By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
January 17, 2020
Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/682781152605032
Scripture: Psalm 23
This week on Facebook, I did a little crowd-sourcing for this sermon. I asked you about what I would call our “scriptural comfort objects.” Just like I talked in the Children’s Time about a “comfort object” being something that might remind us of the safety and security we feel in the presence of God, these scriptures might function in the same way. While the scripture itself is obviously not God, it provides us a sense of the presence of God so that we might feel calmed and comforted.
You shared some good answers! One of you mentioned Zephaniah 3:17 which says essentially, “The Lord is mighty to save…and will take delight in you…and rejoice over you with singing.” Another of you pointed to Psalm 118:24 “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Another named “This too shall pass” which is a sentiment that shows up multiple places in the bible, perhaps most clearly in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18. One of you mentioned Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” Finally, someone added, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” – from Philippians. One of you mentioned to me in person that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is where you find solace and comfort.
The reason I asked you that is because the 23rd Psalm is my “scriptural comfort object.” I memorized it a couple of years ago. I actually had to go back to my journals to figure out exactly when that was.
I searched my journals and found out that in August 2018, I started a new daily spiritual discipline. It consisted of reading the day’s lectionary scriptures (the lectionary is a prescribed list of about four readings for each day of the year). I would pick one of those scriptures and write about it – just like a page of reflection on the scripture of the day.
But some days, I would sit down to write, and I would feel tired or distracted or maybe just really resistant to doing my practice for some reason. I felt too dried up to write anything. On those days, I would simply copy the words of the scripture that had captured my attention that day. I knew that’s how my 23rd Psalm thing started.
I also knew it was an important psalm to me in the days that my daughter Ruby, when she was 14 years old, was hospitalized due to anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. I have shared that story with you before and mention it again today with Ruby’s permission.
So I looked back in my notebooks, and I found that I actually memorized it before the hospitalization, when things perhaps were starting to get difficult. I found it on August 20th in my notebook where I kept the prayers request I prayed for each day. And there in my journaling notebook was the blank page. I apparently could not muster any of my own words that day, so I leaned on this 23rd Psalm. For some reason, I also decided that day to memorize it.
It was an important decision because when Ruby was hospitalized five months later, I leaned on that psalm through the whole ordeal. When I was driving to visit her during the limited visitation times in the hospital, I would remind myself “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When I was heading to work to try to focus on something else during the long days of waiting to see her again, I would remind myself “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me.” I reminded myself that not only was God with me, but God was with Ruby. Surely goodness and mercy would follow us one day.
That was two years ago. As you know, things are much better with Ruby now. She just got her first job in fact!
I still carry the 23rd Psalm with me. It’s not exactly an original choice. This psalm is very familiar. It’s a standard part of nearly every funeral I’ve presided at or been to.
I’m not sure how it started being used at funerals. I suspect it’s because of the language about the “valley of the shadow of death” and the part at the end that is sometimes translated as “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” However, I think this psalm is much more about God’s presence in our lives now, as a source of sustenance and comfort than it is about eternity.
Yet, I deeply appreciate it at funerals. Having to endure the loss of a beloved partner or family member or friend is one of the darkest, deepest valleys any of us have to endure. Kenneth Bailey, author of the Good Shepherd book  I’ve been studying, writes that these valleys of the shadow of death were quite literal for the sheep and shepherds of ancient Palestine. There are these extremely narrow passes between rocky cliffs where the shepherds would have to lead their sheep. They were valleys of death because not only were they dark and could hide predators, but if you were stuck in one during a flash flood, the sheep and shepherds could all be washed away and drown (p. 47-48).
Yet the shepherds had to use these valleys to get their sheep out to graze. Our author Bailey points out that these valleys cannot be avoided – just like the valleys in our lives. We have to trust the shepherd to get us through them. If we remember what we learned last week about sheep, sheep can – we can – be skittish and panic and not want to follow the shepherd. We have to trust in God in order to follow and get through the valley.
But I firmly believe, we cannot do that well if we only spend time with God in those valleys. It sure helps to know God before things go sideways. The rest of this psalm paints a picture of developing trust between sheep and shepherd. Again, the skittish sheep need to be led to still waters. Bailey taught me that sheep don’t like to drink from a running stream (p. 42-43). Even if they are thirsty, the sheep will wait to be led to a little quiet pool between stones or even a trench that the shepherd digs alongside the moving stream. When the water is still, the sheep will drink.
The same is true about the green pastures in the psalm. Not only does the shepherd lead the sheep to the green pastures, but the psalm reads “he makes me to lie down.” Well, that is not a very good translation of the Hebrew. Remember the skittish, nervous sheep? The shepherd cannot make them to lie down (Bailey, p. 40). There is no forcing them. Instead, the shepherd makes sure the sheep have all they need: those still waters, enough good green grass in their tummies, and an assurance of protection from predators. Only then will the sheep lie down and rest.
The sheep relies on the shepherd to create the environment where the sheep no longer feel afraid. When the sheep are not afraid, they can rest, and they can thrive.
I am not afraid to admit that I am often like these anxious, skittish sheep. I do not think I am alone in that. I think it is perfectly understandable to be feeling anxious and afraid right now because of the disunity and threat of violence in our country. We would like a less scary world. We pray for the end of all violence and threats of violence today and as the inauguration approaches. We pray for repentance for all of us to walk in paths of righteousness, rejecting white supremacy and all other forms of hate that fuel violence. We pray for God to lead us ALL back on the path of loving God and neighbor. That’s what the shepherd does with the rod and the staff – she gets the sheep back on the path.
We are praying for all those things, and we can be part of creating the world we desire. Yet, we can only be part of God’s work of righteousness and peace and justice if we feel safe, if we do not fear…if we find a way past our anxiety and ground ourselves in God.
So last Wednesday during the attack on the Capitol, it was the end of the day. I had to leave the office and go home to be with Matt and Ruby, and I was filled with anxiety. I was afraid of the actual violence occurring at the Capitol and of the threat of violence spilling out across the country. I was afraid of knowing I would be called on to speak about such unspeakable events. I was afraid knowing I would be called on to lead…that I had to respond somehow to help stop this violence through my words and actions.
I was so anxious I was shaking. And as I gathered my bag and locked the door of my office, I suddenly realized I was unconsciously reciting these words:
The Lord is my Shepherd
I shall not want
He makes me to lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside still waters
He restores my soul
He leads me in paths of righteousness
For his name’s sake
Yea, though I walk through the valley
Of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil.
For YOU are with me.
Your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table for me
In the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil
My cup runs over
Surely goodness and mercy
Shall follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell
In the house
Of the lord
I repeated that over and over the whole drive home. By the time I unlocked my back door, I was at rest. I was no longer afraid. I could go forth to love and do what I need to do to be God’s love in this world.
I will keep praying this week. I hope you will pray with me.
Thanks be to God.
 Bailey, Kenneth. The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.