A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on April 3, 2011.
Psalm 23

My first memorable encounter with the Shepherd’s Psalm didn’t come at a funeral where it’s often read in the wake of grief and sorrow; rather, it came in Garland, Texas, when Mrs. Musick, my sixth grade teacher, gave a class assignment of memorizing the Twenty-third Psalm. She wasn’t kidding about us committing every word of this shepherd’s psalm to memory because on the day the assignment was due, every kid in the class trudged up to her desk alone and recited the psalm to her one-on-one. The sheer thought of standing alone to say every word to Mrs. Musick made my stomach churn.

I don’t normally have this kind of recall, but I remember with crystal clarity that assignment was due on a Monday. The reason I remember this that on the day before, in our worship service, we read this psalm as a part of our worship just like we’ve done here today!

Why, I should have asked, out the whole Bible, this text would have been read on this particular Sunday, the Sunday before the dreaded Monday? This was my first experience of divine irony. You might think I would attribute this experience either to God’s sense of humor or God’s harsh cruelty but I didn’t attribute this to God at all.

I couldn’t help myself – I attributed it, of course, to Mrs. Musick. Normally elementary teachers don’t have such pull, but apparently Mrs. Musick did. I was in awe that she could move heaven and earth to give me a pre-test of memory. In the middle of the reading, I caught her eye from the choir loft and in moment of trial she and I both knew I had not yet memorized this psalm. It was Sunday and Monday was coming.

Little did I know at the time, but in the Sixth Grade I was caught in the vortex of the First Amendment wall of separation between church and state in that my public school teacher was also my sister in the Lord. From the choir loft she could see clearly down in the dark recesses of my unformed religious life and into the slacker habits of my academic preparation for her class. I was busted on both counts!

The 23rd Psalm is so familiar and so loved it has a life of its own. Psalm 23 is revered and endeared by people everywhere, whether they’re people of faith or not. None of us know a whit about the shepherd’s life, but we embrace the metaphor gladly, recognizing that like sheep, we all need a shepherd.

Kyle Yates, professor of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University, as fine a scholar as Baptists have ever produced, came to some startlingly simple conclusions about Psalm 23. The psalm reaches us in ever-deep ways at different points of need in our lives. The psalm is powerful in the afternoon and evening of life and has charmed both men and women of advancing years with a new confidence by giving them an undying hope in the mercies of God. The psalm drives away the debilitating pain of grief and loneliness that gives way to the sweet assurances of one who’s richness is provided by a loving shepherd to provides amply for those who turn to God for help. It challenges the thinking of strong young men and women. It even has the power to stimulate the lively imagination of children.”[1]

Serena, age 9, observed: “The Lord is my shepherd. I like Him. But I don’t always like the rest of the flock of sheep.” Leandra, age 10, said: “He is my favorite shepherd and Jesus is my favorite fisherman.” Loren, age 11, said, “Though I am walking through the valley of death, I’m not afraid because I’m walking on my tippy-toes so no one can hear me.” Dean, age 10, added: “Death isn’t going to touch me because I can run real fast in these sneakers … and I ought to, because they sure cost a lot.” Lewis, age 11 said, “I can make it through that valley because I know God is on the other side.”[2]

The 23rd Psalm is a hymn nearly been worn smooth by its familiarity. We hear the psalm at funerals. Many of us have it memorized. It is a part of the public consciousness (even if the listeners don’t know where it comes from).

Do you associate Psalm 23 with anything in particular? Is it your favorite psalm or scripture passage? Is it the favorite of your mother or father or someone else dear to you? Do you associate this psalm with an event in your life?

Psalm 23 begins with a Metaphor:   “The Lord is my Shepherd” It’s quite natural that a shepherd’s song and the shepherd’s world would be the metaphor for our life with God. In its simplicity, it is a psalm of confidence and assurance. It recounts in detail, by means of rich metaphors, a life lived in trustful perceptivity of God’s gifts.

By beginning with a metaphor, it is a signal that the entire psalm is to be interpreted

metaphorically all the way to the end. What we know about metaphors is not due to their precise language; rather, they are poetic ways of speaking of deeper truths. A metaphor draws upon the listener’s experience and evokes their imagination. That’s why the metaphor of the shepherd is eternal. Even though our understanding of a shepherd’s care for the sheep is not anything any of us have any experience with, we are drawn to the image like a magnet because it’s a metaphor that holds the love of God in richness and care.

When we are drawn into the metaphor in an experiential way, we find God as someone not against us, but rather someone who is for us! The saints report, “Someone is holding me.” “Someone is believing in me.” That’s what people who pray always say, “Someone is for me more than I am for myself.” “Someone is with me more than I am with myself.”

Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican mystic wrote, “God is closer to me than I am to myself.” The great ones are in agreement on the love of the good shepherd:  the mystical Jews, Christians, and the Muslims – at that level that language is all the same: God, the good shepherd is a lover and we are the focus of God’s love.[3]

The Jewish prophet Isaiah said an honest thing about us that “all we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Of course, it’s not meant as a compliment about us, but there’s wonderful good news at work yet because there is a shepherd working to keep watch over us when we go astray.

[1] Kyle M. Yates, Psalms of Joy and Faith, Wake Forest NC: Chanticleer Publishing Co., Inc., 1984, 64

[2] David Heller, Just Build the Ark and the Animals Will Come, New York: Villard Books, 1994, 107-108

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, “River of Love,” a Lenten meditation, 4/1/11, from Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, New York: Crossroad Publications, 2003, 134-135

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