Wednesday, April 29, 2020

For You Are With Me


This Sunday is "Good Shepherd Sunday," which, although properly known as the Fourth Sunday of Easter, has earned that nickname because every year on this Sunday we read a passage from John 10, pray a collect that identifies Jesus as "the good shepherd of [God's] people," and recite the words of Psalm 23. I haven't decided yet whether I will preach on the gospel lesson or Acts 2, which for me is the far more interesting though more limited passage, but I am fairly sure I won't preach on the psalm. Still, the psalm has something to say to me today, and I wonder whether you might find particular comfort in its words today.

Of all the psalms, the one people are most likely to know by heart is Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." The number of people who can recite it from memory is surely shrinking, but for many those words still have powerful meaning because of their connotation. Think of the moments in your life--other than Good Shepherd Sunday--when you've heard them. We say it at the bedsides of sick or dying loved ones. We say it at funerals or graveside services. We hear parents or grandparents reciting those sacred words in moments of quiet prayer. Of all the psalms--all 150 of them--why is Psalm 23 so special?

I often hear preachers and religious folks speaking of Jesus as the one who helps us understand that God is with us in the toughest moments of our life. Theologians declare the cross as the sign that God is with us in our own darkest moments, even arguing that God suffers and dies with us. I think it's strange that Christians think of Jesus as the one who made that revelation clear when, for at least several hundred years before that, God's people had been saying the words of Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd; [therefore] I shall not be in want. God is the one who leads me into the green pastures of prosperity, security, and abundant life. Even when I come close to death, God is with me and comforts me with the power of God's protection. In the face of those who wish to do me harm, God sets out an overflowing banquet and showers me with God's blessing. God's promise to abide with me and hold me close to God is true all the days of my life and even forever.

Sound familiar? It sounds like the heart of Christian theology, which is to say that Jesus' self-identification as well as the understanding we gain from the gospel grow out of the Jewish tradition. There is nothing new or strange to us about God abiding with us as a shepherd cares for a flock of sheep. There are, of course, unique proclamations in the Christian faith, including the cross as the means by which God extends that covenant love and protection to all the peoples of the earth, but the God of David is the God of Jesus is the God of our faith.

We pray the words of Psalm 23 in the most vulnerable moments of our lives, including when our life or the life of someone we love is coming to an end. God is with us even in death. That has always been true. It's still true in a time of incredible uncertainty. Although I live in a community in which COVID-19 has affected remarkably and thankfully few people, in other places, there are bodies stacking up in refrigerator trucks, which line the valley of the shadow of death. Although I still have a job and the income it provides, so many in this community, throughout our country, and across the world are facing hardship I cannot imagine--a bare table and resources that have run dry. What does Psalm 23 say to those places and those households? Surely it is a reminder that God is with us in our most vulnerable moments. Even if God's protection does not protect us from physical death, God is the one who shepherds us through this life and beyond with a love and protection that death itself cannot defeat. That is who God has always been and the one on whom we always depend.

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