Last week our scripture lesson was almost completely narrative and very few words of Jesus. This time, and from now until the Ascension in a few weeks, the scripture consists of Jesus speaking to his disciples. There is hardly any narrative story or context or action; just Jesus' discourse. The psalm today is also heavy on images and short on people.
I don't know about you, but I find it easier to put myself in the picture because I don't have to pretend I'm one of the characters. In the psalm, I am “I.” and in the gospel lesson, I am the audience. These scriptures aren't a depiction of a scene or a story.
Instead they are direct commentary just for us. For the reader.
Psalm 23 is familiar to many. Many of us have particular memories that come to mind when we read these words. Maybe they were sung at a service, or read aloud with someone special. Or for some, it's the song that's sung at the beginning of every Vicar of Dibley episode! I sometimes think of it as a giant shield that we can hold up to fend off any incoming desolation. The very first church retreat I want on was to Bishop Ranch just north of here. I was enjoying the afternoon laying out on the grass in a large clearing, and I could hear the stream nearby bubbling nearby. I remember being kind of tickled that I could actually remember something from the bible and see it happening right before my eyes. There I was laying in green pasture beside still waters.
I have forever thought of this psalm then as the one about green pastures. But that is so limiting! I think the reason it can be read at so many different occasions is that it is so full of so many ways to comfort us. Way more than the relaxation of an afternoon lying in the grass.
If the Lord is our shepherd, we may not have everything, but we will lack nothing.
If we need to rest, the Lord will give us green pastures next to still waters to lie in. Think of a rich oasis-like spot in the midst of barren land.
Restoring our soul refers to bringing us back to God. Returning us to the way of God. Reinvigorates the very heart of our whole being when it is weary.
And we are led on paths to God, for God's sake – for God's very name, very reputation.
If the Lord is our shepherd, evil will still happen, but we will not fear.
Why? Because God is with us?
Studying this psalm I learned that there are 26 hebrew words before this line, and 26 words after this line, so the very heart of the psalm is For you are with me. Before this line, God is in the third person. After this line, God is in the second person. When God is with us, we feel closer.
And then, we go beyond mere comfort, to excess! Our whole life overflowing with goodness.
And goodness and mercy don't just follow – they pursue us with energy! They chase us. There is a poem by Francis Thompson that says, “The Lord's goodness and mercy chase us down labyrinthine paths like the Hound of Heaven. They stay hot on our heels.”
This whole psalm seems to name our greatest fears, especially being abandoned or alone, and defy them. That giant shield against all desolation. The Hebrew verbs are all the kind of verbs that are continual. For example, I shall not want – I will continue to be in a state of lacking nothing. Goodness and mercy will follow – they will continue to chase me and pursue me. There is far more motion and life in this psalm than a simple nap in a meadow. The fellowship and protection of God is all encompassing and continually active. This psalm isn't just to be read and prayed when death is near or when death is on our minds, but this psalm reaches all of our places of discomfort whether they are minor discomforts or life stopping fears.
The psalm is a very personal one using the words I and me.
The gospel lesson however, and as a nice compliment to the psalm, is all about community and relationships.
The verses from Chapter 10 that we read today are part of a longer discourse that includes verses 1-39. The lectionary, divided into three years, always chooses the fourth Sunday of Easter for good shepherd Sunday. Between Year A, Year B and Year C, all 39 verses of chapter 10 are read. All of the verses together tell the story of Jesus as the good shepherd. In our first 10 lines today though, the phrase good shepherd hasn't been used yet. The good shepherd appears in verse 11, which we don't see until Year B in the lectionary calendar. This is the problem with the Revised Common Lectionary that many churches find, is that important stories or discourses are broken up.
What does appear in the first 10 lines today, more than Jesus as the shepherd, is Jesus as the gate. This is an important distinction, or rather addition. For this gospel writer it is important that Jesus is the means by which the sheep come to their abundant life – the gate; not only the provider of their abundant life – the shepherd. Jesus is both. Seeing Jesus as only the shepherd misses the point of Jesus freely giving up his life so that we could enter into a full relationship with God. And seeing Jesus as only the gate misses the point of Jesus being fully with us and for us.
What does it mean for us to see Jesus as the gate and gatekeeper for our green pasture? First of all, the gatekeeper belongs at the entrance. A thief or a bandit, ones who have ulterior motives and bad intentions, are not at the front door. They are the ones who try to be sneaky and silky and make excuses for why they are coming in another way. They are the ones who take advantage of the weak and vulnerable and keep them from a good life. They come to steal and kill and destroy. The gatekeeper though is the one who keeps watch, and protects the weak and vulnerable and finds ways to give everyone the ability to have life in abundance; to have life as if goodness and mercy are chasing them; to have life not just a cup that is full, but a cup that runneth over.
There are so many people whose lives are full to overflowing with struggles and pain and they may feel that their cups do indeed runneth over, but with the wrong thing. They are still longing for their soul to be restored. COVID-19 brings with it even more fear and even more struggles that are becoming more apparent every day. The anxiety of becoming ill, of making someone else ill, of losing a job, of being hungry, not being able to pay rent, of a sudden change in lifestyle. There are many in the town of Reno, NV, a town that relies heavily on visitors and the service industry, who are healthy working people who suddenly find themselves without work because their industry is suffering. As they drive through food lines, they find themselves shocked and embarrassed and lost. They have their health and they want to work. They don't expect to be in need. The decline has been sudden for so many in our country and around the world because so many places have had to just halt. Everything is so different, for everybody. It is hard to believe just how many ways there are to be different.
Our own self care is so important now. Whether that is exercise, meditation, distraction or prayer, it is vital that people of faith claim what is ours in God's promises. God's love and comfort and presence are ours. We can pray psalm 23 as a statement of faith. Not just a wish or a hope, but as something that is. We can trust that we have Jesus who willingly chose the path given to him for our sake so that with Jesus as the gatekeeper we will always have life, more than we ever could have imagined.
Let us pray….
Reverend Debra McGuire
May 3, 2020