A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 9, 2011.
Psalm 23; Matthew 22:1-10-14
A number of you are aware that this has been an unusual and difficult week for our family. Just after First Sunday Lunch last week we received word that our good friend Ken Ellis had died in Tallahassee, Florida. Ken has been on our church’s prayer list for a number of months, a victim of that dreaded disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. You may know it as ALS, or more commonly, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” As is often true in illnesses such as this, Ken did not die directly from the disease itself, but from pneumonia that was a result of it. We were all caught off-guard by his sudden departure, thinking he would still be with us for at least a few more months to come.
Janet, Tim, and I left Wednesday morning. As I mentioned in my newsletter column this week, it wasn’t a question of whether we would go, but how could we work it out? Well, we did, and I helped conduct Ken’s funeral service in Tallahassee Thursday morning and the burial in Jacksonville Friday afternoon, a three-hour drive east. We then drove straight back, returning about 3:00 yesterday morning.
I’m not telling you this to gain your sympathy. I’ve made longer trips in a shorter period of time (though not at this age!). I’m relating this to you because, all the while we were gone, this sermon on the 23rd Psalm awaited me. And haunted me…
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.
The psalmist makes it sound rather easy, doesn’t he? At the beginning of the psalm we are introduced to his vision of lush, green pastures and clear, sparkling, still waters. He speaks of restoration, a replenishing of the soul. We don’t have to worry about where the good and right paths of life are, says the psalmist, for the Good Shepherd is willing to show us the way. Piece of cake!
Yeah, right. Not when your good friend is taken at much too early an age, when he has a good family, is active in his church, contributes both his financial resources and his time to doing that which is good and right. Not when you see the pain and grief evident in the faces of his family who wonder why he was taken from them. It leaves us – okay, it leaves me – with the question: just how honest is the 23rd Psalm? Especially if it makes it sound so easy.
Yet… yet, having done pastoral ministry for the last forty years, I can tell you honestly that when loved ones of the deceased have gone through the Lou Gehrig diseases of the world, have watched their loved ones die slowly by inches with cancer, have witnessed the most terrible tragedies that can be thrown at them… when it comes to saying good-bye and going through the ritual we call the funeral, the one passage of scripture they want to hear, more than any other, is the 23rd Psalm.
Makes you wonder. Does it make you wonder? It makes me wonder. And sometimes wondering requires you to pay attention, perhaps more than you might if you were simply reading the 23rd Psalm devotionally. When you’re struggling, when you’re hanging on by a mere thread, when your world has been turned upside down and you’re asking questions that don’t seem to have answers – when you’re wondering – you pay special attention. You hang on every word, you check every little nuance of meaning. And sometimes you find – maybe not what you’re looking for, necessarily – but what you really and truly need.
What is that we need when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death? We need the presence of the Shepherd. But notice that the Good Shepherd does not lead us away from that valley or around it; he leads us through it, even in those times when we think we just can’t do it. And even when the psalm ends with a heavenly banquet, where the Lord has prepared a table before us, notice it is in the presence of our enemies. God has not seen fit to destroy our enemies on our behalf; God has invited them to our table so they might eat with us
No, God does not deliver us from our troubles. God shows us a way to deal honestly and redemptively with our troubles. Perhaps the question should be, how honest are we with God? Do we really mean it when we say we’re committed to God’s ways, or are we just playing at it, then expecting God always to be available to us, to rescue us from all difficult situations?
A shepherd is abiding in the fields, keeping watch over his flock by day. And it comes to pass that he hears the sound of an approaching car. Suddenly, a brand-new BMW emerges out of a cloud of dust and into view. The driver is a young well-groomed, manicured urbanite. He lowers the tinted window and leans out far enough to ask the unsuspecting shepherd: “If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?” The shepherd turns to gaze on his grazing flock. “Sure,” he replies.
The enterprising stranger thereupon parks his car, whips out his iPad, connects it to a cell phone, surfs to the NASA page on the Internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system. He scans the area, opens a database and Excel spreadsheet with complex formulas. He sends an e-mail from his iPhone and, after a few minutes, receives a response. Finally, he prints out a lengthy report on his portable wireless printer. He turns to the shepherd and says, “You have exactly 1,586 sheep.”
“That is correct; take one of the sheep,” the shepherd says. He then steps back and watches as the young man selects one of his animals and bundles it into his car.
Then the shepherd says, “If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me my animal back?” “Okay, why not?” the confident young man replies. “Clearly, you are a consultant,” says the shepherd. “That is correct,” says the young man, “but how did you guess?” “No guessing required,” answers the shepherd. “You turned up here, although nobody invited you. You want to get paid for the answer to a question I already knew, and you don’t know anything about my business. Now… give me back my dog!”1
Forgive me if you happen to be a consultant, but, as George Mason reminds us, “Too many of us want to be consultants to Jesus rather than his followers. We don’t know anything about his business, and we don’t even know what we ought to want, but we want him to be what we want him to be for us. We are not the first to make this mistake.”2
We’re more than willing to have the Good Shepherd walk with us through the valley, as long as it is not the valley of death. We’ll take the green pastures and still waters as long as we don’t have any trouble getting there. Let’s face it, folks, when it comes to many things, but especially our faith, we’re a pretty pampered bunch.
We must remember that the very way God has chosen to conquer the wolves of evil and death that threaten us every day is by sending Jesus to be the Good Shepherd that lays down his own life for the sheep. Jesus is not the hammerer; he is the one hammered to the cross for our salvation. Ironically, in one of the Bible’s greatest mixed metaphors, the Good Shepherd becomes the Lamb of God who is slain for the sins of the world. God gives eternal life to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus… Most of us want life without death, resurrection without crucifixion, everlasting joy without temporal suffering.3
But even then, God is merciful to us. God speaks to us so that we might hear his voice and respond. Alan Walworth likens it to Disney World, that Mecca to which every family must make pilgrimage as least once in a lifetime. This is the way he describes it…
You wait in line for the rides. You wait in line for a table at the restaurant. You wait in line for the restroom. And all the while the omnipresent Disney music is dancing in your ears. You’ll be humming It’s a Small World After All for weeks to come. When you finally get the little ones on the Merry-Go-Round, you realize there are a hundred other kids on there, too. And all of them are calling out, “Daddy, look at me!” “Mommy, come ride with me!” A stranger might think all that yelling futile. How could you tell your kid from all the others? But a parent knows the sound of a child’s voice. A mother knows a cry of hunger from a cry to be changed from a cry to be held. There is a special frequency of love that brings security.4
Evidently, God has this amazing ability to hear your cry and know it is you and not someone else on the other side of the world.
When we sit in this place on Sunday morning, I sometimes wonder what is going on with you. Is there someone here who is living a quiet desperation and throwing his or her concern upon God, even as I speak? If so, God hears that voice. Is someone else thanking God for what is considered to be the answer to prayer? If so, God receives that verbal thank-you note and accepts it in his heart with mercy and grace. Is there someone asking for direction, someone searching for an answer that so far has eluded him, someone hurting in such a way that she senses no hope? Does God really and truly hear each and every plaintive cry for help?
I do believe – do you believe? – that God is here with us, listening and discerning each specific and individual voice, responding, leading us through our different valleys of the shadow of death. Do you believe that?
Joyce Hollyday of the Sojourners Christian community in Washington, D.C., recalls how when she was a child in a Montessori Christian school, she chose a picture of Jesus carrying a sheep as her primary image of God. That puzzled her because in her child’s mind the 23rd Psalm had instructed her not to want Jesus as her shepherd. She would say the 23rd Psalm and fail to notice the punctuation, the comma, in the text. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” is the way she would say it to herself. Why would she should not want such a shepherd? And then she grew up and realized what we all do: We don’t know what we want until we let the Lord who is our shepherd give us what will make us want no more.5
The title of the sermon today is taken from the final stanza of an old Isaac Watts hymn entitled, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” This is how that stanza goes:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
When all is said and done, and we have made that final journey through the valley of the shadow of death – like my good friend Ken Ellis – we will find that in God’s presence we are no more a stranger in God’s house, nor even a guest. We are like a child at home.
You are encouraged to ask God for the mercy that will lead you to that point of understanding and grace. It will be a journey worth taking.
Lord, we are children in your eyes. When it comes time for us to walk through that valley, may we be at home with you. Through Christ our Lord, who is the Good and Tender Shepherd, Amen.
1Homiletics (May 2004): 19, cited and adapted from Geo Mason, ibid.
4GraceWorks (May 2, 2004): 19, cited from Mason, ibid
5Preaching the Word, an online ministry of Sojourners (May 2, 2004), cited from Mason, ibid.
*As is obvious, a good deal of the material found in this sermon is courtesy of George Mason, “What Do Ewe Want?”, May 2, 2004.