On faith: Finding hope in our good shepherd
By: Rev. Susan Berge, Knife River Lutheran Church, Lake County News Chronicle
This past Sunday, many church groups that share the Revised Common Lectionary had the familiar and beloved 23rd Psalm as a Scripture text, the serene and beautiful psalm that expresses trust in God as our Shepherd. While putting together a sermon on this text, I couldn’t help but notice how Psalm 23 stood in stark contrast to the events of the preceding week; events that were neither serene nor beautiful. There was the terrorist attack in Boston that killed several, including an eight-year old child, and cruelly maimed many more. Poison laced letters were sent through our postal system to a senator and to our president. A fertilizer factory fire in Texas killed 14 and injured dozens. Dangerous and extreme weather ranging from blizzards to tornados to flooding dominated large sections of our nation. And then there was the suspenseful man hunt for the second suspect in the Boston bombings which kept many of us glued in horrified fascination to our television sets. All of this just doesn’t sound much at all like the world of the 23rd psalm as we typically picture it.
Of course, it may be that our picture of that 23rd Psalm world is a little romanticized, a little skewed. Although essentially sunny at its heart, this psalm does acknowledge a world without sunshine. And if it was indeed written by David, as tradition suggests, he was a man whose life was filled with more drama and trauma than even our violent and dysfunctional culture could easily match. This psalm reflects not only the green pastures and still waters, but also the valleys of life; valleys filled with shadow, deaths, fear, evil, and the presence of our enemies. And yet, while acknowledging the reality of all of that, David is still able to maintain within his sacred psalm, “I shall not fear”. His attitude comes from a deep trust in God as his Shepherd.
We might wonder how we can discover the kind of trust that allows us to not be overcome by fear, death, evil, or enemies. The literary structure of this psalm helps provide the answer. Biblical scholars have shown that in the original Hebrew, the center of this Psalm 23 is in verse 4—-“though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” And the center of that central verse is the single all-important word, “Thou”, as we read it in the majestic language of the King James Version. Hebrew writers worked with numbers in their writings. In Psalm 23, there are 26 Hebrew words before that “Thou” and 26 words after it. That “Thou” referring to God, and that verse, referring to God’s presence with us, are literally the central point of this psalm. Clearly, this is an intentional effort to reveal the core conviction that allowed David to live trustingly, rather than fearfully. “Thou art with me,” David rejoices. About 1000 years after David, a baby is born to a poor family in Israel, and the parents are told by an angel of their child—“He shall be called Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us”. This is the core conviction of this beloved psalm that changes and shapes how we perceive the grim news of our times, because simply put, we are not alone. It is the core conviction that lies behind the birth of Christ, our Emmanuel, that comforts us even when facing hardship and death: “Thou art with me.” God’s constant presence as our Good Shepherd gives us hope.
Rev. Susan Berge is the pastor at Knife River Lutheran Church. She lives in Duluth with her husband, two dogs and a cat.