The earliest ancestors of the Hebrew people who gave us the Bible were nomads, owning no property, bound to no one location but traveling with their flocks and herds wherever there was pastureland for the animals to graze on. Sometimes this involved a journey of a few miles; sometimes it meant longer trips from drought-plagued areas to well-watered neighboring countries. Generations later, their descendants would become farmers and learn to see life as a partnership between the hard work of the farmer and the grace of heaven sending rain in its season. Later still, some would become artisans and merchants. Their understanding of religion would expand to include the honoring of contracts and treating workers and customers fairly. But they never forgot their origins, telling stories of Abraham, Moses, and David tending their sheep. Long after they stopped being shepherds themselves, they retained the mind-set of the shepherd guarding his flock with love for every tender lamb. Dedicated to protecting them from the world’s dangers. And, in their poetry, they pictured God as a shepherd.
To say “the Lord is my shepherd” is to say that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world, ever mindful of the bad things that might happen to us and to those around us. No wonder there is no more familiar passage in all of scripture. Psalm 23 appears no fewer than four times in our lectionary and is always the go-to passage both in corporate ceremony and private devotion.
Psalm 23 is a song of Impressible optimism. The primary message of Psalm 23 is not that bad things will never happen to us. It is that we will not have to face those bad things alone, “for Thou are with me.” I am guessing that each and every one of us here has had the experience of reaching out to another for comfort and companionship at one time or another. We can face the world with more courage and more confidence because we will not be facing it alone.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that religion is first and foremost a source of community. The word religion comes from a Latin root meaning “to bind together.” As in the word ligament; religion binds people together to deal with life’s joyous and sorrowful moments.
Psalm 23 offers us not just the assurance of God’s companionship throughout our days, as the hymn puts it, but guidance as to how to live in this unpredictable and scary world.
There is an old story about a minister who sat on a chair next to the bed of a woman who did not have much longer to live. He opened his Bible, reached out to take her hand, and began to recite: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The woman’s eyes flickered open for a moment and she summoned up the energy to whisper, “But, Pastor, I do want.”
Of course, she wants. We all have wants. We want to be healthy. We want to be secure. We want to live long and happy lives. These are all perfectly understandable desires. If we were to properly translate the Hebrew, though, we would be saying a phrase closer to “I shall not be greedy,” or “I shall not be in want” (as our Cloverdale Psalter in the BCP has it). That is, God will provide me with everything I need. It reminds me of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Garrison Keillor’s fictitious hometown of Lake Woebegone. If Ralph didn’t have it, you could very well do without it. The guidance for our lives of “I shall not want” might be “we will be happier, more contented people if we focus on what God has provided rather than wishing we had more.”
Then the restorative, abundant green pastures and still thirst-quenching waters give way to dark valleys (or the valley of the shadow of death” as the KJV translates it.) In the place of our deepest fears, the place where we think no one will ever accompany us, we read “thou art with me.” Notice that the shepherd does not lead us away from this place. Instead, we walk right through it. We face the darkness but it holds no power over us because we are in the presence of the Lord.
If you’ve ever been in church when a bishop visits and demonstrates his staff to children, showing them the sharp end a shepherd uses to give a good poke to prod us in the direction we ought to be going and the round crooked end to gently bring us back to the fold when we’re tempted to stray, then you understand the next phrase, “thy rod and thy staff – they comfort me” They keep me in line in the community and keep me from straying too far from where I belong.
The Lord is both shepherd and host in this psalm, complimentary images, and here the poetry shifts metaphors. Suddenly we enter a scene of table fellowship and those of us who are Christians immediately think of our Eucharistic banquet where Christ is both host and guest. God anoints the psalmist’s head for healing in the presence of his enemies. We bring our brokenness, we bring our neediness, we bring our sadness, our hopes, we bring all that we are and all that we hope to be, all of it, to this altar where we leave it and are overcome with gratitude. My cup overflows.
Psalm 23 concludes “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I am told that a better translation is “goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” I do like that. God’s goodness and love surrounding me each and every day – ordinary days, special days, celebratory days, disappointing days, rainy days, sunny days, each and every day, God’s goodness failing never – never ever, come what may – a beautiful promise as we enter the final two weeks of Lent. “Good Shepherd may I sing your praise, within your house forever.” Amen.
 Harold Kushner’s The Lord is My Shepherd, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, pp. 13-14.