Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Easter, May 3rd, 2020, YR A

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A) – May 3, 2020

            “The Lord is my shepherd.”  I can’t even count the number of times I have preached on these words at funerals or used them as I addressed families at graveside services.  That’s because they are deeply embedded words that bring great comfort to the human spirit.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  There is a lot to think about in those few words.

            Like many people of my generation, I learned the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer as a child.  But since then, on many occasions while visiting the sick in the hospital or even at death beds at home, I have said these words only to find that the person I was ministering to was saying them along with me.  These are words of deep faith!

            When we say these words, it is almost in defiance of the lessons of life, simply because they are true even when it is not apparent.  These verses are not powerful because they suggest that we are exempt from life’s deepest challenges.  Rather they are powerful because through these words we are strengthened for life’s challenges by God’s persistent presence with us.

            In many ways the 23rd Psalm reminds me of those famous words written more than six hundred years ago by Julian of Norwich, an English mystic: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.”   

            The testimony of scripture is that the good shepherd walks with us along every path, even those that seem darkest.  They promise that God is with us even when we seem to lie in the very shadow of death.  The shepherd’s rod and staff are symbols of security:  the promise that the Lord will protect us from all our enemies, even death.   

            But this psalm isn’t just an intellectual construct.  It’s an invitation to walk with God, to allow God to transport us to another place:  a place beyond the walls that surround us, beyond the ideas that limit us, beyond the confines of time.  As The Rev. Caela Wood has written, “It is a word of hope that invites us into a space of possibility beyond what we can even imagine.”

            At the very center of this prayer is that deep truth that is perhaps the cornerstone of our Christian faith:  God is with us and cares for us.  This is the thread that runs through this psalm that comforts us in times of uncertainty and sustains us through sorrows and loss.  This is the thread that gives us courage, that offers hope and strength when we are feeling powerless and fearful.  All shall be well.  

            The faith that shines through these words is amazing.  God, the good shepherd, will not send us down any road that does not ultimately lead to God.  God, the good shepherd, does not put us into any situation  that will not end in God’s blessing.  God, the good shepherd, calls no one into existence who is not chosen and sealed with God’s love.

            We Christians believe that God has been most fully revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is Jesus who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls.  It is Jesus who incarnates the love of God for us.  And in the Gospel of John, it is Jesus who says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 

            Speaking about our current situation in a recent sermon, The Rev. Michael K. Marsh wrote:  

            “When I look at all that has changed about our life and world; when I acknowledge the uncertainties of our future; when I read the statistics of cases and deaths; when I think about those who are losing jobs or income; when I wonder how long it will [be] before we again greet each other with hugs, kisses, and handshakes – I don’t want more information or answers about COVID-19.  And I don’t want more instructions on what to do or not do.

            “I want to hear words of hope.  I want to be reminded that ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ and ‘I shall not be in want.’ I want to be reassured that all shall be well.  I want to soak myself in the words of Psalm 23 and let them soak into me.  And I am betting you want the same things I do.”

            So let me suggest that you try using the 23rd Psalm in your prayers and meditation.  If you don’t already know it by heart, now may be a good time to memorize it, to internalize it.  Pray it slowly and deeply.  Allow there to be some silence between verses so that the words have time to “soak in.”  It’s exactly what we need to hear today!  Pray it like this:

The LORD is my shepherd;

I shall not be in want.

All shall be well.

He makes me lie down in green pastures

and leads me beside still waters.

And all shall be well.

He revives my soul

and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake

All shall be well.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

And all shall be well.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

All shall be well.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

And every manner of thing shall be well.