For a psalm that many of us learned as children, and a psalm that today we most often hear and speak responsively at funerals, Psalm 23 speaks to life today as we are living through what seems like unstoppable dis-comfort, fear, and anxiety in the Covid-19 pandemic. Stories of this time will be told in families for generations. History will be written about how we acted and how we did not act. There will be huge financial tolls, small business shutdowns, lost 401K profits. Some of the most vulnerable populations among us may not live to tell their stories. Yet this is where we are.
Speak to us, O Ancient Psalm. Speak to us in our fear and dis-ease. God of the Universe, comfort us as we walk through the dark valley of uncertainties and suffering.
The psalmist says: You are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. A rod and a staff! Seems a little harsh, don’t you think? Yet I can’t help but think of one of my divinity school professors who said she did not much like the shepherd/sheep imagery of the Bible. “Sheep are stupid,” she said. I think she thought that comparing sheep to human beings was denigrating to human beings. Perhaps God might say back, “if the shoe fits”, or something like that.
Sheep will munch their way to the edge of the cliff, their appetites and grazing habits a drive greater than their judgment. Sheep herd. There are few who stand out as leaders, unlike geese whose leaders share turns at the point of the V, offering draft to those who follow. Shepherds have to poke and prod sheep along, less they get distracted. The shepherd’s crook is just right for pulling the wayward sheep back into line. And even if there is embarrassment or pain, the shepherd’s interest is the greater good of the herd that all might reach the green pasture together.
The dark valley calls us to new trust that offers assurance that may sometimes feel like a crook around our necks pulling us along. But we will not fear evil nor the pestilence that knocks at our doorstep. God’s cup overflows with grace and goodness that follows us. This is the comfort God affords.
This is a time for our collective wisdom and faith to pull us back from our most instinctive behaviors – fear and anger. This is a time to speak truth to power, to muster hope and courage to carry on and find ways to help the human herd through the valley. One other thing about shepherds; In the evenings when the sheep are corralled in their pasture, the shepherd sleeps at the gate so that not one sheep will be lost alone in the night. I pray the Shepherd will sleep at your gate tonight and grant you comfort in the dark. Amen.