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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/03/2020

Due to its iconic status, I’ve always been hesitant to preach on the 23rd Psalm for fear of messing it up for someone. The interpretive lens of Christianity makes the psalm about Jesus, connecting it to the shepherd imagery in John, part of which we heard in today’s gospel, and so for many of us, “The Lord is my shepherd…” becomes one of the most comforting of all the images we have of Jesus. Such an image is best left alone rather than being over analyzed, the danger being that such over analysis might drain the image of its wonder and mystery, it might drain it of its ability to provide comfort.

I’ve likened it before to what Mark Twain said about learning to pilot a steamboat on the Mississippi River. To do so successfully, one had to study and learn all about the river and its behavior, which he did. Having done so, he wrote this: “Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”

He goes on to talk about how rather than being able to marvel at something like the beauty of a sunset on the river and to watch how it changed the color of the water and the sky, now such a sunset was just a caution that the wind was going to shift and the weather was going to change. “No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river,” he wrote. “All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”

That explains pretty well my hesitancy in preaching on the 23rd Psalm. I don’t want to remove the grace, the beauty and the poetry from it. On the other hand, it’s perhaps kind of arrogant of me to think that anything I say could remove the 23rd Psalm from its iconic status. The image and the poetry are powerful enough that when it needs to be a source of comfort, it will be, regardless of what I or any other commentator have to say about it.

Still, I’m not really going to try and closely analyze the psalm right now but instead just to poke around a little bit at some of its images and how they affect us. These days of course, in any discussion of such things, the elephant in the room is the coronavirus. I’m starting to struggle with whether or not the virus has to somehow be worked into every sermon I write, especially when that’s all you hear about all week. Do you really want to hear more about it on Sunday?

This week though, with the 23rd Psalm and in particular the line about walking in the valley of the shadow of death, the connection seems too obvious to be ignored because it feels like walking in the valley of the shadow of death is what we’ve been doing for a couple of months now. We want and need the comfort of the good shepherd; we want to put the fear of this evil virus behind us so that we can again experience green pastures and still waters; we want to know goodness and mercy, we want to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

There are many other comforting psalms, but for many of us, this is the one that speaks most personally to us; this is the one we need. We need it for the comfort it provides in a challenging situation that has no clear end in sight but a psalm like the 23rd also does something else: it serves as a reminder of who we are and who God is, and it also provides a reminder of why we worship.

Psalm 23 is an example of poetic imagination that offers an alternative world that doesn’t deny the facts on the ground, but also doesn’t accept them as the only possibility. When we hear and say the words of the psalm it’s not to say that everything is OK, that all is right with the world; it’s not an expression of denial. Instead, it’s an expression of hope that dares to imagine that the Lord is my shepherd, our shepherd, who does walk with us into and through any and all valleys of the shadow of death.

The same kind of thing can be said about what we do in worship. What we do every week is to gather around the imaginative stories that have been handed down to us, stories that define who we are as people in relationship with God. It starts in the Old Testament with creation and the formation of the people of Israel, Abraham and his descendants, there’s slavery in Egypt, Moses and the exodus, there’s David and other kings both good and bad, you have the prophets announcing exile and then return from exile, there’s hope concerning the coming of a messiah with God’s love and faithfulness being the underlying theme that runs through all of this.

For us as Christians, these narratives culminate in the New Testament with the story of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, God’s ultimate acts of love for us and faithfulness to us. These are all imaginative stories that for one thing, provide us with a way to live in the world, in Lutheran terms we call that law, but they also provide us with hope, what in Lutheran terms we call gospel, the good news that despite our failure to keep the law, there is forgiveness in and through what Christ has done for us.

For a long time I’ve talked about the Bible as an act of inspired imagination along with the need for us to use imagination as we read it, but I’m still afraid that when I use the word imagination you might think that I think that the writers of the Bible just made it all up. It doesn’t mean that at all. What is meant by imagination is that those who wrote were inspired in a way that enabled them to entertain images of reality beyond what is thought of as normal, whatever normal means. Out of what they experienced,they created images that created hope when hope was gone or in short supply.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense because how else are we going to get at some sense of the divine realm which is the realm into which the Bible invites us? Insisting that everything has to fit in to what can be easily understood by human reason limits access to the divine; it limits the ability to imagine what’s possible. It’s another way to drain the wonder and mystery and poetry out of a text. It’s another way to be held captive by the facts on the ground that tend to be a steady drumbeat of fear and anxiety that doesn’t leave much room for hope.

We’re about halfway through the Easter season at this point and we’re reminded that while our Easter proclamation of “He is Risen!” is for us a statement of historical truth, it also functions as a Spirit inspired imaginative claim that runs against the facts on the ground that say that nothing has changed, that death still has the upper hand. In faith though, we persist in our claim that insists that things have changed. Again, we’re not in denial of what we see going on around us, but guided by the Holy Spirit we say that there’s more and so we live in the tension.

The 23rd Psalm functions in a similar way as it too represents an image that runs counter to the dominant view of reality. It makes claims about God’s presence in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, claims that would not be obvious to an outside observer, but claims that the psalmist insists on. You are with me; you comfort me, you host me in the presence of enemies, you anoint me and mark me as your own. You make me lie down in green pastures, you lead me beside still waters, you restore my soul. It’s all an imaginative counter claim about the Lord as shepherd, a claim spoken into a time of difficulty, a time like the one we’re in right now.

The 23rd Psalm isn’t the only place shepherd imagery is used in the Old Testament; God as shepherd and protector leading people to safe pastures shows up in a variety of ways. In addition to describing God, human leaders are also regarded as shepherds; David, the shepherd boy who becomes king is the best-known example.

It’s not surprising then that the image of the Good Shepherd is picked up by John in his gospel and is used to describe Jesus so that when we hear, “The Lord is my shepherd,” we do see Jesus. It doesn’t mean that there are no dark, deathly valleys, it doesn’t mean that there are no enemies, but it is faith that the shepherd will guide us though and transform the situation.

The Lord is my shepherd isn’t the only image we have of Jesus, but there are those times when it’s the one we need.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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