A Sermon on Psalm 23
Last summer I went to the doctor for a physical, and found out that they needed to draw blood for some routine tests. I hate needles and I hate blood and I hate having blood drawn. In fact, just thinking about the whole thing right now is making me a little queasy. But there was no choice, so I went into the lab, and I did what I always do: I rolled up my sleeve, I looked away, and I began to recite the twenty-third Psalm to myself. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Breathe in. “I shall not want.” Breathe out. It calms me down, and it passes the time. Usually they’re putting on the band-aid before I get to “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” So they filled up their two little tubes of blood, and before I could say “your rod and your staff they comfort me,” they sent me on my way.
A week or so later, I got a call saying that one of the test results was a little unusual, and I needed to go get a work-up from a hematologist. (Don’t worry, by the way, everything turned out fine.) So off I go to the hematologist, roll up my sleeve, look away, breathe in, breathe out, recite the twenty-third Psalm. On I go through the green pastures and still waters, the rod and the staff, the cup that runneth over. I reach the word “amen,” and… no band-aid! So I take a deep breath and look over at my left arm, and to my great shock and horror, the technician has fourteen little vials to fill, and she has finished half of them. So I started over from the beginning.
All this is to say that for many of us who grew up in church – and some of us who did not – the 23rd Psalm is written on the tablets of our hearts. Memorized in Sunday school or learned through osmosis, it has become a dear old friend. Perhaps we say it in times of stress and anxiety, or as a prayer of thanksgiving, or when we need a moment of peace and tranquility. We recite it in funerals. We remember it when we sit in hospital waiting rooms. It passes the time while I get blood drawn. And once every three years, our liturgical calendar brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday, when we pair the 23rd Psalm with Jesus’ words from John: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Our Bible is full of shepherding images, which is not surprising given the culture it comes from – in an agrarian society, there were plenty of shepherds. Texts about shepherds like the twenty-third Psalm, Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, and the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the Gospel of Luke, invoked an image that would have been very familiar to their original listeners, who would likely have seen shepherds on a regular basis. There are plenty of non-metaphorical shepherds in the Bible as well, from King David to the shepherds who visit the Christ-child. But we live in a different sort of world, and shepherds are nowhere near as common now as they were then. Most of us have not seen a shepherd this week, and some of us may not have ever seen a shepherd in our lives, which makes me ask, what is it about this image of God as our Shepherd, or Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which continues to appeal to us?
There is probably more than one reason. It may have something to do with images of the presence of God in the midst of difficult situations: Just as the shepherd stays with the sheep in the dark hours and the dangerous places, God stays with us in the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps it has to do with the shepherd as an image of power which is loving and tender; in contrast with images of dangerous power, this is a God whose power is used to guide, nurture, and protect.
But commentator Russell Rathbun raises questions about whether this image might also appeal to a more selfish side of us. He writes, “This psalm is so weirdly narcissistic. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Why not, the Lord is our shepherd?” He continues, “I have this crazy image of a Sunday school filmstrip that plays every time I read this psalm. The Lord is walking beside a little blonde haired kid with short pants and a cap. Then he gestures to the green grass and the kid lays down on it for a nap. The kid gets up and the shepherd takes him down by the still waters, he has his rod and his staff to protect the kid. . . . The image of this personal Lord following an individual around, attending to their needs—a place to sleep, food, water, protection—seems more like a dog than God. More like a servant than a shepherd.” Could it be that perhaps some of the appeal of the shepherd metaphor comes from the image of a God whose primary goal is to fulfill our every wish, to make us as comfortable as possible with green pastures and still waters?
The Reverend Paul Sundberg, in response to this uncomfortable question, wrote a humorous adaptation of Psalm 23, which begins:
The Lord is my personal-shopper; I will have many fashionable choices
He makes me lie down on high thread count Egyptian cotton; he brings me still water not sparkling
He restores my credit scores. He turns traffic lights green to prove he’s with me.
Even though my commute is horrible, I don’t fear texting drivers; for you are with me;
your management of traffic lights and parking spaces – they comfort me.
Hopefully none of us have quite such a narcissistic theology as the one Reverend Sundberg spoofs here, but I think he does call me out on some of my own selfishness and self-centeredness. God is, of course, present with us and available to us in moments of joy and sorrow, stress and peace, whether those moments are big or small; God is present with me when I get blood drawn. But Reverend Sundberg’s Psalm calls on us to put our own needs in perspective, to know that God is bigger and wider than that.
A pastor I know told a story from his own childhood, of hearing this Psalm recited in church, and misunderstanding the words. At the end of the Psalm, what he thought he heard was this: “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The words there, of course, are “goodness and mercy,” but he heard “Good Mrs. Murphy.” And although those are not the words in scripture, I think they certainly do suggest a wonderful way of understanding God. What he pictured was a kindly older Irish woman – I envision my own great-great-great-grandmother, whose name was Margaret Murphy. She was a seamstress, and had nine children. In the words “Surely Good Mrs. Murphy,” I see an image of no-nonsense maternal love, of love marked, for a seamstress in the late nineteenth century, by aching hands and tired eyes. I see an image of a love which is constantly present in our times of need, and a love which cares about us too much to let us take our own micro-crises too seriously. When I start wincing about having blood drawn, good Mrs. Murphy rolls her eyes. This is an image of a God who is present with us but does not cater to us, a God who loves us enough to challenge us, and trusts us enough to rely on us.
What I think we sometimes forget, when we hear this metaphor of God as shepherd, is that a sheep is not a pet. There are similarities between contemporary pet-ownership and ancient shepherding: both relationships are marked by love and care. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “I know my own, and they know me,” alluding to the fact that sheep learn to recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and shepherds learn the different appearances, personalities, and bleats of the members of their own flock. Shepherds did and do put themselves in physical danger to protect their flock. Shepherds did and do go to great lengths to meet the flock’s need for food, water, rest, and safety. The shepherd does provide for the sheep’s needs, the relationship is one of love and care.
But the sheep are more than pets; they have a role beyond being waited on by the shepherd. Sheep were common in the ancient world, and it’s not because they were fluffy: it’s because they were necessary. The flock would have been a vital source of the shepherd’s livelihood, and they were relied on to meet the basic needs of the people in the region. They produced wool and milk, as well as providing meat. They were, in fact, essential to the well-being of the wider community, which relied on the goods that came from the flocks the shepherds tended. The flock was necessary to feed hungry bellies, to provide clothing to keep people warm.
And so when we picture God as our shepherd, we need to remember that that image has more than one side. If God is our shepherd, then God does indeed care for us, love us, walk beside us in times of difficulty, meet our needs. But if God is our shepherd, then God also has work for us to do: like the shepherd’s sheep, we are asked to give of ourselves to care for God’s children and God’s world. When we say “The Lord is my shepherd,” we acknowledge our deep reliance on God’s grace to meet our every need. But we also remember that God has entrusted us with the work of caring for our neighbors. We do that in a very different way than sheep do: we do it by giving of time and talent and treasure, rather than of wool or milk or meat. We do it by feeding people who are hungry, sitting with people who are lonely, caring for people who are sick. We do it by working for justice and peace in this world. And in all of this, we are called to remember that God, our shepherd, is at work within and beside and around us. God is at work in this world and in our lives, nurturing us and caring for us, loving us beyond measure. The God who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters, who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, nurtures and strengthens us so that we may do the work that has been entrusted to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.