**sermon art: Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners — Sieger Köder d. 2015
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver
Good Shepherd Sunday – May 3, 2020
[sermon begins after Bible reading]
Psalm 23 (King James Version)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth 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 thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
See end of sermon for John 10:1-10
[Spoken in a British accent]
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
[Spoken in my regular voice.]
And on it went in my 9th grade drama class – The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost in Queen’s English. The assignment was to memorize a written passage and recite it in an accent not our own. I chose this poem because it was in a handy book on a shelf at home AND it was short. In a surprising economy of words, poetry completes a topic in a puzzle of order and wildness. For instance, here’s a fun fact about the poem that is Psalm 23 – it’s written with only 55 Hebrew words. Another fun fact, the 28th word in the very middle is the word “you” as in “you [the Lord] are with me.” One more, the word “Lord” is repeated in the opening and closing lines with an otherwise unusual lack of repetition for a psalm.
Poetically, it’s as if the psalmist was given a fifty-five key word jumble and challenged to communicate how the Lord is with us at the beginning, middle, and end of our lives. With extreme brevity, the psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. While there’s warmth and light, there’s also a valley of shadow and death, the presence of enemies, and courage in the face of evil. This is NOT false optimism. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust – trust in God during the full experience of crisis. It’s beloved sacred scripture for Jews and Christians. It’s also well-known in pop culture as it turns up in movies and memes. The poetic craft alone is impressive even if it wasn’t one of the essentials in a life of faith.
Essential has new meaning in these Covid days. The debate is intense about what qualifies as essential. For Christians, one essential listed in the Gospel of John reading is Jesus’ encouragement to know his voice. We learn to recognize his voice in Gospel readings Sunday after Sunday AND in texts that have stood the test of time across the generations of the faithful. Psalm 23 is one such text. Many of our elders in the faith were taught to memorize and recite it. Even with significant memory loss, this psalm and Lord’s Prayer can be easily recalled. Psalm 23 is a poem and prayer of trust that we can turn to in times that make no sense. Times like today.
Given today’s pandemic, there’s one line in the psalm that nags at me. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What might it mean for God to set a table for us in the presence of Covid19 – a microscopic enemy? There have been pages and pages and memes and articles written about this particular enemy. By enemy, I don’t mean that the virus has conscious evil intentions. Viruses, like all living things, simply function to keep living. It’s a stretch to ascribe malice to them. But Covid19 is an enemy to our bodies and to our life together. We depend on everyone working in harmony to lessen the risk of infection for the most vulnerable and ease the burden on hospital workers. We learn terms like R0 (R0 or R-naught) to understand how many people each of us can potentially infect. We’ve learned quickly that people we love can carry this enemy just as easily as people we don’t like at all. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.
I was talking with one of my favorite checkers in the grocery store last week. Through our masks, we gave each other quick updates and shared frustrations. She told me about a customer who started screaming at other shoppers who were not wearing masks. He escalated to a point just shy of a 911 call. The manager talked him into leaving the store. On top of the viral threat for essential workers, they’re also vulnerable to people’s frayed nerves and overreactions. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.
In that light, what might it mean for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our coronavirus enemy? In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he came so that those who hear his voice “may have life and have it abundantly.” More broadly in the Gospels, Jesus loves, heals, and challenges the people he encounters. His voice is consistent with these actions while also compassionate and confident. He did not respond to mockery and suffering with insult and threat – he trusted God in all things. And he continued to love people despite our self-serving, wicked ways. In his voice echoing through our baptism as the Body of Christ, he calls us to love people too – despite our and everyone else’s self-serving, wicked ways. In this way, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and guides us there by Jesus’ voice. It’s a table of trust in God, set with compassion for others, and filled with confidence to say hard things in love.
As a Jew, Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were essential. He knew them inside and out – even quoting Psalm 22 from the cross. When we learn the psalms and pray them, we join the praying Christ. And we learn to hear his voice. Psalm 23 is short. It’s in a Bible or cell phone near you. Memorize it this week. Pray it daily. Make it a part of your faithful essentials. It’s a psalm of trust which means that it evokes God’s promise of being with us even in the face of invisible enemies, suffering, and trauma. Through Psalm 23 we learn Jesus’ voice AND we are assured that the valley of the shadow of death does not have the last word. God does.
Now receive this blessing
With the Lord as your shepherd, may your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.
May your fear be comforted even through the shadowed valley of death, as God is with you.
And may Christ’s compassion and confidence guide you at God’s table prepared in the presence of your enemies,
as goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life, and the Lord + dwells with you your whole life long. Amen.
 Robert Frost (1874 – 1963). Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949), 131.
 Ibid., vi. It’s worth reading Robert Frost’s full reflections about poetry in his introduction “The Figure A Poem Makes.”
 James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion, Northwestern University. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – July 19, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2531
 Ibid. These fun facts are summarized from Dr. Mead’s commentary.
 Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – March 26, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3185
 Robert Pearl, M.D. “3 Coronavirus Facts Americans Must Know Before Returning to Work, School” – April 21, 2020 Forbes Online. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2020/04/21/3-coronavirus-facts/?fbclid=IwAR01vkcKTgHC2d3ZGXPTGCe9Gg73RHaw2_ehbjqDQ3AXPNQqmNJwFPufkOk#77169f114721
 Janette Ok, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University. Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25 for Working Preacher – May 3, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4447
 Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 46-47.
 Ibid., Jacobson.
 I wrote this blessing by paraphrasing Psalm 23.
John 10:1-10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.