It is one of those rare Sundays that the sermon title I came up with mid-week actually has something to do with the sermon that I am preaching this morning. I really am going to talk about why there are 150 Psalms and why there is a really big flock. Pretty much all week I was feeling burdened and weepy. A second friend and treasured colleague died from COVID last Monday. People in our community are struggling with depression, exhaustion, anxiety about making ends meet, and a restless kind of stuckness because we can’t really plan much for the future. And of course, our community is not unique in this. Feelings go up and down for most of us. The sun rises and sets. Anxieties surge and recede. There are hopeful signs, but the longer we are in this health crisis, in physical isolation from one another, in uncertainty about so much, the harder it has become for many of us.
Because it is my joyful burden to preach every week, to be tangled up with these stories and poems from Scripture, and tangled up with the Spirit, in the midst of my sadness, I was stuck with Psalm 23 running around in my head and heart. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie in green pastures. She leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” This a Psalm of trust. An affirmation of God’s goodness and faithfulness. And even though all these comforting words from the Psalm were speaking in me, I was so not feeling it. What I was feeling was more like a Psalm of lament. I was feeling Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why are you so far from helping me, from helping us; why are you so far from the words of my groaning, from the words of our global groaning”?
That’s when I started thinking about why there are 150 Psalms. Taken all together they express the full range of emotion that we feel as human beings. And they speak the full range of our experience of life with God. Sometimes we live in easy, joyful, restful trust of God. The grass is thick and green on our side of the fence. The waters may ripple in the gentle wind, but mostly they are still, and our hearts contented. Goodness and mercy pursue us like a bounding puppy dog with endless energy. During such times the Psalms that affirm God’s faithful presence, provision, and protection align with our experience.
And there are other times when we and the world go sideways for a little while or a long time, and God seems far away, not mindful, not present, not good, not faithful. Then the Psalms of lament language our pain and suffering. From the cross, near the end, Jesus cries out words from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” This is not a Psalm 23 kind of moment for Jesus. His heart is torn wide open. His words rend the atmosphere. His anguish tears God’s own heart.
Psalms 22 and 23 sit side by side in Scripture. While you are reading the words of lament, out of the corner of your eye you can see the words of trust. These prayer-poems tell the whole truth about what it is to be human—there are times we are at rest and times we struggle; times we feel held by God and times we feel abandoned. That’s why there are 150 Psalms all together, as a single, whole articulation of the breadth of our experience and feelings lived out in our relationship with God. The Psalms give us words, and they shape our own words. Taken together the Psalms remind us that God invites us, expects us, desires us to be real, honest, not-hiding-out in relation to God. We don’t have to mince words. We can say whatever is on our hearts and minds in whatever way we figure out to say it.
Since I was not having a Psalm 23 kind of week, I almost cancelled our Tuesday night Bible study so that I could just stay in my grief and lament and let Psalm 22 speak my experience. And it would have been okay to make that choice. But, my responsible self, my “I’m the minister” self, was saying, “you really shouldn’t cancel.” But even more, my grieving self was saying, “you need to be with the flock tonight. You need the flock.” As the formally installed minister of this congregation, I am the shepherd of this flock. But, I am also always a sheep— a member of God’s flock, known by name, called with others to follow the Good Shepherd.
So, on Tuesday night we all Zoomed in to get tangled up together in the Psalm poem and the gospel story about the Good Shepherd. We were there with each other on computer screens looking like the Hollywood Squares. Three different people read or recited Psalm 23 from memory, followed by a time of silence, then of speaking. And as each person spoke the Psalmist’s words of trust, with their own intonation, from their own life situation, I found myself thinking about the second part of my sermon title: about why there is a really big flock. Not that the flock gathered for Bible study was larger than my 13 inch computer screen could display at once. And, it needn’t be large.
The point is that God gathers all kinds of people, in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages gender varieties, nationalities, sexual orientations, abilities—you name it, God claims it. God loves all whom God has made and gathers us together in gathering us to God’s self. Even though Psalm 23 is written in the first person singular and emphasizes that the Good Shepherd is intimately and caringly connected to every sheep, or every person (to break from the metaphor), the reality is that to be called a shepherd, you have to have more than just one sheep. If you have one sheep, you are just a person with a woolly pet. The Good Shepherd gathers sheep, people, together because it is in our communal being that we share our grief and weep; that we hold and support one another in trusting God, and in following the Good Shepherd on paths of righteousness.
We cannot do it alone. Sometimes it feels like we can barely do it together. Collectively we have and we share one faith in God. Some of the flock bear witness to God’s faithfulness when others of us are in doubt, disappointment, or despair. Some light the path of God’s justice, mercy, and faithful love when others are struggling to find our way. That’s how it works. That’s why we’re together. That’s why my gut told me to go ahead with Bible Study on Tuesday night because I needed to be with this little part of God’s really big flock. To see and hear my sisters and brothers. To be in their company. To feel the goodness of being together at a time when we can feel so alone, and to know that in this being together is the goodness, mercy, and restoring presence of God.
Just as it is with any flock of sheep, we are most at risk when we are separated from the flock. We are most in danger when fear divides and scatters us; when despair causes us to withdraw; or when others push us away for whatever reason. In John’s gospel, the blind man who receives his sight from Jesus is thrown out of the community by the religious leaders. The Pharisees put him out of the sheepfold and close the gate against him. That’s why Jesus says, “I am the gate. I am the opening. I am the entrance.” No one else has the power to prevent access to God or entrance into the community of the Good Shepherd. No one else decides who can come and sit at God’s table and feast on the abundant life that God offers to all the world’s people.
There is so much more that I wanted to say this morning. But I end with this certainty. God sets God’s table in the world. In the presence of those we call enemies. In the presence of those from whom we are separated. In the midst of our divisions and our fears, our longings and our lament, our trust and our mistrust, God prepares a banquet for the world. And all are welcome to come. Jesus—the gate, the Good Shepherd, the lamb of God, the One who cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—Jesus opens the way, breaks all the barriers down, gathers and nourishes through the Spirit to live together as one big flock. Beside still waters. In the valley of the shadow of death. We cannot do it alone. We do not do it alone. All thanks and praise to God–Creator, Son, and Spirit.