The Lord is My Shepherd

The good shepherd fresco roman catacombWhat psalm is more beloved than Psalm 23? It has been translated and re-translated, put into cross stitch patterns, and inspired paintings. It has been set to music countless times, we’ll hear a few today. It has been read at almost all of the funerals and memorials I have ever attended or officiated. It is a psalm that even those who rarely attend church have often heard of. It’s only six verses long, which means it’s easy to memorize.

We love this psalm, most of us, and who can blame us? Consider the beauty of the King James version: 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. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the 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 thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. 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.

We love this psalm. But there is something strange about that.  The Lord may be our shepherd, but we still want many things. We want love. We want forgiveness. We want new and improved versions of most of our friends and family members. We want larger bank accounts and smaller waist lines. We want a good election year for our party and a good season for our sports teams. We want pleasure and excitement and also wisdom and security. We want the power to protect those we love.

The Lord may be our shepherd, but we still want many things. And our lives do not always resemble green pastures, nor do we always follow in the paths of righteousness. In fact, we lie down and then get up each day in a world where green pastures are disappearing right and left and it is exhaustingly difficult to discern the path of righteousness. And even if we want to discern that path, even if we can, let’s be honest, sometimes we just get tired and need to take a break by the side of it.

The Lord may be our shepherd, but we still fear evil. We do not, in fact, always trust that God is with us, or that God’s rod and staff can protect us. And this is not surprising, because we witness our neighbors going hungry for food and justice every day. We witness our neighbors being tragically hurt and sometimes killed by their enemies, whether that enemy is a person, or an organization, or an addiction, or a disease.

The Lord may be our shepherd, but too many among us can see the bottom of our desperately dry cups. Goodness and mercy often feel very far from us. And we worry that we might never be able to find our way home into the arms of God.

We love this psalm. Why is that? I wonder if we love it because it shows us what we yearn for the most: who we want to be, and how we want to believe. We want to be people for whom God is enough. A people who are saved by God. A people whose faith and gratitude is so deep and profound, that it changes what we perceive, and how we live.

Though it was written long before Jesus lived, and died, and rose again, this is to me a resurrection psalm. There aren’t just rainbows and butterflies in this beautiful psalm, there is evil, and enemies, and the shadow of death: the hard stuff is all here. But right alongside it is abundance and mercy and hope. In this psalm, Easter shines through Good Friday triumphantly.

Here it is again, in this psalm, the Easter message we’ve been listening to this season, the promise of our God: that the power love is greater than all that is dangerous and terrifying and death itself. We come to church to hear to this message. We stick around to learn to trust this message. And even those of us who have been here a long time, we still yearn to live in this message more fully. We try over and over again to walk the paths of righteousness and accept God’s gifts of grace.

It is with this yearning that this congregation made an Open and Affirming covenant 15 years ago. If you don’t know what Open and Affirming means, you are not alone. It is the label that our denomination uses to let people know that a community offers a full and public welcome to people of all sexual orientations. And we decided to do that, which was saying a lot, I think, in 1999. But if you read the statement, you’ll realize that it’s far more audacious than that. We covenanted to explicitly embrace many other forms of diversity (though today we might want to expand this list even further). And not only that – we affirmed our intention to end all discrimination and oppression. And not only that – we promised to strive to become more Christ-like in our love for one another, to follow God’s call to love one another as God loves us, freely and unconditionally.

Now you could say that those folks who were here in 1999 were a little bit crazy. But if they were crazy, I say: this is the foolishness of the gospel. It is only a resurrection kind of faith that could make anyone believe that living up to this kind of covenant is remotely possible. Like the 23rd psalm, this statement shows us who this community was yearning to be, and how we were yearning to believe.

It’s a beautiful covenant. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet. So I wonder if we could make these promises again. Whether we could affirm this holy audaciousness again . Whether we can claim it as our own, those who are still here, those like me who are here now, so that it may guide us towards paths of righteousness, and right into the arms of God. Who knows what the Spirit may yet do in us. Is there anything impossible with God?

We, the members of the West Concord Union Church, are called to love one another as God loves us, freely and unconditionally. We further believe that diversity enriches our faith community.

Therefore, we welcome persons of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ethnicity and physical or mental ability into full membership and participation in the body of Christ. We celebrate family in all its diverse forms and honor, support, and bless all loving and committed relationships.

As we are one in Christ, we are called to accept and respect one another in the face of our differences. We agree that continued dialogue is necessary as we each grow in learning and understanding.

We commit ourselves to work diligently to end all oppression and discrimination which afflicts God’s people in our society. We seek to explore new ways of affirming our faith in community according to the wisdom of the Gospel. We strive, as individuals, to become more Christ-like in our love for one another.

Let the people say: Amen.