Sunday, April 21, 2013

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed (J. Barry Vaughn, Apr. 21, 2013)

At the end of a week in which a small Texas town was almost obliterated by an explosion, two powerful bombs killed three persons and injured more than hundred spectators and participants in the Boston Marathon, and the city of Boston came to a screeching halt for an entire day while police hunted for a terrorist, we need to hear the words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil…”


But we need to hear those words not only because of the terrible events in Boston. We need to hear them because (as another song reminds us), “we are poor little lambs who have lost our way… little black sheep who have gone astray.”


The other song, by the way, is the theme song of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, otherwise known (at least at Harvard) as the Yale fight song.


I want you to listen to the words of Psalm 23 once again:


The LORD is my shepherd ;

I shall not want 

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 

He leadeth me beside the still waters. 

He restoreth my soul: 

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : thou anointest my head with oil; 

My cup runneth over. 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever .


The King James’ version may not be as accurate as some more recent translations, but it can’t be beat for poetry.


I want to stroll slowly with you through several verses of Psalm 23.


The Lord is my shepherd.


The first thing to notice about Psalm 23 is that it presupposes that we are sheep,

so maybe the Whiffenpoofs were on to something. Maybe we really ARE “poor little lambs who have gone astray… little black sheep who have lost our way.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         But it’s not a very flattering image.


I wish the psalmist had said, “The Lord is my lion-tamer” or “The Lord is my falconer” or even “The Lord is my jockey or horse whisperer.”


It would be much nicer to be a lion or a falcon or a thoroughbred horse. But we’re stuck with sheep.


The second thing to notice is who is doing the shepherding, and I’d like you to notice what Psalm 23 does NOT say. It does not say “God is my shepherd.” If you read this psalm from the King James’ version, you will notice that the word “Lord” is in capital letters. The psalmist used the divine name; he addressed God by name.


The psalmist’s God has a name and he invites us to address him by name. The other side of this is that the Good Shepherd not only has a name, but he also addresses us by name.


If we go back to the beginning of the 10th chapter of John’s gospel from which Marguerite read this morning, we would see that Jesus said, The Good Shepherds “calls his sheep by name…”


We worship a God who knows our names and who calls us by our names.


He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 

He leadeth me beside the still waters. 

He restoreth my soul: 

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 


Why do we need the Lord to make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters? Isn’t that just common sense?


We need God to lead us and guide us because, as psychologist Rollo May says “Humans are the strangest of all God’s creatures; they run fastest when they have lost their way.”


We need God to guide us because we have not only lost our way, we are running as fast we can in the wrong direction.


Now, most of us do not look lost. On the contrary, we look as though we have our act together. Most of us have jobs, money in the bank, and friends who care for us. But at some time or other, we have all known what it means to be lost.


It may have happened when the doctor’s office called with the results of a blood test of biopsy; we may have felt lost when we were “downsized” or whatever euphemism was used to explain the fact that we were being fired; it might have happened when we hesitated before signing the divorce papers. But we all know how it feels to be lost.


If you are feeling lost this morning or if you have ever felt lost or if you are afraid that some day you will feel lost, then I have some good news for you.


The first piece of good news is this: Look around you. This church is full of good shepherds. There are people here who will love you if you will let them, who will do their best to find you if you get lost. I have not been here very long, but that is something I already know about Christ Church, Las Vegas. You do a good job of shepherding. This is a place where you can not only find your way; it is a place where you can be found – you can be found by God and you can be found by this community. So let the people of Christ Church be good shepherds to you.


Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me


Psalm 23 is profoundly realistic. Right after we walk beside still waters and through green pastures, we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. Isn’t that what happens in our own lives? The valley of the shadow of death is right next door to the still waters and the green pastures.


Psalm 23 does not tell us that life is perfect, that bad things only happen to people who deserve them.  It tells us that beauty and terror are next door neighbors, but that we are not to fear because God is on our side. And that’s enough.


I want to believe in a loving God, but when terrorists blow up the spectators at the Boston Marathon or an explosion takes the lives of half the volunteer fire department in West Texas or there’s a massive earthquake in China, I wonder. How can you believe in a loving, compassionate God allow this to happen. Perhaps even God’s heart breaks over these tragedies.


Psalm 23 doesn’t promise us that there will be no death but promises us that God walks with us through the valley of death’s dark shadow.  It doesn’t say that we will have no enemies but assures us that God is with us in the presence of our enemies.


I want to conclude on a personal note. Jesus is the good shepherd, not me. But you have asked me to be your shepherd, and I want to be the best shepherd I can be.  I don’t want to let you down, and I certainly don’t want to betray your trust. But I know my own limitations, my weaknesses. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and frightened. Sometimes I feel lost, too. So I’m going to ask you to bear with me, to understand that I don’t have all the answers and can’t do it all.


But I promise you this: I will do my very best. I believe that I can be a good shepherd for you, not because of my own abilities but because I know the Good Shepherd and I will do my best to let him lead me so that I can lead you.


We need shepherds because wherever there are sheep, there are also wolves. Sometimes the wolves are disguised as sheep; sometimes they are disguised as shepherds. Make no mistake: Just as there is some sheep in all of us, there may also be some wolf in all of us.  But I will do everything in my power to guard the sheep from the wolves.


I want you to notice one last thing about today’s readings. The 23rd psalm begins beside still waters and leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. But the reading from the book of Revelation takes us beyond the valley of the shadow into heaven itself. And what do we find in John’s vision of heaven?

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
The shepherd who prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies and led us through the valley of the shadow of death goes before us into heaven. But the shepherd who led us has become the Lamb of God who died for us, who takes away the sin, the brokenness, the lostness of the world.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love You sought me,
And on Your shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.