Easter 4B

April 23, 2018

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 I talked about him in a previous sermon. You may not have been here or you may have forgotten what I said about Jr. I wouldn’t have remembered telling you about Jr., but I’ve figured out how to do word searches on my computer, and sure enough, I talked about Jr. in May of 2016.


In that sermon I talked about how Jr. took care of my quadriplegic grandmother for 20 years and then my elderly grandfather. I told the story of how Jr. was was shot and killed by the elderly and deranged father of his girlfriend, and I talked about his terrible funeral. It was terrible because the preacher of the Black Baptist Church who preached his funeral pretty much used Jr. as an example of the kind of person you don’t want to be. Jr. didn’t go to church, but he was usually at my grandparent’s house on Sunday mornings fixing their lunch. I told the story of how I got to say the final words over Jr.’s grave and that I tearfully pronounced that Robert Anderson Jr. was a good man – which I considered him to be.


I know I said these things because I read the sermon that my word search led me back to, but I didn’t tell you what happened at the lunch we had following the service.


My mother and a few other women who knew and loved Jr. put together a meal for his family following the service. The church hadn’t offered their fellowship hall, so we had the meal at a more appropriate place – it was at a nightclub that wasn’t open during the day. I was impressed that my mother had pulled together such an event at such a place, and she was pretty much in charge of the event. When the food was all laid out and we were about to begin eating she didn’t ask anyone to say a blessing – she suggested that we all say 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. I dare say 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 these awkward pauses followed by various lines spoken out of order that someone would remember ( …restores my soul, …yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of… ) but we never could really get a good flow going. Miraculously someone managed to get us going on the final words of the Psalm and we finished with a strong, … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


It was pretty comical and probably pretty appropriate for that gathering. I’m sure Jr. spent more time laughing at that 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 buildings or on farms where crops are grown. Some of us know about raising cows and horses and chickens, but we don’t generally come from people who have spent any time 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.


We don’t know about sheep, but we know about animals, and we know that animals go where they shouldn’t go and they do what they shouldn’t do. Shepherding isn’t that different from any kind of animal care, 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 sheep and warding off dangerous predators, but I don’t think God has been able to leave that kind of work behind.


It’s an interesting image to think of God as our shepherd. It’s an image that puts us in the role of being like an animal that is in need of guidance and protection. I’m reminded of our little dog, Pickle, who has a bit of an infection on his foot. If he would leave his foot alone for a few days it would be fine, and I’ve tried to explain this to him, but he won’t quit licking it. So we’ve had to put this crazy cone on his head that prevents him from licking his foot.


God doesn’t have such clear methods of preventing us from doing harm to ourselves and others. God’s care and guidance aren’t as obvious as the tools of a shepherd, but I’m comforted by this image of God as our shepherd, and I’m certain that God’s protection and guidance are equally real.


God isn’t as hands-on as a Palestinian shepherd. Too many people actually fall in to harm’s 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 keep us from pain and death – I join the Psalmist in believing that God maintains a vigilant watch over our lives. And God 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.


It’s been 5 years since the bombing of the Boston Marathon. There were many amazing stories of heroism and care that came out of that event. One of the stories I heard was of a man who went to the hospital soon after the event to speak with some of the survivors. This man was in the business of crafting prosthetic limbs, and he had gotten in to that line of work 25 years earlier 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, but an astute chaplain pulled him aside and asked him what was going on. The man 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 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.


If often takes a disaster of some kind for some of us to remember this essential truth, but this is something we often see in the wake of a disaster – people remember how important it is for us to watch out for one another. God is our shepherd in an ultimate sense, but we are called to be shepherds for one another in a very immediate sense. In some ways I wish we could simply use the tools of shepherds to watch out for one another. It would be nice if we could just slip a shepherds crook around the neck of a loved one who is going in a dangerous direction, but this work of watching over one another isn’t so simple. But we should never forget the power of clear and compassionate words.


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 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 person with a bomb or a gun 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, and 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 simply 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 because of that we are – loved, guided, protected, nourished, and cherished – always.


Thanks be to God. Amen.



One Response to “Easter 4B”

  1. Bill Waddell Says:

    Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2

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