[This is the manuscript of a version of the sermon I preached on July 14, 2019 at Christ Church of Austin. The audio can be found here.]
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
One of the most striking things about the Psalms is how honestly and realistically they depict raw human emotions – especially when it comes to fear. Some of us of a certain age or generation might have grown up in an environment in which expressing emotion was discouraged and frowned upon. Maybe it was considered immature or a sign of foolishness. Maybe this wasn’t explicitly taught, but it might have been implied. By contrast, we’re living in a time today in our culture in which this is becoming less common. And conversely, increasingly, society tells us to express our feelings and let our feelings be our sole guide and to totally trust them. Authenticity is the highest value, you might say.
But interestingly, the Psalms actually instruct us to do neither of these things. They neither suggest that we should suppress and control our emotions, nor that we should totally surrender to them. Rather, they model for us how we can pray our emotions. How we can lay them bare before God and offer them up. And this is especially true in the case of fear, I would say. Neither repressing nor overidentifying with or being led by our fears, but praying our fears. Naming our fears. Confessing our fears, and asking God to deliver us from our fears. Praying our fears.
In the context of Psalm 23, shepherding was often strongly associated with rulers and the gods. While we are usually accustomed to singing or praying this psalm as a private expression of God’s goodness and our trust in him as individuals – and this isn’t bad — there is also a political dimension to it. Biblical scholar Alasdair Roberts observes that here we see another dimension of the psalm that is often overlooked: this is a psalm attributed to the anointed leader of YHWH’s people.
The image of shepherding plays an important role in Israel’s history and sense of identity as well.The patriarchs were shepherds. Israel was led like a flock through the wilderness in the Exodus, with the shepherd Moses striking their enemies with the rod (cf. Isaiah 63:11-13). David himself, to whom this psalm is attributed, was called away from being a shepherd to become Israel’s King.
The fact that the king, himself regarded as the shepherd of his people, would look to YHWH as a weak sheep looks to its shepherd is a striking image of dependency. Comparing this with our own political leaders, who typically project a public image of confident assurance in their own sufficiency before the struggles and dangers facing our nations, the difference is stark and notably counterculture.
Some of you may already know this, but for a long time I didn’t. Probably about seven years ago, I learned that the command, “do not fear,” “do not be afraid,” or “fear not!”, is stated more than 365 times in Scripture by some counts – more than any other command in Scripture. This seems like a big deal! Why is this the case? Shouldn’t it be something else, like one of the Ten Commandments: don’t lie or bear false witness, don’t covet, don’t steal, etc.?
But if you think about it, why would we ever lie, covet or steal? Is it not because we’re afraid of something? Because we’re afraid of what will happen if the truth gets out? If we don’t have enough? If someone else has more or better things and experiences? My only theory as to why this particular command shows up so much in Scripture is because the emotion of fear seems to be the emotion that most frequently has the power to lead us to into sin. It doesn’t have to! But it very frequently does.
Now, fear along with maybe anger, is arguably the most primordial emotion that we experience. It’s the one we share with virtually all other creatures. It’s the emotion that alerts us to danger and threats, or the perception at least of danger or something that could harm us or our family group.And for this reason, fear is not necessary a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite good and is vital in many situations. It’s essential for our survival at many levels and helps know how to stay safe, protected and secure…
Our most vivid memories are born in Fear. Adrenaline etches them into our brains. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than fear.
Marketers and politicians are masters of capitalizing on human fears for their own gains, aren’t they? They’ve done their research on this. They use fear as a motivator as often as they can.
Fear is powerful. In fact, some would claim that fear is the most powerful motivating force in the world. Nothing potentially unites and divides people quite like fear does, whether for good or evil purposes…
Because of this, fear also has the most enduring emotional staying power in our bodies – not just our minds. Our bodies literally remember anything that was terrifying or traumatic. Indeed, our bodies remember in many cases, better than our minds. Of course, our bodies and our minds are inseparable, so already to distinguish them so much is potentially misleading.
The spiritual writer and teacher Eckhart Tolle has written about this and uses the phrase “pain-body” to refer to our ego, our human psyche. This accumulated pain is a negative energy field that occupies your body and mind. It’s the emotional pain-body. A pain-body may be dormant 90 percent of the time, but many of us will experience it in intimate relationships, or situations linked with past loss or abandonment, physical or emotional hurt, and so on.
The pain-body, which is the dark shadow cast by the ego, is actually afraid of the light of your consciousness.It is afraid of being found out. Its survival depends on your unconscious identification with it, as well as on your unconscious fear of facing the fear that lives in you. But if we don’t face it, if we don’t bring the fear of our consciousness into the light, we will be forced to repeatedly relive it.
And again, this isn’t something we can think your way out of. We have to prayit. We have to prayour way through it.
When I was very young – I think about 4 years old– I went to the gym with my dad and my brother and we were playing, my brother and I, while my dad was working out. We were playing in a racquetball court without glass walls. It was a court with without any windows. And somehow, at one point, my brother walked out of the court and the door closed behind him, and the door was being kept open by a towel, because the handle to open the door was one of those tricky ones that you have like pop the lever out and the twist it in order to open it.
And so I got stuck in the racquetball court for what seemed like an eternity, when in fact it was probably not more than just a few minutes. But I was terrified. I was screaming and crying because I thought I was going to be locked in there forever and I’d never see my family again. Someone heard me and let me out, and then I found my dad and my brother, and everything was ok. And I’ve never really been a racquetball player until the last few years when I was living in Waco. And was playing somewhat regularly with some friends while living in Waco. And there are a few courts that don’t have glass walls around them and that you can’t see out of them.
So I remember this experience from when I was young every time I go into a racquetball court, but especially racquetball courts that looks like the one I was in when I was that young. My body tells me, my body remembers: “This place isn’t safe. This place made you very afraid one time, so be careful! Be on alert! Something bad could happen here…”
Now, this is a very tame example of what some people experience in much more intense and severe or disturbing ways — if they’ve had high level traumatic experiences that were actually life threatening or violent. But again, something as mild as my racquetball court experience, which my adult mind can now rationalize, was nonetheless recalled 30 years later by my emotional memory – my painbody. How much more so for serious trauma? This is not something we can handle or overcome with our minds.
Something that most of you probably don’t know about me is that my doctoral dissertation, which will be published as a book soon, that no one will read– seriously, it’s completely an academic formality – my books about drug war and drug-trade-related violence in Latin America and a Christian theological analysis and response to it, including a call to churches in North America about what we can do about it. So I pay a lot of attention to the media and not only what’s happening in current events but also the ways that entertainment industry portrays the conflict and educates people on what’s going on.
And one of the most popular shows that deals with this topic is a Netflix original television series called Narcos.The fourth season just got released this last year, and it’s very well done. However, I’m not endorsing it. As you can imagine, there’s some fairly graphic and violence content, and I mainly watch for educational purposes… I promise it’s not entertaining at all 🙂
In the Fourth Season, the protagonist in the story is Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo who rises to power to become the head of the Guadalajara cartel.That much of the show is historically accurate. And in the fifth episode, he travels to Colombia to make a deal with another cartel there but gets intercepted by Pablo Escobar on his way back. I don’t think this incident actually happened and the creative license on the part of the writers is in full effect, but it’s great.
Before trying to make a different deal with Felix, Pablo insists on knowing why Felix wants to expand his business in partnership with South America. He already has an empire in place in Mexico and political officials cooperating with him, with no competitors or real threats even from the U.S. government, who is completely preoccupied with the Cold War. Getting bigger is only going to attract more attention and create more problems for him. Pablo Escobar knows this, so he asks Felix, why are you doing this?
Felix proceeds to tells Pablo about losing his first wife to Leukemia at 22 and having to watch her die slowly. And after a long pause, he says:
“You have to take control of this [godforsaken] world, or it will control you. And if you don’t protect yourself, it makes a mess and breaks you.”
I mean, who doesn’t feel this way sometimes? I know I do. This is a serious and sober account of things. You know, Christians have done a pretty good job talking about our sinfulness, but sometimes I don’t think we spend enough time honestly acknowledging the tragic, brutal and suffering nature of life. There’s beauty and goodness too, don’t get me wrong, but life is hard, devastating really.
One the one hand, this moment really humanizes an individual who could otherwise very easily be deeply despised for the terrible crimes he’s committed for selfish gain. He’s afraid just like us. And there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying!
On the other hand, though, he’s wrong about something that’s critical. There’s no taking control of this world! But he believes the lie that he can take control. That he can get to a place of invulnerability.
Reinhold Niebuhr said it this way: We’re finite beings, but we have infinite desires, so one of our great temptations, is to deny our finitude by chasing after our infinite desires for security, influence, status – whatever it might be, and no matter the consequences. Refusing to live within our limits, in other words.
For Felix, this fear came from being deeply hurt by the loss of his wife, and he was afraid of being hurt again. And I don’t know if there’s anything more potentially destructive in the world than a powerful, wounded, and fearful.
Now, some scholars have suggested that it’s actually very helpful to read Psalm 23 alongside the Psalm that comes right before it – Psalm 22– and I’m not going to do that now because it’s fairly lengthy, but Psalm 22 begins with the infamous cry of dereliction repeated by Jesus from the cross as his final words in the Gospel of Mark:“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It continues in the next two verses:
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Felix Gallardo felt forsaken when his wife died. Mayra and her father felt forsaken. Maybe we have felt forsaken at times. And did not even Jesus experience this same feeling of forsakenness on the cross? But what does he do? He prays his fears.
Psalm 23 is spoken by one who knows fresh pain. It’s prayed by someone who recently walked through the darkest valley, and has emerged, trembling and stumbling. Psalm 23 offers assurance in the very places where Psalm 22’s lament lacks it, but we can’t separate the two.
To think of shepherding probably calls to mind peaceful scenes of rolling hills and beautiful countryside.But biblical representations of shepherding are a little different. In John 10, when Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, unlike the hired hand,we learn that the good shepherd never abandons his flock, and is prepared to drive away predators, bandits, thieves – and to navigate hostile terrain. The Good Shepherd is even willing to suffer violent death – godforsakenness – for the sake of his flock. As Jesus says, He lays down his life for his sheep.
I have a friend and former student from Baylor who’s a pastor of a church in Central San Antonio, and his church is very involved in caring for families that are seeking asylum and fleeing drug-trade-related violence in Central America. An article he wrote about this was just published in Christianity today last month. And when these families come here, to put it bluntly, they’re traumatized – one way or another: Rape, robbery, death of loved ones, separation from loved ones without knowing where they are or when they’ll be reunited again if ever, hunger, thirst, sickness, and unsanitary living conditions for weeks and even months on end up – these things are the norm for these families.
And just to be clear, I don’t share this with you from any kind of partisan political perspective but to illustrate the harm and hurt that can be produced by fear. It’s taken many of these families tremendous courage to leave their homes in the first place.But because of some of what they’ve gone through, they often struggle when they get here with fear that’s almost paralyzing.
In the article, my friend tells a story of listening to a young woman named Mayra praying with her father who’s about to be deported, and she says:
“Papa, repeat after me,” Mayra said. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I will not want.” His hand trembled while she kept her eyes closed. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul.” The daughter he had taught to pray was now leading him. Eventually his voice came, raspy, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“When our church started caring for traumatized migrants, we witnessed the healing power of praying the Scriptures,” Garland says.
Now, the word courage doesn’t show up in Psalm 23. But surely encouragement is one of the aims of this passage: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” Other translations say, “I lack nothing.” Or as the Message translation says, “My God, my shepherd, I don’t need a thing!”
Notice too that verse 5 shows God’s extravagant care and shifts the imagery, from shepherd to host. As a host who gives refuge to the psalmist surrounded by enemies. God offers abundant food and drink, as well as the assurance of safety. The expression “my cup overflows” indicates abundance! Not just enough.
So the encouragement here, to have courage, does not imply the absence of fear or even necessarily the overcoming of it, but the willingness and the God-given ability to move forward with fear without it controlling us or keeping us from doing what we’re called to…You feel the fear of something, but then the Spirit reminds you of what is more important and of what matters most– even more than having enough power, security, significance, approval…. The Spirit redirects us to an open-handed, open-hearted response and posture of receiving God’s love that trusts and then takes courage and extend that same love to others.
Our bishop Todd Hunter likes to say, I’m always safe in the Kingdom of God. I’ve said this to myself too, but for me I usually adapt it a bit to whatever my specific fear is. “In the Kingdom of God, I always have enough.” In the Kingdom of God, there are plenty of resources. In the Kingdom of God, no one can hurt me or my family. And this is where we live now. The Kingdom has come near.
If the Lord is not your shepherd, friends, then you don’t have one. You’ll just try to make your own – but to no avail. The courage given in Psalm 23 isn’t a promise of no evil or suffering, but the promise of God’s presence and ultimate deliverance in the midst of it. And the deliverance is true, it’s real. Whatever preys upon us, individually and as communities, we are not defeated, because God is withus. Imagine if we lived as if we really knew this truth, as if we really feared no evil, because our trust is in God. Imagine where no longer being driven by our fear might take us. Imagine if we, the vulnerable flock of the divine, knew ourselves forever to be pursued by the goodness and mercy of God.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. – Raine Rilke