A Psalm of David.
though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.[g]
Sermon: Shepherd of our Souls , preached by Rev. Sandi on 2/22/20
Today I know there is a lot of anxiety out there. Some of you have shared your fears with me already. What better way to calm our anxiety than to look at the most beloved of all Palms today! I know from my days as a chaplain, that this is the favorite one folks like to have read before they go into surgery or are on hospice beds. This is the favorite one for celebration of life services. Why? It is pure comfort! David shares his confidence in God, what he really believes about God because of what he has experienced of God. God, David knows, is with him through all phases of life, in all the highs and lows, mountains and valleys. God will even shepherd David’s soul as he crosses, transitions through the valley of the shadow of death from this earth to life eternal. David expresses this much trust in God.
Friends, we are in the valley of the shadow—in one of those low places right now. These are the times we are apt to talk about God the most, that we turn to God the most. It was little wonder that church attendance soared the Sunday after 9-11. We needed ultimate comfort; assurance that God was still with us. And I want you to know this: God is closer than we think in times of crisis. God is always present, and that means everything to us.
Years ago, when I was a child, I had pet rabbits. I often would forget to feed and water them, but my dad would always check to see if I had tended to them before we all went to bed at night. If I hadn’t tended to them, he would tell me to go out and do it—often getting me out of bed at night. The shed in that dark Pennsylvania countryside where their barrel of pellets was stored was about 30 yards from the house. The shed itself had no light, was musty, scary, full of mice. I would cry and whine, afraid of the dark, wishing I had remembered to take care of those rabbits during the daylight. Once I remember that my father offered to give me a flashlight or go with me. You can bet that I chose his presence in the darkness over carrying that flashlight by myself. The assurance that someone is there is powerful! Make no mistake about it; God’s shepherding presence is more powerful than anything.
Let’s look more closely at the Psalm. It begins with a metaphor: The Lord is my shepherd. Now “shepherd” was a rich and complex notion in Israel’s culture. The primary duties of a shepherd were well known in David’s agrarian society. Shepherds had to provide and protect the flock, lead them in the right way, fend off predators. The sheep were the shepherd’s responsibility. Not surprisingly, the role and title of the shepherd in the ancient Near East was also used for leaders as a designation of their relation to the people in their charge; consequently, the word “shepherd” had a royal connotation. Gods and kings were called the shepherd of their people. Both were portrayed with a rod and shepherd’s crook as a sign of office. A good government, as you know, is charged with protecting the people.
Both the Jews people and Christians have long associations with the shepherd metaphor as it applies to pastors and pastoral care. In this anxious time, pastors have a role in protecting the people. Our Southwest Conference of the UCC has given us good guidance for this time and said this: “The best way to love one another and to love our neighbors as ourselves is not to be physically with people outside of our own living quarters until the spread of COVID-19 is controlled.” I did some research into what went on with churches during the 1918 Spanish flu and found that nearly all churches were in agreement that they needed to close, in compliance with government mandates, for a time to keep the people safe. Of course, there were some notable exceptions and a few to get on board late, just like we have today. Some things never change.
You may be worried about your finances, your children’s jobs, your job, your health, shortages, and so on. I get that. One way I have found helpful to alleviate anxiety is to think back over your life and recall some of the most difficult times you went through—maybe times when you simply could not perceive God’s presence with you—dark nights of the soul. But then, after you came through that dark valley, you look back on that time and began to see how God brought you through or even brought about something new because of it. Hindsight they say, is 20-20. Looking back, we have the benefit of perspective. Think of those precious words in Amazing Grace: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come. T ’was grace that brough us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.” There is no reason to think that God’s shepherding presence will ever leave us. Not back then, not now, and not even when our souls make the biggest transition of all, from this life to life everlasting. That’s the amazing comfort of Psalm 23.
One of the interesting questions about Psalm 23 is when it was written by David. One pastor, Johnny Hunt, said this about it: “Some think he wrote it as an old man, approaching the end of life’s journey, looking back over his life and rejoicing in the goodness of God.” So, in that scenario, it was hindsight, the benefit of reflection and perspective, when he was looking back—and saw how God had worked all things for his good and for his people’s good. Other scholars think that “he wrote it as a youth, out there on the Jerusalem hills, his father’s flock around him, his harp in his hand, and his soul aflame with the great thought which had just come to him” Johnny Hunt, in My Faithful Shepherd, www.sermonsearch.com/free-sermons-outline-trial/). I tend to like the thought that he wrote it toward the end of life, because he had the benefit of perspective in looking back and seeing with greater clarity how God was with him when he defeated Goliath, kept him safe from enemies, guided him as king, and so on.
Reading this psalm as a Christian brings Jesus to mind. The earliest Christians said, “the Lord is my shepherd” and applied the title “Lord” to Jesus. Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd in John 10:11, in one of those I Am sayings: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Bible commentator James Luther Mays says that “The early Christians claimed [Jesus] as shepherd and guardian of their souls. In the Christian re-reading of this psalm, Jesus is the shepherd in David’s place. [David, in his youth, you will remember, was a field shepherd in the Jerusalem hills in charge of a flock of sheep.] Jesus is the one who restores our souls, leads us in the paths of righteousness, accompanies us through danger, spreads the holy supper before us in the presence of sin and death, and pursues us in his gracious love all the days of our lives” (Interpretation, Psalms, John Knox Press, Mays, 119). Because of Jesus, the words “I shall not want” are completely fulfilled. We have a shepherd who guides us through life’s darkest valleys to living water.
I hope all of us can come to see Psalm 23 as an expression of confidence in God’s protection during this time and in any of life’s difficult periods that might befall us. God brings us through these storms; in the words of Saint Julian of Norwich, all will one day be well.
Let me end on a lighter note with this story about one of the Peanuts comic strips. It was used in a sermon by Grady R. Brittain. “In one of the Peanuts comic strips, Snoopy is shown on his doghouse typing a novel. He begins his story with the words: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ Snoopy always begins his stories that way: ‘it was a dark and stormy night.’ Lucy happened to come by and put in her two cents worth of advice. In her aggressive, blunt tone of voice, she scolds him: ‘You stupid dog! That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. Who ever heard of such a silly way to begin a story? Don’t you know that all the good stories begin, ‘Once upon a time?’ Lucy berates and belittles him more and then leaves. The last frame of the comic strip shows Snoopy starting over on his story. This time he types: ‘Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night’” (www.preaching.com/sermons/comfort-when-the-darkness-is-at-its-worst-text-psalm-23/).
Friends, this is a once upon a time thing—this dark and stormy night with all these disruptions to our daily life. It’s not a dark and stormy night forever. God brings us through these times, is ever present. I know that this time of social distancing seems like a dark eternity, but if history has anything to teach us about other pandemics, these times inevitably pass. Stock markets that fall rise again. Many who are sick recover. Curves flatten. Let us remember that we can’t always calm the storm, but what we can do is calm ourselves, remembering that the Good Shepherd guards our souls through all the circumstances in life—to include the moment that we pass on to glory. This dark and stormy night will pass. Amen.