8 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. Betsy Tesi
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23;
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.
St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury
In six weeks, you should ask me more about the pilgrimage. Right now, I’m still exhausted, fighting the desire to spend most of the day on a couch. After 12 days of constant receipt tracking, budget crunching, map checking, travel grouping, and pilgrim guarding and guiding, I am totally beat. Throughout pilgrimage, I was so aware that we were entrusted with the youth who might choose to become part of the church’s future. (Not to mention with the lives of other people’s kids!) We faced pickpockets, London cabbies, and tiny pubs which could not feed a group of our size. (Hungry priests are terrifying.) There were certainly times I wish I could have had a shepherd’s rod and staff to keep our youth safely within the bounds of the sidewalk or to smack away whoever those strange people were in that gazebo. And ironically, sometimes I forgot entirely that it would not come down to just our human agency. God was present throughout our journey to guard and guide us.
It’s quite appropriate, then, that we hear Psalm 23 today, post-Pilgrimage. I know it’s unusual for us to preach on the psalm. I don’t yet know how it will be interpreted at the different services. Is it possible to preach on a biblical text when all of our services will hear it in different ways? In this case, I think it works with the spirit of the psalm. Psalm 23 has been paraphrased, re-translated, and set to many different musical settings. Yet still, this is perhaps the best known psalm in the world. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall want nothing. I will be led to green pastures and clear waters. On the surface, the song sings of a paradise where we will be led, where sufferers are removed from their present ‘real world’ full of its pain and suffering. The psalm assures us that the Lord is our shepherd, and he guides us and guards us. Many people ask for it at their funerals and many families read this to dying members.
Yet Psalm 23 is not actually about death and a future paradise. It’s about taking comfort in a God who seeks our safety and security here, who guards and guides us every day, and comforts us right now. It’s beautiful to hear this psalm as a beautiful ending sentiment, but in fact, this psalm puts us smack-dab in the middle of this dangerous world. But an almighty protector surrounds us: “I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”. It’s hard out there. Far from removing us to a future paradise, the psalm sings of a hope and trust in God, our shepherd and protector, here and now.
Think about it. Shepherds are not idyllic pastel pictures like I used to love in my Heidi book when I was a kid, full of soft light and adorable curly headed children. Shepherds are tough people, working hard, long hours, walking miles each day. That rod and that staff? The rod was more like a cattle prod used to keep the sheep in line. And that staff was more like a large club used to defend oneself and one’s sheep. The shepherd is a tough character who is not afraid to risk danger and damage for the sake of his sheep. He has to be aware about his surroundings and smart enough to find good pastures for his sheep. A good shepherd has to want good things for his sheep, and be willing to knock down wolves and forage over meadows to find the very best for his sheep. This is the image we are given for the God who guards and protects us. In this psalm, we are promised that God wishes to guard and guide and comfort us now, in the midst of a dangerous world.
What changes, for us, if this psalm isn’t about the future, but about the world we live in right now? In England, one of my favorite days (so far) was the afternoon we spent in St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. I hadn’t been here before. It’s the old ruins of a large abbey, and it’s one of those places where, once you step inside, the noise of the city seems to just fade away. Canterbury was bustling with noise and chaos and people at every turn who would cut through our group and make me fear constantly that a pilgrim would be carried away on the sea of other people, entrapped by the baby buggies and cornered by the lines of tourists seeking candy and cheesy t-shirts. But in St. Augustine’s, we turned the pilgrims loose in the acres of green meadows, amidst the ruins of the old church and cloisters. Finally, everyone was completely safe and secure. Even me. We were surrounded by the city of Canterbury and we would soon return to the crowds of people where we’d have to watch our bags and I’d resume my ceaseless counting of pilgrims and we’d make our “leader sandwich” (where one leader always led and one leader was always at the end of the group so that no one got lost), but for a brief time, God indeed was our shepherd. We’d been led to a green pasture. We sat before still waters of personal reflection. We could restore our souls.
Now we’ve returned to our real world. The adults have our bills to pay. The teens are back to their summer jobs or headed off to high level sports camps or exploring colleges and thinking about SATs. I’m still trying to sort out the rest of the mess from Martin’s and my ill-fated road trip this summer. Our church has had some big staff changes, and one of our priests will be undertaking her own journey involving risk and change, to the green pastures of North Carolina. And you- I know you have worries that wake you up or tickle your heart with anxieties and fears as well. There is so much happening for us right now that we cannot predict, cannot control. I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting to a little bit of stress and worry.
That’s exactly what this psalm is all about- the journey, about walking the dangerous and unanticipated paths of life in the company of a shepherd who is street-smart, tough, and prepared to fight to provide good things for his sheep. We know what it feels like to seek good and to be properly protected. The parents of the teens entrusted the four leaders with that responsibility: can’t we trust God to provide that for us?
In the Abbey in Canterbury, I found just a little bit of the peace and rest that God wishes for us. Marisa, my hope and prayer for you is that you can take this psalm as a blessing with you as you start your journey into the unknown next-things. And people of St. Mary’s, who I am so blessed and privileged to serve as one of your priests, my hope and prayer for you is that you also may rest secure in the presence of a shepherd who leads you along good pathways even in the midst of the chaos that is our world, and who brings you to that right place where your cup overflows.