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Trust the Good Shepherd

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon for
St. Francis of the Islands Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia, on April 26, 2015

 

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.

These words from 23rd Psalm are commonly read at funerals. In the midst of grief and loss, the 23rd Psalm speaks in powerful images of God’s care for each of us. For the Psalm teaches that no matter what we face, we can trust in God to provide for us. For a sheep, green pastures and still waters are sustenance. Yet, lying down in a green pasture with a good shepherd nearby is also a safe place to rest.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Now the Psalmist takes us from a Shepherd and sheep to something more direct. Shalom is the Hebrew word we translate as “peace”, which means more fully health, well-being, wholeness. A restored soul brings your body and soul to this shalom, this health and wholeness. So beyond food, water, shelter, our Good Shepherd Jesus gives us deep peace. Then we get that odd line “for his name’s sake.” Names were to describe the essence of a person in ancient times. For his name’s sake translates roughly into because restoring your soul and leading you in paths of righteousness say something of the essence of Jesus. This is who the Good Shepherd truly is—the one who restores your soul when the world has wounded it.

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.

Now we come to the heart of the Psalm. This third verse of the five verse Psalm is the middle. And in the central verse, Trust is critical.

This is like the sheep that can pass through the most fearful situation, because the shepherd is right there alongside her. This reminds me of silly story of a kindergarten class who is going around the room sharing what they want to be when they grow up. Following after the usual answers of fireman, doctor, sailor, the shiest most timid boy in the class says in his meekest, I-hate-to-say-this-out-loud-but-it’s-true voice, “I’m gonna be a lion tamer.” The teachers professional masks slips and she says, “A lion tamer!” a little too surprised. Recovering quickly, she says, “I would be too scared. Wouldn’t you be afraid?” The kindergartner sat up straighter and replied, “Well, my mommy would be with me.”

The boy trusted his mother so completely that he could walk fearlessly into a lion cage if she were with him. For the sheep, it is the dark valley. For you it may have been the break up of a marriage; the loss of a job; the diagnosis of cancer; the death of a parent, or even that most difficult of losses, the death of a child. It takes different forms, but the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a very real location. Before you go through the valley on the well-worn and yet still so tricky path, it is best to know where to put your trust.

If you put your greatest faith in a relationship or a job even your church and its leaders. Trust anything or anyone other than God, then you will very often have that trust destroyed. If you don’t give God the place of priority in your life—putting your trust in God first and foremost—then it won’t matter what else you put in that place.

You could decide that work comes first, because that is how you will have a secure future. Do everything you need to do to get ahead at work. Play your cards right. And maybe the company will repay your loyalty. Probably not.

The list can go on easily enough. Money, power, prestige—these are some of the things people can place first in their lives, trusting that with enough of any of them, they will be fine. But there are a lot of good priorities in life too. Your kids, your husband or wife, your friends are all deserving of your time, attention and even trust. But decide that when push comes to shove life is going to work out just fine because of any one of them and you will have put more pressure on someone than is fair. Your friends and family should have your back. You should have people around you, you can trust. But when it comes to those dark times the Psalmist calls the Valley of the Shadow of Death then you and all those you trust will need a Good Shepherd nearby. It’s better to place your trust their first.

We should note that far from promising that with God in our lives everything is gonna be peachy keen, the Bible promises that we will have to deal with tough times, hard decisions, painful losses. This is the way the world works. And as the Bible teaches that this world is a place to grow and learn, it is fitting that the world is made in such a way that opportunities to grow and learn naturally arise. Often they come up in very bad circumstances. We all learn more from adversity than from success as it is in difficult times that we discover what we can count on and what we can’t.

The turn of the 15th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich put it like this as she reflected her experience of God as revealed to her in visions,

“If there be anywhere on earth [where] a lover of God is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in the same precious love. Between God and the soul there is no between. He did not say, You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable, but he did say You will never be overcome. (from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love).”

At the time she had her mystical experience, the 30-year old Julian was on her deathbed, or so she thought. It was May of 1373 and as she lay in great weakness, she saw some intense images of Jesus. She would recover and would then spend many years reflecting on the visions. Twenty years later, she set pen to paper to create the first book in the English language known to be written by a woman. And in reflecting on her own near death and Jesus presence in it is when she wrote,

“He did not say, You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable, but he did say You will never be overcome.”

The reason we are not overcome. The reason we can make it through the deep darkness of the valley is that we are never alone for between God and the soul, there is no between.

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 for ever.

These concluding verses bring us out of the Valley of the Shadow of death to the altar where we the Lord, our Good Shepherd has prepared a table for us, and here the cup of goodness runs over. Here the Good Shepherd is the host who provides the gift of his presence in the Eucharist. Buffeted by storms in life, we return to the altar, to experience Christ’s presence. And for those who dwell in this way in the Lord’s house, we know no matter what we face we will see Christ’s with us in the midst. For the peace comes from returning again and again to the one we can truly trust.

As Julian wrote, “If there be anywhere on earth [where] a lover of God is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in the same precious love.”

Amen.

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