The novelist David James Duncan once wrote an essay about sheep and their neophyte shepherd. The essay is called “Her Idiots.” “They were her first flock or herd of any kind, her introduction to shepherdhood, venerable vocation of nomads and psalmists. Naturally she was curious. So, leaving the cabin, she strolled toward them, seeking, as with any new acquaintance, the eyes. And she expected to see stupidity. She’d been warned. She expected lovable ignorance, perennial victimhood and a vacuous yet genuine innocence worth the costs of feed and endless vigilance. But as she . . . squatted beside an ancient ewe and met for the first time that direct, all uncomprehending gaze, she was astounded: nothing had prepared her for such unspeakable nonintelligence. The eyes were hideous. Two [urine]-colored ice cubes. They understood nothing, never had nor would. . .. Their eyes didn’t disappoint her: they appalled her. She rose to escape them and had gone a little distance when, for no reason, the entire flock started and bolted madly away. Dried balls of dung clattered on their hind legs and tails as they ran, and she laughed at the sound” (River Teeth, pp. 15-16).
Not the most flattering portrait of sheep, we might say. And it’s a little sobering to realize that that’s what the psalm is likening us to: we are the sheep to God’s shepherd. And I confess to being a little put out by that dismal characterization: hideous nonintelligence. Really?!
I suppose you could argue that that really is what we human beings are like. You can’t look at the vicious war in Ukraine, or the poverty that keeps so many in its vice-grip, or the disdain that characterizes so many of our interactions—you can’t look at that and muster much of a counter-argument to Duncan’s picture of what we metaphorical human sheep are like.
One of Mary’s and my favorite TV shows is “This Is Us,” a show that is winding down to its last episodes this month. In one episode, Rebecca, the mother of three children who are at the center of the series, is talking to her own mother. Rebecca, a white woman, delivered two of their three children in childbirth, and she and her husband Jack adopted the third of the three, a Black baby who came to the family at the same time as the other two. Rebecca’s mother continually talks about “the twins and Randall,” as though the Black adopted baby is somehow less than the other two. She’s filled with consternation that Randall, of all people, would be the one of the three who would be admitted to the academically challenging private school And finally Rebecca has had enough of her mother’s disparagement, and she snaps at her mother, “Mom, you’re racist.” An uncomprehending sheep is what this grandmother is. And she is not alone, either in her racism or in her general disdain for people different from herself. We all know human sheep like that. And when we’re honest, we all recognize just a little bit of that sheep quality in ourselves, as well.
This psalm, though, the breathtakingly beautiful psalm that is dearer to us than any other, is not really about the sheep, is it. It’s about the Shepherd. It’s about the One who watches over these recalcitrant sheep even when they’re reprehensible, even when there’s nothing defensible about them. What makes people sit up a little straighter and pay a little closer attention at funerals and in worship when this psalm is recited is that it says with a radiant poetic flair what all of us yearn most to hear. It reminds us that even when we feel most alone, even when the challenges seem too great to overcome, even when life seems totally out of control or lost, there is One at the heart of the universe who sustains us in our weariness, who feeds us in our hunger, who shelters us in the storms that assail us.
To be truthful, there are several oddities about this holy song. Its language is archaic. It switches back and forth from talking about God to talking to God. It begins by talking about a shepherd taking care of sheep, and then moves inexplicably to talking about a host tending to guests. How did all this pass an editor’s muster?
Indeed, the first sentence itself sounds a tad off-putting. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we hear. And then: “I shall not want.” And those words may rub us the wrong way. Are we really not supposed to want anything? We shouldn’t want food? We shouldn’t want fun? We shouldn’t want a new phone? And what happens is that that somewhat archaic language can mask the true intent of that verse. Those words are not really telling us not to want. They’re telling us we have everything we need. A more accurate rendition would say, “I shall lack nothing.” We have precisely what we need, in other words. The psalm is essentially reminding us that God gives us food and drink and shelter, that God provides for our every need. We have nourishment. We have water. We have homes. We’re all set.
Strikingly, too, we tend to associate this psalm with funerals. We’re inclined to think it’s talking about what happens to us at death. And, to be sure, it is perfectly appropriate for any memorial service. Look again at the language, though. The assurance is that God gives us the food of the pasture—now. God leads us to water to drink—now. God restores our soul, or better yet, saves our lives—now. This is not really a pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye psalm. It’s a psalm of reassurance for the lives we are leading now, in this very moment.
And the heart of the psalm, its very centerpiece, is that deceptively simple line in the middle: “for you are with me” (23:4). You, God, are with me, Hamilton. You, God, are with everyone here in this worship service. You, God, are with everyone everywhere, in the entire world. In truth, you are present for each moment of the entire universe. God is present here, now, in this very place. And it’s that very presence that, whether we fully take it in or not, is our deepest comfort in life. God’s presence is our comfort.
Comfort is something of a strange word. We have our comfortable shoes or our comfortable chair. We look forward to our comfort food—maybe a stew we remember from childhood, or a bowl of our favorite ice cream before bed. At the end of life we frequently seek comfort measures to ease the pain of death. And this psalm is a psalm of comfort.
“Comfort,” of course, means literally “with strength.” If something comforts us, it gives us strength. A comfortable chair strengthens us in our exhaustion. Comfort food strengthens us when life just seems too much. Comfort measures strengthen us to enter into death. So when God’s presence, God’s food and drink and shelter, God’s “rod and staff,” give us comfort, they reassure us of holy accompaniment, they fortify us for the journey, they sustain us in the worst that life can do to us.
As we so often do, we note well that the promise of God is not to solve the problems that beset us. The vow God makes to us is not to heal every illness or reconcile every broken marriage or end every war. The pledge God makes to us is simply to walk with us through “the valley of the shadow of death,” as the King James Version of the Bible puts it (23:4). God doesn’t promise rainbows and butterflies for every agony, a tidy resolution for every problem. The unbreakable oath God makes is instead never to leave us alone. That’s it. And it’s actually that presence that we most need.
While this is certainly not true for everybody, it’s true for many of us that the person who has walked with us most faithfully over the course of our lives is our mother. She carried us in her womb. She delivered us into this world. Perhaps she nursed us, but she certainly fed us when we couldn’t feed ourselves. She may well have been there when we took our first step, when we said our first word, when we tied our first shoe. She likely watched as we headed off to school for the first time, perhaps with a hitch in her voice and a tear in her eye. As a child, when I first started walking to school by myself, my mother would sit in the playroom window and wave to me until I was out of sight. I can still remember standing on the baseball field, or getting ready to shoot a foul shot in a basketball game, and feeling the reassurance of knowing my mother was there, supporting me, rooting me on.
And all this was a huge part of what gave me comfort in life. I’m always mindful that others have not had this in their lives, and for that I sorrow. It was, though, my experience, and that presence of hers has been an immense strength for my journey. She has been a relentlessly positive force in my life, full of affirmation and embrace. And while I mentioned this last year, I feel the need to mention it again. Every time I call her, even now at 95, when she answers the phone, she either says, “HI!!! It’s my favorite firstborn son!” Or she says, as she did last evening, “The highlight of my day!” That’s her attitude every time I call. If you’re in need of comfort, that’s a pretty fantastic way to get it.
And here’s the thing: this is the way God is with us, as well, only even more so, if that’s possible. Every time we open ourselves to the Holy One, every time we stand in God’s presence, what do we hear? If we listen carefully, we hear, “HI!!!” Every single one of us hears, “You’re the one I’ve been looking for. You’re the one I’ve been waiting for. You’re the one I absolutely, totally adore.”
At a memorial service here yesterday for Susie McWilliams, one of her sons stood to remember her. He described going to the prom one year when he was in high school with a beautiful girl he described as “way out of [his] league.” When he brought the girl over to his mother before the dance, dressed in his tux, he slipped on black ice and fell right on his backside. Utterly humiliating, right? But his mother, Susie, said to him later, “You handled that with such grace.” And he says he has totally forgotten the dance and his date. But those consoling words have stuck with him for fifty years: “You handled that with such grace.” A mother’s care. A mother’s comfort. God’s care. God’s comfort.
This gorgeous and reassuring psalm is a psalm of comfort. It’s a vivid evocation of the unceasing presence of God in all of what life has to offer. And precisely because it’s a song of such comfort, it’s also a psalm that invites us to put our lives into the hands of God. It’s a psalm that implores us to trust—to trust that we never walk alone, to trust that all shall be well, to trust that God embraces us at every moment.
Last Sunday, we had the privilege of hosting Tom Trenney. He preached in the morning with a rare power and grace, and, in the afternoon, he led a hymn sing here in the sanctuary. One of the highlights of the day was a short, simple song Tom sang at the very end of the afternoon hymn sing. Those of you who were there may remember it. It goes like this: “I’m sending you light, to heal you, to hold you. I’m sending you light to hold you in love.” These are the words that God is singing to us all the time—all the time. There is not a moment when God is not, in some way, singing that song to us. I’m going to sing it through a number of times, and I invite you first just to listen to it and to hear it as God’s maternal embrace of you. Then, as you feel comfortable, join me in the song. Or just take it in as God’s gift to you. . .
It’s also the song we might sing to each other. In a world that’s as broken as ours, a world of such division and disdain and violence, a world that, we are sobered to realize, we cannot heal on our own, it’s vital that we convey to each other the light that is at the heart of the universe. It’s crucial that we shine on each other this light that is not of our doing, this light that is shined in and through us by Mother God who treasures us beyond all measure. I’m going to invite several of you to call out the name of a person, or perhaps a group of people, and we will continue to sing, offering light and wholeness and healing to each of them.
Thanks be to God for God’s mothering love, and for the promise that all shall be well.