Sermon Preached 4-3-2011 St. Dunstan's McLean, VA.
Lent 4. Text: Psalm 23.
Today is a day to rejoice! Although it’s odd to think of rejoicing in Lent, we have made it halfway through Lent and this Sunday is a day to find refreshment, restoration, and encouragement to push forward through the remaining weeks to Easter. In particular, the scripture we heard today helps us focus on opening our eyes and hearts to see where the light of refreshment and restoration comes from: the Lord.
With refreshment and restoration in mind, I’m going to preach Psalm 23. This Psalm is one of the better known psalms but I know the Lord has new things in it for us to reveal his glory in our lives. When we know something so well, it’s easy to just go through the motions and say, “I know everything about that because I’ve recited it so many times.” But whether you’ve prayed psalm 23 a million times, or heard it for the first time today, I pray that God will make it fresh and new for you.
So what new things can be said about Psalm 23? Well, this can be a tough psalm for us city dwellers to really understand. For ancient Israelites and those that live in rural settings, they looked over their land and saw flocks and flocks of sheep; for us, we look over our land and see flocks and flocks of cars. And so to really understand the metaphor, I’m going to use some help from a friend in seminary.
My friend’s name is Mary, and she’s from Kenya. She grew up in an environment where shepherding is still a major part of the culture. In shepherding, the job of the shepherd is utterly crucial to the lives of the sheep. Shepherding is a relationship that entails supply and care. Other than the shepherd, sheep have no way of protecting themselves from the elements, from the animals that prey on them, and from thieves. And so the sheep put all their trust in their shepherd. They are able to lie down and rest beside still waters because they lack or want nothing: they are satisfied, happy and healthy. The sheep are able to rest because even though it’s difficult to find food and water, the shepherd has fed them, the shepherd protects them at all times, and the shepherd will never leave them.
The sheep are utterly dependent on the shepherd. Because sheep aren’t able to discern the right paths, the shepherd shows them the way, and guides them along. They are comforted by a rod and a staff. The language used here is real: These two things are not just symbols of protection, but literally the rod and the staff protect the sheep from being eaten by wild beasts and once again, guide them to safety. Their lives are overflowing with the fullness of what the shepherd has given them and goodness and mercy pursues them instead of their enemies. And what’s even better, is that it’s in the shepherd’s very nature to love and care for the sheep.
In our culture, especially in our liturgical culture as Episcopalians, we use this psalm in worship: for praising God for getting us through those hard times. We see it particularly in our burial rites. But this isn’t a psalm about death: No, as our burial rites are rites about the resurrection, so this psalm is about living- day in and day out. And most importantly, this psalm is about who we need to be focusing on in our lives. The bottom line is that as humans, we are utterly dependent on God. We are incapable of making good, godly decisions. We are incapable to choose the right path because of our sin and brokenness. We are incapable of righteous and merciful actions. And so the only way we can make good decisions is by the grace of God guiding us, just like the shepherd and his sheep. Lent gives us an intentional opportunity to truly examine how we’re living our lives: but more importantly: to focus on whom we’re living our lives for. For when we focus and put our trust in the Lord, we are truly taken care of.
And so how can this psalm speak to us in our daily lives and our culture? Maybe personally you’re going through a rough patch in your life right now. Maybe you’ve just gotten through a rough patch. Maybe you’ve lost hope because of everything that is happening around the world. World-wide, our brothers and sisters are experiencing horrible things: like the ravaging effects and aftermath of a tsunami in Japan, fear of violent governments in Libya and other countries, and global economies in question. And while we can’t understand why the darkness in the world and in our lives remains, our souls can still remain hopeful in Christ: the light of the Lord can come into our lives and the lives of whom we pray for, and there is hope. The theologian St. Augustine helps us understand this concept. He writes, “as long as you remain in this present life, you are walking in the midst of vices, of worldly pressures, which are the shadow of death. Let Christ shine in your heart, who lights the lamp of our minds with the love of God and neighbors; and you will not fear any evils, since he is with you.” No matter how bad things get. No matter what valleys you walk through. Be utterly dependent on the Lord and you will be filled with light and joy. That light and joy might look different than you imagined, but it will be there. In these remaining days of Lent and all the days of your lives, fear not, be comforted by the goodness and mercy which pursue you, and rejoice because you will dwell in the Lord’s house forever.