a sermon on Psalm 23
The other night at Bible study, as we were looking at the story of Paul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus in a blaze of light on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, someone asked a really important question that I suspect has crossed many more minds before: Why doesn’t Jesus appear to us like that anymore? Why is the Bible filled with stories of God appearing so directly to people, yet so few of us experience such a gift for ourselves? It’s a really wonderful question, yet we couldn’t find a particularly satisfying answer. In this day and age, we’re left with these biblical stories of encounters with God, stories of people from the past who have felt the fullness of God’s presence, yet we ourselves so often struggle to feel it. The Bible promises us that God will be with us, no more clearly than in today’s reading of Psalm 23, yet we still reasonably wonder how God will do it, how God will be our divine companion in these days without us knowing God’s direct and real presence.
These words of Psalm 23 are quite likely the most familiar words of scripture in our world, reaching across the boundaries of time and place to strengthen the lives of people of faith everywhere. These beautiful and comforting words come upon our minds and hearts and lips in times of uncertainty, confusion, pain, hurt, and sorrow as a strange and wonderful embodiment of God’s presence in our world where God’s distance often seems so strong. While we question how God doesn’t show up in the same way anymore, these words of scripture in Psalm 23 give us a sense of the possibilities of God’s presence in our midst.
But I’m honestly a bit surprised at how meaningful these words remain for us in these days. We are city folk, not just in New York City but all around the world. In 2010, the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas surpassed 50% for the first time, although in the United States, we’ve been over 50% urban for nearly 100 years and now over 80% of us live in urban areas. Even so, the predominant image of God’s presence for so many of us is this one so deeply rooted in the rural, agricultural image of the shepherd. On top of that, when you get down to it, shepherds are not all that personally present with the sheep. They certainly know their flocks well, but there are only a few shepherds for the entire flock of sheep, so there are most certainly moments when any particular sheep is very distant and disconnected from the shepherd. So if you start to think about it more carefully, there may be less comfort in these words than we would care to think.
It is quite likely, then, that what makes us feel connected to these beautiful and wonderful words is less the actual image of the shepherd and more then the description of what the shepherd does. The divine one described here as a shepherd is an amazing companion, beyond the best imaginable spouse or friend, even more than the best cat or dog. This companion on the journey first provides all that we need, wherever the journey may lead. If that weren’t already enough, like those gifted mothers and mother-figures we celebrate today, this divine companion leads us out of our confusion and into those beautiful and simple places where life makes sense again, into green pastures, still waters, and right paths where we can pause to know the fullness of God’s comfort.
This doesn’t mean that we completely avoid pain and hurt and sorrow, though. There is no promise to avoid suffering here, but the psalmist is secure nonetheless. When we “walk through the darkest valley,” there is nothing to fear. Our divine companion is there with us, guiding us and directing us, keeping all that would hurt us or harm us at bay. In fact, when we least expect it, in the presence of our enemies, our divine companion prepares a table for us, inviting us to share a feast beyond compare and to enjoy blessings so abundant that they overflow. And at the end of the day, when we look back upon our journey, our divine companion assures us that goodness and mercy will have been with us all along the way and that we will dwell secure in the presence of God each and every day.
These are the things that give us comfort from Psalm 23, the promise of a divine companion who will provide all that we need, lead us into places that make us whole, keep us safe amidst all trouble, feed us at a table of abundance, bring us through goodness and mercy, and stay with us each and every day. Even when our increasingly urban world doesn’t quite need or understand shepherds anymore, we can still appreciate the gift of one who bring us all this. But that first question still applies a bit: Since God is no longer directly among us in Christ, how does God appear to us now? In what form does God bring us all these things?
We’re not likely to find a particularly human shepherd who does all this, and God doesn’t always stand up to be identified in doing these things. Even so, we can be confident that a shepherd, our divine companion, will journey with us along the way and show us God’s presence in places and ways and people that we may not understand or expect. The presence of God is with us in those who are not afraid to walk with us along the journey, whether the pastures be green or gray, whether the waters be still or stormy, whether the path be easy or hard. The presence of God is with us in those who help us to confront the fearful moments in life, who keep evil and uncertainty at a distance, who give us perspective and offer us hope. And the presence of God is with us in those who show us mercy and grace in measures small and large, who prepare feasts of plenteous food and drink, who give us safety and comfort and love for living wherever we go.
While God may not appear to us in such a distinctive form anymore, I believe that we can see God no less clearly now in people who show us these things, in people who walk even a little way with us along the journey, in friends who are unafraid to walk through both the green pastures and the dark valleys, in sisters and brothers who sit with us in the presence of those who seem to be set against us, in companions who make us feel at home amidst anything and everything that we might face. God is our shepherd in ways beyond how God seems to have worked in days past, beyond the limitations of a rural and agricultural image of a shepherd, beyond our expectations of human friendship, acting in and through those who walk with us each and every day to show us that God’s goodness and mercy really do follow us all the days of our lives.
With this shepherd going with us, working in us and around us, what do we have to fear? How can we ignore the presence of those who walk with us even a little way on the journey? How do we deepen our trust in this God whose faithfulness is sure and whose guidance is certain? Whatever comes our way, it is our gift and our challenge to trust our divine companion to go with us, working in the people around us, known and unknown, to guide us through all that threatens to harm us, support us through the difficult and joyous moments, comfort us in every grief and sorrow, feed us amidst all uncertainty, and assure us of God’s mercy and peace and hope each and every day.
So may the Lord our shepherd, our divine companion, walk with us each and every day, guiding us through all uncertainty and fear, bringing us mercy and peace and goodness, and showing us the fullness of God’s love wherever we may dwell all our days. Thanks be to God! Amen.