April 3, 2016
Introduction: As I began thinking about this sermon/worship series on Psalm 23, I thought it would be neat to ask a variety of people to write Psalm 23 adaptations/reflections. Since most of us don’t have shepherding experience, I wondered how people would rewrite Psalm 23 using language and imagery more familiar to us. What are the shadows, or who are the enemies that come to mind who are far, far away from the feast table? And what are the signs of abundance, the cups that overflow? Sometimes in my own prayer life I think about the movements of consolation and desolation or the places of shadows and pastures. I’m grateful for those who have already submitted Psalm 23 adaptations. Remember you don’t have to be asked by me to do this exercise!
Sermon for April 3, 2016:
The only other time I have preached on Psalm 23 was about four years ago when I was a pastor at a different church. It was Good Shepherd Sunday- a Sunday in the liturgical year always falling on the fourth Sunday of Easter.
I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember looking up to the balcony and seeing one of our congregational farmers grinning from ear to ear. It wasn’t until after the service that I knew why.
Earlier that morning Jason discovered that one of the lambs in his care had been orphaned. The mother had given birth for the first time and to twins, and as is often the case with ewes, she bonded with one and rejected the other.
So Jason took to feeding this lamb with a bottle every couple of hours. And since it was Sunday, he knew he would have to feed this lamb between worship and Sunday school.
Word got out that there was a lamb on church property and pretty much everyone flocked outside to have a meet and greet with this precious creature, lambo as he was affectionately named.
No one could believe the fact that these two events coincided. On Good Shepherd Sunday one of our congregants brought a lamb to church.
I decided to call Jason this week to talk about all things sheep. I asked Jason whether it’s true that sheep require more attention and meticulous care, more handling, and more detailed direction than any other class of livestock. Sheep get a baaaad rap you know. They have a reputation for lacking intelligence of any kind. And so when we as people are compared to sheep as is often the case in the Bible, it should give us pause; it’s not a compliment.
Jason doesn’t entirely agree with this description of sheep. Sure, he said they can be a pain in the ewe know what. Sheep are stubborn, they are creatures of habit, easily panicked, sometimes timid, and they lack intelligence at times. They can be ornery and moody. In addition, there’s a lot of rivalry, tension, and competition in his small herd. He recalls when two ewes butted heads for two days straight until they were bleeding. (Not too unlike my sister and me when we were younger.)
So yes, Jason said they might be considered a high-maintenance class of livestock. And yet Jason speaks fondly of his small flock. He still has his four original ewes that he started with four years ago when he started sheep farming. He says that each of the sheep have individual and distinct personalities. And instead of just assuming they are stupid creatures like many do, he would say they are vulnerable. Sheep, he said, have the highest levels of pain when they are injured. They are extremely sensitive to sickness and injury and prone to infection and illness. They are lower on the food chain, vulnerable to predators like coyotes and hawks. And so one of the reason they flock together is because there is sometimes safety in numbers.
I’m not entirely sure why I wanted to return to Psalm 23 in this stretch of time following Easter. Perhaps I wondered what it would be like to explore this Psalm from more of an urban, city experience. Or perhaps I wanted to dwell with Psalm 23 because we all know a little something about vulnerability. We know what it is like to feel scared and timid. We are sometimes prone to stick with the pack out of fear or concern for safety. Many of us carry deep concerns about our futures: our finances, our safety, and well being. We all feel helpless at times in the face of danger.
Most of us do not say “I shall not want,” and mean it. We want and desire all kinds of things. While we may long for green pastures, cups that overflow, tables wide enough for enemies, too often we walk in shadows, all too aware of lurking dangers. Too often the enemies destroy the tables where we might have gathered. Our souls are not at rest. Many of us are plagued with worries, injuries, concerns that keep us up at night or keep us sleeping during the day. We so often feel fragile, vulnerable, prone to disease and dis-ease. Some are even neglected with no mother to feed them. By the way, I asked Jason whatever happened to that lamb he bottle fed and he said for several weeks after that, lambo slept in their house. Now he has two human children he’s feeding so I don’t think that lambs have the same house access (I could be wrong).
What strikes me about Psalm 23 as it is presented in the Bible is that even though it’s often read at funerals, the metaphors and images that the psalmist used are mostly about the present, not the future. Psalm 23 speaks of God’s relation to our living our everyday lives. That’s what I hope this series on Psalm 23 will help us reflect on-God’s relation to our living our everyday lives.
One of the Psalm 23 adaptations that I have carried with me for the past four years is written by Murphy Davis, a partner at the Open Door Community in Atlanta Georgia. I do not know Murphy Davis personally but I know people who live with her. For the past 15 plus years, Murphy has lived with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her adaptation of Psalm 23 grows out of her experiences over the years as a social activist living with illness and physical limitations. I think it speaks of movements of consolation and desolation, strength and vulnerability.
My Beloved Friend,
you are my shepherd.
In your care I have everything I need.
You open the gate to green pastures,
you teach me Sabbath,
and give me time to rest.
Beside the flowing stream
and the still lake
you restore me to myself in your image.
You lead and accompany me
into the path of justice and solidarity,
and I find my integrity in your way.
Even though I walk through
the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
I am not afraid,
because you never leave me
and your love casts out fear.
With a shepherd’s rod and staff
you guide me and give me comfort and strength.
You invite me to a bountiful table
where enmity and divisions fall away.
Justice is important;
but supper is essential.
You welcome me as an honored guest.
My joy overflows like a cup
poured full and always
Your goodness and mercy have
run after me my whole life long;
and so I will enjoy living
in the light of your presence forever.