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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
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.
We all know today’s scripture. It is beside us even in the roughest patches of our life. In times of sickness, its words provide a blanket to cover our cold. In our despair, it offers a light to see us through to something better. In our grief, it reminds us of the rest which God has given to our loved ones now departed from us. It has given us all a place to settle into for over two thousand years. It is one of the earliest and most incredible examples of trust in God’s provision.
We who read it now, several centuries removed from its composition find little about it that we cannot relate to. While few of us tend sheep anymore (I know several in this congregation do,) we can see them gathered together on a hillside chewing the grass around them. While we do not often walk through the rift valley of the Levant, we know what it is to be betwixt and between the hollers that dot the state we live in. We can even picture the attentive shepherd perched on their crook. Standing at the gate or walking his flock across from one field to another.
In the ancient world, Shepherd language was usually applied to leaders of the community. A King shepherded all the people in their Kingdom. A landowner was the shepherd of their tenants. The priests were the shepherds of the people of God. Whenever we see the word, “shepherd,” to describe a person in scripture the intent is to establish them as a leader of the community they are a part of. The idea being that a leader should do whatever is best for those they serve.
Despite our warm feelings about Shepherds, the Biblical narrative usually invokes the image of Shepherds negatively. In Jeremiah, the leaders of Judah and Israel are described as shepherds who scattered God’s flock. (Jer. 23:1-6) Likewise, the invading armies of the day were given the same identification. The Psalms talk about how the wicked take on death as their shepherd. (Psalm 49) These examples are always contrasted with God, the Shepherd who brings the scattered people together and sets them at peace. The pastures of God, the rest of an eternal Sabbath, this is the hope offered to all people through God and God’s work in the world.
The promise of this Psalm is not a far-off reality. While there are many descriptions of a future time when God will lead the people of the world into rest, this Psalm speaks to the here and now. God is not going to be our Shepherd. God is our Shepherd. From the moment that we are initiated by God’s Spirit into God’s church, we are a part of God’s flock – protected by our shepherd. The promises of Psalm 23 are here for us now, in our daily life, in the midst of the most profound difficulties and visceral joys. Nothing can keep us from them.
This does not mean that our life is easy. It does not mean that we will never be afraid or upset, mournful or lost. Our shepherd can never lose us, but we have an incredible skill of getting ourselves lost. We run from the safe places we find ourselves in into dangerous waters. We are swept along currents and dragged into pits that we have no hope to climb out of on our own. One of the most profound realities of the human experience is that we are very good at losing the plot. We find ourselves in places of distress, and we look around and see only darkness, the deep darkness like the Shadow of Death hanging over us.
For some people, this reality is closer than it is to others. Those who struggle with mental health can often find themselves put closer to the dark than to the light, if not in actuality than in perception. I myself suffer from dysthymia, a low-grade but persistent form of depression that I can best describe as a draining of life’s colors. No emotion is blocked from me, but the shades that those emotions take are washed out, distant, sometimes completely in black and white. The reality of my mental illness is that I can easily lose track of things that are bright and good in the world because shadow and light are quite similar in a greyscale world.
Even for those of us who are not struggling with mental health, there are obstacles to feeling God’s presence. Life is hard. Life is scary. Right now, as we look around us we see a world that is wild with concerns over COVID-19. There are genuine and warranted emotions and distress at work right now. After all, this is a matter of life and death. On a smaller scale, we must deal with the individual attacks against our wellbeing. Attacks that take the form of feelings of inadequacy, knowledge of our mortality, conflict with loved ones, with ourselves.
Even in the presence of these conflicts, there are many ways we can make ourselves more receptive to God’s goodness. For all of us, not just people with chronic mental health struggles, seeking therapy can do wonders for sorting out our perceptions of the world and one another. Seeking instruction from God’s word and reliable commentators wakes us up to the reality of what God has done in the past and will do now. Community with other people of the faith, of all ages and demographics, allows us to see God in one another. Acts of service carried out in love allow us to become Christ to the world and see Christ in those we help.
We cannot be the church alone. We cannot pursue God without the full community of God interacting with one another. What has probably become clear to all of us in our various states of isolation this past week is that being in a single place and not seeing those we are used to seeing has an effect on us. We are social creatures, and God made us to crave social interaction. Therefore, times when we are away from other people often make us feel distant from God. God lives in the eternal company of Godself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So we who are made in the image of God experience God most fully in communion with one another.
Psalm 23 is important as we come to the second half of Lent. As we worship apart and as we have maintained social distance, it draws us close. As we are praying more earnestly than ever to engage with God’s work of Easter, it gives us a taste of our Sabbath rest. In this year more than many in memory, we certainly need the reality of God’s presence, because in this year we seem to have faced hardship after hardship. We need to rest with confidence, we need to stand with God, with the presence of the whole church.
The message of Psalm 23 is not that someday God will appear to us and we will feel taken care of. It is not that our present problems should never overshadow God’s work. It is that our present problems will seem to surround us, that we will be awash in our troubles, that there is a lot in life we can be distressed about. Yet, God is here with us. Yet, God does not leave our side. Yet, we are on a path that culminates in green pastures, a feast we can celebrate in, all the good things that we could ever want or imagine. We live in a complicated space as people who are members of God’s flock – always stuck between what is now and not yet, always looking to the next step and living in the present moment.
Despite this uncertainty. Despite this disorder. There is a calm that we can find again and again. The familiar words of scripture that spells out for us the reality that God is present with us even when we cannot see God. God is leading us forward even when we feel lost. God never leaves the side of the wandering sheep, even if the sheep has lost all sight of the Shepherd. We can live into the reality of God’s presence even in the darkest night, not by pretending we are not struggling – but by being authentically transparent about it.
We have all been secluded lately – call one another. If you have the means to use skype or zoom or facetime to see one another face to face do so. Take advantage of whatever services you have to connect to people you’ve been meaning to reach out to for a time. If you are in a season of life that leads you to despair confide in someone you trust and who loves you. Share the burden of life with one another and chase after the goodness of God. We are in a dark night, the sun seems faint in the darkness of a world that is broken, but God’s goodness cannot be snuffed out.
Find the opportunity in the silence. Pray when your mind wanders. Turn off the TV and read a book, talk to your family, listen to or play some music. Read some scripture (Mark is only about an hour of reading and we’re doing a study of it soon – just as a suggestion.) Whatever you do, let it be something that seeks life. Whatever you are feeling feel it fully. Whatever good is in your life lift up proudly, whatever distresses you share it freely. Seek help where before you felt fear, seek understanding where before you feared ignorance, and show to the world the acceptance that we are all craving now.
The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want. The Lord is our Shepherd, we will walk through the darkest valleys. The Lord is our Shepherd, speak to God all the concerns of your heart. The Lord is our Shepherd, praise the Lord, hallelujah, and amen.