My sermon from Mothering Sunday, March 22, 2020
May I speak in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
At times of crisis we can tend to default to what is familiar and secure, to ‘go home’ as it were, and I guess many people have done that in this strange season and gone back to what is familiar and secure and, indeed, in many cases gone home.
For people of Christian faith there are few words that are more familiar and more secure that feel more ‘at home’ for us than the words of Psalm 23: words that proclaim with confident assurance that the Lord is our Shepherd. And yet for all that they are familiar words to us I do think that they have special resonance and extra depth in this current crises that we face. So what is it that this Psalm tells us? What indeed does it call us to do? There are four simple things I think of which it reminds us and there are 2 specific calls that it makes upon us.
The Lord is a shepherd
The first thing that it reminds us of is that the Lord is a shepherd. It’s a very deliberate image, a very deliberate picture: the Lord is a Shepherd and he is a Shepherd who cares for his sheep. David of course, who it’s believed wrote this Psalm, had been a shepherd himself: he knew all about a shepherd’s life; he knew what it was to care for his sheep. And taking his own experience he applies that to his own understanding, his own experience, of how the Lord has been a shepherd to him – and so he writes ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pasture, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul he leads me in right paths for his names sake’. Our God, our shepherd God, only wants the best for us so we can and we must trust him – always, but especially now.
The second thing that this Psalm reminds us is that the Lord is my Shepherd: not any old shepherd but my shepherd. On the little silver column that is around the top of my pastoral staff, or crozier, is written ‘John 10: 11’ which is a reference to the words of Jesus which say ‘I am the Good Shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep’. And I have those words etched here on my pastoral staff to remind me that the Lord is my Shepherd. I can only be a shepherd to others in as much as first of all he is my shepherd. And we in this time must let him shepherd us, we must let him look after us, care for us: and for him to do that, we need to trust him and depend upon him.
We are not alone
The third and sobering thing that this Psalm reminds us is that the Lord being our Shepherd does not prevent us from walking in the dark valley, the valley of the shadow of death. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff they comfort me’. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death is a present reality. It will be a sad reality in the coming days if the predictions are to be believed. But we do not go into that valley alone. The Lord our shepherd walks there with us: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for you are with me’. And with our God with us in such circumstances, in such situations, we need fear no evil.
And then finally the Lord being our shepherd reminds us that better things await us. ‘You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever’. There are better things in store for us, this time will pass. In the hands of our God, in the hands of our shepherd God, there are good things that await us.
A pastoral role for us all
So how finally does this Psalm challenge us? It challenges us, first of all, to be a shepherd as the Lord is our shepherd. To come back to my crook, as I said earlier on, those words of Jesus, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, remind me that I need to be shepherded: but they remind me too that I need to be a shepherd. It’s why I carry this crook; it’s part of my responsibility as a Bishop to be a pastor and shepherd to the people of this Diocese. But there is a sense that we all have crook to carry; we all have a pastoral role to play; we must all learn to be shepherds and pastors at this time, loving and caring for one another, loving and caring for those in our communities, in new and fresh ways, but with a deep commitment and a deep compassion for those who are in need.
And if we are to do that, to be such people then secondly we must allow the Lord to be our shepherd, and to shepherd us through these troubled times. So let us trust Him, let us depend upon Him. There is no situation in which he will not be present with us, so let’s trust him, depend upon him, walk closely with him and be the shepherd to others that he surely calls us to be. We may well find ourselves in days to come walking through a dark valley but good and better things await us because the Lord is our Shepherd.