Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Lord is my shepherd: Unpacking the 23rd Psalm." - a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Lord is my shepherd.

Is there any verse in the Bible that lowers our blood pressure more than this?

Hearing those words is like leaning back into a lover’s embrace and feeling their arms wrap around us and hold us close.

The Lord is my shepherd

There’s a reason we include the 23rd psalm in just about every funeral. It is comfort. As we are wearied by the changes and chances of this life, it invites us to rest in God’s eternal changelessness. It is safety. The 23rd psalm reminds us we are under the loving gaze of a God who gives rest to the weary, blesses the dying, soothes the suffering, takes pity on the afflicted and shields the joyous.

But it is so much more. Just as Jesus himself is so much more than comfort and safety, the 23rd psalm invites us, in the security of those loving arms, to dive deeply into what it means to be under the shepherdship of God.

And so that’s what we’re going to do for a few minutes this morning. We’re going to say these words, and we are going to lean back into God’s loving arms and feel them enfold us. As we welcome Ivy and Kyden into the Body of Christ, we are going to consider what it truly means to claim the Lord as our shepherd.

So pull out your service leaflet and find Psalm 23 at the top of the page … we’re going to take each of the six verses, one by one, starting with the first. Let’s say it together:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

That word “want” needs a little unpacking. Want doesn’t mean every desire of our heart will be fulfilled. Want doesn’t mean we will live in luxury or we won’t ever have to work hard. “We shall not be in want” means we will never lack the necessities of what we need to live.

“I shall not be in want” is our first hint that although this psalm is written in first person singular, it is not about us as individuals but as a community. Because we know plenty who are in want, including some of us in this very room. And scripture is the story of God providing not for the person but for the people. And a shepherd never only has one sheep … at least not a shepherd who is long for the job.

So “I shall not be in want” is the song not of you or me as a person but of us as a people … a people who were in the desert and each morning God gave us manna just enough for that day. It is the trust in the providence of God we echo each time we pray “give us this day our daily bread.”

“I shall not be in want” is the embracing of the sacred enough for each and for all. God will provide enough. Our daily bread. Enough for me. Enough for all.

“I shall not be in want” means our job and joy with the abundance of what God provides is not to hoard it but take just what we need, just what will keep us out of want, just that sacred enough, and with the rest experience the divine joy of sharing and providing for one another.

“I shall not be in want means” there is enough. It means as the church we stand as prophets against the false Gospels of acquisition and consumption and the fear that if we do not hoard we will be in want. It means as the church we take it upon ourselves to make sure we are providing that sacred enough for one another. It means as the church we meet the fear of scarcity and the reality of poverty with this simple verse:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.

Second verse. Let’s say it together.

He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

Being under the shepherdship of God means we are people of Sabbath. We lie down in green pastures and walk beside still waters. We breathe and smell the roses. We don’t let the speed of the internet dictate the pace of our lives. We appreciate and embrace the sacrament of the present moment.

Like the first verse, this verse leads us to prophetically preach that sacred enough --not in the face of fear of scarcity of stuff, but in the fear of scarcity of time.

For God’s flock, there is always enough time as long as we remember that time is not just measured in the ticking of the seconds but also in depth of time, what in Greek is called kairos. Kairos is how we can sit at a coffee shop lost in conversation with a friend and time seems to stop. Kairos is how we can spend a half hour stuck in traffic and a half hour walking at the Botanical Garden and they are two completely different amounts of time.

Kairos is the difference between how long the sermon is and how long the sermon feels.

This week, one of our first residents at Magdalene St. Louis, wrote a blogpost about her experience of getting out of prison and re-entering the world after being incarcerated for 12 years. Here is what she noticed about how we live today:

People are so wrapped up in their devices, there’s no eye contact and people are always in such a hurry they forget to “stop and smell the flowers.” We all look like walking zombies … it’s kind of creepy!

Being under the shepherdship of God is not that kind of life. It means there is enough time. It means God leads us into places where time is measured not in length but in depth and our response is to stop and breathe deeply. It means we can and even must take the time to lie down in the green pastures and bathe in the stillness of the waters.

And invite the world to do the same.

Third verse. Let’s say it together.

He revives my soul*
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

Our Cathedral mission statement says “We seek a deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ.” It is God we seek … knowing that God is experienced both in the stillness of our hearts and in the love given one another in community.

We know that as humans we are prone to addiction and any manner of things we use to fill the emptiness inside or to self-medicate our trauma and loneliness. But as members of God’s flock, we strive to choose a different path. As members of God’s flock, we hold hands and together remind ourselves and one another that these are false gods and lies, that they will never give our hearts what we crave.

It is not the anesthetics of the world but God alone who revives our soul.

Together, in God’s flock, we sing to God with St. Augustine, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

And because we are seekers for God, we know our actions and words matter. We know that there is such a thing as right and wrong pathways, as loving and unloving.

As members of God’s flock, we not only seek the reviving presence of Christ, we submit to the authority of Christ. We are guided by the word of God in scripture, heard in prayer and discerned in community. We strive to go along the right pathways not for our own sake but for God’s sake … in gratitude for and for the sake of the one who gives us life itself.

Fourth verse. Let’s say it together

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

We do what is hard, and we do it without fear.

God does not just lead us beside still waters but through the most turbulent waters there are. Following Christ means we absolutely will pass through Good Friday on the way to Easter Sunday. We will walk right into that valley of the shadow of death. It will be the death of attachments, the death of relationships, the death of dreams and maybe even the death of life itself.

We will face deep loss.

But that’s not what makes us different. Everyone goes through the valley of the shadow of death. Everyone faces loss. As sheep of God’s flock, what makes us different is we shall fear no evil because we know God is with us. What makes us different as followers of Jesus is our absolute conviction with St. Paul that we are convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We walk fearlessly through the valley of the shadow of death. Not dodging it and living in denial of it, but naming it and even through tears and with trembling voice, singing Alleluia. And in those moments when each of us is tempted to despair, tempted not to trust the bonds of God’s love are forever, in those moments we are there for each other to believe when each other is in doubt, to hold each other up as we are prone to fall, and to wipe away every tear and steady every trembling voice.

Fifth verse. Let’s say it together.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Unlike the rest of the world where we gather in self-reinforcing communities of common opinion and culture, in God’s flock, we share community intentionally and specifically with those who trouble us the most.

That’s what it means when we say in our Cathedral mission statement that part of how we seek that deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ is through “embracing diversity joyfully.”

These past weeks and months, there has been some pushback on that piece of our mission statement. Not the embracing diversity part … but do we have to do it joyfully?

I get it. This is hard. Embracing diversity is hard. Gathering at table in the presence of those who trouble us is hard. But again, the psalmist gives us truth. For God pulls us together in our deepest difference not for God’s amusement or for our punishment, but because God designs us for each other… and the more different we are from each other, the more necessary we are for each other’s and our common salvation.

And that’s why even though it is the hardest thing we ever do, when we gather at table in the presence of those who trouble us, it is blessing and it is joy and it is abundance of riches. The two parts of this verse cannot be separated. It is the very act of sharing table with those who trouble us that anoints our heads with oil and makes our cups run over.

Finally, the last verse. Let’s say it together.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

We are people of God’s forever.

We don’t trust forever. In marriage we say “until we are parted by death,” and then 50% of our unions end in divorce. Our cars don’t start and our heroes fail. Nations slip into history, and tower and temple fall to dust.

But God is the God of forever. In a world of broken promises and relationships that never live up to our hopes. In a world where we have been used and abused and where trust seems like it should be a four letter word, where the horizon of death can leap toward us with one doctor’s visit or phone call in the dark of night. In a world where the vision of a love that heals seems too good to be true, God looks passionately into our eyes and whispers in our ear:




God’s forever is God’s promise that surely, certainly, absolutely God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life. That we are God’s own -- yesterday, today and tomorrow. That even when we leave this mortal coil, we need not fear for we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The Lord is my shepherd. And yours. And all of ours.

These are words of incredible comfort, but oh, so much more. They are an invitation into an extraordinary life together. The baptized life of Jesus Christ. The life of the shepherdship of God.

The Lord is our shepherd. And together as God’s flock we will rejoice in the sacred enough of things and time. We will drink deeply from God’s everlasting love and do what is hard without fear. We will embrace diversity joyfully and find in it blessing as abundant as oil dripping down our foreheads and cups overflowing with the finest wine. And together, always together, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

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