The Lord Is My Shepherd – And Fear Is Not!

sheep-runningThe Lord Is My Shepherd – And Fear Is Not

Psalm 23

November 15, 2015

My first summer in college I worked

as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home.

There was a resident there

who was in an advanced stage of dementia and rarely said a word.

The only time she did speak was when she was agitated.

Then she would pound her fist on the tray in front of her chair,

repeating over and over again,

“The Lord is my shepherd;

The Lord is my shepherd!”

When Luther Seminary did a survey

across the United States to assess biblical literacy,

One of the questions was,

“Is there a biblical text which you turn to in difficult times?”

If people had an answer, it was usually the 23rd psalm.

I don’t know what my patient was feeling inside,

but the 23rd psalm was so ingrained in her

that long after she’d lost language for anything else,

in times of distress she still had that prayer, and she demanded,

“The Lord is my shepherd;

The Lord is my shepherd!”

When I was originally looking at this text for this day…

this day of harvest home,

this day when we join together in worship

and we have our unity service

and our yearly celebration of ministries and annual meeting,

I told Dave Holt of the band here,

that I was thinking of the theme of “bounty,” and “abundance.”

I was picturing the green pastures, the banquet table,

and the cup running over.

You can see the image on the cover of the bulletin –

we have been so blessed!

But then in the space of 24 hours,

there was Baghdad, and then Beirut, and then Paris.

The green pastures in the psalm were not speaking to me then

as much as the dark valleys of the shadow of death were.

Rabbi Harold Kushner says,

“The 23rd psalm is the answer to the question,

‘How do you live in a dangerous… world?’”[i]

“To say, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is to say

that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world,

ever mindful of the all the bad things that might happen to us

and to those around us….

But despite it all,

we can get up every morning to face that world,

because we know that there is Someone in that world

who cares about us …”[ii]

You are with me.

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

We can pray these words silently, quietly, reassuring ourselves…

Or like my elderly patient we can pound our fist and demand them!

The Lord is my shepherd!

Bible passages are heard and interpreted differently

in different parts of the world.

Since Wasihun has been here,

we’ve been able to hear in his preaching and teaching,

how certain passages are heard in his home country of Ethiopia.

In the global south, very often Psalm 23 is read as a psalm of defiance.

Fighting back against corrupt dictators and unjust systems

which benefit the rich and neglect the poor,

people of faith proclaim,

“The Lord is my shepherd – and you are not!”[iii]

In the aftermath of the events of this week,

maybe we can read Psalm 23 to say,

The Lord is my shepherd – and fear is not!

The greatest enemy for most of us…

the evil force which is likely to engage most directly with us

is not ISIS – it’s the fear of ISIS.

After all, even after these most recent events,

we are still far more likely to be hurt or injured

driving home today than by a terrorist attack.

That’s why these events are news – they’re not typical.

Over and over again throughout the Bible,

God is telling people, “Do not be afraid.”

He says it to Abraham, to Hagar, to Isaac, and to Moses.

Joshua gets the message 4 times.

Every single one of the prophets is told, “Do not be afraid,” at least once.

In the New Testament,

angels speak the words to Zechariah and to Mary,

and to certain shepherds keeping watch over their fields by night.

Why is God so concerned about fear?

Because fear makes rational people do irrational things…

things which hurt rather than help.

Because of fear,

my newsfeed has been flooded with anti-Muslim sentiment.

Because of fear,

some people are arming themselves –

and tragically will be more likely to hurt themselves or a loved one

than a terrorist.

People of faith pray the 23rd psalm and respond,

“The Lord is my shepherd – and fear is not!”

“The message of the 23rd psalm is not that bad things will never happen to us.

The message of the 23rd psalm is that we don’t have to fear them,

because we will never face them alone.”

The ending of the 23rd psalm reads,

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”

The word in Hebrew for “follow” is better translated as “pursue.”

When most of the psalms of the Bible talk about being pursued,

they talk of being pursued by enemies.

Here, the psalmist says it’s not the enemies who pursue,

but goodness and mercy.

God pursues – God chases after us – all the days of our lives.

Fear not for God is in pursuit!

Not to bring vengeance,

but to bring goodness and mercy.

And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen.

[i] Interview with Harold Kushner, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/?p=15271

[ii] Kushner, The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm, 14.

[iii] Philip Jenkins, “The Power of the Bible in the Global South,” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3416

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