Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 21, 2013
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. Psalm 23:1
Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most beloved psalm in the entire psalter. It is the one that almost everyone seems to be able to recite, and even those near death or suffering from dementia can usually connect with the familiar words. It seems to be, along with the Lord’s Prayer, almost a part of a Christian’s DNA, yet I fear this psalm becomes so rote and ingrained that we fail to give it the time and reflection it is due, and in doing so fail to tap its deep roots of mercy and meaning for daily life.
Martin Luther reflected on Psalm 23 one night in 1536 after saying grace at supper (LW 12: Selected Psalms), expounding on the reality that many who have access to Scripture become indifferent, even disdainful towards it, while those without access crave it and will seek it:
We should, then, learn from this psalm not to despise God’s Word. We should hear and learn it, love and respect it, and join the little flock in which we find it, and, on the other hand, flee and avoid those that revile and persecute it. Wherever this blessed light does not shine, there neither happiness nor salvation can be found, neither strength nor comfort of body or soul, but only dissension, fear, and terror, especially when sorrow, anxiety, and bitter death threaten.
Luther also likens the psalm’s “green pasture” to the church, and the church’s beloved community to the Good Shepherd’s flock. Maybe I missed something in seminary, but until this week I never really recognized this short psalm of praise as both communal as well as personal. We are stronger in community, and we have the capacity to be better, too. In community, in concert and in contact with God’s word read and proclaimed, and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we experience something precious and life-giving. We are strengthened for the journey, our focus is sharpened, and we are reminded of God’s many good gifts. In our life together we affirm our abundance rather than fear our scarcity.
The world will tell us otherwise. The marketplace lures us with false promises of fulfillment if we will only buy and buy and buy some more. Away from the beloved community and the Word, we are tempted to see ourselves as controllers of destiny and fortune. What need have we for the church and for belief in a Deity when we can strive for our own fulfillment, be our own god, and seek our own dreams of success and status? It doesn’t take much, however, to bring us to our knees in the reality that we are not in control.
This week we shudder in the face of darkness and evil. In Boston, a joyous celebration of the human spirit is transformed into a scene of carnage. It is one more sobering example of how precious little control we really do have over our lives and well-being. In the face of such a sobering reality, this psalm reminds us that we need not cower in fear but rather are free to respond in love, in prayer, and in hope. The darkness will never overcome the light. No matter our health concerns, economic woes, or the state of the world, God is active and present in the world with us, lamenting and mitigating the effects of our human sin and brokenness. In community, we affirm this truth by looking into one another’s faces, by passing the peace, by praising and praying, and by feasting on bread and wine, body and blood of the One who overcame the darkness once and for all.
So this psalm is a good reminder not only to praise and pray, but constantly to be aware of who we are and whose we are. We have so many blessings. We have enough. And we always, always have enough to share and room for one more. Our cups run over. We have no need to want, for God will provide means and a way. Why not use this Sunday to reflect on the deep promises and the powerful praise present in Psalm 23? In Luther’s words, “Therefore it will undoubtedly be up to the little flock to know this blessing and, together with the prophet, to sing to God a psalm or song of thanks for it.” How will they know unless we tell it? How will we know, unless we speak it to each other and share the stories of God’s grace and mercy in our lives? When we give witness to these promises as David did so long ago, we too can say “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Be sure to add prayer petitions for those affected by the tragedy in Boston this week, as well as for those who face persecution and suffering everywhere in the world.
Consider using Psalm 23 as a meditation and prayer. If you project images in worship, find images suitable to your context for each verse. Allow time between each verse for quiet reflection and prayer. Consider adding a prayer petition pertinent to each verse. Let the silence linger a bit. In our world, we rarely experience the gift of silence that allows us to feast on the word of God.
Youth will likely have concerns and questions about the tragedy in Boston. This is a good opportunity to use Psalm 23 in conjunction with Fred Rogers’ timely reminder to “Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people who are helping.” Read the backstory here. What is the appropriate Christian response to tragedy? How do maintain a spirit of trust and avoid rushing to judgment? What can we do? How can we live boldly in the shadow of evil?
Have you ever tried to follow someone’s voice while wearing a blindfold? You have to listen very carefully, but if you do, and if you trust that person, you can be led successfully by just the sound of someone’s voice. In our gospel lesson today from John 10, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them,and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28)
How do we hear Jesus today? Children will have some good answers–and some creative ones, too. Remind them that we learn to hear Jesus’ voice in scripture, through teaching and preaching, and in prayer. We have to learn to listen, and the best way to start is to pray that God will help us learn to have both listening ears and listening hearts.
Pray this or a similar prayer:
Dearest Jesus, I want to learn to listen for your voice and follow you every day of my life. Help me to listen to you. Help me to follow you. Help me to share your good news with others. I love you, Jesus, and I’m so glad you love me. Amen.
Photos: © CURAphotography – Fotolia.com, © jStock – Fotolia.com, © Ezio Gutzemberg – Fotolia.com, © kmiragaya – Fotolia.com, and © Baronb – Fotolia.com.