The Twenty-third Psalm

Sermon by The Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, May 12, 2019.

It is wholly possible and not improbable that someone born and raised in Greenwich or a similar suburb could be born, live and die and never meet a shepherd. While the role of shepherd is almost extinct in our society, I was fortunate in my previous parish to have four shepherds as parishioners who raised a species of white-faced sheep called Cheviots. When I drove through one of their estates it was like driving in Scotland. I adore sheep, and I suspect that many of you do, too.

When Henry McAdoo was in his 80s, he would invite our family to see his sheep shortly after they had given birth to their lambs. Our girls loved it, and Henry would send us home with a package of frozen lamb for dinner. He would also tempt me each visit with a glass of bourbon from a bottle dating back to the Civil War, but alas that is a story for another sermon.

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. The hymns and lessons focus on God as our Shepherd. Occasionally, in my previous parish we would have a baby lamb for the children’s homily or a sheep tethered outside the church, grazing and trimming the lawn as parishioners arrived for worship.

The Twenty-third psalm is the best known text in the Bible. Yet, its familiarity does not breed contempt, but rather brings comfort to our sometimes traumatized lives. I can think of no Bible text more important to memorize, teach our children and grandchildren and to recite each day.

Ruth Knox was the oldest parishioner that I ever had. She lived to be 110. I remember visiting her in her 109th year. She was groggy, and it was hard to have a conversation. Then I asked Ruth if I might say a prayer, and she nodded. As I began to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm, Ruth joined me word for word. You see prayers, hymns and songs are the three last things to exit our minds. If you memorize the Twenty-third Psalm, you can carry with you for a lifetime. If you recite it slowly once a day, it will alter your life in wonderful ways.

I encourage people undergoing an operation to recite this psalm silently before surgery and to trust that the Good Shepherd will carry them safely through all things. There is nothing abstract about the Twenty-third Psalm. It is always specific: “green pastures,” “still waters,” “paths of righteousness,” “valley,” “rod,” “staff,” “table,” “oil,” “cup,” and “house.”

Eighty percent of Jesus’ listeners made their living off the land. Many were shepherds. They lived on the mesa with their sheep. No flock ever grazed without a shepherd. No shepherd was ever off duty. When the sheep wandered, the shepherd found them. When they fell, he carried them. When they were hurt, he healed them.

If the psalm teaches us one thing, it is this – God knows us each by name and cares for us. God is personal, pastoral and profound. The shepherd’s big staff was not to nudge the sheep, but to protect them from wolves and danger. Western shepherds may drive their sheep, but Eastern shepherds lead them. Love leads us, guides us, draws us, calls us, comforts and protects us.

Despite living in a world with manicured lawns and shopping malls, this psalm written in the Palestinian countryside half a world away some 3,000 years ago still speaks to us. It reminds us that God is good, and God is present. Life is a miracle that brims with beauty and grace, even when we walk through the dark shadows of depression, dementia, domestic violence, grinding poverty, and homelessness. We are never alone.

For the first 600 years after Jesus died, the predominant way of depicting him in Christian art was that of the Good Shepherd. The image of the shepherd is our most engaging image of God. In Exodus 3:14, God reveals himself to Moses saying, “I am who I am,” which is quite vague. The Jews called God Yahweh – a name so sacred that rabbis to this day refuse to pronounce it when they read it. Instead, they say “Elohim,” which is a less sacred name for God.

“The Lord is my shepherd” gives us a human face to this mysterious God called Yahweh. No other psalm refers to God as “My shepherd.” As a priest, I have been impressed by how often people after losing someone they dearly loved inevitably reach out to this old friend, the Twenty-third Psalm. It isn’t simply because they know it by heart, but rather because it dares to speak about the end, the dark valley of death and how the Good Shepherd comforts us.

John Calvin saw in this psalm an expression of God’s prevenient grace – the grace that goes before us and is bestowed upon us long before we have done anything to deserve it. In 1893 Francis Thompson, a Roman Catholic poet, described God as the “Hound of Heaven.”

I fled Him, down the night and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him,…
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.”

You may think that you know God, but you really don’t know the Good Shepherd until you realize that God is the Great Pursuer. There’s a world of difference between being followed and being pursued. God pursues us when we wander, and God seeks to bring us safely home.

Our lives are led in the company of this Shepherd. God is never absent, passive or powerless, but rather present, proactive, and omnipotent. God is never dead, but always living, never asleep, but always awake, never uninterested, but always compassionate.

The Twenty-third Psalm reminds us that God leads the vulnerable sheep, those who are nursing their young, those who have wandered astray, those who are older and have trouble moving along the jagged paths of life. “I will fear no evil,” not even while treading the on the most dangerous, terrain. This psalm is about the present, not the future. God is with us right now.

Jesus frequently alluded to this psalm. “I am the good shepherd,” he said. (John 10:11). He both spoke and lived this psalm. Being a good shepherd means taking risks to protect the sheep against wild beasts, robbers and predators. Jesus did just that. He entered Jerusalem when it was filled with hate, anger and threats of murder, and he faced all of that on behalf of wandering sheep like us and everything that evil, suffering and life can throw at a human being.

When life made us wonder if God was there for us, if God truly cares, the Twenty-third Psalm put comforting arms around us and reassured us of a God who makes, leads, restores, comforts, prepares and anoints us; so that whether we are in darkness or in light, in life or in death, we might dwell with God. This psalm closes with the word, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The word “mercy” is the beloved Hebrew word hesed, which means “steadfast love.” Mercy is the word for kindness, God’s fidelity, even when we are not faithful. God’s goodness and mercy follow us. The Hebrew word for “follow” can also be translated as “pursue.” God’s goodness and mercy “pursue” me.

Will Willimon, the former Chaplain at Duke University, tell the story of a mean man, whom everyone knew to be bitter and resentful. Someone said that his bitterness was justified. His beloved wife had died while giving birth to their one child. The daughter died soon after from complications. “He has reason to be bitter,” they said. He never went to church. Never had anything to do with anyone. When he was in his late sixties, an ambulance came and took him to the hospital to die. No one visited. No one sent flowers. He went there to die alone.

But there was a student nurse, who was in training, and because she was in training she didn’t know anything that they teach nurses about detachment and the need to maintain distance with your patients. So, she befriended the old man. It had been decades since he had friends. He didn’t know how to act with one. He told her, “Go away! Leave me alone!” She would simply smile as she tried to coax him to eat his Jello. At night, she would tuck him in. “Don’t need anyone to help me,” he growled.

But soon he grew so week that he had no strength to resist her kindness. Late at night, after her duties were done, she would pull up a chair and sit by his bed and sing to him, as she held his old, gnarled hand. And he looked up at her in the dim lamp light and wondered if he saw the face of his little girl whom he never got to see as an adult. And a tear formed in his eye when she kissed him goodnight. And for the first time in forty years, he said, “God bless you.”

As she left the room, two others remained, breathless, whispering softly in the old man’s ear the last word he heard before slipping away into the valley of the shadow of death. The word was “Gotcha!”, whispered in unison by Goodness and Mercy. Yes, the Good Shepherd truly knows each one of us by name and truly cares for us and is always seeking and pursuing us. We wander down crooked paths. We bob like jetsam down raging rivers, but the Shepherd is there for us, pursuing us even into the dark valley. Can’t you hear his two sheepdogs Goodness and Mercy whisper, “Gotcha!” Amen.