Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

“I will fear no evil”

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 18, 2017)
Psalm 23 – “I will fear no evil”

We’re continuing with our series on the Psalms. As I said last week, the Psalter is a remarkable collection, not only as a body of literature, but also as a prayer book that has endured thousands of years and has taken on sacred status in countless cultures, all the way from ancient Israel to monasticism in Europe the Middle Ages, to Bibles and hymnals around the world today. The Psalms, to me, are also amazing because their words express the entire range of the human condition, all the way from ecstatic praise to rock-bottom lament and everything in between.

Today’s reading comes from what is probably the most familiar psalm. Normally I read the text from the New Revised Standard Version or the Common English Bible but it just sounds more poetic to me in the King James Version. Let’s listen for God’s Wisdom and Word, and say it with me if you know it…

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.

Let’s do this refrain-style: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

For many of us, our imaginations have already been shaped about what this scene looks like. There are those stained-glass windows of the Good Shepherd (in which Jesus is usually white), or those drawings in old children’s Bibles, or greeting cards with a tranquil stream or pasture in English farmland and in cursive are the words “The LORD is my shepherd.” I, for one, remember it cross-stitched on the wall in my grandmother’s house. The Scrabble word for our impressions would be bucolic: “relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside.” But from what I can tell—and this may be borderline heresy to say—the imagery in this text is far from pleasant and tranquil! Not to diminish the comfort that these words bring or have brought people, but let’s take another look here.

For starters, have you spent much time around sheep? I’ve maybe encountered one at a petting zoo or state fair or somewhere like that, but I know way more about sheep herding from what I read than from any firsthand experience. Shepherding back in ancient Israel was one of those jobs toward the bottom rung of the social ladder. These were characters with tanned, leathery skin because they worked and lived out in the elements with their dirty flock. There really weren’t many verdant pastures and rolling streams either, but instead mostly rocky desert and trickling creeks. And the “rod and staff,” which we may think of as a smooth shepherd’s crook, was not only for hooking sheep by the legs to bring them back from wandering off or to get them to stop eating things like poisonous shrubs, but it also had a thick end for fending off predators, like wolves. The rod and staff might have been comforting, but it sure wasn’t gentle. Whack!

The point is that shepherding was a rough and nasty business.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

So then, it’s significant that the Psalmist, David the king, opens with this line: “My shepherd is YHWH” or “I am a sheep of this God.” As one commentator put it,

“In Scripture, the shepherd is a figure who is associated with authority and violence, and the task of shepherding is one beset by dangers on every side… The shepherd is the sovereign lord, the sheep is the vassal; it is not a cozy image. The picture of YHWH that the psalm suggests is one of ‘fierce tenderness,’ a God who powerfully protects us from assaults and provides for us in our dependency.”

So this ruler places trust not in himself, not in the strength of his army, not in his treasure chests of gold, not in the wisdom of his advisers, but in the Holy One of Israel. YHWH is the source of his security, not his fear. That’s why this line stands out to me this time I read Psalm 23:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

“I will fear no evil.” I’m convinced that’s the word we need to hear this morning. We need to hear it on a personal level and we definitely need to hear it on a social level. It’s worth reflecting on where (or in whom) we put our trust because we live in especially anxious times.

I downloaded a book this week, The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear by Michael Kinnamon, which I highly recommend. In the first part of the book, the author makes a very compelling case for how deeply, pervasively fearful of a country we have become. Now, he’s quick to say that fear in and of itself isn’t a bad thing because there are very real threats that shouldn’t be dismissed. He says,

“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives.”

He points out that fear has bubbled over into becoming the dominant posture of our time. According to Kinnamon, it’s the primary lens through which many Americans view their lives, other people, and the world, and through which our leaders make decisions. The reasons for this are legion, of course, but much of it has to do with rapid and dramatic social and technological change over the last few generations. That and the fact that media, corporations, and politicians profit from stoking our fears.

Fear and anxiety are pervasive to the point that they’re blown out of proportion, Kinnamon argues. Surveys routinely reveal that people think America is spiraling out of control, that “things are worse than they’ve ever been,” that the future is bleak, etc. etc. Statistics show that crime rates, disease, infant mortality, unemployment, and other metrics of suffering and social ills are all down, yet fears for our and our loved ones’ health and security are up.  He calls it the “worship of safety.”

Yet here we have Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

While some violence is to be feared legitimatelylook at the epidemic of deaths by guns, for examplethe perception of such violence is what is out of proportion. It’s especially problematic when it’s manipulated by the powers-at-be and warped into a prejudice against “the other,” whoever “the other” might be. Think, for instance, about how much time and money and rhetoric is spent on so-called Islamic terrorism, while statistically “White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States… [and] almost twice as many people have died in attacks by right-wing groups in America than have died in attacks by Muslim extremists.”

And I think it goes without saying that, during the last campaign, our current President exploited racist fears about immigrants in a such a way that fear-mongering swung the election in key demographics in swing states.

I could go on and on with examples of our outsized fears, yet one antidote to such unwarranted fear is faith.

Kinnamon surveyed the sacred texts of the world’s major religions and found that they all caution against excessive fear and offer wisdom about how to reduce it.

Speaking from our Judeo- Christian side of the family, I can say that the Bible says some variation of “Do not be afraid” 100 + times. Yet what the Bible does urge us to do is to “fear God.” Isn’t that a paradox?

But fear of the divine has more to do with trust and obedience rather than being frightened. Here’s the biggest difference: it’s rooted in awe rather than a expectation of punishment. The “holy fear” leads to a different sense of security rather than a defensive dread of “the other,” fear of not having enough, or a generalized, target-less fear.

One rabbi described this awe-filled “fear the LORD” in this way:

“Everything is in the hands of a Reality beyond our control, except for our willingness to stand in awe of that Reality… Our attitude can make the world a very small, constricted place or a place of wonder.”

Another rabbi “was once asked why Jews should keep the prayer Yirat Adonai (fear of the Lord) in the service for Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement]. Because, he answered, ‘we pray that this great fear will free us from all lesser fears which lurk everywhere, upsetting and embittering our lives.’”

For Christians, the resurrection is what gives us a unique courage. Because of our conviction that death has been defeated, we aren’t held captive by the fear of death or any of its spin-offs. We are free to take risks in love and service to our neighbors precisely because we believe our true security is elsewhere.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

Kinnamon offers several concrete steps that faith communities can take to face this climate of fear. Among them are practice dialogue with those with whom we disagree; encourage knowledge of other cultures; welcome the stranger; and preach hope, among others.

But the one that really stands out to me is for us, in community, to name and discuss our fears. Because our lives, much like shepherding in ancient Israel, are messy, unpredictable, chaotic, and often painful. Facing those realities head-on, naming them in order to take some of their power way, rather than ignoring is the first step to a healthier perspective. One might call that movement in itself an act of faith.

So what are we afraid of, truly?

And why?

How can offering that up to God release some of that fear?

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

May it be so…

Featured Image: “Christ the Good Shepherd,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN /