A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
April 25, 2010
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though 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.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
After being forced to live at home all through college, now I had a job teaching in Roseville, an apartment with a fun roommate, a boyfriend at Harvard Law School, and finally, freedom from the parents.
I was twenty-two years old and had been hired as the debate coach at the-then Alexander Ramsey High School in Roseville. My varsity team of four splendid young men – barely four years younger than I was – were bringing home the trophies every weekend. I was making money, and had a new turquoise Mustang.
Then, during spring break of that year, I came down with a wicked virus. The doctor told me I would just have to Tylenol my way through the headache, sore throat, and fever until it ran its course. My roommate Mary was away and I was miserable.
My mom called and asked if maybe I wanted to come home for a couple days to regain my strength. I said I suppose so and my dad picked me up.
I came back to my old room, the flowered sheets on the single bed cool and fresh, ice water on the nightstand. I collapsed and broke into tears the moment my mother left the room. I was actually glad to be here. The sounds of the house were familiar and comforting — the phone ringing, my parents’ soft voices, a door closing … and a grilled cheese sandwich was brought to me on a tray I felt better.
Sometimes I don’t think we realize how much we need tenderness and comfort. Whether we are a new parent, a single parent, or a person just keeping it together, we crave tenderness. If for no other reason, because of what philosopher William James calls “the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.”
The Twenty-third Psalm is the go-to psalm for comfort and healing. Often read at funerals or bedsides, the tender words written 3,000 years ago seldom fail to calm and strengthen. But, like many other parts of Scripture and liturgy, we’ve heard it so often, we may lose sight of what’s really there.
Before looking at the psalm itself, I want to mention what a tremendous challenge it presents to the modern reader. In fact, I had written more than half of this sermon, I realize it all sounded wussy — it had no edge or power. The Twenty-third Psalm is about tenderness and gentleness, and who relates to that today? In our culture, it’s about power: solving problems, making your point, turning up the volume, sealing the deal, being heard, setting limits. Some times, President Obama’s efforts to begin a dialogue with an adversary on equal footing have been labeled as weakness. And can you imagine someone in a job interview saying, “Well, one of my skills is that I’m really tender and gentle.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that we associate this psalm with times of pain and loss is because that is when we hunger for consolation. Ultimately, I came to think that it is in the very gentleness and tenderness of this psalm that its power lies.
The Twenty-third Psalm is part of the Jewish Scriptures. Devout Jews had recited this psalm of King David for a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Jesus probably knew the psalm well, perhaps envisioning his heavenly father as his good shepherd.
But soon after his death, first-century Jews who had become followers of Jesus appropriated it. Subsequently, much of Christian art – even in the Roman catacombs– depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but I want us to be respectful of the Jewish tradition from which the psalm comes.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, noting that his sheep hear his voice. The implication is that there are other shepherds and other flocks, other voices of the Divine, and Jesus does not argue this point.
In this psalm, God is the protector/provider. We are God’s beloved creatures and will be led to green pastures and still waters. This is no small thing, because in Palestine, green pastures were few — don’t picture this as Iowa in June! But the Good Shepherd knows the way to the green pastures and the still waters — since sheep are afraid of turbulent water.
While cattle are prodded pushed and roped, sheep are led. The shepherd keeps track of each one. I’ve read that sometimes sheep will wander at night and in the morning the shepherd has to go and find them and set them back on the path. Or sometimes the will fall over from the weight of their wool and have to be picked up and righted by the shepherd. (1)
What an idea that God does these things for us: finds us when we’re lost in the hecticness of our worlds; rights us when the weight of things causes us to collapse; sets us back on the right path, again and again.
We all encounter “the valley of the shadow of death.” Notice it is not the valley of death but the valley of the shadow of death – those times when we fear for our lives, those times when the ominous shadows of hopelessness overcome us – a crushing disappointment, a terrifying diagnosis, the randomness of nature’s power.
But David tells us that we walk through the valley, we don’t stay there; the Shepherd knows the way through. Jesus can even lead us through death and beyond because he knows the way.
Going to the valley of the shadow is the price we pay for treasuring our lives, for loving other people. John Updike calls it “the vulnerability to which love dooms us all. “
There is an important pronoun shift in the middle of the psalm. After being led through the valley of the shadow, the speaker no longer calls God ‘he” but “you.” We go from “He leads me besides still waters” to “You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Building up a store of experiences where we know that God been with us, forges a relationship, a trust, a faith.
One of the tenderest parts of this gentle psalm is the, phrase: “He anoints my head with oil.” I found this explanation: “In the outdoors, sheep are constantly swarmed by gnats flies and other insects, which tend to congregate around the animal’s eyes. These pests can cause disease and otherwise harm the sheep. To reduce the irritation, the shepherd will put oil on the animal’s head especially around its eyes.” (2)
The tenderness of God is also in today’s lesson from Revelation, where God promises to “wipe away every tear from our eyes.” And we are all in desperate need of such care and tenderness. “Be kind, Philo of Alexanria said, because everyone you meet is fighting a great batttle.”
Do we show ourselves as much tenderness as God does? Certainly our culture constantly reminds us of our inadequacies, and most of us have a list of things we should have done differently. Something I first read twenty years ago remains my favorite statement on this topic:
“Sometimes when I enter a familiar room or street, I think I see a past self walking toward me. She can’t see me in the future, but I can see her very clearly. She runs past me worried about being late for an appointment she doesn’t want to go to. She sits at a restaurant table in tears of anger, arguing with the wrong man. She strides toward me in the jeans and wine-red suede boots she wore for a decade, and I can remember the exact feel of those boots on my feet.
I used to feel impatient with her: Why was she wasting time? With this man? Forgetting to say the most important thing? Why wasn’t she wiser, more productive, happier? But lately I’ve begun to feel a tenderness, a welling of tears in the back of my throat when I see her. I think: She’s doing the best she can. She’s survived—and she’s trying so hard. Sometimes I wish I could go back and put my arms around her….” (3)
The theme today is tenderness, the tenderness shown us by the Good Shepherd; the tenderness we need to give each other; the tenderness we need find for ourselves.
Let me close with one of my favorite stories, from a book called Home By Another Way. The author writes, “Last spring I talked with someone who grew up on a farm about what it was like to raise her own food. ‘The vegetables were fine,’ she said. ‘It was the meat that was hard.’ Once, she said, when it was time to take a certain calf to the slaughterhouse, the baby became so scared that her father asked someone else to drive so he could ride with it in the back of the trailer. By the time they got where they were going, he was in tears, she said, because the calf had licked his arm the whole way.” (4)
Just as with the gentle Jesus, led by his captors to his slaughter:“He licks their arms all the way, so that they walked away from his death forgiven, and many of them in tears.”
That is a portrait of strength.
1.Lectionary Homiletics, article by the Rev. Beth Royalty, April, 2010.
3. Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem, 1992.
4. Home by Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1999.