Before I moved to Dallas two years ago, I served as Rector of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Sun Valley, Idaho. Sun Valley is a beautiful mountain town and home to a famous ski resort. I treasured my time in Sun Valley, not only because of the wonderful people, but also because of the town’s isolated, tucked-away location.
When I was there, I owned a small pop-up camper, and it took me only 15 minutes to reach the boundary of the Sawtooth National Wilderness, one of the most pristine, cellular-free, dark-sky locations in the United States.
Some days off, with the blessing of my family, I would drive north, park my camper near a stream, go for a long hike, and then fall asleep in the evening, listening to the water rush by and the wind blow through the trees: no TV, no phone calls, no breaking news feed. After a jam-packed week of leading worship, managing budgets, attending public events, and trying to be a decent husband and father, this time in the wilderness was nourishment for my soul.
When I hear Psalm 23 - one of the most well-known passages in the Bible - I think of that time in the Idaho wilderness. Thanks to my Grandpa, who gave me a silver dollar for memorizing Psalm 23 when I was eight, I sometimes recite these words without even thinking: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3a).
My hope is that today, during our time together, you too will be restored by Psalm 23, not only because of its familiarity, but also because of what it suggests about life in God. In a few short verses, we learn something essential about God’s sustenance, safety, and surplus. In a time when lines are growing at food banks, armed militias are menacing places of government, and intimacy is a fleeting as a “like” on social media, Psalm 23 is more relevant than ever.
Psalm 23 begins this way: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
What does the psalmist, identified as David, mean by “shepherd”? When we hear “shepherd,” we usually think of someone who cares for the sheep, and that is true. But in ancient Israel, “shepherd” also meant “king.” The king of Israel was the shepherd of the people - the one who provided the necessities of life. So in the first verse, the psalmist is really saying, “The LORD is my king,” not some imperfect human being.
In verse 2, the psalmist tells us more about this divine shepherd-king: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters....” While we often think of places of retreat and rest when we hear this verse, like my story about camping in Idaho, this verse meant something different from the people of ancient Israel who had to cope with famine and drought. “Green pastures” meant abundant harvest and “still waters” meant something good to drink. It’s fine if this verse symbolizes spiritual nourishment for us, but it also points to actual nourishment - basic sustenance. Too many of our fellow travelers have neither food nor drink and that’s unacceptable to the good shepherd.
Verse 3 puts an exclamation point on the previous verse: “He restores my soul.” This could also be translated literally, “He keeps me alive.” We’re not just talking about a refreshing spa treatment here; we’re talking about the difference between life and death. Bad kings ignore the needs of the people; good kings ensure that the needs of the people are met, both physically and spiritually. God is a good and trustworthy king.
Verse 3 continues: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” One of the joys of doing ministry in Sun Valley was that I got to lead the sheep into town every year during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. Over 1,000 sheep would make their way down Main Street in Ketchum on their way to winter grazing at lower elevations. Thousands of people would line the road and cheer as the shepherds tried to keep the sheep on track. Not uncommonly, a sheep or two would break from the flock and run up a rocky embankment or sprint down a side street. A shepherd and his trusty dog would go in hot pursuit, making sure that the sheep got reunited with the flock. In the same way, the Holy One makes sure that we are on a safe and trustworthy path through the gift of the Law and the witness of the Prophets.
In verse 4, things change. Up to this point, we have focused on God’s sustenance. But we also need God’s safety. The psalmist acknowledges times of difficulty: “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.” The darkest valley may refer to times of temptation, confusion, loneliness, loss, even death. Isaiah used the phrase to refer to a time of exile. The Psalmist makes it clear that even in the darkest places, we need not fear the wild things, because the shepherd will protect us with his rod and his staff. These objects are not only signs of discipline and protection, but also royal authority. The rod and the scepter are interchangeable.
Something else happens in verse 4. While Psalm 23 begins in the third person, with the psalmist and the Lord at some distance from each other, in verse 4, the psalmist refers to the Lord in the second person. “He” become “you.” The relationship deepens as the psalmist relies on God in the darkest valley. This sense of intimacy continues through the end of the psalm.
In verse 5, the psalmist continues: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Here the shepherd imagery transforms into God as gracious host. This host not only provides sustenance and safety; this host provides surplus - good things to overflowing. There’s a sense of shocking abundance! Our enemies witness God’s goodness to us, our heads are anointed in a lavish display of honor, and our cup is filled to the brim. I can’t help but think of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped his feet with her hair. Just like Psalm 23, this woman showed Jesus extravagant love in the presence of his enemies, shortly before he was handed over for crucifixion.
The last verse of Psalm 23 begins this way: “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The abundance in the previous verse continues here, only this time the surplus is not just in terms of food and drink, but also in terms of God’s hesed, or loving kindness. God pours out God’s goodness and mercy upon all creation. And this loving kindness doesn’t just “follow” us, it “pursues” us. God will never let us go.
The psalm ends this way: “...I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” This verse is important. The house of the Lord refers to the temple, but it also refers to the whole community of God. While the rest of Psalm 23 is deeply personal, this verse puts our individual experience in the context of the larger community. Relationship with God is not some private event, sealed off from the larger body. Intimacy with God always leads us to others, with whom we can share God’s sustenance, safety and surplus.
When Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd in the gospel narratives, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s well-aware of Hebrew scripture in general and Psalm 23 in particular. By referring to himself as shepherd, Jesus emphasizes that he is both God’s chosen one and the king of Israel. His theological and political imagery is not lost on the crowd. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes it clear that those who follow him will find abundant life, not only in the eternal realm, but in the present reality as well.
What about today? What does Psalm 23 offer our current situation?
A worldwide pandemic has taken millions of lives and hundreds of millions have lost their jobs, their health, and their peace. Vaccines are being distributed and treatments are improving, but many are still lonely, tired, grieving, and stressed out.
Our sense of reality is warped as we disagree on basic facts and take up arms in service of dangerous worldviews. Too many of our leaders are not interested in bringing us together, but driving us further apart. They are not acting like good shepherds.
And then there are the silent crises of poverty, racism, income inequality, and environmental degradation. We feel helpless as forces beyond our control “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” as we say in the Episcopal baptismal covenant.
It’s against this backdrop that we hear Psalm 23 today. What guidance does this psalm provide for us?
First, we must be attuned to our own needs and the needs of others. We must acknowledge our dependence on the sustenance of God. Throughout the New Testament, we find stories of faith communities caring for their members, as well as the stranger who stands at the gate. If we choose to follow the good shepherd, we must take care of those who are hungry and thirsty, whether in body, mind, or spirit.
Second, we need safe places to rest. While life is hard and danger is inevitable, the flock needs places of green pasture and still water. Whether this involves attending denominational workshops on sexual abuse prevention or participating in community dialogues about racial reconciliation, creating safety is critical for those who have been hounded and harassed for too long.
Third, we need to cultivate a mindset of surplus, not scarcity. Psalm 23 assures us that God gives good things to overflowing. As human beings, we tend to focus on who has more and fear that there is not enough to go around. But in God’s economy, there’s not only enough, there’s plenty. In order to grasp this reality, we must undergo a conversion of our hearts and minds. We must understand that if any are hungry, all are hungry. If any are unsafe, all are unsafe. If any are alienated, all are alienated. We can’t rest in the Promised Land while others are dying in the wilderness.
We need Psalm 23. We need the good shepherd who calls us by name and leads us deeper into love. We need to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and provide places for people to rest and restore. We need God’s ongoing protection, and we need to know that the darkest valley doesn’t last forever. We need God’s sense of abundance so that our hearts open up rather than shut down. We need to dwell in the house of the Lord, not only in heaven, but also here on earth.
Sustenance, safety, and surplus: this is what life in God looks like, and this is the future we lean toward. Amen.
Let us pray.
O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength. By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer, “For Quiet Confidence”)