Psalm 23 is never an easy one to preach on – everyone knows it so well! Every time it comes up in the lectionary I try to come up with something new and revolutionary to say about it, but every time I think I realize I just need to let it speak for itself. So that’s what I did! I reflect on it briefly, but at the end just center us all back and read the Psalm to close my sermon.
Hope you all are having a great week! xo
Rehoboth Congregational Church
April 22, 2018
The Promise Is Fulfilled
Full disclosure: I have had a very long week.
Combine that with the fact that the 23rd Psalm is one of those scriptures that just kind of speaks for itself and, I have to admit, I was having a really hard time focusing on my sermon.
Which brought me to Thursday evening; I was scrolling through a preaching group I am in on Facebook and there was a conversation happening about whether or not it would be okay to recycle an old sermon this week. One pastor commented on the post, “It’s Earth Day, so surely it’s wasteful NOT to recycle!”
Which I thought was fair.
But I forged ahead, anyway, and tried to come up with a new revelation on the subject.
My Tuesday morning bible study is currently reading the book of Jeremiah, who is one of the major prophets of the Old Testament. Jeremiah is often referred to as, “the weeping prophet,” because of the tears he shed over the sins and the fate of his people and the dark prophesies he spoke. Jeremiah is a depressing, violent and somewhat desolate book. It is also fairly repetitive, so it is repetitively depressing, violent and somewhat desolate.
But, bible study is fun! You should consider joining us.
Anyway, the other day we had just read a particularly dark passage when someone flipped longingly towards the end of the bible, sighed and said, “I miss the New Testament.”
This is probably something we have all thought at some point while reading the Old Testament, right? There is quite often a very clear (albeit oversimplified) delineation between the violence of the Old Testament and the love of the New Testament; the death of the Old Testament and the resurrection of the New Testament; the despair of the Old Testament and the hope of the New Testament.
And yet, this morning’s scripture readings – one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament – are woven so beautifully into the fabric of one another. Psalm 23, the Psalm of David, says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” does not at all stand in contrast to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, where he says, “I am the good shepherd.” In fact, when you read these two passages in conjunction with one another, you cannot help but stand in awe at the ways in which God so carefully and gracefully has put some of the pieces of our faith together.
It is fitting that these passages, particularly the 23rd Psalm, popped up in the lectionary on the Sunday when we were already scheduled to bless a new batch of prayer shawls. These shawls act as a tangible reminder of God’s presence in our lives. Very often we give someone a prayer shawl when they are walking through that valley of the shadow of death and that shawl shows them, in a palpable and comforting way, that the promise, “for thou art with me,” is being fulfilled, despite the challenges they are facing.
I saw a friend of mine two weeks ago who I sent a prayer shawl to after the Newtown shooting. He and his family lived across the street from Sandy Hook Elementary School at the time. He looked at me and said, “We still have that prayer shawl you sent us,” and then his eyes filled up with tears.
The work we do here matters. We can touch someone when they are walking through that dark valley; we can remind them that they are not alone, that God is with them; we can bring them comfort. Through these shawls, we enact these words of scripture and bring them to life
I was wrestling with this psalm this week, trying to uncover some new revelation about something that people already know really well. And I kept coming up short, so I reached out to a friend of mine, who is a funeral director, and, admittedly, hears this psalm a lot, and asked him why he thinks people use Psalm 23 so often at funerals and memorial services. And this is what he said:
Because it tells us never to be afraid of death. It tells us that God is with us ALWAYS. Isn’t it nice to know, even with all of our responsibilities, stress, and busy lives, that we are still only sheep? That there is a shepherd far greater and bigger than anything we, as mortals, can accomplish?
I thought those were powerful words coming from someone who quite literally walks through that valley of the shadow of death with people every single day; someone who understands the powerful, yet sometimes heartbreaking truth of these words. Because there is so much we do not understand about this world that we are living in and our existence beyond it. But at the heart of our faith lies a promise; a promise of love, a promise of light and a promise of a grace far more incredible than we can ever imagine.
I love the pairing of the 23rd Psalm with this passage from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Now, it could just be because I still have some of my Christmas decorations up and was staring at a sign hanging in my entryway that says, “For unto us a child is born” when I was writing my sermon yesterday, but as I was writing, I could not help but think about these two passages alongside that Advent promise that Jesus – Emmanuel – God with us – is coming.
Jesus self-identifying at the Good Shepherd reinforces this assurance that God is not some far-away deity that does not understand what we are going through. God is with us; God came into this world in human form; God understands what feel, because God felt those same things. God felt pain, anger, sadness, despair, frustration and rejection in the human body of Jesus Christ and when love conquered the grave on that first Easter morning, a promise was made; a promise that God will never abandon us, that God will shepherd us through our own humanity.
So I said earlier that I was searching, this week, for some new revelation about the 23rd Psalm that I would be able to share with you all this morning. I am sorry to say that I did not find it. This psalm speaks for itself; it is almost like a security blanket that we need to pull out every now and then. When I said this to my friend, who is the funeral director, he replied, “Sometimes all we need is that security blanket to make us feel safe.”
And he is absolutely right.
This morning, I am going to pull out that security blanket and wrap it tightly around us all.
Ironically, when I looked back on one of my past sermons on these same texts, I apparently drew the same conclusion and ended the exact same way.
So perhaps I am recycling an old idea.
Or perhaps this is always simply what we need to hear.
I invite you all to close your eyes and hear these words of the 23rd Psalm:
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 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.
Thanks be to God!