Christ -The Good Shepherd

Lent 4A’20 ( FacebookLive2 )

22 March 2020

Psalm 23

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

North Little Rock, Arkansas

The Rev. Carey Stone

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.    From Psalm 23

One of the earliest and most enduring symbols in Christianity is the symbol of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In fact, the image that you first saw on your screens today was one of the first examples of “Christian Art” found in the catacombs of Rome, it’s an image of Christ as the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb around his neck, while standing in the midst of a flock of sheep.  Closely related and intertwined with this image is that best known and most loved Psalm of all time, Psalm 23.

The popularity of the entire Psalter has never waned over the centuries, this is due in part to their raw humanity, honesty, and vulnerability. No subject is off limits, nothing is so locked in the shadows that it can’t be brought out into God’s light and love. I’m indebted to Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann for making me aware that many of the Psalms contain a structure that in broad strokes, shows us what our journey of faith looks like. He said that within the structure of the Psalms we find three stages that reveal our trajectory forward, the first he calls “Orientation.” This is the part of our journeys when life makes sense. God is in God’s heaven and all is right with the world in general, and our worlds in particular. The portion of the psalms that offer praise to God come to mind, “From the rising of the sun until it’s going down, let the Name of the Lord be praised.”  However, the journey we travel in real life never stays on the mountain tops, but must descend back down into the valleys. This stage Brueggemann calls “Disorientation.” This is the part of the journey where we are thrown a curveball or perhaps several curveballs all at once. In this stage in the psalms the psalmist says things like, “How long O Lord will you be angry with us? How long will the heathen live in ease while the righteous suffer?”

As we are being confronted with COVID-19 our worlds have been turned upside down. There’s hardly any area of our lives that don’t feel like they are being grabbed up, and rearranged, or perhaps worst of all, put on an indefinite hold! “Where are you, O Lord,” we can cry out from our hearts with the psalmist.  “When O Lord, will you hear my prayer?”

As our children and grandchildren are shut out from their schools, and physically cut off from their friends, and restaurant owners watch as their money is draining like water pouring from a bucket, and we can’t find the toilet paper - we are disoriented. We in the church have never seen anything like this in our lifetimes, as a new phrase enters our vocabulary, “Closed Churches,” two words that hardly seem like they should go together – we are disoriented.

The government has to temporarily forget their partisan politics and try to do the right thing for the American people, and play catch up to a pandemic they were not ready for – we are in disorientation. But all is not lost. I’ii detour just for a moment to that great font of wisdom, Frank Zappa, who besides warning us about yellow snow, once said, “Without deviations from the norm, progress is not possible.” Zappa was right, it is when we are in disorientation that progress can actually be made, even though it doesn’t seem like it.

Old Testament scholar, Brueggemann, points to the third stage of the faith journey in the Psalms: “Reorientation.” After all the complaining, the fears, the grieving, the dead ends, the wrong turns, and the lamenting, things change for the better as a God, who seems to have disappeared, returns to our awareness once again. In this stage of the journey we hear the psalmist say: “But the king will rejoice in God; all those who swear by him will be glad.” (Ps. 63). Our world levels off again and we are in a new place, with a renewed faith, and with wisdom, that although it has come at a price, was well worth the cost.

[1] 

But we are not now in that third stage we are clearly in the stage of disorientation. We cannot skip this stage and go around it, as much as we would all like to, we must go through it. As Winston Churchill suggested: “If you are going through hell, keep going.” It is in this stage that we need to keep moving, while embracing the timeless truths embedded in the 23rd Psalm.

This great little Psalm of only 6 verses has brought much comfort and solace to those going through difficult times, from the maternity ward to the graveyard, and in so many places in between. As bishop and author George Appleton noted, “It’s usefulness will never be exhausted as long as [people] like sheep, wander and need guidance…”

[2] We sheep are prone to wander and are truly in need of the Good Shepherd’s guidance, and my friends, with the Good Shepherd in the lead, we will get through this time of trial. As we are physically distant from our friends and community let us stay close to the Good Shepherd, listen for his voice, feel for his hand of guidance, trust that he knows where the green pastures and living waters are, and know that he keeps us safe.

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.

3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4 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. Amen.


Illuminated manuscript, Getty Museum


[1] Brueggemmann, Walter, Spirituality of the Psalms, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN)

[2] Appleton, George, Understanding the Psalms, (Mowbray: London & Oxford,1987) p.32

 

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