1The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
2The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
3You restore my soul, O Lord,
and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
4Though 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.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
When I was growing up, we didn’t vary our weekday morning routine a lot during the school year. My morning consisted of this: we’d wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, and then we’d ride to school with my mom. Pretty normal, right? It was rare that this would vary this pattern because, well, what else can you do before school. But, every once in a while, something would happen and it would feel like this adventure. Maybe once a year or so, my mom would bring my brother and I out for breakfast, usually at one of the two little restaurants in town that served breakfast. It was awesome! I’d always order the biggest omelet I could see (which, in hindsight, is maybe why we only did it once a year).
One such adventure happened when I was in 5th grade. I remember it only because I remember running into my teacher, a kind but stern woman named Mrs. Vandershegan (yes, it is a good German name and no, I don’t know if I spelled it correctly). We would usually get away with calling her “Mrs. V” (as long as we weren’t in trouble). Not only did we see Mrs. V, but we ended up sitting at the table next to her. How weird! Now, anyone who has ever seen their teacher outside of class knows this feeling. When you’re so used to only seeing people in one role, and then suddenly you see them doing something else, like eating breakfast and laughing with other people in the diner, it’s a little unsettling. I rarely saw Mrs. V laugh (which probably says more about my class than about her), so it was a little odd. It feels unsettling, perhaps even a little disturbing, to see someone outside of their usual context. And, as I’m speaking, I’m realizing that perhaps this how some of you feel when you see me out and about town, so let’s settle something – I don’t wear a robe and clerical collar every day, I don’t just talk about church and theology if you engage in conversation with me, and I promise I won’t judge you if you didn’t remember what I talked about on Sunday.
The reason I bring this up is because, just like it is a little odd to see people out of their normal contexts, it’s also sometimes hard to engage with a passage from the Bible when it’s out of what we consider to be its normal context. In our case today, we get a chance to read Psalm 23 and there’s not a casket in the room. This psalm has been a source of inspiration and comfort for people who are grieving and, as such, this is a very popular text for funeral and memorial services. It speaks eloquently of God’s provision. The imagery of green pastures, quiet waters, and a table set with all that we need can be so comforting to hear when we need to know and feel God’s presence in the midst of personal loss.
But we’ve pigeon-holed it so much to a funeral text that it might be surprising to know that in other cultures, such as South Africa as it struggled to overcome and eliminate the apartheid practices of the government, that this psalm is seen as a deeply, radically political psalm. Shepherd, in the ancient Hebrew cultures and still in many cultures today, is a term of leadership, especially those in political leadership. So immediately, this psalm is a threat to those in power. The Lord is my shepherd, the psalmist writes, and that should immediately make us wonder. What else do we count on to shepherd us, lead us, and guide us? In a world of self-help books, diet plans, life coaches, and political parties that try to co-opt scripture to suit their own agenda, this is a deeply political statement. This short statement, “The Lord is my shepherd”, is a threat to any in power that prey on the vulnerable, weak, lonely, sick, or poor. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
The second piece of this phrase is echoed throughout the rest of the psalm. God will provide. This is what we lean on when we typically hear this psalm, but what we expect and hope God will provide is different. In times of grief, this psalm boldly proclaims that our hope, our stamina in the face of deep sorrow, comes from God and that, through God’s guidance, we will come to a place of rest, of provision, of sustaining food that will bring us to a place of life. But in the midst of power structures, even this is a threat. Because often, those who are powerful, who are rich, who are in control get that way by controlling what people need. You’re bound to gain some grudging respect and influence when, say, you’re the one who decides whether or not someone eats, gets paid, receives medical treatment, or goes to prison. But, when God provides, that power is taken away. When God provides, there is no imbalance, no scarcity, and no injustice.
Even in the presence of enemies, that psalmist says, God will provide. That’s the whole point of this Sunday when we celebrate Christ as the good shepherd. In every walk of life, Christ is present, through scripture, through the spoken and sung Word of God, through the Holy Spirit’s whispers. When we feel surrounded by enemies, even the Great Enemy Death, we find God at work. We see God at work through people, places, and means that we wouldn’t expect. Sin is overcome by love. Hatred is overcome by peace. Power is overcome by weakness. Death is overcome by life – abundant life, new life, scarred life.
This life, this provision, the green pastures and still waters, the rod and staff to guide, and the table in the presence of enemies are yours through Christ’s work. The cross points us to this reality – that things are not as they should be and things are not as they will be. Death, whether the physical death we all experience or the spiritual death of oppression and injustice, has no place in the kingdom of God. And death has been overcome, it is not the final word, but leads to new life. Death of the body leads to the new life of resurrection. Death of terror and injustice and fear and hatred leads to the new life of peace and justice and love and joy.
The Lord is your shepherd. The sheep do not choose the shepherd. The shepherd chooses the flock. And we belong to a flock that has no end. And, just like a good shepherd knows the sheep, your shepherd knows you. Your shepherd knows your pains and your joys, knows your gifts and your struggles. Your shepherd knows that death takes many forms but refuses to let death rule. Your shepherd chose you and will guide you.
In the face of power and politics and posturing, I hope this psalm is more than just something comforting we hear at a funeral. This is more than comfort – this is a script waiting to be performed. This psalm tells us that, in the face of injustice, God is guiding the oppressed and marginalized. This psalm is a poem and song that sings of a new reality – death has been swallowed up, scarcity has been replaced with abundance, and God is the shepherd above us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.