Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 5/6/2020
The crown fit the first time he put it on. Even though David grew up a pauper in the wastelands of Palestine, once he was anointed and ascended to the throne of Israel, he didn’t take long to robe himself in the abuse of power, to confuse his role with God’s.
Adultery without consent, premeditated murder of a subordinate, lies in the name of military service, royal cover up… As King, he couldn’t whisper his transgressions in the court jester’s ear and couldn’t sit for confession after church. Alone with his haunting secrets, he turned to poetry, penning the plea he couldn’t name aloud.
Whether our misery is self-inflicted or not, when we’re unable to find any words, many of us have turned to David’s most enduring poem. At the close of a pastoral visit separated by glass, the inmate asks for guidance through the darkest valley of incarceration. In the fox hole with mortar fire exploding above, the solider cries out for the rod and staff to protect his platoon. And the grieving family, more often than not, peering into the cold ground, only wants to hear, “The Lord is my shepherd,” before the casket is lowered.
There are 66 books of the Bible, thousands of verses, and 150 poetic prayers in the Psalter to claim, but why is the 23rd Psalm the text we turn to most in times of trouble?
Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Poetry gives voice to suffering.
We need to know we’re not alone.
The shepherd was willing to give his life for ours.
A famous thespian, as the story goes, traveled the country doing shows to sold-out audiences. On stage, he would perform vaudeville and offer impersonations, all with complete command of word and rhyme. For the finale, he would let a long silence linger before reciting the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” And the crowd would shout and cheer, offering a standing ovation nightly. But at one stop on tour, a preacher made his way onto the stage. Just after the actor finished his last skit, the local pastor walked to the spotlight and leaned into the microphone saying, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; leads beside still waters; he restores my soul…” Only this time, the crowd stopped applauding, sat down, and wept. The actor, confused, said to the preacher after he walked off stage, “anybody can make the people clap, but only the rare few can make them cry. How did you do that?” The preacher responded, “You know the Psalm; I know the Shepherd.”
To know the shepherd is to know the provisions he makes for his sheep. In the barren landscape, he lays them down in a verdant field; in the parched desert, he slakes their thirst with an uninterrupted drink; in the terrifying shadows, he pacifies their encroaching fears; in the fray as predators encroach, he steps in front with his body; in the separation of estrangement, he offers unflinching presence. Vigilant and tireless, committed to meeting every need, the shepherd tends without end.
Psychology teaches that learned helplessness- the forfeiture of self-efficacy, an inability to provide for yourself- can be devastating to the psyche. Religion, on the other hand, actually invites abandoning the delusion of autonomy. Spiritual helplessness is the faithful acknowledgment that life is beyond my ultimate control, I am a person in need, and my soul’s wellbeing is dependent upon a power greater than myself. The foundational posture of dependency on God.
Sheep are the highest maintenance of all livestock. They can’t defend themselves, have compromised eyesight, no sense of direction, can’t regain their footing if backside, need constant care, and more. In times of trouble- like when David made a mess of his life and as the pandemic is making a mess of ours- we turn to Psalm 23 because there’s enormous comfort in relinquishing the need to be our own shepherds.
The rod and staff aren’t ours to carry. We are part of the flock, wooly faced, split-hooved, and bleating out. While the darkest valley surrounds, helplessness doesn’t assume hopelessness. Instead, as we follow the Good Shepherd who hears our cries and responds, be reassured that what begins in the wilderness finally arrives in the House of the Lord.