Jennifer DeBisschop
Congregational Church of Brookfield

I Shall Not Want

Psalm 23
John 10:11-16

We have just heard two relatively well-known scripture passages, both with the image of the shepherd. We don't often think about the role or job of a shepherd in this day and age. Instead we think about being teachers and students, mothers, fathers, people who work in the business world, professionals of all sorts. But in order to be in touch with the people of the time, the Psalmist and Jesus both had to meet people at a place where they would be understood. People understood the work of a shepherd. They knew that it was difficult work, work that took dedication, risk, and honesty if it was to be done right…work that took sacrifice if the shepherd was to make it to the final destination with the whole flock alive and strong on the other side of the journey.

I recently read a story about an actor and a preacher that involved the 23rd Psalm. A famous actor was once the guest 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, on the other hand, was rough and broken from many years of preaching, and his diction was anything but polished. When the preacher finished his recitation there was no applause but neither was there 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." He knows the Shepherd.

The 23rd Psalm is one of the best-known and best-loved scripture passages in the Bible. Each person knows and loves it for his or her own reason. It is a reading that we most often hear at funerals or memorial services, almost as a look at the next place, a small glimpse of heaven, the place Jesus went ahead to prepare. It is surely a Psalm that comforts people when they are grieving. And yet it is so much more than that as is illustrated by our old preacher in the story. This Psalm reaches people at a place that is deep down in the very heart and soul of them. Perhaps it is because someone is facing a difficult challenge in life and needs to feel God's presence more than ever. Or perhaps it is because someone is amazed at the blessings of life, the cup that is overflowing. For whatever reason the 23rd Psalm is one that people can usually recite by heart. It brings people to tears, brings smiles to the faces of others, provides a sense of calm amidst the storm of everyday busyness and life's challenges. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

The Psalms themselves are a glimpse into the reality of life among the people of Israel at the time…and one might think not so far off from how we feel in the unknown of our lives each day as well. One moment they are happy - praising, worshiping, and thanking God for all of the blessings of life, for salvation from enemies, for making Israel the chosen people. The next moment the Psalms can be laments - God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you let me fall into the hands of my enemies? Why have you not answered my prayers or fulfilled my requests? That is where the 23rd Psalm is different. It is not really a Psalm that praises or thanks God for anything, nor is it a Psalm of request or of lament. Instead the Psalmist speaks of having trust and finding comfort in God…it is a theology in and of itself.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People has also written a book centered around this beloved passage entitled The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom From the Twenty-Third Psalm. He writes the following, "The author of the 23rd Psalm has enemies. He has known failure. He has lost people he loved. In the process, he has learned that life is not easy. Life is a challenge, and he has grown stronger as, with God's help, he met the challenges of life. He is a better person, a wiser, stronger person than he would have been, had life not challenged him to grow...the 23rd Psalm gives us a more practical theology than we can find in many books…Much of the time we cannot control what happens to us. But we can always control how we respond to what happens to us...[the Psalmist] teaches us to look at the world and see it how God would have us see it. If we are anxious, [it] gives us the courage to overcome our fears. If we are grieving it offers comfort and we find our way through the valley of the shadow. If our lives are embittered by unpleasant people, it teaches us how to deal with them. If the world threatens to wear us down, the psalm guides us to replenish our souls. If we are obsessed with what we lack, it teaches us gratitude for what we have. And most of all, if we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the priceless reassurance that [God is with us]."

The 23rd Psalm is not just a scripture of comfort, it is also a scripture about everyday life…and about how to live it. I have a saying by Charles Swindoll on the shelf in my office that is all about everyday life. It says, "The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on my life. Attitude, to me, is more important that facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company, a home…a church. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on he one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes." The 23rd Psalm teaches us a thing or two about the attitude with which we are called to face this world. It does not say that if we believe we will never face difficult times or failure. It does not say that if we believe we will always get what we want. Instead it says that God is our shepherd and that if we truly believe then we know that God will be there in those times when we face challenges, in those times when we fail at the thing we thought we knew best, at those times when it seems like the whole world is against us. The 23rd Psalm tells us that God provides for us, perhaps not the provisions of this world, but instead the things that God knows we need deep in our souls, those things that are able to renew and restore us. It also teaches us that if we just look at our lives with an attitude like that of the Psalmist then we will see that our cups truly do run over with blessings from God.

We learn more about what it takes to be a shepherd in the scripture from the gospel of John that we heard this morning in which we are taught about the differences between the shepherd and the hired hands. Although we can take this very literally, we can also think of this as imagery that helps teach us a life lesson in this very place and time. Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd. A shepherd is the one who cares, who guides, who provides, and who protects. The shepherd is the one that the flock can count on for all of those gifts, for the gift of life itself. However, working alongside the shepherd at times are the hired hands, the ones that don't care, the ones that run away at the slightest hint of danger. What does this comparison say to us then? Perhaps it reminds us that the things of this world are fleeting, and as much as we might want them now, they will all pass along. They will become less important and fall into disrepair much like the portable CD player in this age of I-Pods, the car that was just perfect before gas prices skyrocketed, the house that had your name written all over it at the time. We also realize that there are sometimes people in our lives who are like the hired hands Jesus speaks of. And we know who they are. They are the people that when trouble comes or conflict arises decide that the fight is not worth fighting or the risk of working through the difficulty not worth taking. Instead they turn away.

However we are also reminded that there are those in our lives whom we know will be around, who enter into relationship with us from a place of love and true care, who are willing to fight the tough battle and sacrifice in order to keep things alive, well, and growing. God is like that. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that we should not perish but have eternal life. The good shepherd came into the world to be for us, an advocate, and to teach us how to be for others: for those in our lives and our world who don't have an advocate but who need someone and something that only God can provide.

Perhaps most importantly both of our scripture passages today are about relationship. Just as a shepherd cares for the flock, God cares for each and every one of us. Psalm 23 goes as far as to speak about anointing, an honor that at the time was reserved for the important and powerful in society. As one scholar puts it, "In the Bible anointing was primarily for kings, but also for priests and occasionally for a prophet. The poet is eager to point out that each of us is worthy of being anointed and recognized as special, as one created in the image of the divine." It is in relationship that we learn about God, ourselves, and one another. It is due to our relationship with God that Jesus, who says, "I am the Good Shepherd" in the scripture passage from John, taught about God, taught about how to live in community, and gave his life for our forgiveness. It is in relationship that we discover our own and each other's gifts and learn more about our own faith. It is in relationship in this community at CCB that we are challenged and that we grow. It is in this community of faith through worship, study, and fellowship that we are renewed and restored; that we are called and sent forth to share that faith with others in our world through our testimonies and our actions.

One of the ways that we restore and re-energize ourselves for the faith work and spreading of the gospel that we are called to do through word and deed is to come together at the Communion table. All of our differences set aside, gathering together for our own nourishment and to be reminded of whose we are and how much we are cared for as forgiven and redeemed children of God is an essential part of our life here in community. So we come to the table today to be nourished. We come to the table today to recall the sacrifice the good shepherd made for us. We come to the table today to remind our selves and each other that when it comes to the things that are most important in this life…in fact when it comes to life itself…"The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want." Amen.