Lectionary Year A
March 14, 1999
Psalm 23

Step VI: Contemporary Address



Dag Hammarskjold was the Secretary General of the United Nations in 1961. Whenever he traveled he always had three items with him. These items were found in his briefcase that was recovered after the plane crash that took his life that year. He carried a copy of the New Testament, a copy of the Psalms and a copy of the United Nations Charter. Like so many others he found significant meaning in the Psalms.

I was lying as still as I could on the moving sled that takes you into the MRI machine at St. Michael's Hospital. It was a couple of summers ago. A doctor had said "we need to do this process because we're not sure if it's another kidney stone or if there might be a cancer or something else." As the table began to slide into the tube the technician's voice came through the speaker in the ceiling, "Take a deep breath and relax." My brain was telling me that this was not a time to relax. So I did what all good Presbyterians do when under a bit of medical stress. The words just seem to pour off my lips so easily, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." It may have helped, but it was not a time of relaxation.

Maybe the season of Lent is. Lent is a time-out kind of time. Lent pulls up a rocking chair and says, 'Here, sit down. Think about what you've done and what's been done to you. Take your time. See if you can eke out meaning from your yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.' And while we rock, Lent tells us stories so we can lay our lives beside them. 'What's going on?' we are invited to ask. 'What is God up to in these ancient stories and in our own?'

Psalm 23 hints that sheep must have trust in their shepherd if they want to find their way out of difficult situations.

Shepherds show up out of nowhere on occasion.

In New York City, last November, a little boy, probably about 10 years old, was standing in front of a shoe store on Broadway, with no socks on and shoes that had holes all the way around. He was looking through the window, and shivering with cold.

A lady walked up to the boy and said, "Boy, why are you looking in that window?"

"I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes," was the boy's reply.

The lady took him by the hand, went into the store, and asked the clerk to get half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy.

She also asked if he could give her a pan of water and a towel & he quickly brought them to her.

She took the boy to the back part of the store and, removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with a towel. By this time the clerk had returned with the socks. She put a pair on the boy's feet, bought him a pair of shoes, and then put the remaining pairs of socks in a bag and gave them to him. She patted him on the head and said, "Does that feel better now?"

As she turned to go, the boy caught her by the hand, and looking up in her face, with tears in his eyes, answered her question with these words...

"Are you God's Wife?"

We've lived the 23rd Psalm in many ways. Let's not be bashful about being faithful.

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of confidence and trust.

We are not a wanting congregation. We're not always asking for money to run our basic programs. We do ask four other times during the year, and this is one-OGHS. We ask those four times for money for others, not for ourselves. In May we will distribute about $15,000 to local agencies that provide services to others.

We shall not want. A sweatshirt for sale at The Mall of America had this message across the front:
Though I walk through
The Mall of America
I shall Fear No Evil
For with Time and
Plastic in my Pocket
There's Nothing to FEAR Anyway.

Our consumer society is driven by the notion that we must always want one more thing, and we are entitled to it, and we will have it no matter what. Psalm 23 states that the Lord will be in charge of our wants and needs and that we need much less when we realize the wonder and goodness of God.

We are led beside still waters. I wondered one time if I had a shepherd who knew what he or she was doing. I was on vacation in the mountains of Colorado. We were camping and fishing. I couldn't wait until I could try out my whole new fly fishing gear. Not just rod and reel but check high waders and a creel and whole bunch of new flies.

My friend Dave and I wandered down to the stream just below the fish hatchery. Why not go where you know fish will be released from time to time? We began to cross the stream to get to other side and work the flies into the fishing holes. We looked for the safe places to cross and because of my weakened leg I looked for quiet water.

Instead of following Dave across because I could see how fast the water was rushing in his direction, I headed for the smooth water. Little did I remember that still waters run deep.

Yep, I stepped right into a deep hole in the stream. The water filled my waders, knocked me over and I was drifting down the stream at a decent speed. I threw my new fishing pole away, my creel went rushing downstream, at the end of which was a huge reservoir. I grabbed for the first branch hanging over the stream and it held, for but a second, and it cracked off the tree trunk. I grabbed at the next branch in the next tree, and it was strong enough to hold me as I pulled myself out of the water. That was the last tree before the stream became very dangerous.

My waders were so heavy from the water in them that the snap holding the suspenders pulled off and the waders were hanging around my waste.

As I walked upstream to find Dave, who had no idea where I was, I noticed a large rainbow trout feeding by the edge of the stream. I imitated a bear at that point. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled to the place where I was on the bank above the trout. With a fast motion of my hand I swooped into the stream and lifted the trout out and threw it onto the bank above me.

The largest fish I have ever caught was carried back to Dave for bragging rights. He looked at my disheveled appearance in wonderment. "Where's your pole?" Dave asked. "And why are your waders hanging down around your knees?" "I lost my pole and had to hand fight this big fish," I responded.

"He leads me beside still waters." So that I might have something to drink.

We have walked on the right paths. Psalm 23 talks about the safe places that the sheep can travel upon, so that they are never in danger of falling off the cliffs. We have been safe here from the kinds of dangers that befall too many congregations.

We've been through the valley of the shadow of death many times. We've been there in very strong fashion. We want to believe that God has been there with us.

Bob Buford has made millions of dollars as a media tycoon in Texas. His son Ross drowned in the Rio Grande River. After 41 trackers searched for him, and Buford himself hired airplanes, helicopters, boats, trackers with dogs ("everything that money could buy"), Buford walked along a limestone bluff 200 feet above the river, as frightened as he's ever felt.

"Here's something you can't dream your way out of," he told himself. "Here's something you can't think your way out of. Here's something you can't buy your way out of. Here's something you can't work your way out of. This is something you can only trust your way out of."

Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will not fear. A Baptist man in Florida confessed to his pastor when he found he had AIDS, "My greatest fear is that I will lose the church when they find out I have AIDS."

"We cannot, [of course] overcome fear as an emotion. It is unavoidable and natural. But instead of letting it stand before us, blocking our way, we can put it behind us. Then we can walk the way that God opens to us, unable to escape fear, perhaps, but not letting it control us either."

Our heads have been anointed with oil on at least four occasions in special worship services.

We've sat at many tables that have been prepared by others. Brunches, progressive dinners, cookouts, communion. Maybe an enemy even happened to show up at the same table or in the same room. Maybe, maybe, maybe, reconciliation occurred because we ate from the same table.

The God who shepherds us to life also gives life to the world. The table at which we are hosted is one to which the whole world is invited.

Leslie Brogan lives in Decatur, Georgia. For those who remember, Leslie is Claudia's sister. Claudia was an active member here a few years ago. Leslie has two dogs, whose names have played off the 23rd Psalm. They are Goodness and Murphy. When Leslie goes for a walk she's confident because she knows that Goodness and Murphy will follow her.

Little Bo Beep just didn't get it. She had lost her sheep and didn't know where to find them. She left them alone and hoped they come home.

Our shepherd knows our names, knows where we are, and seeks after us if we wander away. Our shepherd helps us to come home, and provides us with something to eat, something to drink and some security on the journey.

Maybe during this Lenten season we can think differently about our daily lives. Maybe we can see beyond our anxiety, our greed, our fear and our need for control. Maybe we can think about ourselves as sheep of this good shepherd, knowing we will have water to drink, food to eat and a place of shelter. Maybe we can see ourselves as travelers through the darkest valley under God's protective care. Maybe we can see ourselves at home in God's good house, God's world.

Maybe then we will be truly free, joyful, generous, unencumbered and grateful. Maybe if we can see ourselves in the care of the good shepherd we will be less enticed by the bad shepherds of the world.

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