I dread that Sunday each year since I know so little about sheep!
But I happened across this sermon--preached a few years before I retired and left St. John's, Waterbury--about Psalm 23 and thought I'd share it with you.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside still waters,
He restoreth my soul….
Somehow, the 23rd Psalm has become an icon of comfort for Christians over the centuries. Of all the Psalms—and there are, after all, 150 of them—this one has brought healing and hope to people as none of the others have.
Psalm 23 is not one of the lectionary readings for today, and yet, as I’ve read them over and again, it is the sustaining words of that song of David that has come to me over and again.
The 23rd Psalm flies in the face and gives the lie to the realities of our lives. “I SHALL NOT WANT,” stands in bold contradiction to the longings and needs and wants of our lives. “Green Pastures” and “Still Waters” are not what we mostly experience. And our souls, God knows, are in profound need of ‘restoring’.
Today’s passage from Malachi begins with ultimate “bad news”—but news we are familiar with. Listen:
It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping
God’s command or going about as mourners before the Lord
of Hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not
only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape!”
I don’t know about how you feel, but that rings true for me. The world I live in is driven by evildoers and the arrogant. I must admit that it seems ‘vain’ to me, most of the time, to serve God.
I need green pastures and still waters. I need my soul restored.
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
The last few months of our life as a community, as a Tribe, have included an astonishing number of significant deaths. The shadow of that valley has been all around us. In spite of all the wondrous things that have happened in this parish church recently, what I am left with is the “shadow of death” and the chill fear of Jesus’ words from Luke’s Gospel.
As for these things which you see, the days will come when
not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown
The days grow shorter—each day more darkness envelops us. Though we seek the Light, darkness is what we find. This time of year is full of thinness, chill and night. “All will be thrown down”. The shadows in the Valley of Death grow longer, day by day. We lean toward Christmas in a time of chill and shadow and gathering darkness. God’s rod and staff are difficult to find. How can we see them in the pitch blackness? How can we embrace them when the Shadow of Death surrounds us and we are sore afraid?
I’ve been talking on the phone to Barbara Clark—a vital and important member of this community who lives in Florida now. Barbara is surely, as we all are, but shortly, as many of us are not, entering into that Good Night we call Death. Science and Medicine, as amazing as they are, have now failed her. She has but weeks to live, according to the doctors. There are no more treatments to try, no miracles to expect. Sooner, rather than later, Barbara is going to die.
And she is unafraid.
“I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life,” she told me, “but you need to know, I learned how to be a Christian at St. John’s….”
And she is not afraid.
Thou hast prepared a table for me in the presence of mine enemies,
Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over….
Fear is all around us. Yet the prophet Malachi assures us: “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings….”
Fear is all around us. The darkness, like a cancer grows. We are all afraid—afraid of Death, afraid of Life, afraid of being too much with Life. Everything in our culture drives us toward fear. Our food is tainted. Toys are painted with poisoned paint. Our enemies mean us ultimate harm. The city is not safe and the world less safe still. Everything can hurt us—even the ones we love.
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. “And they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name….”
Fear is all around us. The darkness gathers. The Light seems dim, about to go out, lean toward it as we might.
Fear is all around us—only Hope abides…Hope and Trust.
Fear is all around us, yet Jesus says today: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Fear is all around us, yet the invitation remains: THIS IS MY BODY GIVEN FOR YOU…THIS IS MY BLOOD SHED FOR YOU….
Fear is all around us, yet the Light shines in the Darkness and brings warmth to the chill. Let this be your Hope and Trust, let this be how you live your life:
Surely Goodness and Mercy shall follow me,
And I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.