May 8, 2022 – Mother’s Day, 4th Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
King James Version
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 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.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
New Revised Standard Version
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] 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.
Common English Bible
1The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
2He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters;
3he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
4Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff-- they protect me.
5You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
6Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD's house as long as I live.
Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill
O my Beloved, you are my shepherd, I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit, You restore my soul.
You lead me in the path of goodness to follow Love’s Way.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow and of death, I am not afraid:
For you are ever with me; your rod and your staff they guide me;
They give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.
Bobby McFerrin – The 23rd Psalm Lyrics
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.... (click link above for full lyrics)
This beloved psalm, used so often in funeral and memorial service settings, has great power to speak to us in the here and now. It is not a pie-in-the-sky promise of better times, it is not wishful thinking or vain hope or just pretty words. It is rock bottom faith in poetic metaphor. It is what we need to hear this morning as we walk in the valley of life.
Last week I drove to northern NM, the Abiqui area, for my spiritual direction training. Many of you have made that journey down 285 through Fairplay to Alamosa then Antonita and on into New Mexico where you can go east to Taos and west to Abiqui. You will remember that you drive many winding roads through mountain passes and at least three times come into broad, often sunny valleys. Perhaps you have driven similar terrain in other parts of the country. I love the winding roads that climb through mountains even it they can also be a bit stressful. I always catch my breath in delight when I first glimpse a valley. The wide-open spaciousness is awe-inspiring. Often a life-giving river or stream is winding its way through fields of crops or animals grazing. It seems a moment of grace. It is also true that a valley gets dark quicker at night as the sun sets behind mountains or hills. Especially if the valley is narrow rather than several miles wide. Living in a valley is a grace and it has its shadow times. Like life.
We are in a valley of shadow time in our country as we face the deep and extended polarization of conservative versus progressive political and cultural forces. It is scary, sometimes it seems very dark, and it is very uncomfortable. We experienced a deeper dive into the shadow of right verses left this week with the leak of the Supreme Court draft document regarding the next chapter on the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave abortion rights to all those born into female bodies. The right to choose how to live in one’s own body if one is a uterus-having person seems to be threatened once again. We are in a waiting game to know the next outcome from our Supreme Court. We know this is not just a blow in some tit for tat political struggle for power between political parties. This is a blow to the rights of very real people many of whom are already marginalized by race, economics, education opportunities and gender or sexual orientation.
Just when we were beginning to get our heads and hearts around the on-going tragedy of the war in Ukraine, just as rhetoric is heating up around the fall midterm elections, we are plunged back into the shadow of shock and outrage over this leaked information. New griefs and fears bring up past griefs and fears, don’t they? We have hardly begun to heal from the shadow of the isolation and the economic instability of the pandemic, its constantly changing healthcare scene, the inevitable loss of so many loved ones in death whether or not from Covid. We have the shadow of losses in our own church through staff changes, worship service changes and some members moving to other faith communities, the effect these changes on our church budget. All of these losses and the myriad personal events in our lives plunge us, individually and collectively, into a valley of shadow.
I list these shadow making events not to have a pity party this morning but to offer the opportunity for individual and collective holy healing. Psalm 23 speaks to us in the shadowy valley of change and loss we are in. Yet its familiarity can obscure its relevance. The psalmist opens with two solid theological statements. “One: The Holy One, the Lord, the Lover and Source of all is my Shepherd.” Two: “I will not want, I lack nothing, I have all need.” These statements and the ensuring poetry that opens them up for exploration invite us into trust of with a capital T. The first statement tells us through metaphor who is the One to trust in the ever-changing landscape of life. The second statement tells us that we can trust we have what we need because Creating and Loving God is our guide through life, our protector, our abundant host.
In Biblical tradition the image of shepherd stands for one who guides, protects, and feeds the flock. In the ancient Near East, this image also had political connotations. It was not uncommon for a king, a sovereign, to be called a shepherd of the people. We remember King David, the shepherd boy called and named by God to be the king of Israel. The famous king, Hammurabi, also claimed the title shepherd on claims on the famous stele where Mesopotamian law code was written. So, the ancient psalmist has spun out the metaphor of the Holy One, the One God of the Hebrews, as a shepherd. A shepherd is a trustworthy guide, leading us in the right paths of life. A shepherd fiercely protects the flock from predators with a rod and a staff as the flock is led through dark valleys. A shepherd provides a place of safe rest and water for the journey. As the psalmist moves from the metaphor of being part of a flock to being human follower of the Shepherding God we hear that an abundant table of feast is set even in the presence of foes. There is anointing with healing, cleansing oil and a cup that overflows.
The biggest contemporary foe that I always think of when I read this psalm is fear. I know that fear is one of my biggest enemies and I am guessing that I am not alone in this. Fear is at the bottom of anger, of hatred, of the struggles for power, even of lashing out at our loved ones. We fear we will not get the love, the agency, the power, the attention we need. We fear we will not have the resources we need to feed our families and help them thrive.
Fear in and of itself is not good or bad. It can be instructive and lifesaving prompting us to run, to move out of destructive habits and wounding relationships. However, if we do not listen to fear, acknowledge it in a healthy manner, it can drive conflict between us individually and collectively. Rampant fear turns into power-hungry arrogance and aggression when it is not acknowledged. If we try to suppress fear or push it out of sight, it becomes destructive. We can act out of fear inappropriately. Caught in the grip of fear, we are fall easily into a scarcity mentality. We will not have enough. We will not have all we need. We will not be able to provide for our families. Scarcity thinking is the enemy of God’s abundance.
But, wait, you say….what about people who really do not have enough food, shelter, financial resources? What about when people have bombs raining down on them? What about the months when I am legitimately worried about paying the bills? When I have to change jobs? When someone I love is ill? When I am ill? When gas costs $4.00 plus a gallon? When I am asked to give to support the church and I don’t know if I can spare anything? What about the collective fear of conflict here in our own Plymouth family? What about the budget we passed on faith in January that seems extravagant because we cannot see – yet – how the year is going to work out? We can’t ignore all of that! Just “pray” it away, can we?
No, we can’t ignore all of that. However, as people of faith we can move with the psalmist in faith, putting all our fears into the loving gaze, the right guidance, the holy abundance and the transforming love of God, the Shepherd. We feel the pain of fear, ours and our siblings around the world, in the presence of God. We listen collectively and individually for guidance into paths that lead us into love and trusting the abundance providing what we need. Maybe not what we thought we needed, but what we truly need. In the Spirit, we pray and act for justice, work for the practical solutions that we are led to, not the ones in which we force things to happen purely on our own volition. We TRUST Love which is the source of creation. Even when the valley of life seems to be all shadow.
Remember, looking out over a valley from the top of mountain just before you start your descent? Sometimes you can see the shadows of the clouds moving across the terrain. You can see sun and shadow. Life is always sun and shadow. We know this in our own lives and in our life together at Plymouth. As we come back together after two years of pandemic fears and isolation, things can be unsettling. Nothing is exactly like it was before. We are doing a great deal of rebuilding in our programming, in our mission outreach, in our worship together, in our staff configurations, in our budgeting concerns. AND we celebrate with such joy seeing one another each week, hearing music sung together, sung by our ever-growing choir. Hearing the sound of children among us. Meeting and greeting new folks who discovered or re-discovered us through online streaming! Inaugurating a new climate justice ministry team. We have a world class scholar, theologian and mystic sharing wisdom with us this week as we welcome John Philip Newell to our community this coming Wednesday. There is a great deal of sun in the midst of all the shadows. Just like the sun coming out after the healing rain this morning. My friends, let us claim the faith of the psalmist. Our Shepherd God is always with us, pursuing us with goodness and loving-kindness throughout all our lives. In light and dark, and the shadows in between. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.