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Quarantine lessons from Psalm 23

Dear Friends,

Greetings! Hope all is well with you and your family on this seventh Sunday since the shelter in place order was given by the governor of New York state. How are you holding up sheltering at home? For some people sheltering in place order is not an easy one to follow. Home is not a safe place for all. Some people, if they are living alone, might have a difficult time being isolated. There have been cases of people taking their own lives due to the stress of being isolated. And for those who live with family or roommates, sometimes home is a place of danger not of safety. And not everyone has a home. I saw a newspaper article saying that those who ride subways are mostly people who do not have homes. 

This morning, I propose that we think about this very well-known verse in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This was a psalm attributed to King David when he was fleeing from danger. When he says, even though I walk through the dark valleys, he was indeed walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It seems appropriate now to revisit Psalm 23. If you recall, part of the sermon I preached at the beginning of lock-down was on psalm 23. So what might Psalm 23 offer us now, as we are nearing two months of lock-down, sheltering in place?

Psalm 23 is my go-to Psalm for difficult times, and for times I try to provide words of comfort to those who are dying or to families whose loved ones have died. During the past two months, some of our friends and/or family members might have died. But due to covid-19, you might not have had the opportunity to attend funeral or to gather with friends and family to mourn. 

I hope today’s sermon message will provide an opportunity to do 2 things: to mourn and to be comforted.

We have all been affected in some way by this pandemic. Whether a job, opportunities, loved ones, meetings, whatever it may be, each of us, all of us, have lost something during this pandemic. We have all lost old ways of doing things: structures, schedules, and activities that provide us sense of security. We have all lost possibilities of being able to do things whenever and wherever, with whomever. Our choices have narrowed due to the invisible virus that continues to take so many people’s lives here in New York City and around the world. Let us mourn the loss we are experiencing by coming to see and to accept the losses for what it means to us. 

For what we have lost, let us in some way acknowledge the value and the love for what/whom we have lost and the sadness we feel because of the loss. In our sadness we know that we have each other and that God is with us in our mourning. When I became a chaplain, my goal was to ensure – as much as I could – that no one suffers alone. Suffering cannot be avoided in life, but it seemed to me that suffering alone was even worse than suffering in solidarity with others. 

I want us to be comforted and encouraged that we have each other, and also that God is our shepherd and guardian or overseer. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is our shepherd and watching over each of us. The word “guardian” comes from Greek word meaning to look after or to over see and care for something/someone. 

In our lectionary readings for today, Jesus tells us how the sheep know who their shepherd is:

1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:1-5)

How do the sheep know who the shepherd is?

  • The shepherd is NOT one who climbs in another way than through the door;
  • The gatekeeper knows the shepherd and opens the door for the shepherd;
  • The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep;
  • The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and recognize his voice; 
  • The shepherd knows each sheep by name – he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out of the cage;
  • After he leads all of them out, he goes ahead of them;
  • The sheep follow him because they know his voice;
  • But the sheep run from strangers because they do not know or recognize the voices of the strangers.  

In our 1 Peter chapter 2 passage, these verses stood out for me:

24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24-25)

What have we done? We, like sheep were going astray.  

And what has Jesus done for us? He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross. 

Why? So that freed from sin, we might live for righteousness

What has happened to us? We have been healed by his wounds.

Since we have been healed by his wounds, now we have returned to the shepherd and the guardian of our souls.

Going back to the Gospel of John passage for a moment, Jesus explains the message he first spoke in a metaphor:

6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:6-10)

Jesus says that he is the gate! It is through Jesus that the sheep enter and leave the cage. All those who claim to be shepherds and guardians of our souls, all who came before Jesus were thieves and bandits, voices that the sheep did not recognize. Jesus is the gate. Whoever enters by Jesus will be saved. With Jesus, when we enter through Jesus, we, the sheep, will come in and go out and find pasture. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” With the shepherd, through the gate, we have pasture, and our shepherd leads us and watches over us.  But the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. With Jesus, the sheep, us, we have life and have life abundantly.

But wait, life is not abundant now? Those of us who have experienced God’s provisions and blessings, know that in the past we have had abundant life. We will soon have life that is abundant in joy, happiness, sense of purpose, and accomplishments. We have life, here and now, and ever after: we have life with Jesus. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  (Psalm 23:1)

Because the Lord is my shepherd, our shepherd, I shall not want because the shepherd provides for all of our physical and spiritual needs. This is true of such a time as this. Psalm 23 was not written only for times when things are going well.  It is precisely for times like this that the Lord is our shepherd and we can testify that we shall not want.  

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. (Psalm 23:4)

Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall not fear. We shall not fear, because our shepherd is with us, the staff and the rod comfort us. 

Let us pray together – Holy Shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, where we celebrate with you forever. Amen.


Pastor Alice 

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