The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…
Perhaps . . . perhaps, it is unsettling for us to pray this 23rd Psalm outside a funeral occasion? For many, the 23rd Psalm is firmly associated with consolation offered in death. Mourners frequently request this Psalm to be read at loved ones’ funerals – so familiar, so comforting.
Yet, here it appears in the middle of Eastertide, a season for celebrating new life. When we shake this Psalm loose from its funeral moorings, we hear affirmations of life right here and now.
Life, right here and now! This is the key truth: life, right here and now – not only or just in the afterlife!
Praying this Psalm today reminds me of the time when our sons were very young, David six years old, Andrew three.
Bedtime: many of us know the special-ness of this evening ritual. In our family, when the baths were finished and the boys were in their ‘jammies’, robes and slippers, it was story time. Richard and I took turns reading from a favorite: “Father Fox’s Penny Rhymes”!
Then, it was ‘up the wooden mountain’! On his shoulders, Richard carried Andrew and, I held David’s hand to the top of the stairs, then into their twin beds in their small back bedroom. We tucked each of the boys in, kissed each gently on his forehead and then I sat down on the edge of Andrew’s bed.
Prayer time: David and Andrew looked forward to this time because I sang the 23rd Psalm (sing Gelineau): “The Lord is my Shepherd, nothing shall I want, He leads me by safe paths, nothing shall I fear . . . . “ Our sons felt loved and safe, in the night time and the day time – still, they feel loved and safe.
In that time of their growing up, and for all of us – (pause) and this is the particularly good news for us this day – Jesus is with us in the “here and now,” in us Jesus lives into the power of his death and resurrection, this morning and every morning and evening: God with us, here and now, offering rest in green pastures, guidance beside still waters, Jesus’ rod and staff provide protection, security.
But! Notice! The metaphor changes in the final two verses: God suddenly becomes a generous host, preparing a table and anointing our heads with oil, things a shepherd would never do for the sheep! Nor would the shepherd allow the sheep into the house!
Taken together, these two constellations of images point to the royalty of Jesus. Just as the human king of ancient Judah and Israel served as shepherd and host of his people, so God does in this Psalm, in the person of Jesus. . . . .
One more picture: in 2001, I was a pilgrim to Iona, a tiny Island off the coast of Scotland, where Saint Columba landed in 563 CE, bringing Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. I prayed for five days in that re-built monastery church and wandered the small island by day, even to Columba’s landing site, where I picked up a large stone, loaded on to it all my sins and the sins of my parishioners and tossed it into the sea – all that sin washed away! Then I walked to Columba’s quiet retreat prayer place to pray Psalm 23.
Everywhere on that tiny one mile wide and three mile long island, a haven for hundreds of sheep – those sheep fed and watered freely – no fences, no one harmed them, all vehicles stopped for them on the pathways – certainly we all watched our footing! – and those sheep came when they were called! Sheep: loved, protected, so alive, just as Jesus says of us, for him.
So, for us to prayer this 23rd Psalm this morning is to make an extreme faith statement with the very first verse: God is our shepherd, not any king or president or government or nation – not anyone else but God in Jesus do we trust with our very lives and well-being, here and now!
Yes, we trust God in Jesus to protect, prepare, provide, not in some afterlife, but now! Like the Psalmist, we need no one else and certainly no other thing. We pray for grace to be dependent solely on the God who walks with us through deep valleys, who provides food and rest, who offers guidance in right paths.
Remember that wonderful old hymn? “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own and the joy we share as we tarry there – none other has ever known.”
In our consumer-oriented society, it is good for us to hear the simple but radical message of the
23rd Psalm: God in Jesus is the only necessity of life.
Friends, come to the Table prepared for us by The Lord of Life; with open hands and hearts receive Jesus’ gift of his very self – all for love, for protection, for life – here, now, always. Amen.
The Rev’d. Marie Z. Swayze
St. Mark’s Church, 9 AM Mass
15 May 2011