I ask your prayers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I will begin this morning by sharing two verses from Ecclesiastes, Chapter One. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new?” It has already been in the ages before us.” These verses could well be a commentary on William Shakespeare’s own writing. He understood this and even quoted these very verses in his Sonnet 59. Shakespeare was candid about the source of his creativity. Most of what he wrote, originated or was assimilated from somewhere else. Isn’t it a truth universally acknowledged that there are no truly original ideas. Where am I going with this? The 23rd Psalm. It’s imprinted in our DNA. I’m sure many of you have it memorized. Those six verses tumble off one’s tongue, as if there was never a time they weren’t waiting to be spoken.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” Please join me, the King James version. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me besides still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his namesake. 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 forever.”
The Psalm is attributed to King David, himself a shepherd, and written around 1000 BC. At its essence, it is about trust, our trust in God. The good shepherd who leads us through life, and in death through suffering to eternal joy. I shall not want. Those four words provide us with all we will ever need, if we surrender ourselves to God’s care. Like a shepherd caring for his sheep, we listen for his voice to guide the way.
Last week, I watched an interview with Clive Davis, the 90-year-old hitmaker of CBS records. He discovered and produced recording artists, such as Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston. He was asked what his all-time favorite song was, the song to stand the test of time. And without missing a beat, he replied, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel. I wasn’t surprised. It’s one of my favorites and its theology, if you will, hearkens back to the 23rd Psalm. Listen to the first verse. “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all. I’m on your side. Oh, when times get rough and friends just can’t be found. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”
Isn’t this what a shepherd does for his sheep? Isn’t this what Jesus asked of Peter in last Sunday’s gospel? Three times he asks, “Do you love me Peter?” And when Peter answers, “Yes, of course, you know that I do,” Jesus responds by commanding Peter, three more times, to feed his sheep.
Paul Simon wrote his masterpiece when the Vietnam war was in motion, Richard Nixon was president and the country was still grieving the assassinations of Martin Luther king, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Bridge Over Troubled Water spoke to the turmoil of the times. It touched a nerve as a secular hymn for burned-out sixties folk, and down and out Americans, who could see the bottom from where they stood in 1969, a year, notorious for its cultural disaffection and political gloom. And I think the promise of those lyrics, of fidelity, of healing, resonate more now than they ever have in the song’s 50-year history. Simon was asked by Dick Cavett in a 1970 interview, where the inspiration for this song came from. He responded, “I have no idea. It just came all of the sudden. One minute it wasn’t there. And the next minute the whole line was there. It was one of the shocking moments in my song writing career” end quote.
In that same interview, Simon went on to explain that perhaps his inspiration came from two sources, both of which were religious. He said that the chords and part of the melody came from a Bach Chorale, which we know as O Sacred Head Sore Wounded, the beautiful hymn number 168 that we sing on Good Friday. The inspiration for his refrain came from the Swan Silvertones recording of the 19th century spiritual O Mary Don’t You Weep. Simon said that he listened to that record, quote, “over and over again”, thunderstruck by a line improvised by lead singer, Claude Jeter. “I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name. I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”
You see, the celebrated New Orleans musician, Allen Toussaint, like to say that song had two writers, Paul Simon and God. Of course I agree, though I would give the credit to the Holy Spirit. Simon was just her conduit.
And now back to my original premise that there is nothing new under the sun. The 23rd Psalm runs deep within our collective subconscious and in the marrow of our ancestors. There are countless metaphors used to describe Jesus and scripture. Many are self descriptors. They were his way of connecting to his followers. Jesus shared a recognizable image or an idea they could understand. The bread of life, the true vine, the doorway, the way, the truth and the light of the world, living water, a potter, a bride groom, our bright and morning star, our mediator and wise counselor. And of course, the Good Shepherd. How one relates to Jesus and hears his voice is personal.
For me, he’s a bridge that carries me and my loved ones to safety. He bears the weight of all my troubles. I take shelter under him when things get stormy. I do my best to trust that when I walk through the valleys, through the shadows of doubt and despair, that Jesus is the light summoning me to the mountaintop. My shepherd, my bridge, beckons me with open arms. Always he leads me to peace and safety.
But here’s the thing. Sheep are not driven like cattle. They are too vulnerable, especially those nursing their young. And of course, they’re not the brightest of God’s creatures. Sheep have to be led and cajoled. Otherwise they will stray, get lost, stumble on rocky terrain, or be snatched by a predator. And like sheep, when we stray, the Psalmist assures us that God will not let us escape. The root Hebrew verb in verse six ,”radaph”, is translated in most Bibles as “follow.” That’s not quite accurate. The verb should be “pursue, pursue eagerly or chase after.” Listen again. Surely God’s goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life. John Calvin called Jesus, “The Hound of Heaven”, who tirelessly chases after us when we stray. God does not passively trail along after us. He brandishes that Shepherd’s crook. It calls to mind, Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. He will risk the 99 to find that one who was gone astray.
What might it do to our understanding of God and to the way we live with life’s joys and sorrows, if we took seriously that God always takes the initiative with us? A shepherd leading us, pursuing us toward himself, following us in our wanderings so that we never get beyond the love that will not let us go. The 23rd Psalm bears witness to the way the heart of Christ thirsts for every soul as if it were the only soul ever created. We are Christ’s treasure for whom he sacrificed his early life, living and dying for us because of this same love that beckons us to him.
Simon’s lyrics are spot on. “When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you. I’ll take your part.” God is love and love is the beginning and the end of all true revelation. Jesus Christ exists simply because love exists. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more. The sun will not strike them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. My cup runneth over. Amen. Alleluia.