Kahu's Mana‘o

Keawalaʻi Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)

“Itʻs For The Living” 
by Kahu Bob Nelson
October 9, 2011

One hundred people--Jewish, Christian, and secular--were asked which, among all of the psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures, was their favorite. Eight said Psalm 121 ("I lift up my eyes to the hills from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord"); six people said various other ones; and 86 said the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want").

There was a brief period in my Father's life--back in 1922 and 23, as he was moving west from Kansas, leaving the farm, and before eventually settling on the coast of California--that he worked as a shepherd in the hills of Arizona. He used to tell me stories of trying to keep track of the sheep, trying to find the best places for them to graze, fending off coyotes, some of the crazy and stupid things the sheep would do, and the beauty and wonder of sleeping out there under
the stars.

I think that, because of those stories and because my Dad was this incredibly gentle, safe and accepting person, I've always had kind-of a unique and special relationship to the 23rd Psalm: its images, its messages, and, in particular, its shepherd.

But, I've wondered how come this psalm speaks to such large percentages of people in our society--who have no, or almost no, connection to sheep, shepherds and shepherding.

Why do its words and images touch so in the deepest places of our hearts? How is it that this 3,000 year old psalm (perhaps even older than that) continues to convey God's presence and care for us?

I don't know, but I know it seems to have a power and authority that's profound. One biblical scholar has called it an "American Secular Icon" because it is the reading from the Bible that's most used at memorial services, even non-religious ones. (Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury
of David: Spurgeon's Classic Work on the Psalms, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2004).

But, you know, the 23rd Psalm also speaks about living and eating and drinking and security--not just at the time of a death--but throughout life. And it speaks, in particular, of the One who is the Lord of  life, "The Lord is my shepherd."

In the ancient world, kings were known as shepherds: they provided for their people, and when they failed to provide for them, the prophets would challenge them and lead protests against them.

But "The Lord is my shepherd" is the Good Shepherd: God does what a good shepherd is supposed to do: provides life and security for His sheep.

And we know this, but there're times when we forget.

The people who first prayed and chanted these psalms did so, in part, to help them remember: To remember the 40 years of wandering around in the desert with nothing--no food, drink or security, except what God provided, and that was one-day-at-a-time, but it was sufficient and it
got them through it all.

So, you see, the 23rd Psalm is for the living, for living life. Do any of us know what tomorrow will bring? I don't think so. But what we do know is that there are provisions for today: The Lord, our Shepherd will see that we "shall not be in want" . . . God provides for us.

And we also need to know that we aren't walking all alone along our life's journey. Remember that wonderful poem "Footprints in the Sand"? "One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed foot-prints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there were one set of footprints." And it helps us when we hear at the end of the poem, the Lord's reply, "The
times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you." (footprints-in-the-sand.com)

That's the essence of the 23rd Psalm: Even in the most dangerous places in our lives, we aren't alone . . . even in the valley of the shadow of death . . . even as we're being wheeled into surgery, we aren't alone. Even as we stand at a loved-ones graveside . . . even as we sit beside the bed and watch a loved-one decline, we aren't alone. Even as we go through the loss of a job, a home or a marriage . . . even as we face retirement with little or no security . . . we aren't alone. "For You are with me; your rod and your staff--they comfort me."

But, you notice, there's an interesting shift in the poem towards the end:  The Lord changes from being a shepherd and we are no longer His sheep, to the Lord being the host at the table and we are now His guests. "You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me." . . . and anyone hearing those words in the ancient--and even some present--Middle Eastern cultures would immediately recognize the desert rule of hospitality.

If I was in danger, and enemies were hot on my trail, and I showed up at YOUR front door, YOU would be expected to open your door to me, take me into the safety of your home for two nights and a day, and provide me the best meals you could. And my enemies would have to stay at some distance away from your house or your tent.

It used to be common practice in Alaska in the early days when Norma and I lived there, where the enemy, of course, was sub-zero temperatures.

And, remember, back in the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement? Congregations, in defiance of the law, offering their sanctuaries as a safe- haven for refugees fleeing persecution and civil conflict in Central America.

This past summer, we visited St. Paul's Chapel--across the street from Ground Zero in Manhattan--and were deeply touched seeing the momentos and letters of gratitude written by firefighters and other First Responders for the ministry that that congregation offered to them in
the days, weeks and months following 9/11: offering them a safe place to rest and sleep, a place of peace and quiet, healing and reconciliation, nourishment and counseling.

Long before other denominations acknowledged sexual misconduct as the 'enemy' within their churches, I was working with colleagues in other Episcopal dioceses across the United States and Canada setting up Safe Church programs--something like the one here at Keawala'i--to prevent abuse and to intervene with healing and justice.

The church NEEDS to be a safe place. That's one of the meanings of the word "sanctuary". People are looking for sanctuary, for a community that embodies the qualities of the Shepherd/Host who watches out for them, welcomes them, protects them, provides a place for them at His table, creates a safe place for those under His care.

The Lord, our Host, spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. And WHAT a Host!!! . . . He EVEN "anoints" our head with oil, as a sign of His love and respect for each of us, and in order to heal the woundedness of our souls. And we come to realize and
acknowledge that TRULY our "cup is running over" with an abundance of blessing.

And we say that we "shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever" . . . for SURELY that IS the case! You and I always feel the most hopeful and calm when we have some sense of where we're going:  And, the 23rd Psalm is about our destiny.

For the Jewish community--especially those who first sang or prayed this psalm--the "house of the Lord" referred to the Temple in Jerusalem. But for you and me, who are baptized into Christ, the "house of the Lord" is ALSO what Jesus is talking about when he says to his disciples at the Last Supper, "I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2). Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the Host at Table, guides us safely to a home not made with hands, "whose architect and builder is God." (Hebrews 11: 10).

So, are you wondering how you're going to find the resources--material, spiritual, financial, emotional resources--to get through this next week?  Month?  Can you believe the Good News here?  "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want."

Are you feeling alone in this world?  In your struggles, in your home, your community, and without any sense that you actually matter to anyone else? Can you believe the Good News here? "You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

Are you caught in a fear that just won't seem to go away and need to draw a circle around yourself? Or your family? Or those you love? That will keep out violence? Or drugs? Or danger? Or anxiety and stress? Can you believe the Good News here? "You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over."

Are you worried about the future--and you've lived long enough to know that there's more to life than this, that heaven is a reality for which you pray and to which you find yourselves being drawn? Can you believe the Good News here? "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" . . "I go to prepare a place for you."

Many years ago, when I asked my father how, when he was shepherding, he could tell which sheep were his, he said "They know my voice."

So, I ask you: Do you know the Good Shepherd? Do you recognize the Shepherd's voice? Do you hear the Shepherd calling you by name? Do you love the Shepherd? Do you trust the Shepherd? Will you follow the Shepherd?

(With assist from: "God Knows What You Need," Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.,
Biblical Preaching Journal, Fall 2005)

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