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Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 131
Psalm 23

Before I turn to scripture again, I want to let you know of a shift for this week, in addition to the fact that I am preaching in my living room. If you have been connected to our Lenten worship at Fourth Church, you know we have been in the middle of a sermon series entitled “Questions Jesus Asked.” Thus far, we have considered three different questions: A question of longing (“Who are you looking for?”), a question of compassion (“Do you see this woman?”), and a question of identity (“What is your name?”).

We will continue that series next week when we consider Jesus’ statement and questions about worry. That topic seems rather timely these days. Today, though, we are going to do something different. As I considered everything that has changed so dramatically throughout just this past week—including last night here in Chicago when the state and city governments began to enforce the stay-at-home order—I decided to press pause on the series in order to have a preaching conversation with all of you about a beloved psalm. As much as I want to simply stay the course and press ahead, I cannot do that right now, not today.

So our text for this morning is one that is familiar to many of us. It is Psalm 23. I invite you to listen for God’s Living Word:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
the Lord restores my soul.
The Lord 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.

This psalm is probably quite familiar for many of you who are gathered in this time of worship. As a matter of fact, its poetic stanzas impart a profound emotional power for so many people, even those who do not claim a religious affiliation, that my Hebrew Bible professor Walter Brueggemann writes it is almost presumptuous to even try and comment on it. But I am willing to take that risk with you today, for this psalm might have something to say to us in the space we occupy called pandemic.

Before I became the pastor here in Chicago, the context in which I typically read this beloved psalm was in a memorial service. Here at Fourth Church, however, not only do we typically read this psalm as a part of the funeral liturgy, but we also always pray it together as a congregation in our 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of Communion. I am grateful for that tradition, because, truthfully, if the only time we really consider this psalm is in the midst of the liturgy of death or even, dare I say, only in the midst of crisis, then we are missing its power to shape us in the midst of our daily lives.

For Psalm 23 is not only a comforting psalm. It is not only a psalm of trust. It is not only a conversation partner with Psalm 22, the one that starts with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No, Psalm 23 is also a subversive psalm, a psalm of rebellion. And if there is ever a time when we might need a little bit of appropriate rebellion, it is right now. (Side note: only a Presbyterian minister would ever utter the phrase “appropriate rebellion.” But I cannot help it. Not only do I have to plan to be spontaneous, but I also am only able to be appropriately rebellious. It is just who I am.) Back to the Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd. Now, some of you might be thinking, “How on earth is claiming that the Lord is my shepherd subversive in any way whatsoever?” I understand that question. When many of us think “shepherd,” we think about idyllic pastoral scenes, or we think about the fact that being a shepherd has never been a very glamorous job. More than likely, however, we do not say “shepherd” and think “rebellious.”

Yet in scripture, the title “shepherd” is not simply a job description. The title “shepherd” is political. In the ancient world, kings were known as the shepherds of their people. A king was supposed to provide for and protect the people under his reign, like a shepherd was charged to do for a flock. But we know from prophets like Ezekiel that kings often failed to do what they were called to do.

Ezekiel denounced the actions of the kings he encountered, saying, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds 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” (Ezekiel 34:2, 4). In the ancient world, the world in which this psalm formed, the title “shepherd” was political.

That fact makes this psalm subversive right off the bat, for when the psalmist states unequivocally “the Lord is my shepherd,” she is stating just as strongly “And the rest of you are not.” In this simple opening line, the psalmist is metaphorically drawing the line in the sand. By claiming the Holy One as shepherd, the psalmist is claiming that the Lord is king, sovereign, “the one who directs, to whom [s]he is answerable, whom alone [s]he trusts and serves” (Walter Brueggemann, The Treat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness). Are you getting a taste of the rebellion yet?

When we pray “the Lord is my shepherd,” we are saying there is no rival loyalty, no competing claim for our allegiance. When we pray “the Lord is my shepherd,” we are saying our ultimate allegiance is to our Creator, not to country, or to faith tradition, or to military, or to capitalism, or to fear, or even to our family. When we claim “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are claiming our ultimate allegiance belongs first and foremost to the Holy One, to our God. “The Lord is my shepherd” is a subversive and political claim.

Frankly, that claim feels even more charged today. Yet that claim is subversive on all days, not just in times of upheaval, because on all days, even when social distancing will no longer be critical and life will get back to a new normal, there will continue to be many, many voices out in the marketplace, out in the land of social media, out in the world of celebrity worship, who clamor for our ultimate allegiance. Yet in all those moments, including the one in which we currently live, we can breathe in the voice of Psalm 23 and let it fill us with courage: “The Lord, the Holy One, is my Shepherd.” No one and nothing else.

The psalmist’s rebellion, however, does not stop with that opening line. It continues. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The closer translation to the Hebrew is “I shall lack nothing.” I don’t know how much television you watch or how many magazines you read or, when you still could, how often you would stroll over to Michigan Avenue, but I know from my overexposure to those things there always seems to be something that I lack.

There is always something else that I think I need, that my children need, that we assume we must have in order to be satisfied and full. Thomas Merton puts it this way: “Even though there’s a certain freedom in our society, it’s largely illusory. . . . It’s the freedom to choose your product but not the freedom to do without it.” Psalm 23 acts as counter-testimony to that message we get every day.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” With those nine words, the psalmist makes two powerful claims—claims that have the potential to change us if we let them. First, when she pronounces “I shall not want,” the psalmist is shouting out that God’s generosity will provide all she needs to live abundantly. The second claim the psalmist is making, however, is that she will also choose not to want. The psalmist will choose not to get caught up and defined by the idols of accumulation and consumerism.

I have been wondering if out of this time of coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, with a declining market and economic tenuousness for many, if one thing that might emerge could be a clearer vision of what we actually need in order to live faithfully and with a sense of wholeness. A clearer vision that recognizes more quickly the temptations of excessive accumulation and consumerism and chooses not to fall back into that cycle of “more, more, more for me” again. A clearer vision that focuses more on generosity rather than on scarcity. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The psalmist then goes on to show us images of how the Lord, our shepherd, provides for our lives: “The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures; the Lord leads me beside still waters, the Lord restores my soul. The Lord leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” While many of us might have heard these verses as being about peace and tranquility, they are also about much more. First, as scholar Kenneth Bailey has written, “In the Holy Land, pastures are green each year for a maximum of two-and-a-half months in the middle of winter. The rest of the year the fields are brown. [Furthermore,] sheep are afraid to drink from a moving stream lest it hide deep water into which they could fall and drown. [So] still waters and green pastures are, for a sheep, the best of all worlds” (Kenneth E. Bailey, “Psalm 23 and Jesus,” Presbyterian Outlook, 18 February 2008, p. 15).

Second, when we hear that the Lord restores our soul, it is important to know that the Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, which also means “that which breathes.” So literally speaking, the Lord restores my soul means the Lord gives us our breath back. That affirmation is astonishingly beautiful, for so many of us right now feel like we have had the wind knocked out of us with all of the quick changes in the past few days. It is hard to catch up. Yet the psalmist promises us that the Lord gives us our breath back.

Taken together, these verses are the psalmist’s way of illustrating for us that the Lord, our shepherd, will keep us alive. The Lord, our shepherd, will give us all we need. We, the sheep, will lack nothing that we need for life. Furthermore, notice all the action is on the part of the shepherd. We, the sheep, do nothing. We simply receive and enjoy. “No hunger, no thirst, no fear, no anxiety, no danger. ‘All is well’ because there is one shepherd who is trusted” (Brueggemann, The Treat of Life).

If for some reason we do wander off, the shepherd will find us and carry us back to the right path. But the shepherd does not do this because of who we are. The shepherd does it because of who the shepherd is, for his own name’s sake, for the sake of God’s own integrity. Again, we hear echoes of the prophet Ezekiel and others.

We now reach the theological center of the psalm, the part I am currently clinging to with my fingernails, the part I will repeat again and again: “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.” I found it useful to discover that in the original Hebrew, there are exactly twenty-six words before the statement “You are with me” and twenty-six words after it. Clearly, this claim at the center of the psalm is this promise that no matter what, the shepherd, the only one in whom we trust, will never abandon us, not even in the most dangerous places.

This central claim of God’s constant and abiding presence is to be the promise in which we ground our lives. But that is not all there is to it, for not only does the shepherd lead us through dangerous places, but when God is present in the shadow of death, in the dark valley, things change. The valley is transformed. Listen for it: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

The promise is that in the midst of the darkest of valleys—a spiritual space you might be occupying today—in the very midst of that fearful space, the shepherd becomes gracious host, transforming the barrenness of fear and anxiety into a feast of celebration and joy. And the good shepherd turned gracious host invites us to that feast as honored guests. “You prepare a table before me,” the psalmist sings. But guess what: the feast that has been prepared is not necessarily just for us and for our family and friends. For what if the good shepherd turned gracious host does not only invite us to the feast but also those whom we previously called enemy?

What if “in the presence of my enemies” does not mean the enemy is excluded and we feast in defiance of them as they watch? Rather what if “in the presence of my enemies” means they are invited too? What if the good shepherd turned gracious host, the one who holds nothing back from the sheep, also holds no one back from the feast, not even those we know as enemy? Can you imagine it? Take a moment and picture those whom you name “enemy” today. What happens if they, too, are at the table? I certainly would not put it past our God, our shepherd, our host, to do something so full of grace and mercy, so out of the ordinary, so countercultural and subversive. For even if we cannot comprehend such a thing, as my preacher father regularly says, God’s arms are long enough to encircle the whole world.

The psalm ends with two affirmations. The first: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Again, the Hebrew is more illustrative. “Pursue” is a better translation than “follow.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” Breathe that in for a moment. “Surely God’s goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” Friends, the psalmist’s claim is that we are being chased by the shepherd’s love our whole lives long, even right now. It makes you wonder if there will come a day when we stop running from it. What do you think?

And the second affirmation: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This claim promises that because of who our shepherd is, who our gracious host is, we, the sheep, the guests, are a part of God’s household, God’s family, God’s community, from now until forever. And nothing can change that. Period. It is a promise we can all hold onto.

This beloved psalm is not only important to pray in the midst of the liturgy of death, but this psalm also has the power to reshape our lives, to bind us closer together. It has the power to help us live into the kind of world God is dreaming into being, even here, even now, even in the midst of all of this physical and emotional chaos in which we are living—a world in which only God gets to tell us who we are; a world in which there is more than enough for all who need; a world in which dangerous places are transformed into party rooms; a world in which enemies and friends are at table together and see each other as family and goodness and mercy finally catch us and hold us tightly, and we finally stop running.

So yes, we come to this service on this day, needing to push pause for a moment before we continue to forge ahead and do our part for the larger community, all of us undoubtedly holding pieces of the lament and the pain of this world. But my hope for you and for me is that as we stand in the light of this psalm, we can also be deeply grateful for each other, for our faith communities, for the opportunity to have worship, albeit in a new way, and, most of all, for our shepherd, our host, who will not rest until the Holy’s goodness and mercy have finally caught us and embraced us and all creation is finally made well. Amen.