March 27, 2017

Psalm 23: Teach Us To Number Our Days

My homily from St. Francis yesterday, which was not recorded:

You want to hear something crazy? There are studies out there claiming we Christians are—you ready for this?—afraid of death! Can you believe it? “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now!” Especially, they say, Christians. The only people more afraid of death are Muslims; that I understand: they don’t have a Savior, they don’t have a Good Shepherd. But Christians, if we fear death we’ve missed something very important—like the gospel!

Death is on my mind this week because I attended a funeral on Monday. And death on our minds is good for us. I’m a third-order, meaning married and living in the world, Benedictine, and the Rule of St. Benedict exhorts us to “keep death daily before your eyes.” That’s pretty morbid sounding, huh? Why in the world would we do that? Psalm 90 answers that question: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” So this morning I want to talk about how meditating on death, numbering our days, teaches us two things: how to live well and how to die well.

Our text this morning is Psalm 23. Typically, we address Psalm 23, during the Easter season, on Good Shepherd Sunday. But it’s also an appropriate Lenten reading and one of our assigned lectionary readings for today. So, because I love Psalm 23 and because I won’t be here on Good Shepherd Sunday, I got permission from Father Craig to cover it today. 

Psalm 23 is an appropriate text for Lent because, of course, it’s a funeral passage, and always has been. The most common symbol hewn into the walls of the Roman catacombs, the underground tombs of Christians, is that of the Good Shepherd. So look with me at our Good Shepherd in Psalm 23. 

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Lord is not merely a shepherd but “my” shepherd. Can you say that this morning? He calls his sheep by name, they know him, and they follow him (John 10). And because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

But I do want and I want and I want, and I can’t get no satisfaction. From the beginning Satan has been lying to you. If only you had that shiny new Apple, or Android, or fill in the blank! The grass always appears greener on the other side, doesn’t it? And one reason the sheep need a shepherd is because they’re never satisfied: they just keep on nibbling and nibbling and nibbling their way right off a cliff! 

“But what I want is legitimate” we might respond. Look briefly with me at Luke 12, that wonderful passage where Jesus says, “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or wear.” I want you to see the context there. Someone comes to Jesus with a legitimate request, something we too might bring to God in prayer, because it seems right and just and fair: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide our inheritance with me” (verse 13). What is Jesus’ stunning response? “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” including, presumably this kind of greed, because “life is not defined by an abundance of possessions!” (verse 15). Then he tells that horrible story of the rich man who built his life on a big, fat savings account, a nice retirement fund, and God says to him “You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you! And anyone else who makes themselves rich but is not rich toward God” (verses 20-21). And, finally, Jesus concludes, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life: what you will eat or drink or wear” (verse 22). Pagans run after these things, but not you, because your Father knows what you need, and he has sent you a Good Shepherd to provide your every need (verse 30). 

This Good Shepherd “makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” If God doesn’t supply it? We don’t need it! And you certainly can’t take it with you after this life. 

So we begin to learn what Paul in Philippians 4 called “the secret” to contentment. Whatever our Good Shepherd provides is enough for this life, whether we are hungry or full, it is enough, and we lie down content with whatever our Good Shepherd provides, with the grass under our own feet. 

Steve Jobs, in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford, said this: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” You’ve heard it before: nobody on their death bed ever said, “if only I’d spent more time at the office” or “if only I’d bought this or that.” No, remembering that we’ll be dead soon, or numbering our days as the Psalmist put it, teaches us to prioritize and to focus on what really matters in this life. Numbering our days teaches us how to live well, in contentment, because the Lord is my shepherd.

Second, numbering our days teaches us how to die well, in comfort, because the Lord is my shepherd. “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.” 

St. Augustine reminded us that, though we try to put it out of our minds, we live our entire lives in the valley of the shadow of death. And sooner or later, it’s just a matter of time, every road, even paths of righteousness, will take us right through Death Valley. The only question is, do you want to go through Death Valley alone or with a travel guide, a Good Shepherd, who knows the way safely through? 

Because that’s the gospel, the good news! That God so loved the sheep who were headed for slaughter that he sent the Good Shepherd, somehow, to become one of us! Yes our Good Shepherd is actually one of us, the sacrificial lamb, who went before us, and in an Easter surprise, survived Death Valley and returned to shepherd us through! 

Christians, we have nothing to fear! Our Good Shepherd draws closest to us when the trail narrows. With his rod he beats, not us, he beats off predators, those demons who would drag us down to hell, and with his staff he gently guides us along the trail. I will fear no evil even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!  

Even there, “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, and my cup runs over.” In Death Valley, surrounded by cancer or heart disease or whatever assails us, including our last and greatest enemy, death itself, even there our Good Shepherd feeds us with the bread and wine of last rites and anoints our heads in the oil of his Holy Spirit.  

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” All the way, in spite of whatever pains and sufferings might dog us, Goodness and Mercy got our back, nipping at our heels like a couple of old sheepdogs, hounding us all the way home, right through Death Valley to the Promised Land on the other side, where our Father comes running to meet us at the gate. 

It was the winter of 1850, the era of circuit-riding preachers, and young Timmy was dying of diphtheria. So mom and dad sent for the preacher, who stopped and spent some time ministering to Timmy. In the spring they sent for the preacher again and, as he approached, he saw the mound of dirt and cross where Timmy lay. “We have a question for you,” said mom. Ever since you were here last time, throughout the whole ordeal, even his final dying moments, Timmy clung to his ring finger. Do you have any idea why? “Yes,” said the preacher. “I taught Timmy Psalm 23. And I told him the reason mom and dad wear wedding rings on their ring finger is because that’s really the love finger and their rings remind them of their love. And anytime he felt afraid he should grasp his ring finger as a reminder that his Good Shepherd loves him deeply and would walk him through Death Valley.”   

Christian, anytime you feel afraid, reach over and grasp your ring finger as a reminder that your Good Shepherd loves you deeply and will walk you through Death Valley. Because the Lord is our shepherd, we have nothing to fear! And that’s the gospel truth! Meditating on such things, numbering our days, teaches us how to live well, in contentment, and teaches us how to die well, in comfort.

Let us pray: O God, teach us to number our days, that we may gain hearts of wisdom. Grant that we may hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, and follow wherever he may lead us; that we might live in contentment and die in comfort. For, surely, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This we ask in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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