THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD

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The following meditation is taken from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on March 22, 2020.

The twenty-third psalm is the most beloved of the one hundred and fifty psalms in the Psalter and possibly the best known and most memorized chapter of the Bible.  

The KJV version of the Psalm has been read and recited by generations of Christians whose language is English. The Psalm originally was written as a prayer in poetic form in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry does not depend on rhyming, as many poems do in English, but on the rhythms of the verse and the parallel structure of the verses that build upon one another.

The opening verse of the twenty-third Psalm is composed of four words. The Hebrew name of the Lord God of Israel, the “I am who I am”, is the first word.  “My shepherd” is the second word.  “Not” is the third. And the last word is the verb that means,” I lack.” So literally it reads, “The Lord God is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” 

When you look closely at the psalm you will note that it begins with the pronouns “I” and “my.”  It switches next to the pronoun “he” when talking about God. Then suddenly and without warning the psalmist addresses God in the second person familiar, “you” (or “thou” in the KJV). Finally, it returns to the first-person pronoun, “I” of the psalmist and the second person familiar, “you,” referring to God.  

This is what gives the 23rd Psalm its particular character. It is a poem that is at the same time a prayer and a statement about the faithfulness of God even in the most difficult and trying of times.  

The Psalms may be categorized into several categories.  It may surprise you to learn that this Psalm is usually categorized by biblical scholars as a “psalm of lament.” It is an individual lament, that is the prayer for help of an individual.   

The biblical commentator Jerome Creach offers this helpful analysis of the psalm as a prayer of lament. Psalms of lament or complaint:

“have faith and trust as their cornerstones. Those who are praying feel free to haul all their baggage to God because of their intimate relationship with the Lord. They are certain God will hear and answer. The complaint psalms move swiftly from plea for help and description of enemies to assurance that the Lord will deliver. Though Psalm 23 contains no complaint and is thoroughly a statement of trust, it still belongs to the category of lament. Behind the confession of faith in Psalm 23 are trials that required the psalmist to seek the shepherd’s staff and tent for protection and shelter. All that we have of the psalmist’s experience, however, is the beautiful poetic expression of confidence in the aftermath of threat and danger. That is, surely the psalmist experienced an unspecified threat, survived, and then composed this poem.”[i]

Phillip Keller, a pastor and author, worked for eight years as a shepherd. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, he illuminates the meaning of the Psalm for us in a more practical way Sheep, notes do not lie down easily. 

“It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.”[ii]

“The sheep must be free of fear, friction, flies, and famine to be contented.”[iii] And as Keller notes. The shepherd is the only one who can “provide the trust, peace, deliverance, and pasture that is needed to free the sheep. God is that shepherd. God is our Shepherd. God is your shepherd.  

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his work and ministry as being the shepherd of God’s new covenant people saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” 

Jesus is our Shepherd. Jesus is your shepherd. 

Notice that Psalm 23 begins with rest and not with frantic activity. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

We sometimes assume that our work for God and in response to God depends on our own activity. But here is a reminder that whatever we do for God or in response to God begins with us trusting God so that we might rest.  From that deep rest and refreshment comes the energy for us to do the work to which God is calling us.   

The biblical commentator J. M Boice observes:

“It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.”[iv]

Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to that fear? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep and calm their anxieties. 

At the beginning of the Psalm, we read, “He makes me lie down … he leads me beside quiet waters … he guides me.” But at the end, we read, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” [v]

“We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.”[vi]

We are living in extraordinary times. The normal order of our everyday lives has been disrupted.  The social fabric that holds us together is stretched as we keep a certain bodily distance from one another so that we might protect not only ourselves from infection but also those who are the most vulnerable to it. 

We are passing through one of life’s valleys. Our shepherd is the one who can protect us, God’s sheep, and calm our anxieties and fears as we traverse that valley full of so many unknown dangers. In this difficult time, may you seek rest and comfort from the good shepherd who is with us always in every circumstance of our lives. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”  (Psa. 23:1–6 KJV)

Notes

[i] Jerome F. D. Creach, Psalms. Interpretation Bible Series (Louisville, KN: Geneva Press, 1998), 34.

[ii] W. Phillip Kellner, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, (Zondervan, 2007). See J. M. Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 209.

[iii] J. M Boice, 209.

[iv] J. M Boice, 211.

[v] J. M Boice, 211.

[vi] J. M Boice, 211.

COMPASSION AND SUFFERING

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St. Paul wrote a number of letters during the first part of the first century to the church in Corinth. Only two letters survive.  Whenever I read the opening verses of the second of those letters—and I read them frequently—I am always moved.  In these verses, Paul shares with the Corinthians that he and his traveling companion Timothy experienced “a deadly peril” in Asia Minor.  He says, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” and “we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”  Nonetheless, Paul writes, God “delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”

Those are powerful words of hope in the midst of great suffering yet Paul never says exactly what had happened to him and Timothy. Whatever happened, Paul observes, “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

The opening words of the letter I find the most extraordinary.  Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

The logic of Paul’s argument reminds me powerfully that Paul lived in a world different from ours. Paul says that in our sufferings and difficulties we share in Christ’s sufferings.  God comforts us in our afflictions so that we can share the comfort that God has given us with others who are suffering. So as we share in Christ’s sufferings we also share in the comfort that God gives us.

It seems to me that most people today regard any suffering or difficulty as bad in itself.  When difficulties arise, we protest that they are unfair. Hardly anyone I know gives thanks for their sufferings and difficulties and almost no one regards them as a privilege as Paul seems to do. In his letter to the Philippians Paul indeed claims that our sufferings are a privilege. He writes, “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Phil. 1:29). In our sufferings, we learn how God comforts us, so that we can share the comfort we have received from with others. Without our own sufferings, then, we might not learn how genuinely to comfort others. Our difficulties and sufferings teach us how to be compassionate with others.

Compassion literally means to “suffer with” someone else. And in the community of Christ’s body the church, Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1Cor. 12:26). Compassion is something we learn in community and solidarity with others. That is why we all need to be involved in the life of the community of Christ’s body, the church—to learn genuine compassion for others.

Our suffering also reminds us also of how much we depend upon God.  Awareness of our own suffering and of the suffering of others increases our love and the depth of our prayers for them. Paul does not tell us the nature of the afflictions he faced in 2 Corinthians, but he does ask the Corinthian church for their spiritual and material support: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

As we move from Lent into Holy Week and our attention focuses more narrowly on the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross, remember that we too are blessed to share in his sufferings. That might be difficult for us to do given that we strive to avoid all suffering and difficulties in our lives.  And when we do suffer, we are impatient with and wish it to end as soon as possible.

When Paul thought of Jesus on the cross through the eyes of resurrected faith he saw not despair or anger, but hope.  When Paul looked at his own sufferings in the light of Jesus sufferings he saw cause for rejoicing. That might seem strange to us but there is much we can learn from him. In spite of the difficulties he faced or the sufferings, Paul endured Paul always experienced the love of compassion of God for him in his need.  That compassion was also the source of his great love for the people to whom he ministered.  That is why Paul could write these remarkable words:

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

 

THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP

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If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).

The life of Christian discipleship is not easy. It places unique demands on those who decide to follow Jesus and his teachings. While there are some who call themselves Christians who seem to drift through life without a care, Jesus places real demands on those who would call themselves Christians, that is, those who have chosen to live a life in obedience to Jesus. There are admirers of Jesus, and there are followers—real disciples, who experience the challenge of truly following Jesus each and every day of their lives.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells the story of his conversion to Christianity from the dualist Manichean sect. His mother Monica, a constant irritant to her son, was always begging and cajoling her son to join her in the confession of the Christian faith. Augustine knew that conversion to Christianity would mean a change in his lifestyle and in his relationship with his concubine with whom he already had had a son. He relates how he knew more or less that one day he would become a Christian, but for the moment he was unwilling to change. And so, Augustine tells his readers that he prayed, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” In a larger sense, this is much the same as praying, Lord make me a Christian, but not yet. Augustine weighed the cost of Christian discipleship and found the cost to be much too high for him at that moment in his life. Subsequent generations of Christians, no matter what they think of Augustine or some of his later theological writings, respect him for his honesty and for his recognition that becoming a Christian was not just a verbal consent to a set of creeds or beliefs but something that has a real cost, something that would demand a real change in the way he lived his life.

The life of Christian discipleship is costly. Jesus, for example, calls that those who desire to follow him, those whom he calls disciples, to forgive those who hurt them or with whom they disagree, to pray for their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to renounce their possessions, and to lay down the sword.  These are costly demands, ones that many find difficult. It is no wonder that some folks who began to follow Jesus left him saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (John 6:60).

In the Lenten season, Christians are reminded that if they desire to follow Jesus that they are to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. In the earliest church Christians faced the real risk of being crucified as Jesus was. In subsequent generations, particularly when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this became much less likely for Christians. As a result, these words of Jesus have been understood in a more spiritualized manner. Jesus says that if we want to save our lives, we will lose them but if we want to gain our lives, we have to be willing to lose them for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of what he taught his followers, that is, the gospel message. The New Testament Greek word for life here is psyche, meaning one’s life or one’s soul.  If we want to experience the life that Jesus imagines for us, we have to be willing to let go of the things that hold us back from truly following him. We need to deny the idols that we have constructed in place of God. There are many idols in our lives to which we cling for assurance and hope but Jesus teaches us that they are not the appropriate object of our ultimate trust and hope. Our trust alone belongs to God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If you decide truly to follow Jesus, the cost may be high. You may not be able to live just as you did before. Our self- denial creates the conditions for the creation of Christian life in community with others. You will have to change.  If you want to gain your life, as Jesus teaches, you have to be willing to give it up for God first. That is no easy task.  That is the cost of genuine discipleship.

“BLESSED IS THE ONE WHO TRUSTS IN THE LORD”

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“Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17: 7-8, NRSV).

In October 2003, while on retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, near Abiquiu, New Mexico, I heard this reading during one of the monastic offices: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord….” This passage seemed almost to have been written with the location of the monastery in mind. The monastery is located in the desert in the heart of a canyon formed by the Rio Chama that flows through it. From the patio outside my room, I often sat in silence between the hours of prayer gazing at the birch trees that lined the banks of the river. My eyes were continually drawn to the bright yellow birch leaves blazing in their final fall glory before they fell to the earth. In the midst of the high desert, these trees flourished because they found their source of nourishment in the waters of the Chama River.

Jeremiah employs the metaphor of a river in the desert to talk about God. Similarly, the trees represent the “blessed” men and women who are nourished and fed by God at all times. What strikes me about this image of Jeremiah is the passive action of the blessed person who trusts in the LORD. The trees do not have to work to draw nourishment, rather they quietly and patiently place themselves near the life-giving and life-sustaining stream of life so that neither heat nor drought brings them to ruin or destruction. In the time of drought, the trees are not anxious or full of worry but are able to rest in God’s presence and are capable of bearing fruit, even in the harshest and driest of conditions.

This Lent, I encourage you to reflect on how you draw nourishment from the stream of God’s love and mercy.  I have attached a link to set of resources to assist you in your daily Lenten devotions and readings that I hope will help you find all that you need to draw you to prayer, contemplation, and silent rest in God’s presence

Lenten Booklet 2019

 

 

LENT: THE WAY OF THE CROSS

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In the season of Lent, we follow Jesus from his temptation in the wilderness to his death on the cross in Jerusalem.  For us, as Christians, we find meaning in the death of Jesus whom we proclaim died for us and for our salvation.

In Lent, we encounter the charge of Jesus to those who would follow him that they take up their cross and follow him.  When we do so, we have no idea where we might be led.  Jesus told Simon Peter, as much when he said to him:

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this, he said to him, “Follow me”” (John 21:18–19).

When we take up our cross to follow Jesus, we have no idea where that journey will take us. We like to think that we have ultimate control over our own lives, but when we take up our cross and promise to follow Jesus wherever he leads, he may take us to places we never could have imagined.

That is certainly true of my life.  In June 1972, I was one of between 100,000 and 200,000 persons who attended the weeklong Christian festival, Explo ’72, in Dallas, Texas. At the time I was an Episcopalian active in my church youth group. A college student from Dallas active in my church, a year older than I was, asked me if I would be willing to attend the event with him.  I went without really knowing what I was getting into.

During the day we were instructed in Christian evangelism; at night, a full stadium of between 50,000 – 60,000, gathered in the Cotton Bowl. It was on those nights that I first came into contact with the Christian evangelist, Billy Graham. He took the stage and began one of the evangelistic sermons for which he was so justly renowned. I don’t remember anything he said except for one thing that I have never forgotten. In the middle of his sermon, he issued a challenge to young people like me. He said, “If you are willing to go wherever God sends you, I want you to stand up in your seats.”  In the heat of the moment, full of zeal, I stood up. Years later I found myself living in a small town serving two small parishes in Eastern Oklahoma — a place I never in my wildest dreams expected to be! — and I felt I knew the reason why.

I have often wondered about the consequences of my standing up in response to a call to follow Jesus wherever it led.  Throughout my life, I have been continually surprised. When we promise to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we never know where that journey will take us. Jesus is clear about this. He does not ask us simply to take up our cross. He first says, deny yourself, then take up your cross and follow me.  The words are clear: deny, take up, and follow. When we promise to follow Jesus, we give up the ultimate control of our own lives — we are not in charge. That is what it means, after all, to follow.

While this runs counter to the narrative that we are our own sovereign, the way of the cross is also the way of a full and genuine life. This idea is reflected in the collect for Monday in Holy Week:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Paradoxically, the way of the cross, the way of denying ourselves and taking up our cross, is the way of life and peace. When we commit our lives to Jesus we begin a journey with an uncertain future but a journey nonetheless that rewards us with a full, abundant life, stretching into eternity.