ill and are unable to work.
  • God, help Christians in health care to exhibit extraordinary peace, so that many would ask about the reason for their hope. Give them opportunities to proclaim the gospel.

God, we trust that you are good and do good. Teach us to be your faithful people in this time of global crisis. Help us to follow in the footsteps of our faithful shepherd, Jesus, who laid down his life for the sake of love. Glorify his name as you equip us with everything needed for doing your will. Amen.

Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to WantKeeping Place, and Surprised by Paradox. She lives with her husband and their five children in Toronto. This piece was adapted from her recent blog.

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