The Lord is My Shepherd
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47 & Psalm 23
Let’s do a quick rundown of the lessons we heard today. Just now, we heard Jesus talk about himself as the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep recognize and follow. Just before that, we sang maybe the most beloved passage of scripture in the Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” In this scenario, we’re the sheep.
But before all of that, there was a passage from Acts. “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Why do you think that this passage was included in our lectionary amongst scriptures dealing with sheep?
Counter to popular belief, sheep are not dumb. Studies show that their memory is better than humans. But the smartest thing about them is that they know and understand their weakness. They know and understand that they can’t survive on their own. They know that to stand outside the flock is to put themselves in danger. They know and understand that they need each other to survive. Literally.
They don’t have sharp teeth or quick reflexes. They can’t run very fast. But they know and understand their limitations. And they play to their strengths when threatened. They band together. Force the predator to take all of them on. And those studies I read show that, when push comes to shove, the stronger sheep step in to protect the more vulnerable sheep.
The apostles in the early church were a lot like sheep. They decided that all of them having enough was more important than a few of them having a lot. They decided that they would thrive more as a flock than they would as individuals.
We are facing this very question right now in the most ironic of ways. The way we flock together today, the way we protect each other, is by isolating. The way we value the survival and thriving of the common good is by staying home, avoiding contact with others.
And it’s working! Here in Oregon, models show that we’ve flattened the curve. Some models show that by flocking together and staying home, we’ve reduced the spread of the virus by 70%. Our state has not seen the devastation that other places have seen because we decided early on in this crisis that valuing the flock over individuals keeps us all safer.
But not everyone wants to be a sheep. I’m sure you've heard about the protests to reopen America. And I don’t want to write them off. A lot of people are hurting right now because they can’t go to work. Which means they’re not getting a paycheck. Which means they can’t pay their rent or feed their children. The economic consequences of this lockdown are real. They’re devastating. And I know that’s why some folks are protesting.
But not all of them. One sign I saw said: “Sacrifice the weak. Reopen Tennessee.” Another said, “Free people make their own risk assessments.” These folks feel like their individual freedoms are being curtailed. In a way, they are protesting being forced to be sheep. They want to be able to stand outside the flock, even if it puts their lives and others’ at risk.
Whatever their reason, I have a guess about why people are actually protesting: Because they feel powerless. There is a virus going around that is extremely contagious. One that hardly affects some people who get it, but kills others in a horrifying way. They don’t know when this lockdown will end, when things will get back to normal—if ever. Their world is changing around them. They are afraid.
And in the face of that immense uncertainty and fear, they want to feel like they have some power, some control.
But sometimes, we just...don’t. Sometimes we’re powerless, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Sometimes we’re vulnerable, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Natural disasters remind us. Unexpected death reminds us. And this pandemic reminds us.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Yea, 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;
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.
That’s how I heard Psalm 23 when I was growing up. When I worked as a hospital chaplain, it was the scripture patients requested most. Many of us turn to it when things are hard.
Why do we love this Psalm so much? I think it’s because it’s talking about courage. Sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to admit when you are powerless. Our friends whose lives have been changed by the 12-step program already know this.
Sometimes, it’s more courageous to receive help than to give it. To give help is to have all the power. To receive help is to admit you’re powerless. Courage is recognizing when we can’t do it on our own. Courage is handing power over to God, our shepherd.
And I think we love this Psalm so much because, not only is there courage in admitting we are powerless, there is also deep comfort. We can let go of control. We can hand everything over to God. It gives us strength beyond our own: when we are powerless, God steps in and walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Sometimes the simple truth is that we are powerless. We can’t do it on our own. We need God and we need each other. That’s not weakness. That’s faith. Amen.