Words to Remember
Updated: Apr 28
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.
“This is still the most comforting Scripture I know.” That’s what my friend Charlie told me a couple years before he died.
Charlie, was a brilliant New Testament scholar, a gifted professor, and dashing to boot; a skilled athlete balanced by a quiet southern charm. He wrote books about the Bible for pastors and preachers to help us communicate the grace he knew there with congregations who hungered for a word from God. When I met Charlie, he was mostly bound to a wheelchair and had given up teaching several years earlier due to Parkinson’s Disease. He was also experiencing dementia.
One day, as we sat in his study, Charlie opened up about how very hard his struggle was. Since he had spent his career studying scripture and training pastors, I asked Charlie if at this point in his life there were scriptures that gave him comfort. Tears filled his clear blue eyes as he said, “Psalm 23. This is still the most comforting Scripture I know.”
It comforted me to know that even as Charlie lost more and more of the strength he had known and the mind that blessed so many, what remained in his heart to the end were these words that gave him so much comfort: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Charlie’s experience is not uncommon for many who grew up in the church hearing the psalms, especially this one. These words are often recalled by those who have long forgotten the names of their loved ones. I once recited psalm 23 into the ear of a former pastor who was severely brain damaged after a devastating fall. He could not speak, and his eyes darted wildly. But as I spoke, he calmed, and silently mouthed the psalm with me. Still the most comforting Scripture.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. It is a statement of faith. We could take all the words of the Apostles’ Creed and sum them up in that beautiful simple sentence. It means, I believe in God, God is active in my life, I trust God to lead me, and provide all I need. It says it all. And it speaks to our inner child, the one who still longs to be simply cared for, carried, nurtured, fed. The one who doesn’t have to decide what to fix for dinner, how to pay that bill, or worry about the test results, or how the children are doing, or the outcome of the next election. What bliss to be a little lamb in the warmth of spring, lifted into the arms of the gentle shepherd, lounging on the grass in the sun, sipping from a peaceful pond, never worrying about what direction to take in life. You get to just follow the shepherd, trusting he knows the way and you’re on the right path. What a relief, what comfort, just thinking about it restores my soul.
Do you have a Scripture you turn to when you need comfort? What gives you strength when you are worried? Is there a song or poem or story or image that comes to mind? Sheep and shepherds are a reliable image for those in rural farming communities, but maybe not so much for us. Maybe, the Lord is a kindergarten teacher, filled with kindness and joy, who makes children feel safe at school, takes them to the playground, reads stories and hands out snacks and tucks them in for a nap. Or maybe, the Lord is like that one nurse when your loved one was so sick, who did for them what they couldn’t do for themselves with such dignity and compassion.
Or maybe it’s an image like what happened a couple weeks ago in rural New York. A 911 call came into dispatch. A 2-year-old girl was missing. State trooper Brian Hotchkiss, was on duty. He knew they had to act fast. They needed to find this little girl before the sun set and the temperature plummeted. Every second mattered. There was a mountain near the girl’s house surrounded by ponds and streams – all these major hazards for a small child. While other officers knocked on doors, Brian decided he needed to climb that mountain. The sun was setting and it took him an hour to reach the top. He scoured the area and noticed a pink dot down next to a stream. He said he knew the girl was wearing a pink shirt when she disappeared. He quickly raced down the stream, and there, laying on her stomach on top of a rock, was the girl. His heart dropped when he saw her little arm move and he knew she was alive. He ran to her and when she saw him, immediately she hugged him and would not let go.
Brian said, “I still can’t get that out of my head, her turning over and looking at me and throwing her hands up in the air.” Maybe the Lord is like that: climbing mountains to find us, knowing well the dangers of this world and the cold. Who comes to us when we are most helpless, when we are ready to give up and just lay down on a stone by the stream. And when God comes to us, we throw our hands in the air and spring into a life restoring embrace. Brian said, “I’ll never forget that.” God never forgets that either. “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.” So much comfort.
Jesus knew well the comforting, hope giving power of the image of the shepherd for his congregation. He preached the sermon we heard earlier from John’s gospel and he clearly identified himself as the good shepherd, the one who not only leads and comforts us when we pass through the darkest valleys of this life, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” That is love, that is comfort, that is a promise that stays with us.
When Jesus says, he is the good shepherd, that makes us revisit the whole image, and when we do, we find right in the heart of Psalm 23 that following Jesus on a path of comfort, well, it isn’t always comfortable. The metaphor of Psalm 23 shifts halfway through. After we have rested in that green pasture and drunk from the still water, and made our way down the right path, safely through the darkest valley, we end up in a new place, no longer sheep but restored to ourselves, our bodies and souls again, like that little girl rescued by the stream. We are no longer sheep, but ourselves, seated at a table. Ordinarily, when a sheep is at a table, they are on and not at it. They don’t drink from cups. We are not simply sheep to God, but Jesus called us his siblings. The psalmist finds himself seated at a table that has been prepared for him by God, he’s been anointed as an honored guest, his cup is overflowing, a sign of the host’s generosity and abundance. But, the psalmist is not alone at the table, is he?
Beloved, we have all been through a great ordeal. Maybe you haven’t sat at a table with family and friends in some time. Or maybe you only recently have begun to eat in restaurants or have friends over. I know folks who are very nervous about this. They could use some comfort. And many of us have been dreaming about who we’d love to break bread with. After having walked through these dark valleys, and finally come back to ourselves, we want to be with our most beloved family and friends, those who give us comfort and love.
But the psalmist says to God, “You have prepared a table before me…in the presence of my enemies?!?! What are they doing here? I use to imagine this verse to be a person sitting alone at this beautifully set table, and just watching him eat is this crowd of enemies as if to say, “look at me now, suckers.” But I don’t think that’s what it means at all, because of, well, the one we followed here, and the one who set the table – Jesus. Jesus said, that with all the protection and goodness we found in him along this journey, all the comfort and peace he provided us along the way, we aren’t the only ones he loves this way. Jesus isn’t just my shepherd, only leading me. He didn’t prepare this table for me and my people alone. There are folks at this table, also anointed, also with overflowing cups, folks I wasn’t expecting, or even wanting to see. Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.” One flock, one shepherd, one table, one host, one humanity, one God, savior of us all.
After all this following, all the comfort we find in the shepherd and in this faith, we are reminded that when Christ took his place as the host of this table a lot of other people pulled up chairs too, a lot of other sheep knew dark valleys and green pastures of their own, and as he cared for and protected us, so did his love extend to others.
No one is outside the grace of God, and that includes each of us as well. There is an abundance of grace, more than enough for those we love, and those we struggle to love, and those we don’t yet love. And this is good news. On those days we feel we don’t deserve it, that no grace could cover our sins, that we are alone, forgotten, unheard, it remains true that a table has been prepared for us, and there is more than enough of God’s grace to fill our cup and overflow to fill the world.
Our journeys with the shepherd -- our life -- is not only about giving us comfort, but restoring our souls, and the souls of others – restoring the soul of our community ripped apart by division and fear and violence, restoring God’s creation wounded by greed and destruction. The journey of this life together with God is never only about us. With all the abundance of love God has for all creation, the fact remains for each of us -- there is enough, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”