A Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23 – Year A – 12 October 2014
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.
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Were you required to do memory work in school? I was, and I suspect that most of you were as well. Memorization was once a much-favored method of storing data in our student mind. We committed vast quantities of material, from historic events and dates, the list of U. S. presidents, periodic tables, declensions and conjugations, vocabulary in English and other languages, famous sayings, and poems of varying length. It was as if the shelves of our personal library were being stocked for future use.
And it worked. Facts and figures, literature, and music were inscribed on the tablet of our memory. Our youthful recall functioned like a search engine, pulling up useful information in microseconds. We could download all that we had saved and recite it on demand or print it out on notebook paper at will. It was really great while it lasted, wasn’t it?
But, if you’re like me, you’ve encountered problems with that once-efficient system. Time and experience change all things. Many factors have slowed our lightning-fast recall, and have eroded the tablet, leaving the memories less sharp, or even (sad to say!) lost in the fog. This is good news for Google and a wake-up call for mental acuity. The internet search engines, like Google and Yahoo, can help us find what we are fuzzy about, and we can locate and enjoy the lectionary and daily prayers on our hand-held devices if we like. However, there is no substitute for hard copies of the Bible and the Prayer Book. Getting reacquainted with them is a wonderful thing! In the Scriptures and our liturgy we can re-boot our mind and spirit regularly, accessing important memories, and sharpening them by repetition and ritual.
Sunday schools – including ours at St. Mary’s – have employed memorization as a tool since their inception. Our children have in recent years stepped up to the “memory challenge,” learning key passages from the Bible and the creeds of the Church. Plus, the confirmation classes have deepened their knowledge of our basic resources of faith. In worship we also recommend the importance of access to Scripture and tradition. Using the Book of Common Prayer reinforces this process, helping us re-pave mental pathways over and again. Being able to retrieve and enjoy biblical passages, creeds, and time-honored prayers is a very good thing. It helps us focus on the basics of our Christian identity. However, bolstering our recall and access of what is essential doesn’t happen automatically; it takes effort.
During the centennial year celebration of our parish in 1977-78, St. Mary’s invited guest speakers from the community to commemorate that important landmark in our history. One of those speakers was one of Richmond’s iconic preachers, the Reverend Theodore F. Adams, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church. Dr. Adams spoke to us about the importance of biblical literacy, stressing the need to commit certain passages to memory. He illustrated his point by telling us about a plan derailed on a mission to the people of the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. His team had carefully packed boxes of Bibles in Russian to bring to Christians desiring those words of hope. However, when they arrived at Soviet customs, the missionaries were forbidden to enter with the Scriptures. Dr. Adams said that he felt stripped of God’s Word until he remembered something crucial. The Soviets could confiscate the Bibles, but they could not take away the Word. It was stored in memory, kept safely by the team, and ready to be their comfort in a strange land, as well as shared with people starving for good news.
At a Sunday lunch at my mother’s home, we gathered around the family table after church. I raised the subject of memory work that my brother and I had been challenged to do when we were Sunday school age children. I mentioned that there was a card for each child, featuring our name in fancy calligraphy and five categories to be fulfilled to mark our success at memorization. We would receive a gold star when we completed each requirement. The categories were (as I recall): the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, the Twenty-third Psalm, the Books of the Old Testament, and the Books of the New Testament.
I had barely gotten those words out when, as if a switch had been thrown in her mind, my mother began to recite the sixty-six books of the Bible in order. “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, . . .” she said at a rapid-fire pace. Mom hardly took a breath, but continued until she finished the list of all 39 books of the Old Testament. Then she proceeded to name all of the New Testament books too, ending with The Revelation to St. John. I can still see the smile of triumph and satisfaction that spread across her face when her feat concluded. It was an extraordinary moment, and especially impressive to me, because I had never won those two stars. My youthful mind was not willing to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest those long lists of biblical titles. I gave up my quest for those stars, and relied instead on the table of contents rather than my gray matter. Who knew what I would be called to do in life?
Looking back on my early development, I realize that I would have profited from that exercise. It would have made biblical research all the easier. Access to resources is essential, I think. And this resource – our constitutive documents of faith – is indispensable. For now, though, I can say that I am infinitely grateful that I learned the 23rd Psalm by heart.
This little poem has been a paradigm for my faith in good times and in unspeakably bad times. It has served as my theological model, my personal liturgy, my creed, and my prayer language – particularly when I’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and had no other words to say. The psalm gave me courage and hope when I could see no light.
One of the things to cherish about the 23rd Psalm is its simplicity. The poetry is spare and uncomplicated, and its metaphors are familiar and memorable. The psalmist chooses pastoral imagery to express his sense of trust in the presence and influence of God in his life. It is like the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep, says the poet. Sheep have faith in their shepherd because he guides them to safe pastures, provides them sustenance and shelter, abides with them as they graze and when they sleep, and nurtures them with his steadfast love. The shepherd does not abandon the sheep in his care; his constancy is paramount to their survival in a setting that may look serene, but can suddenly turn hostile and dangerous. Bandits, predatory animals, and other hazards of nature are always there, and so must the shepherd be vigilant, and watchful, and ready to act to protect the flock. His crosier, or shepherd’s staff, symbolizes not only his leadership, but also his compassionate treatment of his sheep. He is out there in the hills and valleys with them; the shepherd is subject to the same conditions as his sheep, whether they be abundance and light, or fearsome and dark. The shepherd takes the point when the flock is on the move. As their leader, he engages what lies ahead first, because he is willing to suffer for them and with them.
Drawing upon the bucolic setting of Israel’s hill country, the psalmist paints a picture of the intimate relationship between God and his people. What he depicts is a pastoral bond connecting a shepherd with a flock. But it is also an intensely personal connection. “The LORD is my shepherd,” says the poet. In so doing he is calling the Creator of heaven and earth by name: “the LORD” is not a generic designation for a divine being, it is a personal name – the one that God has revealed to his people in an act of goodness and trust. Moreover, the LORD is my shepherd, says the psalmist. That little possessive pronoun, my, in the first person singular, is an astounding claim. The Maker of the universe, the provider of all that is, seen and unseen, the savior of humankind, the one whose steadfast love is a power that surpasses our understanding, is my own compassionate shepherd. That is an awesome gift from the psalmist to you and me. It is the awareness that God’s Presence abides with each of us; and nothing can separate us from his love.
In simple, personal language the psalmist reassures us that we are never alone. He also makes it clear that the LORD is not a passive presence, but is actively leading, guiding, seeking, loving, and providing us what we need when we need it. The psalm itself helps us open the doors of our heart and mind to accept and receive what the Shepherd provides. Saying it, reading it, singing its verse, we can quickly understand its meaning and feel its effect on our anxious spirit. The psalm inspires trust because it enables us to see the presence, and feel the love, that the LORD is constantly offering.
For more than six decades since I learned Psalm 23, I have never failed to appreciate something new as I recite its lovely verse. When things are going well, I see the loving Shepherd leading me to green pastures and waters of comfort, and I enjoy what he provides. In times of grief and fear, I see him leading me by the hand through the valley of deep darkness, and I am grateful for his healing compassion. When I feel empty, I see him setting a table for me even in the presence of those who trouble me. He fills my cup to overflowing and anoints my head with oil, and for that care I am greatly thankful. When I feel ashamed or guilty, I see him as the forgiving LORD, leading me back to the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. And when I doubt, or am disappointed with life, I see him also following me with goodness and mercy, nudging me forward with his shepherd’s staff, guiding me back to the place he has prepared for me. And I am invited to dwell in my LORD’s house forever.
Today, I am struck anew by my shepherd’s grace. He is with me – with me, despite my flaws, my mistakes, my fears and doubts, and my propensity to miss the mark he has set for me. Nevertheless, he is with me. He gives me his love, a love that I can envision in a real person. Jesus makes the shepherd’s presence palpable on this earth, where you and I live and move and have our being. And because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is one of us, we can see God in him and in all others who represent him in our life.
I found myself sitting beside my mother’s bed as she lay dying in health care this past January 18. She had endured terrible suffering and distress caused by a brain tumor that was relentless in its destructive power. But at that moment, near midday on that Saturday, she was sleeping deeply and peacefully. As I kept watch over her, I played a CD of sacred choral music to soothe her. I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for all that she had done for me and my family – the care, the resourcefulness, the persevering efforts that kept our family going in difficult circumstances, the love that she so freely lavished on us, the strength of her character, the depth of her knowledge, and the spirit of adventure and hope that she epitomized. And then I recited the psalm that she herself had taught me, saying, “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 . . .”
Mom had made my shepherd very real to me. And at that moment I knew that he was ever so real to her. Her memory, which had been so laden with knowledge for close to ninety years, was gone because of the tumor. But at the last she did not need memory. What had been an image of God’s care and love for her in poetry and in song was finally, unalterably true. And her shepherd, my shepherd, your shepherd, was with her in an eternal embrace. I sat with Mom for an hour after she breathed her last. A beautiful aura of peace settled over us both. She and I were in that place provided by our loving God, whose love never ends. Amen.