What a week this has been. We need to give our souls a little time to catch up, don’t we? I thought I’d be preaching this morning on the curious story of Peter and Tabitha or reflect on the tension in Solomon’s portico between Jesus and the temple leadership, but not after a week like this. “What is the word, Lord, you want me to preach?” I asked, and the Lord said, “Breathe, just breathe.”
The cruel attacks in Boston, the terrible accident in West, TX, the grotesque theater of NRA funded politicians, the righteous fury of Gabrielle Giffords, the sigh of relief when the second suspect in the Boston bombings was caught – what a week this has been, and that’s only considering the national news.
On Wednesday, I wrote the prayer for our bulletin, and I found myself drawn to the Psalm for this Sunday, or rather drawn into its world of complete trust; I was grateful for the table of peace God has prepared for us, grateful for the house mercy has built for us to dwell in.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
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.
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.
The first book of religious instruction I ever read was given to me when I entered first grade. Our teacher told us we would use it in class for four years of Elementary School, but the first weeks of the first year were all about the pictures.
On the front cover is a man dressed in a white robe carrying a lamb; and gathered around him are more sheep than we could count at age 6. On the book’s back cover is another picture of that man. There’s a round corral in the background with sheep in it and more sheep still going into it, and in the foreground is the man in the white robe, holding a long staff in both of his hands, the pointed end raised against a snarling wolf. To my six-year-old eyes, the wolf looked very dangerous, almost like a dragon, but I could tell that the man standing between the wolf and the sheep would do anything to keep the foe away from them. The title of the book is “The Good Shepherd.” When they gave it to us we couldn’t read or write yet, but we learned a song, and the words in English go something like this, “Because I am Jesus’ little lamb I always rejoice in my Good Shepherd who takes good care of me, who loves me, who knows me and calls me by name.”
“Jesus’ little lamb” – to my grown-up ears that sounds just a touch too sweet and cute, but when I was 6, I had also seen the back cover of the book; I knew this shepherd was a determined fighter who would protect his own. In the first week of first grade, with a picture and a song, the church taught me the truth at the heart of our faith: I am known, I am loved, I belong to Jesus, and no wolf can snatch me.
In Israel’s imagination the shepherd is a rich and complex figure. Moses was keeping the flock when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush, and he received God’s call to go to Pharao and to lead God’s people out of Egypt.
Young David was keeping the sheep when Samuel came to anoint him.
The prophets accused corrupt leaders with powerful poetic words, drawn from the world of shepherding, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” The prophets knew that God would always hold Israel’s shepherds accountable for their lack of attention and action, because God was the Shepherd of Israel and God’s people the sheep of God’s pasture.
What is striking about Psalm 23 is that it is written entirely in the first person, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The poem speaks of trust in God in the most personal voice and tone. The Lord is my shepherd, therefore I shall not want, fear no evil, and dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
The poem offers words to all; to the leader who wants to depend completely on God’s guidance, as well as to the widow and the orphan on the margins of power who have learned that to trust in human leaders often means to build on sand. “The Lord is my shepherd” has a polemical thrust against rulers who fail to lead according to God’s purposes.
Nothing is asked of the Lord in this psalm, no requests are being made. It begins with statements about God and God’s actions, and it is never far from the intimacy of, “This is who you are to me, Lord, and who I am to you.” You are with me. You prepare a table before me. You anoint my head. I shall not want. I fear no evil. My cup overflows. I shall dwell in your house all my life. You are my shepherd – and nothing else matters. You know me, you love me, you call me by name, I am yours.
Learning to sing, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” I may not have learned everything there is to know about God, but I began to know who God is. I began to trust in God who is with me.
God said to Isaac, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
When Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharao, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.
When Moses passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he said to him, “Be strong and bold, for (...) it is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
And when Israel was in exile, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to an anxious people, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”
The promise has been given to every generation of God’s people, and in this psalm a response rises from the depth of human trust, “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” The words invite the king and the Senator to lead from that depth of trust; the words urge the widow whose cry for justice might go unheard at court to stand firm in that depth of trust; and the words teach every child of God to remember in every circumstance, You are with me, I am not alone. You are my shepherd. You stand between me and the wolf. You are stronger than the terror going after my soul. You restore my life. You lead me in paths of righteousness. In the darkest valley, you are with me. In the presence of my enemies you prepare a table.
For you and me the divine shepherd has the face of Jesus. “No one will snatch my sheep out of my hand,” he said, and he died like a lamb in the jaws of the wolf. God’s answer to our helplessness in the face of evil and sin is not a divine warrior with more or bigger guns, but the Lamb who knows the shepherd psalm by heart. He lays down his life for the sheep, and he conquers because he trusts in God. He conquers because he refuses to act out of fear or vengeance. He conquers because he refuses to let his actions be rooted in anything but the love that sent him, even when the path of righteousness leads through the darkest valley. The table is his.
Ever since I first heard and learned the words, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” I have wondered why – why a table in their presence? To defy their arrogance and violent threats? To give me a place not defined by their wickedness but by mercy? To remind me even when enemies surround me on every side, that the place where I belong is a place of grace and freedom? Or is it because in the end the table is also for them? Is it because in the end the gracious hospitality of the divine shepherd will disarm and befriend them? Because that table of mercy is the only place where all of us are at home?
I asked the Lord for a word and the Lord said, “Breathe, just breathe,” and invited me to take my seat at the table of peace.
 Weil ich Jesu Schäflein bin, freu’ ich mich nur immerhin
über meinen guten Hirten, der mich wohl weiß zu bewirten,
der mich liebet, der mich kennt und bei meinem Namen nennt.