April 29, 2012 Psalm 23- The Lord Is My Shepherd
Acts 4:5-12 Psalm 23 1 John 3:16-24 John 10:11-18
I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m not the best patient. I’m not a bad patient, I’ve known worse, but I’m also not the best. I have problems following orders. I second guess and question and pretty much do what I want to do and find ways to justify this. Somehow I get by. It must be frustrating though, being a doctor and knowing how poorly orders are followed.
If I were to tell you I had a prescription that if followed faithfully for only 7 days would radically change your life for the better, would you do it? Dr. Charles Allen, a minister, in his book God’s Psychiatry, written in 1953 and reprinted repeatedly since that time, does just that. His prescription is to read the 23rd Psalm five times a day at different intervals for 7 days. You can’t sit down in the morning and read the psalm five times at once and consider yourself done for the day, any more than you would take five pills at once if your doctor had ordered you to take them throughout the day. It must be at different times, perhaps when you first wake up, at breakfast, lunch and dinner and then before you go to sleep. I can’t say that I managed this myself. Seems there is always some reason I forget or maybe it’s just because, as I already admitted, I’m not the most compliant patient. But I can say that for the past twelve years that I have been chaplain here at Vista, every year during the Easter season the common lectionary readings feature Good Shepherd Sunday, including the 23rd Psalm in the readings.
Year, after year I have been challenged to come up with new ideas, new ways, to explore that mystery of God as shepherd. Some years I have focused on sheep, the nature of sheep and how they needed a shepherd if they were to survive. Sometimes I focused on the shepherd’s voice and how the sheep know it. Others I focused on the rod and staff that guides. Still others I have focused on wants versus needs, the restful waters, or the valley of death, or the banquet table. All worthwhile. So while I may not have followed Dr. Allen’s prescription precisely, I have certainly reflected on this psalm repeatedly throughout the years. There is an abundance of riches to choose from in preaching on this topic, an abundance that can be challenging.
Mark Twain is believed to have said, “I’d have written you a shorter letter if I had more time.” It can be harder at times to say something in a few words than in many words. This psalm is a beautifully crafted piece that says so much in only 118 words, 6 verses, well worth repeating, memorizing, praying. It is one of the most well-known passages in Scripture, second only to the Lord’s Prayer. People who rarely darken a church’s door, when confronted with the death of a loved one and funeral preparations, will almost without fail ask for this particular psalm, so much so that it has become synonymous with funerals. Yet it is truly about life, not death, how to live in this life and the next.
The psalm is written in two parts. The first section, verses 1-4, speaks of our journey while on this earth, under the care of the shepherd. The second section shifts to the journey’s end. The shepherd becomes the host of a wonderful banquet. Yet the two are connected. The good shepherd is the good host in verse 2 when he provides green pastures and still waters for his flock; the good host is the good shepherd in verse 6 where we see how goodness and kindness follow, provide the rear guard for the flock. As one commentator states, “The Good Shepherd sees to his shepherding from the beginning to the end of our pilgrimage that at the eventide we may come to our dwelling, which is also his, where he can lay aside his shepherd’s garments and assume the vestments of the kindly host.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4 p. 124)
Verse 1 states, the Lord is my shepherd. He is not my task-master, ordering me around, rather he is a care-taker, providing for my needs, watching out for me. So I shall not want for anything I truly need.
Verses 2-3 portrays a day in the life of the sheep. We begin with the morning, being awakened by the shepherd’s voice, the flock begins its journey to the appointed place where they will find pastureland and water and rest where their bodies are restored for the next stage of the journey. Certainly our life is like this. We journey, then we take a break to rest. Both are needed. We don’t spend our days just sleeping and eating. Our food and rest are to help us with the day’s journey. Sometimes we can get so caught up with the journey, the work we are doing, that we forget to take time to rest. The good shepherd knows we need food and rest to sustain us on our journey so even when we resist, he makes us lie down and get the rest we need. Then, with our souls restored, we renew the journey.
Then in verse 4 comes the greatest challenge. The shepherd leads the flock in the path of righteousness (verse 3) but sometimes that path isn’t easy, leads through dark times, dark places. Knowing what lies ahead, the dangers, the shepherd makes sure the flock is well rested and well fed before embarking on this next part of the journey. A reminder of how important it is to enjoy those periods of rest when they come to us for we do not know what lies ahead, only the shepherd knows that. As is so often the case in life, the heaviest burdens and tests do not come in the morning but in the afternoon. The deep valley is not a short one, the journey through it lasts till evening, but the flock doesn’t worry for they know the shepherd is present to protect them.
Once the journey is made we are welcomed into the banquet hall where no point of hospitality is overlooked, verses 5-6. A table is prepared, healing oils are poured on the fleece of the sheep, emphasizing how far the shepherd goes in caring for the sheep, and the cup overflows, we have more than enough, more than we need, more than we can drink, our cup never empties. And what’s even more, at journey’s end, we shall remain in this house of abundance forever, the reward of the righteous, all who follow the shepherd’s voice.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Marcus Aurelius, “A man’s life is what his thoughts make it.” Norman Vincent Peale, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Proverb 23:7, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Allen, p. 15) As we think, so we are. There is a power in these verses. If said over and over again, thoughtfully, reflectively, they can change your way of thinking. The words reflect a positive, hopeful approach to life. No one can live the 23rd Psalm and remain fearful. It speaks to the heart of who God is (Good Shepherd), how to think about God and how to be in relationship to God (as followers). It is a source of comfort and strength for every day.
One criticism of Psalm 23 is that some may interpret it as a private faith between God and me and doesn’t address the importance of mission and community. Yet the shepherd tends the flock, community is implied. He isn’t just there for the individual, yet the individual is not lost in the flock. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, Jesus reminds us.
Our Gospel expands on this image of God as Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and they know him, who lays down his life for his sheep. There is a power that comes from this relationship with our God. It is this power that allows the apostles Peter and John to perform miracles in our reading from Acts of the Apostles, the power that comes from their relationship with God. The reading from 1 John reminds us that in that we have been loved, we are to love in return; we are to do as Jesus did in caring for others, following the example of the Good Shepherd. Not only are we led by the Good Shepherd, we are to be that shepherd to others, leading others to the shepherd’s voice. In that our God provides for us, we are to provide for others in need. In that our cup overflows, we are to share our abundance with others. The Lord is our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want, our cup overflows, and so we are called to share with others.
Psalm 23 – a prescription for peace of mind, change of heart and great love. Take it five times a day.
Copyright April 2012, Robertson