A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Year B – 29 April 2012
John Edward Miller, Rector
Psalm 23 King James Version
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.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with thee and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On the second Sunday in Advent, 1970, a young minister asked the congregation to be seated following the closing hymn of the morning service. As anxiety infiltrated the sacred atmosphere of worship, a tall grim-faced man walked to the chancel of the church to make an announcement. From his demeanor the people in the pews gathered that the news would not be good. When he spoke, the church elder trembled with emotion. He said, “We have lost our shepherd.” The people gave up a loud gasp. Tears followed. The spokesman soldiered on to deliver the message. He said that the pastor had died unexpectedly in the days following his surgery. And though bright December sunlight streamed through the rounded-arch windows of the great church, it became as dark as night for the people comprising the flock of their late leader. There was not only a major sense of loss that morning, but there was a feeling of being lost in the midst of life.
I learned this news when I called home on that Sunday afternoon. Newly married and living in Roanoke, I was accustomed to connecting with my parents on a weekly basis. I was blithely unaware that anything unusual was happening in Richmond. So, I was stunned when I learned of my pastor’s tragic death. He was 56 years old, and seemingly in good health. With his leadership, our congregation had just completed the construction of a new, beautiful worship space. Together we had realized what the pastor had described in sermon as “my dream for this church.” So, the parish was riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and confidence in our mission. I myself had just applied to Union Seminary, and my pastor had written an eloquent letter of recommendation for me. He had seen my vocation as a sign of the congregation’s spiritual health, and he had happily promoted his new seminarian, noting in the weekly newsletter, “may his tribe increase!”
My admiration of his articulate leadership, his thoughtful, polished sermons, and his expansive vision of the future knew no bounds. He was my hero. The awful truth learned at long-distance flattened me, and pulled a shadowy curtain around me. The words, “We have lost our shepherd,” were more than just dispiriting. They were disorienting, as though someone had stolen with my compass; and they were discouraging, and I mean that literally – they were enough to drain the courage right out of me. I was a part of that flock. I was raised, educated, baptized, and married among the faithful people who looked to the pastor for spiritual care, for the interpretation of God’s Word, and for the administration of the sacred rites of the church. He was our guide. Now he was gone.
When I look back on that time, I can still feel the lost-ness that we all felt. And I can remember the experience of going to seminary, a place of learning where I would be equipped as a pastor, knowing all the while that I would not have him as a resource. Gone was the opportunity to ask him questions, to get his advice, and to absorb his wisdom.
In retrospect, I believe that one of my key pursuits during seminary was searching for my shepherd. And it was a good thing that I did, not only for my vocation, but also for my personal journey. Many jarring experiences lay ahead of me – things that had enough force and firepower to have blown me off the path and into despair. That I am here testifies to the enduring goodness and eternal presence of our shepherd. While I was in the dark, trying to relocate him, he found me and led me home.
If you’ve ever been knocked to the ground by an irresistible force, such as the death of someone you have cherished, then you may know what it’s like to have your prayers muted. Familiar phrases, the thanksgivings, and petitions, and sacred symbols, simply cease. Faith persists, but words fail. In those times, you may have lain awake in the night, desperate to maintain your connection with God, and yet you find that there is nothing to say.
I’ve been there – speechless before the God I love, and the Lord I serve. For someone who’s expected to have the right word to say when speaking about God, and to God, it was a lonely place to be. I knew that I would need help to find a way forward through the logjam. That’s when the psalms gave me a precious boost. They broke open the shell of silence encasing me. They filled the blanks, and reshaped my prayerful speech.
One psalm in particular placed holy words on my tongue, and bid me to speak them aloud. It was the 23rd Psalm, in the King James Version. I learned it long ago in Sunday school, and so did you. Even though I didn’t understand some of the expressions at the tender age of six or seven, I realized that it was an important piece of poetry. Thus I learned the psalm by rote, inscribing the lines on the tablet of my memory. Gradually, the meaning of the words dawned on me, lighting up like bulbs of understanding and relevance. And it became mine – a mantra for my self in search of meaning. Thank God for this psalm; and thank God for that early childhood discipline, and for the patience of my teachers, and for the star that marked the accomplishment on my memory chart. Because of that process of formation, the 23rd Psalm is a prominent part of my spiritual inventory. Now hardly a night passes without me reciting it to begin or end my prayers. In a very real way, the 23rd Psalm has been a lifesaver.
If you are anything like me, then you can attest to the persuasive power of Psalm 23. I find that I am drawn to its phrases, its cadence, and its metaphors. Whenever, I read the psalm, or hear it chanted by the choir, I find without exception that its attractive allure pulls me close and embraces me. We call the biblical witness “inspired,” meaning that the breath of God animates texts like this. Divine truth becomes its soul. Therefore it has gravitas, its weight draws a falling object, including people like you and me, toward its center.
And what is its center? What is its attractive essence? Simply put, it’s that the LORD is my shepherd. And because he is my shepherd, I shall not want. This is an incomparable promise. It beckons us to trust that God will always be there – with us and for us.
We cannot lose our shepherd. In fact, he is with us even when the penumbra of grief, doubt, or fear obscures the light of the sun. We may fear the worst, and sink into disappointment, but the psalm presses us to carry on, and to fear not, for he is with us. And we shall lack nothing; for the LORD our shepherd is never absent, and is always promoting our good.
In a book of daily meditations, John Van Nuys offers this reminder of the good shepherd’s eternal presence:
When we experience pain and feel abandoned by God, maybe some of what is going on is blessing that we cannot yet recognize. Spiritual director Margaret Guenther counsels, “When in doubt, I always assume God is at work.” When you are struggling or doubting or at the end of you rope wondering, “Lord, I’m doing all I can here; where on earth are you?” it is a good bet to trust that God is indeed at work – in veiled ways you may not yet perceive or understand, but certainly in gracious ways you can trust are loving.”
That teaching has been confirmed by my experience. Even though the pastor of my youth had died, I was able, by the grace of God, to see beyond my vale of sadness. In the light that began to shine in the darkness I could once more envision the good shepherd’s guidance in my life. The form he took varied, but in every instance the shepherd was a source of pastoral care – for me and for others. Nurture, and wisdom, and insight, and learning emanated from these pastoral people who have enlightened my journey. Some were family members – my parents, and my wife, and my son. Trusted friends, teachers, mentors, and counselors have led me forward. Other shepherds have served as professional colleagues on our parish staff, both lay and clergy. Still others have been church wardens, and vestry members, committee leaders, and you, the faithful members of our beloved St. Mary’s community. My pastors have been numerous, and diverse, but they all have been servant leaders in the Lord’s flock.
And then there were those ordained to carry the shepherd’s staff – the Episcopal crosier. Their calling makes the ministry of our Lord visible, and palpable, in our midst. All of our bishops in Virginia have served us well as vicars of Christ – “stand-ins” for the shepherd eternal. In my lifetime, however, two of those pastors have stood out. First, I thank God for Bishop Robert Bruce Hall, who placed his hands on my head to receive me as a communicant, and then to ask God to make me a priest, in this church. And then I was blessed by Bishop Peter James Lee, who served as shepherd for God’s people for a quarter century, confirming our youth, receiving new adults, celebrating the sacraments and the consecration of New St. Mary’s, preaching God’s Word to uplift our hearts in the adventure of faith, as well as to offer us “night vision” in times of grief. Bishop Lee blazed a bold, brilliant, and dynamic trail for his sheep to follow. He did so with enthusiasm for the new, and deep respect for the traditional. His pastoral care was his presence – his practical, intelligent, humorous, and comforting presence. He was always there for us, whether he was rapping on the doors of New St. Mary’s with his shepherd’s staff, officiating at Parson Souder’s funeral, or praying for us when we were too choked up to utter a sound. I find it meet and right that Peter James Lee was the first occupant of the bishop’s chair in our new church. It is designated as a memorial to the pastor I lost in 1970.
For me, these are signs that the LORD is our shepherd. We shall not want. All we have to do is to pay attention to our life. That is where the shepherd is eternally present, taking form in those who care. Through them, and with them, and in them, our shepherd LORD leads, guides, provides, encourages, and saves us. That is the truth. That is the good news. Take heed. Be fed, and be at peace.
 John Van Nuys, “The Good Shepherd,” Forward Day by Day (April 24), p. 120.
 “Night Vision” is the title of a sermon preached at St. Mary’s by the Right Reverend Peter James Lee on his first pastoral visit after the death of our parish organist, Mary Marguerite Hays Miller, on October 8, 1998.
 The bishop’s chair in New St. Mary’s is a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Vernon Britt Richardson, pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, 1965-1970.