The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
You don’t have to be in church or synagogue every Sunday to know those words. Even the least religious Jewish and Christian people I know somehow know those words. Whenever there is pain, whether the loss of someone we know personally or grief about a national tragedy, we turn to the 23rd Psalm again and again.
These readings about sheep and shepherds come up every four weeks after Easter. And last Monday I was thinking about what new and novel things I could say about this really well-known text today. And at the same time I was watching the Boston Marathon live on television. I was thinking of these runners slogging through 26.2 miles of cold rain, and marveling at their determination. And as they got closer to the finish line, I started to think about another time I’d preached on the 23rd Psalm, and what it had meant then.
Five years ago, at that same race, two brothers had decided to unleash their anger and hatred on an innocent crowd. By the time their violence was over, they had killed five people and physically injured over 260. They psychologically traumatized countless others. For days they held the city of Boston hostage.
That week, by chance, the lectionary passage was the same as it is today. And there was Psalm 23, with those words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” It almost seemed too easy. Deep pain, and those familiar words. It was as if it couldn’t be any more simple. Like a band-aid that we could just easily put over the pain.
But life’s not like that. And neither is faith.
I remember back to how that week five years ago felt. That week Heidi was preaching in Boston and we walked down to the barricades that blocked off Boylston Street. At each intersection police and National Guard stood by. Flowers and flags and notes were left. Chalked messages to a city in pain lined the roads. And crime scene investigators dressed in white suits still combed every inch of the street.
And it was so quiet. That’s what got to me the most. Those Boston streets are normally so busy and loud, but that day the only sounds at those barricades were muffled whispers and the noise that empty water cups still on the streets from the Marathon made as they were blown down the street by the wind. It took my breath away.
I think in times when that happens, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.
And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.
We need to hear about that Lord who is our shepherd. But, especially when things like this happen, we also need to hear that we are more than sheep.
Now, not to be mean to sheep, but they aren’t the smartest animals. They sort of just follow the herd until they’re scared, and then they’re known to panic and run away. Really, if you’re trying to find an animal to emulate, sheep aren’t the way to go.
Instead, we are called to follow God, to follow the true shepherd, in a different way. Not as a part of a scared flock that reacts with panic to what frightens us, but as a group of beloved children of God who keep our focus on that shepherd. Who keep our focus on the teachings of our faith, and on the one who truly wants for “goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives”.
And sometimes that’s hard. That was hard in the days following the Marathon bombing, but it’s hard whenever something happens that scares us. Times when we are afraid of the way the world seems to be going. Times when acting out of our fear and pain and anger, all of which are justified, is easier than acting out of our faith.
Back in 2013, before we had any inkling who the bombers were, a medical doctor in Boston was physically attacked by a man who screamed obscenities and hate at her. The reason? She was Muslim and to him that meant that she must be a terrorist.
Later that week, after an outpouring of anger and profanity directed towards them, the Embassy of the Czech Republic down in Washington actually had to put out a press statement clarifying for that Czechs and Chechens, the country the bombers were from originally, are in no way the same thing. In a haze of anger, a lot of people apparently hadn’t stopped to make the distinction. My guess is that they also hadn’t stopped to think that attacking a whole country as somehow responsible for the actions of two young men wasn’t so helpful either.
I remember five years ago preaching on those things, and knowing that incidents like that happen whenever there is fear or confusion. Whenever we are afraid, whenever we are hurt and anxious, whenever we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not at our best. We become reactive, suspicious, and closed off. But it’s that fear and anger that makes us forget who our true shepherd is. We begin following not the shepherd, but our worst instincts, putting the teaching of our faith on the back burner.
The other piece of Scripture traditionally paired with the Gospel and the Psalm is from First John, a letter to the early Christian community. The writer tells those earliest followers of Jesus that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
It’s good advice to us too. As we stand at our places of greatest fear and questioning and pain, as we stand with our pain and anger, those words tell us what to do. They tell us the answer. Christianity is not an easy religion to follow, and this passage reminds us of what Christ told us: choose love. Choose the way of the shepherd.
For me, that means learning that my fear can’t be in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t mean being unafraid, because fear is a natural and sometimes even helpful part of our lives. But it does mean refusing to let unjustified fear take the place of Christ. And it means getting out of my comfort zone, reaching out past the lines that divide us, and letting Christ lead me into new places, and new relationships.
I’ll close with this. When the world feels like a place of misunderstanding and suspicion, when I’m despairing of our chances for peace and I’m looking for hope, one of the places where I go is over to Phillips Church on the Academy campus on Fridays. Phillips Church is a church, in fact it used to be the old Second Parish which split off and then reunited with this church. But the building itself holds more than church services.
On Friday afternoons the Muslim students on campus go to their mosque which is in a room downstairs in the building. Right across the hall is the Hindu Puja, where a small altar is filled with offerings of fruit. Later on Friday afternoons the Jewish student community begins to filter in, cooking food for dinner. That night as the candles are lit, and the Shabbat prayers recited, they gather together for fellowship. And once they are done, the Buddhist meditation starts upstairs, on the top level of the building. All the while, a Christian minister flutters from group to group, seeing what they need, asking how she can be helpful.
One night as Shabbat dinner was winding up, the Muslim students came in around the same time the Christian fellowship and Buddhist meditators did too. There was food left over from dinner and, as anyone who has ever been around teenagers can tell you, they are always hungry. And so, they shared. Jews with Muslims. Christians with Buddhists. Hindus with kids who aren’t so sure what if anything they believe. And there was no fear, and no hate. They were not all the same, not by any means, but they were there together. And in their holy differences, they were beautiful.
Our shepherd does not lead us away from what is new and different, and into a place where we are all the same. Instead, our shepherd leads us through the unknown, and the frightening. And with that shepherd beside us in all of these places, we find that what once made us so afraid, can instead make us love more deeply. If those of us who try to follow the Good Shepherd could do so with our hearts open, our hands ready to share, we might just find that there’s nothing to be afraid of in those darkest valleys at all. In fact, maybe joy is even waiting for us there.