A Sheep of Your Own Fold
Rev. Christa Fuller Burns
Faith Presbyterian Church
Psalm 23 – April 22, 2018
Psalm 23 is the most requested scripture at a funeral and I am always impressed when I look out at a congregation so diverse, a congregation that includes Christians and non-Christians, young and old, people from different nationalities and I see that they all , all of them, are saying together the 23rd Psalm. Why, do we think, the 23rd Psalm is so beloved? After all, its images are archaic. Shepherds, green pastures and still waters are surely becoming things of the past. Anointing a head with oil – who does that? A rod and a staff that comfort me – who knows what a rod and a staff are?
I find myself this week thinking about death. The poet wrote that
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.” (T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland)
Perhaps it is because it is April that I think about death. It should be Easter, after all. It should be about life and new life.
Sometimes, though, the world is too much with us here and now, as another poet put it and one feels overwhelmed by the front page of the paper with its pictures of fathers carrying their gassed children in their arms, like a shepherd would carry a sheep. Yes, like a shepherd would carry a sheep. Then there was the picture of the patch of burnt grass where a man had immolated himself because of what we are doing to the earth. One day there was a picture of the whale that washed up on a beach, dead, with its stomach full of plastic bags. We read this week about the sewage runoff into the Jones Falls caused by so much rain. Sometimes, the anguish over who we are is just so acute. Who are we? Who are we that human beings are sprayed with chlorine? Who are we that we treat the earth as if it were dispensable? Who are we that convenience is more valuable than a whale?
I heard on the radio this week someone talking about the German word “fernweh” which means, literally, distance sickness. For some people fernweh is the image of a beloved place, like the wide meadows of Scotland. For some, though, fernweh is a longing for a place you’ve never been, a homesickness for other places. I wonder if the allure of the 23rd Psalm is that it summons up for us a longing for a place where there are even now still waters, and green pastures, a place where we are safe. Perhaps Psalm 23 is a fernweh.
The Lord is my shepherd. Even though, for Americans, shepherds are a quaint memory, in many parts of the world sheepherding is still practiced in the same way it always has been. In the middle of the Sahara in Morocco, I saw shepherds herding their flocks with nothing but a stick. I wondered what on earth those sheep were finding to eat in all that sand. We know that the psalmist may very well have had another image of shepherd in mind. In the ancient Middle East, kings were depicted as shepherds. Imagine that! The president of the United States depicted as a shepherd carrying a little helpless lamb! Jesus described himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The earliest depictions of Jesus on catacomb walls are images of a shepherd carrying a lamb. Can we imagine, then, this place where we are safely protected by a shepherd who has only our best interests at heart? In the shepherd’s care, we will not want for anything?
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. We imagine, in our fernweh, a world in which the green land and the water are pure and undefiled. We won’t have to worry about chemical contamination of our water supply or what pipelines will do to the land or that our natural treasures are being sold off to oil companies or that our food comes from animals who feed on polluted land…in our fernweh.
There is a shift in the grammar of Psalm 23 in verse 4 and God is no longer referred to as other. In verse 1 we read: The Lord is my shepherd. But in verse 4 we read: I fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. Some have suggested that the psalmist’s true faith is communicated when God becomes close and personal: You are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me. What is interesting is that this shift in God-language comes precisely when we move away from the idyllic fernweh garden and find ourselves in the darkest of valleys in the presence of enemies.
Perhaps, then, the reason we find Psalm 23 so important is that it does not suggest that we always live in fernweh, that pure land that is undefiled. Rather, the psalmist admits that there are dark valleys, there is abuse, and there is evil and there are enemies. It is precisely when we live in the real world, not in that mythical land of pure water and abundant green, it is precisely when we face the worst that human kind can do that God becomes “you” and is personal and close and real.
It is precisely at that moment when a loved one dies and our world is torn apart and our hearts are broken and we are in the darkest valley that God is close: You are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.
I admit it. Even though the sun is out and the red bud outside my window is in bloom, I am thinking about death this week. It is the anniversary of my husband’s death, for one thing. I had forgotten that Barbara Bush lost a child, Robin, and I am imagining what that must have been like. Former parishioners of mine lost their only child to cancer this past week. She was young, in her twenties, and engaged to be married. I don’t know what words were and will be said at their funerals. Perhaps they will read the 23rd Psalm and they will be comforted by the imagination of a green place with pure water where there will be a shepherd that watches over them. Or perhaps they will recognize the darkest valley. Perhaps they will be comforted by the psalmist’s description of the enemies we all face. Yet even in the presence of life’s opponents, even there God prepares a table for us and feeds us and anoints us with warm oil, bestowing on us affirmation and more than affirmation. In our sorrow and pain, God will confer on us a confidence in our ability to go on. That is what the anointing with oil means.
When we read the words, those personal words, about how “you” are with us, will we recognize that, for us, God is as near as our breathing in and breathing out and will we realize how strong our faith actually is…so strong that we know surely God intends goodness for us all the days or our lives?
I’ve said the 23rd Psalm a gazillion times and only just now thought about that change in grammar in the 4th verse. Even though we may not have thought about it, I wonder if that is why the psalm is so beloved. It describes the kind of faith we want to have and the kind of God we want to have.
I do not know if they will recite the 23rd Psalm at these funerals. No matter what is read at a funeral, I always end the service with the commendation in which we commend the deceased’s life to God and I always use one particular wording:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints of light.
In this April time when the world seems oddly cruel and exquisitely beautiful, when we face what damage we’ve done to the earth and to ourselves and we find ourselves in dark valleys surrounded by any number of enemies, may we recognize the shepherd who calls to us across the field, who sets an abundant table no matter where we are, and who, in the end, carries us home.