Psalm 23 | 1 John 3:16-24 | John 10:11-18

Jeremy Richards        


This morning we will be taking a break from the Gospel reading and will be spending our time with Psalm 23 and 1 John 3:16-24.

I’d like to begin with a question: Where are you this morning?

This might seem like an odd question, since you’re sitting right in front of me. I’m looking at you. Obviously you’re in our church building. Maybe my question isn’t so much “Where are you?” as “Where else are you?”

You’re here physically, but where are you, for example, spiritually? Is your spiritual life, in this moment, flourishing or floundering, or somewhere in between?

And where are you mentally? Here, focusing on our service? Or are you thinking about the chores you have to get done this afternoon, or the stress your feeling over this or that in your life, or are you still waking up? Or, a better question might be: were you awake, but now, since I started talking, are you starting to fall asleep?

Where are you in life? Are you beginning adulthood? Are you a new parent? Are you starting a career, or nearing the end of a career? Are you in school? Are you enjoying retirement?

What body do you live in? How does your race, ability, gender, age, or sexuality shape your experience, so that even as you sit here in this same space, you maybe hear and interpret things differently than the person sitting right next to you?

You see, in a way, we occupy multiple spaces at the same time, even as we all sit here together in one place – our church. We spend our days and nights – our waking and our sleeping – not in one location, but in the overlapping of a multiple “locations.”

King David, reportedly the author of this famous psalm, Psalm 23, finds himself also occupying multiple spaces at the same time. As we read the psalm, it’s difficult to nail down just where he is, isn’t it? Is he in a green pasture? Or is in the darkest valley (more commonly interpreted as “the valley of the shadow of death”)? Or is he at a feast in the presence of his enemies? Or is he in the house of the Lord?

And what is he doing? Is he lying down? Is he walking? Is he eating? Is he worshipping? Or is he just being? He says he’s doing all these things, in all these places.

Now, it could be that the psalmist is saying he has been in these different places at different times, or he will be in them at different points in the future, but I don’t think that’s it, because none of these statements are in the past or future tense. They’re all referring to a present, if not eternal, reality.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
     [God] makes me lie down in green pastures;
[God] leads me beside still waters;

     [God] restores my soul.
[God] leads me in right paths
    for [God’s] name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I 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 overflows.

The only section where there’s a change in tense is in the last verse, when the word “shall” makes an appearance, which might make us think that it refers to the future, but it’s followed by “all the days of my life,” and “my whole life long”:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

So, even when “shall” is used, it’s not meant to refer only to the future. The psalmist says goodness and mercy will follow him all the days of his life and that he’ll dwell in the house of the Lord his whole life long. It’s an eternal state of being.

But how can he say this? His whole life long? All the days of his life? What about when he’s in the valley of the shadow of death? Well, apparently, he can be in the valley of the shadow of death and be in the house of the Lord at the same time. Apparently, he can fear no evil, even as evil is surely present, lurking around the corner.

Because God is with him. It isn’t so much about where he is, as who he’s with. God, like a shepherd, leads him through life, providing rest and nourishment and comfort, even in the darkest valleys.

The psalmist, like us, finds himself occupying different spaces at the same time.

He finds himself eating prime rib with enemies all around him.

He finds himself in the shadow of the valley of death, but, it turns out, at the bottom of the valley of the shadow of death, there’s a calm stream. And beside these still waters he is led by the Creator to lie down in a green pasture.

He finds himself comforted and restored by the God who leads him, even as evil lurks in the periphery, even as the shadows of death lengthen around him.          

Jesus spoke often about living in another place, even as we live in our particular, physical location. He told his followers about another kingdom, even as they lived within the Roman empire – the Kingdom of God, he called it. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” he says, or “The Kingdom of God is within you,” depending on which version you read.

Paul says the same thing, but in a different way. Paul says we are “in Christ.” It’s one of his favorite phrases – “in Christ.” Though we can’t see Christ, though we walk in and out of buildings, and occupy different spaces, Paul says Christ is all around us. We are located in him, no matter our physical location.

The Gospel of John, as well as the three epistles, or letters, of John have their own way of speaking of this reality. John says we “abide in Christ.” “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus says in John 15:4. This idea was referenced in our reading this morning from 1 John, when the author says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.”

This might take us full circle back to the words of the Psalmist, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”

Throughout Scripture there is this idea that God creates a space for us within God’s very self, that wherever we go we are in God. That God’s life is available to us, that we can be housed within the heart of the Triune God – that by being “in Christ” we are taken up into the life of the Trinity, so that Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit become our home.     

There’s something about “home” isn’t there. For me, there’s especially something about my childhood home. It’s unlike any other place. This week, during coffee and conversation, Shirley, George, Quinlyn, and I talked about moving out of our childhood homes. Quinlyn and I talked about how our parents are starting to offload all our childhood things. “Our rooms” aren’t really our rooms anymore. But we were thankful that our parets are gently phasing us out because George and Shirley said their kids’ rooms stopped being their rooms as soon as they moved out!

But there’s something about going back to that place where I grew up. There’s something about the yard I used to play in, and the room I grew up in, and the dinner table where we ate all our family meals.

Of course, it’s more than just the house where I grew up, it’s the geography, as well. Every time I drive home, I’m greeted by both tall peaks and open, high mountain plains. I’m greeted by cool mountain air that has a chilly bite to it, even on summer nights. I drive through sleepy towns that are dead by 5 o’clock. I literally drive along green pastures and still waters. I feel my soul being restored.

As much as I love Portland, there’s something about those spaces that I connect with so deeply. When I’m there, I loosen up a bit. I relax. I let go of responsibility. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m with my family, who’s known me my whole life. When I’m at my parents’ house, with the sun setting and the sound of the creek babbling in the background, I feel the freedom to simply be. I feel at home.

God is our home. That’s what the King David and Paul and John and Jesus tell us. God is our home.

It’s in God that we find out who we are. In God we stop trying to impress, and let ourselves simply be. We let God layer us in unending love, the way I layer myself in old sweatshirts and pajama bottoms from my childhood dresser when I go back home.

The thing about my parents’ house is that I always have to leave it. But there’s no leaving God.“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

The psalmist says God is like a shepherd, leading us, walking with us. Like the tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them through the wilderness, we carry the presence of God with us also. We abide in Christ even as we live in a variety of places, work different jobs, and journey through different phases of life.

And we know that God goes with us because we know that Christ has walked the road we walk. That’s what we talked about last week. We see in Christ one who also had wounds like ours. We recognize him by his wounds – “Look at my hands and my feet. See that it is I myself,” he tells the disciples.

The words of Psalm 23 are not sentimental words that express a nice, but ultimately fanciful idea. Psalm 23 is telling us that this is the way it is. The Psalmist isn’t saying it would be nice if God was like a shepherd. He’s saying God is like a shepherd. God is with us.

We can have faith that God is with us, through Christ, because Christ has walked this road before, and promises to continue to walk with us.

Jesus knew what it was to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He knew what it was to have a table prepared for him in the midst of his enemies. And, at the same time, he also knew what it was to dwell in the house of the Lord his whole life long.

Because Jesus walked this road, we can walk this road. Where he has gone we can go, and where we go, he goes with us. He abides in us and we abide in him.

Our reading from 1 John this morning tells us that if we truly abide in Christ and he abides in us, our lives will reflect the life of Jesus – we’ll lay down our lives for one another, as Christ laid down his life for us, we’ll share our worldly goods with all who have need, we’ll love not in word or speech, but in truth and action. But we can’t do this on our own, it’s only through Christ working in us that we can live a life like Christ’s. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me,” Jesus says in John 15.

Our own love has bounds, it’s finite, but God’s love is infinite. And as we abide in Christ and he abides in us, we become channels of that infinite love.

That’s how we become the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ. When we gather together, we become a living, breathing home. We become a body filled with the Spirit Christ has given us. We become a place in the midst of another place – the Kingdom of Heaven in the midst of the Empire, home in a foreign land, the body of Christ in the gathering of our own bodies. We invite others into this place God has created through us, and pray that it becomes a green pasture by still waters for them in the midst of whatever valley they are walking through.

But it isn’t us, it’s the Good Shepherd who does this. It’s the Spirit flowing through us, the love of God filling us and spilling over into the spaces between us.         

1 John tells us that if we abide in Christ, we’ll be willing to take risks for others. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another,” the author says. If we abide in Christ, we’ll have the kind of sacrificial love Jesus had. The church Brie and I attended back in North Carolina, the church Kelcey, Mitch, and Ben also called home, along with another church in Chapel Hill, decided this week to provide sanctuary for a woman named Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz, who has been living in the United States since 2002, but we recently denied the right to stay in the country by the immigration courts. Rosa fled domestic violence in Honduras, where she was stabbed multiple times by a former partner. Her former partner threatened to kill her if she ever returns. The valley of the shadow of death isn’t a metaphor for Rosa. It’s real. But these two churches have become the house of the Lord surrounding her. They have become a green pasture by still waters. They have seen a sister in need and have not refused to help. They have loved not in word or speech, but in truth and action. That’s what abiding in Christ looks like.

When we pray the Lord’s prayer every Sunday, we pray that God’s kingdom would come, on earth as it is in heaven. We pray that the house of the Lord, the one the psalmist speaks of, would take root in the world. We pray that goodness and mercy would follow all people – people like Rosa – through the Spirit working in us. We pray that two places, the kingdom of God and the physical world we inhabit every day, would overlap.

In Christ we find ourselves walking beside still waters, and lying down in green pastures, even as we walk through valley of the shadow of death. We find that we’re followed by mercy and goodness, and that to abide in Christ is to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, bring that house to others. May they also find, through the presence of Christ in us, green pastures and still waters. May they hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling them home.