"The Lord is my shepherd"
Sermon for Sunday 17 April 2016
Sermon for Sunday 17 April 2016
4th Sunday of Easter
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Before and after school, in the rain, snow, sleet, hail, and occasional Chicago sunshine, Tina was there to help me and my small boys across the street. Always in uniform.
She took her job as school crossing guard very seriously. If Tina stepped in front of your car to allow some children to cross, believe me, you stopped your car.
But on Valentine’s Day, her pockets were also full of paper valentine cards.
On Halloween she wore crazy glasses with her uniform, and handed out candy to the little superheroes, princesses, and Ninja warriors walking to school.
She knew the birthdays of many of the kids.
She asked about them when she didn’t see them for a few days.
She scolded them if they walked to school without a proper hat or coat or mittens.
Because her crosswalk was located near the Lutheran seminary, many of us who crossed the street with our children were student pastors. Tina was fascinated by this – especially by those of us who were mothers. She was a church member, but from a tradition which did not ordain women. For this reason, Tina and I had some theological discussions which took place in 90 second increments, spaced out over those twice-a-day crossings, and lasting several weeks.
Tina often asked for prayer for herself and her family. And she prayed for us. She prayed for our children. Her children, as she called them.
After school, at bedtime, we often read one of my boys’ favorite picture books: an illustrated version of the 23rd Psalm. It was just a straight-forward translation of this familiar psalm – no surprise ending, no choose-your-own-adventure options, no video-game tie-in or movie cover to make it sell.
This picture book was the 23rd Psalm, but illustrated for city kids—kids like mine, who knew more about concrete sidewalks than green pastures. The illustrations featured brown kids, black kids. Apartment-dwelling kids. Kids who had never seen a sheep in their lives, much less a shepherd. It was for kids like mine, who thankfully had not yet experienced many dark valleys in life, but who lived in a school district where 38 schoolchildren had died from gun violence in one year alone.
On the first page of the book, which said “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want”, the illustration was of two small children, a boy and a girl, having breakfast before school in their grandparents’ city apartment.
On the next page, where it said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul”, the same kids were rolling in a patch of grass in a park on the way to school, escaping the concrete hardness of the city to enjoy a few moments of nature.
And on the page which said,
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me” …
…there was a drawing of a school crossing guard. Arms up, stopping traffic. A whistle in her mouth. On her face, a look that was both firm and loving. Leading the children safely across the busy street. Shepherding the sheep in her care.
Just like Tina.
Just like Jesus.
In a world – and a city, and a street—which can be incredibly unsafe for children, Tina our school crossing guard represented safety and security. In the middle of chaos and uncertainty, she brought order and stability. For so many children in our neighborhood, she was a real-life embodiment of the God we know through Jesus Christ:
Steadfast. Faithful. Loving. Personal. Trustworthy.
A good shepherd.
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
We most often think of these as words of comfort. But actually, the 23rd Psalm is also a psalm of resistance. It is a psalm of protest against the powers and principalities of the world. In a world where sin, despair, and death claim to lead the way, the Word of God proclaims this is God’s world, this is God’s city, this is God’s street—and we are the Lord’s sheep.
And actually, this is the reason Psalm 23 is so popular at funerals. It’s not just that these words are familiar. It’s that when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death—or addiction, or depression, or cancer, or injustice—these familiar words give us the voice to say to anything that tries to come between us and abundant life, “No! You are not my shepherd—because the Lord God Almighty, the King of Love, the Prince of Peace, the great shepherd of the sheep, is leading me through this.”
For the Lord is our shepherd – but there are others.
There are other shepherds who want to take us along their paths, who promise us stiller waters and greener pastures.
In the city of Chicago, where Tina faithfully shepherded children across the street, there are those who promise vulnerable young people a life of luxury, and a place to call home—but all too soon they find themselves walking in the valley of the shadow of gangs, and guns, and death.
In cities all across the world today, shepherds of the media and politics (and even religion) try to convince us that actually, we are in want. They tell us we are in want of more than our share of the world’s resources; we are in want of more guns to feel safe; or we are in want of high walls to keep wolves out.
Today in the city of Jerusalem, the same false shepherds seek to gather a flock. Here, there are those who would lead us on the path of violent revenge for past injustices. They make us to lie down in fields of hatred for those who are different. They promise us still and peaceful waters—if only we will accept inequality, division, and power over others as necessary and reasonable.
And in the presence of all such false shepherds, our faith teaches us to proclaim: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall want for nothing! For we proclaim that God’s goodness and mercy has become flesh in Jesus Christ. We proclaim that the cross reveals the vastness of God’s love for us. We proclaim that because the tomb was empty on that Easter morning, nothing, not even death, can separate the sheep from the shepherd.
Thanks be to God, the Lord is our shepherd, and we shall want for nothing. Like Tina, standing guard in her uniform between the Chicago traffic and her schoolchildren, the Crucified and Risen Christ has declared to every power and principality claiming ownership of his flock: “Oh no…These are my sheep!”
The King of Love has said: “These are my sheep…and surely goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their lives.”
Surely goodness and mercy shall sit with us in the hospital waiting room.
Surely goodness and mercy will accompany us through chemo treatment.
Surely goodness and mercy will walk into the courtroom with us.
Surely goodness and mercy will fight our addictions with us.
Surely goodness and mercy will cross the checkpoint with us.
Surely goodness and mercy will give us renewed strength to stand for justice, to hope for peace, to speak truth to power.
Because our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is risen from the dead,
surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives,
And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.