Lent 4 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 19 March 2023 | 1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23| Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our shepherd. Amen.

Friends, we are more than half way on our journey of Lent. This Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare means rejoice. This Sunday is a chance to catch our breath and remember that Eastertide is on the way, even though we’re still in Lent. Springtime is on the way, despite the snow this morning. Resurrection is on the way, even if we find ourselves in the midst of grief. 

And today we pray the beloved Psalm 23. It’s a Psalm that has comforted the dying and the grieving and those in peril. Many of us know it by heart in the King James Version, whether or not that’s the Bible we grew up with. It’s a Psalm that gives us a glimpse of joy even when we’re still in the thick of it.

And so we’ll look at the psalmist’s faith that God is with us even when all is not well. And we’ll look at the Psalmist’s vision of God’s care for us, and the ways God wants to help make things well, the ways God wants to lead us into joy and abundance and rest. And we’ll reflect a little on how we might be called to receive God’s shepherding love for us in this season, and how we might be called to be good shepherds to each other.

The first thing I want us to notice about Psalm 23 today is that this Psalm already knows that all is not well with the world. Even as this Psalm expresses a deep faith in God’s goodness, it’s not written with naïve expectations that everything will be easy.

The valley of the shadow of death is right in the middle of the Psalm. It’s not always green pastures and still waters. The Psalmist’s enemies even make it in here—there are people who want to cause hurt and harm. And the Psalm doesn’t turn away from either of those things.

We have the valley of the shadow of death, which is a mythic, larger-than-life image of the hardships that come to us in this mortal existence: death and loss, and all the fear we experience knowing that we will die someday, and that so much of what we love is vulnerable to loss. So much of what makes us happy can be taken away. The valley of the shadow of death is not something we can avoid in this life, though we may feel we’re in it more intensely sometimes than others.

And then we have the Psalmist’s enemies, maybe an image of those more particular and petty struggles. Maybe these are the conflicts could have been avoided if people had been kinder, or if we’d been wiser. But they’re not always avoided; they’re still in the picture for the Psalmist.

Yet in the valley of the shadow of death and amid the threat of enemies, God is there. God does not make these difficult things go away, but God is with us to lead us and to feed us even there. Sometimes there’s no other way but through the valley. And yet, God is always, always with us.

As we come toward holy week, we are preparing to celebrate God’s presence with us even in death. We confess our faith in a God who became human in Jesus “to live and die as one of us” as our prayer at communion says. God is with us even when we are at our worst as humans, and even when we are facing the hardest parts of being human.

And God gives us courage because we know that we’re not alone in what we face. The Psalmist says, “I will not fear, for you are with me.” All of us are afraid sometimes. And a little fear is sometimes a good thing; it might help us avoid some of those dangers we can avoid. And yet, because God is with us, fear doesn’t have to be our way of life, even when we know that some dangers can’t be escaped.

We can walk with courage because our shepherd is with us even when all is not well, and we are far from thriving, and when (as the 1928 Prayer book says) “there is no health in us.” God is our shepherd even then, and God is always with us.

And at the same time, we see in Psalm 23 that God wants to lead us toward our flourishing. God wants to make all things well for us. God wants us to have what we need and more. God wants us to rest and enjoy. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters; he restoreth my soul; my cup runneth over.”

These images of beauty and plenty and peace remind me of Isaiah’s prophetic visions of the world God wants to bring about. It’s a world where everyone has enough, and all hurts are healed, and all creatures can enjoy the beauty of God’s gifts together. It’s a resurrection world where death doesn’t get the last word.

It’s a glimpse of the life where God wants to lead us. The green pastures and still waters are what God wants for us. It’s abundance—there’s plenty to eat and drink. It’s beauty—enjoying the peaceful and lovely parts of God’s world. And friends, it’s also rest. And I hear so much exhaustion in our community; rest is something we need.

I hear the tiredness from teachers and healthcare workers and students and parents. Folks who work in demanding jobs are tired. A lot of retired folks are tired too. Folks who do the hard and holy work of caring for family members are tired. Folks struggling with food insecurity are extra tired right now as they try to meet their family’s needs. Folks dealing with health crises are tired. I’m tired too even though I’m well and have everything I need. And sometimes it’s a lot of work to be a person and to be aware and to witness this world’s troubles.

Now, a Psalm is holy poetry, and I don’t want to reduce it to advice or directions, because it’s more than that. But at the same time, when I read this Psalm in light of the exhaustion I see in this community, “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures” really looks to me like God wants us all to take a nap if we need one. There is much more to the Psalm than “go take a nap.” But I do firmly believe that God longs for us all to flourish and be well, and resting is part of that.

Our value and our purpose in God’s sight are more than the work that we do. We are not just here to accomplish things—though our accomplishments can be good and worthy, and part of the paths of righteousness in which God wants to lead us. And this may be controversial: we are not here just to help others—though helping others is part of our calling as we share God’s dream for everyone to flourish.

Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse of purpose other than being useful. Maybe we are here to walk with God and follow God’s leading. Maybe we are here to witness God’s presence in the good and the bad. Maybe we are here to delight in the gifts God wants to give us. And so maybe our rest is just as good and holy as our work. Maybe we are called to lie down and rest instead of get up and do another thing. Maybe we are called to pause and let goodness and mercy catch up to us.

And so as we continue this holy season of Lent, I invite us to listen for where God might be leading us toward rest and joy.

I invite us to reflect on what the path of righteousness might look like for us in this season—because it doesn’t always look the same. Maybe we are called to prayer or study or listening. Maybe we are called to go outside and enjoy creation. Maybe we can enjoy the beauty God has given us through one another’s creativity in music and art and literature. Maybe this week we’ll taste God’s goodness in a delicious meal. Or maybe we’ll lie down for a God-given nap.

And perhaps we’ll be called to be good shepherds to others as God has been a good shepherd to us. Perhaps we’ll be called to share what we have so that someone else’s cup can run over instead of running dry. Perhaps we are even called to walk with someone through the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps we’ll see a moment to offer rest or joy to someone else, knowing God wants us all to have rest and joy.

So friends, let us listen for the leading of our good shepherd. Let us claim the goodness God offers for ourselves, and let us share it with others freely. Amen.

Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon, The Good Shepherdess.