Lent 4, April 3, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known passage of Scripture. It is used almost universally at funerals! Appropriate as it may be for funerals, it has something to say to us today as well, on this 4th Sunday of Lent. In contrast to today, originally it is believed that it was probably used as a psalm of thanksgiving. It was probably used at a feast or dinner party thrown by a worshipper who has made a thanksgiving offering to the Lord in the temple, and has gathered later together with family and friends to share in the meal provided by the sacrificial animal.
What does Psalm 23 have to say to us on this day, the 4th Sunday of Lent? Let’s look at the images and the flow of this beloved psalm.
There are two primary images in this psalm. Throughout the Old Testament a shepherd is an image for a king. A good king was supposed to provide for and protect his people, as a shepherd is supposed to provide for and protect his flock. David, a good king, is called the Shepherd of Israel, and in Ezekiel the prophet rails against the shepherds of the people that instead of protecting and feeding, consume and scatter the flock. Bad times come on the life of the flock when the shepherd is hardly distinguishable from the wolf!
Verses 2 and 3 tell us how the Lord is shepherd. The phrase, "He revives my soul," can be perhaps better translated, "He keeps me alive." He provides those things which a sheep needs to stay healthy and thrive: He provides pasture in which the sheep can feed,
He provides water that they can drink, and he provides a safe place for them to rest. He does so "for His name sake," that is, because it is of His nature to do so. It comes naturally. For us Christians, Jesus tells us in John 10 that He is the fulfillment of what even David pre-figured. It reminds us that in His death and resurrection He cares for us in ways no earthly king or shepherd ever could, and that in the life of the Church we have all that we need to be part of Jesus' flock.
The scene shifts in the last part of the psalm to the scene of host. The language shifts from third person to second. Now, as the worshipper is host to his family and friends, he reminds himself and all present that really God is the host, and he is the guest, provided for in the presence of threat (enemies) who, because of God's presence, are rendered harmless. The word, "follow" in vs. 6 is better translated, "pursue." God's goodness and mercy shall pursue the worshipper, as he dwells in the presence of God forever. God the heavenly host actively engages us, tries hard to get our attention, seeks to impinge upon our lives. God wants us!
It seems that in all the psalms of Lent there is a hinge, a turning point at which we turn from adoration to a more Lenten theme. In this psalm such a point also exists. You may have wondered why the psalmist talks about the shepherd's rod and staff. We normally think about the shepherd's crook by which he can pull wayward sheep back into the flock.
But that dates from the Middle Ages. This is a more ancient, and perhaps less accessible image. Arnobius the Younger, a bishop of the 5th century in Gaul, is known mainly for his commentary on the Psalms. He writes, “He has a rod by which he warns the delinquent ones. He has a staff by which he succors the penitent.” I remember hearing a meditation on this psalm that keyed off that little image of the rod and staff. The author drew out that little distinction and then said, "Lord, please, a little less rod and a little more staff!" And that is the significance of this Psalm on this Sunday.
4th Sunday of Lent traditionally called "Mothering Sunday." It comes from the traditional Roman Catholic lectionary that assigned to this day the Gospel lesson about the true mother, sisters and brothers of Christ to be the ones that keeps His word. We are brothers and sisters of Christ, and the church is the mother of the Christian, that nurtures him or her in the life of grace. The lectionary has changed and we did not read that Gospel lesson, but this Psalm is very fitting. Again, Arnobius the Younger writes, “We have in the previous psalm the tribulation of the passion. In this one let us receive the joy of the resurrection.” There is a shift today. The focus is not so much on the disciplines of Lent but on their end, the light of Easter is just beginning to dawn on the liturgical horizon.
Today we shift from rod to staff. Lord, a little less rod and a little more staff! I am hoping that for you who are participating in our Lenten program this year. You will find that it offers some of each. If you are doing the Love Dare there is some rod. It is not always easy to do what will enhance your marriage. It will challenge your ways of being and doing. But there is also some staff. There is the response of your spouse, the enhanced love and respect you have for one another, and the beauty of renewal. The same applies if you are doing the Fireproof Your Life program. There will be the disciplines of a more orderly lifestyle patterned on your faith, and there will also be the joys of a clearer mind, conscience and perhaps even calendar!
For those of you who are not, the same principle applies. The disciplines of Lent are not meant to beat you down. You are not merely scum on which the Prince of Heaven deigns to honor you by placing his divine foot on your neck. They are meant to make you a better person and a better Christian, better able to live the meaning of your faith in this world, better able to share in the redemption of your world.
The substance of the Christian hope is this: As surely as Easter follows Good Friday, rod will always be followed by staff.