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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God Is My Shepherd - 04/22/2018

Psalm 23 seems to be an excellent way to dive into our scriptures for this week … it's a favorite of so many people and it feels quite appropriate in that all this shepherd language and care helps us accompany four people for their first time to the Lord's Table this weekend. Keira Albright, Adia Hallford and Jack and Conner Nelson follow today in the footsteps of so many of us and it's pure joy to have them join us in this simple feast of bread and wine that has anything but simple consequences for us.

One of the things we talked about at First Communion class was that Holy Communion is a very important part of our life as a faith community. We talked about tuning our ears so that we can hear it all around us. It is in the songs we sing. And it's in the bible stories we read and study. Psalm 23 is no exception. Listen to verse 5 again, this time from the Message version: “You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.”

It a rich picture of a table of abundance where everyone is welcome – even one's enemies! It is the model we follow for our own table.

So these young citizens of the Kingdom of God take their first steps on this journey today and hopefully come back to the table time and time again. We pray it becomes a central fixture in their lives, as it is in ours.

I have noted on more than one occasion that folks often get attached to particular  version of Psalm 23. I've heard people say they really like to hear it from the KJV of the bible, for instance … “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...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.” (vs 1, 4, 6)

I've even met someone who had three laying hens and she named them Shirley, Goodness and Mercy.

 I memorized this Psalm, in the KJV version, thanks to a choir setting I learned some years ago. And that version has become a very important part of my story. One day, I was driving from the U.P. downstate, probably to visit the kids or something, and the weather as not so great. When I got to the bridge, it was closed to high-profile vehicles and cars were allowed to cross escorted and only going 20 mph. At that time, I was driving my slick and speedy … but very lightweight … three-door Saturn coupe, and all I could think about was that Yugo that went over the bridge years ago. It was the first time I was ever nervous about crossing the bridge. And so I decided to calm myself I would sign Psalm 23 as I drove. My volume increased as my knuckles got whiter and whiter.

It got me through that bridge crossing quite well, and … I discovered in the process, you can sing the psalm through twice at 20 mph over that 5-mile stretch.

 And then there's this newer song version I started the sermon with today. It's been around for awhile, but it was new to me and I found it really moved me …  the way it was phrased, the way the melody breathed life into the message of the Psalm. I know some of you have heard me sing it before, on my own or at Thanksgiving with my son Max. And I mean for it to be a repeat because that's part of my point today. Sometimes when things are so beloved as Psalm 23 is, we package it up kind of tightly in how we understand it.

So what I would like to do is unpack this Psalm a little today. Often we don't have time for that. We hear it read at a funeral or see it beautifully cross-stitched and framed on a wall somewhere. It holds us closely with its very comforting language and serene and safe scenes, but we don't often get to look at it very closely. So in addition to the beautiful communion language that welcome Jack and Connor, Adi and Keira today, there are a couple of things I'd like to point out about this psalm that I believe might make it even more powerful in it's ability to comfort us, transport us back to important memories or even get us across the Mackinac Bridge.

First of all, we have this image of God as a shepherd, which if you really think about, is not necessarily logical. I mean if we can agree that this Psalm is written to comfort and assure us in our greatest times of trial, why not portray God as a mother staying up all night long with a sick baby? Or a brother in arms staying with a wounded friend until helps arrives on the battlefield?  Or a faithful dog that sticks by you even when you smell horrible or are being your worst human self.

Instead the Psalmist picks a shepherd, as did Jesus in our gospel reading … “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says as he attempts to explain the sacrifice he has come to make for them … and for us. But this kind of sacrifice isn't typically associated with hired shepherds. They often had poor reputations … they are hired hands who see the wolf and start running rather than protecting. Those kind of shepherds might have just as well put the lamb on a spit over an open fire and set a place at the table for the hungry wolves. That doesn't sound like God at all.

It's pretty clear to see that Jesus … and therefore God … seeks to be a different kind of shepherd seeks to change our idea of what a shepherd could be. Jesus makes this pretty clear. “The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd … and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10.13,15)

And I think there is something else about the shepherd that rounds out this picture of what God intends to be in the role. It's something we probably would notice without anyone pointing it out if we came from a places like the Middle East, Asia or Australia, where being a shepherd is still a way of life. I'm referring to the shepherd's staff and rod, or crook. Notice that it is specifically mentioned in Psalm 23. It is an essential tool for shepherding work. A shepherd going out without his or her crook is like a fisherman without bait or a pianist without her fingers. The rod and staff is a multi-purpose tool. It helped the shepherds travel rough terrain. When used like a rod, the shepherd could wield it like a weapon against an attacking wolf or lion. Turned around the other way, the hook could be used to gently lift a sheep out of a gully or safely grab it before it fell off a cliff.

So just think of that in your own image of the Good Shepherd caring for you in your life and your journeys. It's much more than just being accompanied on your walk through this life. The Good Shepherd is sure-footed and goes with us even in the roughest terrain … even in our walks through that valley of death. The Good Shepherd protects us from predatory evil with a rod, and when we go astray, gently pulls us back on the path with the hook … a path that leads to peace and security. We are in good hands with this shepherd.

I also wanted to point out one more thing that dramatically changed the way I think about God's activity in this psalm.  It comes in the “chicken verse.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (vs. 6)

What we usually hear translated as “follow” is really better understood as “pursue,” – “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life” – and I think that changes the character of God and Jesus immensely here. What it tells us is that this is not just a case of God following us around aimlessly and without much thought or purpose. Rather, we are pursued by God. We are wooed, coaxed, encouraged, emboldened and even convicted by God so that we may get on this right path and enjoy this life as God envisions it for us.

This simple word change helps to to see that God's activity in our lives is intentional and relentless, and it is born of the love and care of the Very Good Shepherd. Thanks be to God for that; thanks be to God for all the ways God is pursuing us right now. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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