The following sermon was delivered by Rev. Christine Elliot on May, 15th, 2011 at Calvary Church, United Methodist in ArlingtonĀ Massachusetts.

The 23rd Psalm is one of the best-known, most-loved pieces of the entire library known as the Holy Bible. Some say that in an age of increasing biblical illiteracy, the familiarity to many of this psalm is a very encouraging sign!

The fact that the psalm was written by, and for, an agrarian society – that its imagery is taken from the every day life of sheep herders – could potentially make it more difficult for people in our electronic age to grasp…

Perhaps it is for that reason that we find many examples of modern paraphrases seeking to recast Psalm 23 in metaphors from our modern context. We have:

The 23rd Psalm for sailors: The Lord is my pilot, I shall not drift.

The 23rd Psalm for the workplace: The Lord is my real boss, and I shall not want.

The 23rd Psalm for busy people: The Lord is my pace-setter, I shall not rush.

and for computer geeks: The Lord is my programmer, I shall not crash.

Somehow Psalm 23 gets right to the heart of our religious life, our faith journey – our human need. At the heart of this poem – this song – is a relationship of trust, security and confidence – to which we aspire. We wish that this serenity could be a 24-7 thing…We pray that little Sylvia will know this serenity, which grows out of a knowledge of who she is and whose she is. We want that knowledge for ourselves as well – in a world that turns and changes so fast sometimes it makes us dizzy. We long for the steadying, reassuring faith of the psalmist – the comfort of sheep in the care of a good shepherd, who knows each one by name!

Now most of us probably do not take kindly to the idea of being a sheep. It goes against our North American cultural grain, which so prizes independence and self-sufficiency.

One seminary professor observes:

“Sheep are not brilliant creatures, and we cannot be flattered that the Psalm thinks of us as sheep. Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.”

But like it or not, we have all wandered and been lost – we are all threatened by ravines and wolves.

Key to our salvation and survival is our relationship with the One who, as another song of faith goes: “holds the future and holds my hand.”

A famous actor was once the guest of honor at a social gathering where he received many requests to recite favorite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the Twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received lengthy applause. The preacher’s voice was rough and broken from many years of preaching, and his diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied, “I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”

At the heart of the matter is our relationship with the Shepherd. The 23rd Psalm is even composed so that the poetic design points us to that truth. Scholars have realized that in the original Hebrew there are exactly 26 words before the declaration “Thou art with me” and 26 words which come after. The poetic rhythm causes us to “sing” the truth that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.

And even those of us less familiar with farming and livestock – can turn to the experience of neighbors like Elizabeth Smith of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown MA. As a caring and responsible shepherd Elizabeth sleeps with a baby monitor in her room during lambing season so that she can run out to the barn in a flash when she is needed. šŸ™‚

Dr. James Limburg:

God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.

Our hope grows out of our relationship with the One who is always the closest thing to us, even when – especially when – we are frightened and lost.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, considers the 23rd Psalm to be the answer to the question: how do we live in a dangerous, unpredictable, and frightening world?

Right after 9/11 — when everybody was asking me, “Where was God that Tuesday? How could God have let such a thing happen?” — the answer I found myself giving was, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side. He will give you the strength you need to find your way through…God is on my side, not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.”

At the heart of our life is the love and presence of God. At the heart of our life – and in our passage through the valley of the shadow of death – is God’s companionship – which transforms every situation.

That is why people continue to turn to the 23rd Psalm – over and over again – that is how we can face the tough things without being defeated. That is our faith and our hope:

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,

he restoreth my soul.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,

for his name’s sake.

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 forever.