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The Lord is My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Sermon: The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor

When the google search trends popped up on my phone this week, I saw the words World War 3. Iran had attacked Israel, fears were rising that war was going to escalate. This news came alongside reading about the coral reefs, bleaching to a greater degree due to the seriousness of the climate emergency. Add all of this to what is going on closer to home…we are experiencing loved ones with significant illness, some of us have had to deal with recent deaths, we are all carrying our own heavy stuff. It really does feel like we can’t catch a break, it is just one horrible thing after another. And as I reflected on all of this, I couldn’t help but hear the words of Psalm 22, play on repeat in my mind…my God my God why have you forsaken us?

I don’t think I am alone in recalling these words often, words that are associated with Lent and Jesus’ crucifixion. Our world, while it has never been a perfect, carefree, utopia, regularly goes through these incredibly painful birth pangs and we are caught in the middle of it. I think we are all yearning for significant change, for things to get better, but it seems like this will never happen. Psalm 22 echoes how a lot of us are probably feeling right now: my God, my God why have you forsaken us?

And it is to these exact words, words expressed in deep despair, that the book of Psalms offers something quite remarkable. As we cry out, my God my God why have you forsaken us…the book of Psalms responds…The Lord is your shepherd, there is nothing you shall want.

What we often don’t realise because we read individual Psalms on a Sunday…is that the Psalms were not randomly placed side by side, but their placement is deliberate. As the Psalmist speaks the words of Psalm 22, as he responds to the harsh realities of his world by crying out, looking for a God who feels far from him…the way to move forward, to cope with the pain and the doubts…is actually found in the next Psalm, Psalm 23, which we heard this morning.

Psalm 23 is familiar to all of us, even non-Christians, people who have never opened a Bible, could probably recite parts of it. We hear it at funerals…where it offers comfort to those grieving a loss. In the post-Easter season that we are now in, the lectionary uses Psalm 23 along with our reading from John to recall the image of God as a shepherd. This image, one that the Psalmist felt was an important response to the emotions expressed in Psalm 22, can speak volumes to us, who might also be despairing over our world. So, let’s enter into Psalm 23…let’s turn to the images it presents to see what the Psalmist is offering us today.

In Psalm 23, the Psalmist describes God as a shepherd, which means we become the sheep. Sheep in the ancient world were taken into the hills to graze and were extremely vulnerable…they could be eaten by a wolf, wander away and fall off a cliff. They were surrounded by danger. But the Psalmist makes clear that with God as their shepherd, the sheep want nothing. The shepherd gives them everything they need, he leads his sheep to the still waters and right paths, restoring them. The shepherd calls to those in his charge, calls to us his sheep, and when they follow him, they find rest, they find comfort. The shepherd cares so much that he gives his sheep what they truly need…relief from the dangers around them.

But if the sheep should find themselves in danger, in the deepest darkest valley, unable to see anything in front of them…at that moment they don’t fear…because they know that the shepherd is with them, holding the rod and staff, weapons to ward off wolves and other predators…keeping them safe. Danger will never touch them…they can even share a table with their enemies and they are safe…but even more, they are given a banquet, oil runs over their heads, and everything overflows in abundance…all of this goodness, all of these gifts are given to the sheep…not just once, but every single day. Their entire lives are spent not in the dangerous wilderness of the world, but in the house of their shepherd, their LORD.

So, Psalm 23 is telling us that yes, we are vulnerable, yes, our lives are a struggle and we can feel the weight of so much danger around us…but we are not left to the wolves…because with us, leading us to places of comfort is our shepherd God. If our God were to leave us, we would not survive, but that is not the reality…the reality is that God is with us, protecting us, loving us, leading us to safe places.

It is up to us to hold onto this, especially when we are in moments of despair. It is up to us to accept that to find comfort in our dangerous world, we have to trust the shepherd and the promises made so clear in Psalm 23. As the sheep we need to follow the shepherd and take in what he offers us, or we will end up going our own way, journeying through the dangers all on our own…we need to follow our shepherd when he leads and we need to drink the water he offers, otherwise we might be consumed by the horrible things around us.

We will all, at one point or another, likely cry out again my God, my God why have you forsaken us…as the violence and suffering continues, as illness and deaths continue. But the Book of Psalms doesn’t leave us with the words of Psalm 22, instead it offers us a way forward. Psalm 23 with its vivid image of the constant protection and love given to us by our shepherd God, is our hope in the wilderness, is our hope that things will get better. We are being called to trust in this image and live our lives by it. When we feel our hearts being weighed down by despair, we are being called to exclaim that despite all of it we know, we trust fully that the Lord is our Shepherd and there is nothing, absolutely nothing we shall want.


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