The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE SHEPHERD PSALM

Delivered 5/6/01
Text: Psalm 23
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There is a 2,000-year-old story that may or may not be apocryphal. It took place when much of the world was unknown and largely unmapped. Cartographers had to have some way of portraying those areas of the earth that were as yet unexplored, so they symbolized these regions by dragons, monsters and large fish. The message was clear. Uncharted territories were frightening, fearsome places. Terrors lay buried there.

But as many maps declared, "There be Treasures" as well. The story is this: one commander of a battalion of Roman soldiers was caught up in a battle that took him into the territory that the mapmakers had represented with their monsters and dragons. Not knowing whether to forge ahead into the unknown, or turn back into the known, which would also be a retreat, he dispatched a messenger to Rome with this urgent request: "Please send new orders. We have marched off the map."(1)

Ever feel like that? That you have marched off the map into uncharted waters as we go beyond the technological map, the political map, the economic map, the environmental map, the ethical map, the relationship map or virtually whatever map you can think of? How can we possibly hope to navigate? With help, that's how. With the help of an old and trusted friend.

The friend to whom I refer is the Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23. "The Lord is my shepherd..." Probably as well-known and well-loved as any portion of scripture. Generations have memorized it, in Sunday School or at the knee of parents or grandparents. It is one of the first Bible passages we learn, and, as often as we hear it funerals, it is among the last words said over us when we die. It is a wonderful affirmation of our faith in God's ability to protect, to guide through unfamiliar, "uncharted" territory.

"The Lord is my shepherd..." Someone has suggested that this is a psalm of faith that covers present, past, and future.

"The Lord IS my shepherd"...right now. Not was nor will be. And because the Lord is looking out for me right now, "I shall not be in want" - I have everything I need.

"He makes me lie down" - I get my proper rest because someone who knows I need it is watching out for me. "In green pastures" - surroundings that lend themselves to comfort and allow me to relax, be nourished, and be myself. "He leads me" - I do not have to find my own way; I have a trustworthy guide. "Beside quiet (or still) waters" - because sheep cannot drink from a fast-moving stream. "He restores my soul" - when I am down, he brings me up. "He guides me in paths of righteousness (or 'in right paths') for his name's sake" - I am not ever going to be left to fend for myself, not because I am so special, but rather this is my shepherd's nature. I am protected simply because the shepherd is the shepherd. My shepherd takes care of me. In the here and now.

My shepherd has taken care of me in the past. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death"...not if I walk, but when I walk...and we know those valleys do come in all our lives...

Yes, the valleys have been there, and I had to make my way through them. Sometimes my hair was not anointed with oil, but grimed with grease. Sometimes I was not lying in green pastures but flailing about in blue funks. Sometimes I was not resting by the shore of still waters but struggling in the valley of dark shadows - perhaps a valley into which I was born, a valley of poverty, or abuse, or disability. Or perhaps I was born into the green pastures of plenty and managed to dig my own shadowy valleys -- with drugs or alcohol, or violence, or ignorance.(2) Utterly foolish. But then I noticed again I was not alone; the shepherd was my companion. "I fear no evil; for you are with me." Once I remembered that, I was able to be confident in the face of adversity.

Why? "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." The rod was a gnarled club the shepherd used as a weapon to defend against desert marauders, both animal and human. The staff was the crook that could be used to rescue one who had fallen from the path. Yes, it IS a comfort to know that your protector has the tools at his disposal to do the protecting.

My shepherd has done such a good job that I have been able to live with confidence even in full view of those who would bring me down. It is as though "You prepare a [banquet] table before me in the presence of my enemies" - they are powerless to do anything about it; all they can do is watch. And your care has been lavish: "You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." All that I could ever ask and more, my shepherd provides.

And that is why I can look to the future with such assurance. "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life." After all, they have been with me all along; I cannot imagine them being gone. "And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." My destiny is sure. My present, my past, my future...secure. And all because "THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD."

We need that reminder from time to time. After all, in a world as frantic as our own, it is easy to feel as if we have marched off life's map, and we are at the mercy of the monsters and dragons. But now, we find ourselves in this sacred space. We hear again the familiar phrases of the Shepherd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd..." And we hear an invitation to the Shepherd's table - a morsel of bread, a sip of wine - in the hectic pace, a moment of peace. And in our heart of hearts we know again, "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

Amen!


1. "The Six Longest Short Verses in the Bible," Homiletics, 5/7/95

2. ibid.

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