Easter 4c, April 21, 2013

April 22, 2013

The Lord Is!
Psalm 23

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

I can’t think about Psalm 23 without remembering the meal that followed the funeral of Robert Anderson Jr., who was the man that took care of my grandparents for decades. He went by Jr., and Jr. was shot and killed by the elderly and deranged father of his girlfriend. It was a tragic event that would be followed by my grandfather’s death two weeks later. My grandfather was so dependent upon Jr. he literally couldn’t live without him.

Jr.’s funeral service had been relatively awful because the preacher had pretty much used Jr. as an example of the kind of person you don’t want to be if you don’t want to spend eternity in the wrong place, but I knew that was a very narrow view of Jr. and of God. Jr. wasn’t in church on Sundays because he was usually getting my quadriplegic grandmother out of bed and preparing their Sunday dinner. The church people where the funeral took place didn’t offer a meal following the service, but there was a woman who offered to prepare a meal for Jr.’s family and friends at her diner that also functioned as a nightclub – which was probably more appropriate anyway.

My mother helped put the meal together and just before we sat down to eat she suggested that we recite the 23rd Psalm together. I’m not sure where that idea came from, but it seemed like a good thing to do so we began, and we started off strong, but we didn’t get far beyond the green pastures phrase before we got lost. All of the lines of Psalm 23 are familiar to many of us, but it’s a challenge to up and repeat it without looking at it. Our group recitation of Psalm 23 was filled with awkward pauses followed by various lines spoken out of order that someone would remember, and we never could really get a good flow going. I think someone finally uttered the last line and we all said a hearty Amen.

It was pretty comical and probably pretty appropriate for that gathering. I’m sure Jr. spent more time laughing at the night club than he did studying scripture at church, but I dare say the Lord was his shepherd also.

Psalm 23 is certainly the most familiar of all of the Psalms, and it may be one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. It’s familiar, but in some ways it’s terribly foreign to us. We don’t come from shepherding people. At least most of us don’t. We come from people who worked in offices or at the house. Some of our predecessors worked outside in some capacity, but we don’t generally come from people who were out tending sheep, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever set out to become a shepherd.

I know there are some people around who keep sheep, but those are people who have the luxury to have an interesting hobby. And there might be a few people in Arkansas who keep sheep on a commercial level, but those people are not sleeping outside and warding off predators with a stick. This is not to say that we don’t come from people who were brave and hearty in their own way or that we don’t know what it feels like to face dangerous foes in trying circumstances, but I am saying we don’t really know what that job was all about that we so fondly refer.

I don’t know anything about sheep, but I’m guessing that like most animals that aren’t gifted with the wisdom that we would like for them to have and they probably wander where they are most likely to get hurt or lost, and they resist whatever care they need to have administered. In other words, to be a shepherd would be to constantly work with an animal that goes where it shouldn’t go and won’t go where it needs to be. And I guess that’s why this metaphor of God being our shepherd has remained current for so many centuries. We have gotten away from the work of chasing after hard-headed and danger-prone animals, but I don’t think God has been able to leave that kind of work behind.

Now I know that some of you have done your best to give God a rest from the work of keeping your hearts and minds at peace, but some of us are keeping God up at night and generating all kinds of consternation. I’m sure God longs to be able to reach down with a staff and steer us in better directions, but our shepherd doesn’t seem to have access to such elemental tools.

God is unable to be as hands-on as a Palestinian shepherd. Too many people do fall in harms way for me to think God’s primary job is to simply keep us safe, but I do believe that we are all as familiar to God as is the flock of a caring shepherd. And even though God is unable to protect us from pain and death, I join the Psalmist in believing that God maintains a vigilant watch over our lives, and no doubt rejoices when we find our way in to the realization that we are in God’s presence and consciousness regardless of what’s going on in our lives.

In response to the terrible turn of events that occurred in Boston last week one of the stories I heard on the radio was an interview with a man who constructs prosthetic limbs for amputees. He got in to that line of work about 25 years ago when one of his legs was crushed in an industrial accident. The man said that he went back to the hospital where he was treated a few months after his accident because he wanted to visit with other amputees and reassure them that they would be ok. The hospital staff actually turned him away because they said he didn’t have any qualifications for such work.

The man said he was on his way out of the hospital when the chaplain of the hospital pulled him aside and asked him what was going on. He explained that he just wanted to provide some reassurance to fellow amputees that they would be ok, so the chaplain invited him to come to the hospital the next Saturday for a short training session for chaplain volunteers, and with that he was authorized to go visit anyone he wanted to go see in the hospital.

He said the most memorable visit he had had was with a young man who had just lost the lower portion of his leg and he when he tried to tell the young man that he would be ok, the guy got really angry and said he was so tired of people coming in and telling him he would be fine. He went on to tell the volunteer chaplain he had no idea what he was facing and he asked him if he would just leave him alone. With that the volunteer chaplain put his prosthetic leg up on the bed and pulled his pants leg up so the young man could see who he was dealing with.

The young man didn’t have much more to say, but he began to cry and he did thank him for coming in. This volunteer chaplain told his interviewer that he believes the purpose God has given each of us in life is to watch out for one another.

I think we’ve seen a lot of people practicing that belief in the wake of the bombing in Boston. Many people have stepped up to watch over others who have suffered terrible assaults on their lives and their loved ones. God is our shepherd in an ultimate sense, but we are called to be shepherds for one another in a very immediate sense. It’s not generally very helpful to slip a shepherd’s crook around the neck of a friend or even a child who is moving in a dangerous direction, but clear compassionate words of concern can be very powerful.

We don’t generally get to physically stand in the way of enemies who are coming after our friends and loved ones and beat them off with a stick, but we can listen to the struggles of those who are living in fear of disease, or divorce, or other forms of personal disaster and do what we can to provide relief.

In a mysterious way I do believe that God reaches out to us in the same way a shepherd watches over the sheep. Devastating disaster does happen to good-hearted people, but even in the midst of calamity I believe we have access to the calming hand of God, and often that profound sense of divine compassion comes to us through the hands of human angels who know their purpose is to watch over their neighbors.

Because God is, we are ok regardless of what may come our way. Because God is, we are empowered to provide divine care to those who are walking through that valley of the shadow of death.
Because God is, we are dwelling in a holy place, and there is nothing a twisted mind can do to destroy our communion with God’s holy spirit.

Devastating death came to Jesus, but that didn’t put an end to his life. In a mysteriously miraculous way this greatest shepherd that God has ever provided continues to provide for us. It’s easy to get anxious and to fret over what may come and what may happen, and at such times it’s wonderful to remember that the Lord is. If you are like me you might not remember every word of this beautiful Psalm, but it’s hard to forget the main points.

The Lord is and we are – loved, guided, protected, nourished, and cherished – always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: