The Lord is my Shepherd
Easter 4: 2 May 2004
The Lord is my Shepherd
The Rev. Philip R. Taylor
A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Those of us who are privileged to stand in the pulpit and preach are especially blessed. Certain passages of scripture intensify that feeling of being blessed. Psalm 23 is certainly one of those passages. Nevertheless, preaching and using this most familiar Psalm as the text, runs the risk of using the well-worn thoughts of the many preachers and teachers in whose footsteps we trod.
I recall, along with many others of my generation, having to memorize Psalm 23 as a child. It happened when I was in the third grade at William Fox Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia and my teacher was Mrs. Vaden.
She gave us a week to accomplish this memorization task and then we were to recite one by one, from in front of the class, facing our fellow students. The first to recite was the only Jewish student in the class, Wayne. That little ‘Mr. Smarty Pants’ recited the Psalm fist in English and then in Hebrew. Some of the girls in the class applauded and I slide further down into my desk chair hoping against hope that Mrs. Vaden would mercifully skip me. She didn’t. I was next.
Oh, I had memorized the Psalm for sure and I had practiced all week and even on the weekend reciting it to my mother. But as I walked to the front of the class and turned to face my classmates, my throat was dry, my hands were heavy with sweat, and my heart was pounding. Wayne had, only moments ago, recited the Psalm in both English and Hebrew without a hitch and I wasn’t sure I could get past the first verse.
I began, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” After a long pause, during which the same girls who had applauded Wayne were now snickering, I continued, “He maketh me to lie down beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.” And so it went until I finally finished. There were flashes of brilliance on my part as I slowly remembered each verse, punctuated with long pauses complete with background snickering from the girls and some groans form the boys.
The next thing to happen that day was totally unexpected; it was a hug from Mrs. Vaden as I made my way back to my seat behind Wayne. Wayne had turned around to face me as I sat down and said, “You did it!” Maybe Yahweh, the Lord of the universe, was Wayne’s shepherd that day but Mrs. Vaden and even ‘Mr. Smarty Pants’ had been shepherds to me.
Years later when I had an opportunity to talk with my father about his growing up in Richmond, he mentioned his third grade teacher, Mrs. Vaden. He remembered her as a stern task master but also as a loving and gentle woman who always took the time to say and do the things for small children that they never forget.
I never met any real shepherds, you know the kind who keep real sheep. But I have met many real shepherds, you know the kind God sends among us to give us that hug we will never forget.
Scripture is, of course, full of shepherds. The first murder victim, Abel, was a shepherd. Abraham, Esau, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses were all shepherds. Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd in John’s Gospel. My testimony is, in my experience, that life is as full of shepherds as any passages of scripture might be. God’s shepherds are all around us. They are parents, friends, third grade teachers, and even the ‘Mr. Smarty Pants’ who can recite Psalm 23 in two languages.
Let me paraphrase Psalm 23 in this way:
“Many of God’s people have been my shepherd and provided for me.
They make my life greener and they quench my thirst.
They soothe my soul, forgive my faults, and show me a new way.
When I walk in danger and sorrow, they go with me and calm my fears. They discipline me and keep me safe with their love.
They love me and they love those whom I dislike. They continually bless me with the oil of their love.
They are both good and merciful to me. They invite me into their lives and they surround me with their holiness.”