Psalm 23; John 10:11-18
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
April 25, 2021
Shortly after Michelle and I were married in Houston, TX we began making our plans to travel to Pasadena, CA where Michelle would be teaching high school Spanish, I would be attending to seminary.
We called up UHaul, got the rental agreement set up, and eventually went to pick up our UHaul in which all our earthly belongings would fit into – the majority of which were wedding gifts.
When we showed up at the UHaul place, and they show us our truck. Mileage is 212,000 miles. Seats are torn and the yellow foam is showing through.
We think nothing of it – we are not only new to marriage but new to adulthood. And the guiding assumption we had is that these folks at UHaul know we are moving to Los Angeles with this, and obviously, they would not rent something that couldn’t do the job.
We pack up that UHaul, and in early August 2004, we drove off heading West across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
We probably should have picked up on the warning signs early – the first time I tried to use the passenger side rearview mirror I realized it was wobbling like crazy and only held somewhat in place by a paperclip that had been wound around it a number of times.
This meant Michelle became the mirror. Every time I wanted to change lanes, she would roll down her window, look back, and let me know if I could get over.
As you all know quite well, west Texas in August is hot…so we ran the A/C, which worked ok. But for some reason, it dumped inordinate amounts of water into Michelle’s passenger side floor area. She had to sit crossed-legged the entire trip to avoid the pool which formed quickly on her floor each day of our trip.
And then as the sun began to set on the first day the whole UHaul started to slow until it just died. Fortunately, I had felt the ‘death ’coming on and managed to let the UHaul
coast with just enough power to get to one of the very few exits in West Texas…and we rolled into a service station.
They said they could have us up and running in the morning, and we left things with them as we went to the only hotel around for that night.
We were off and running by late morning the next day, but then the same thing the next evening. As the day neared the end the UHaul began to die…and again I was able to get it to coast just long enough to pull into a rare exit in New Mexico with a service station.
Some wonderful strangers helped us push it the final 100 yards or so, and then I don’t recall the precise diagnosis they gave but again they had us on the road the next morning.
And the same thing happened as we were making our way to Tucson, AR where we planned to stay with my great-Uncle.
We coasted in on fumes and the UHaul died – miraculously making it just an exit away from my great-Uncle’s place. We spent the night with him, were fed an amazing meal with a wonderfully comfortable room, and the next morning another service station had us off and going saying we would indeed make it to LA with this ridiculous vehicle.
And then 100 miles outside of Los Angeles – smoke from the engine. Amazingly, it began to die just a few miles from a UHaul center. We were able to coast in there with nothing left.
And they tell us 1) they cannot believe this was ever rented to us and 2) this UHaul will never drive again.
And they let us know that they will give us a $100 to cover the fact that – in 100 degree California heat – we will be moving all of our stuff from a dead UHaul to a fairly new one they were giving us for the final 100 miles.
And we, at 22 years old, had just enough youthful energy and perhaps ignorance to just get on with it. We moved everything out and back in and drank I don’t know how many bottles of water that the UHaul folks gave us.
And as we started our final 100 miles in our 2002 UHaul truck with non-leaking A/C, working rearview mirrors, and reliable access to the local radio station – it was a luxury SUV.
It’s a story with broken parts, delays, frustrations, dangers… and somehow perfect provision. Which is to say, it’s a Psalm 23 story.
Psalm 23 – as you all well know – is so famous, so poetically beautiful, so full of meaning when read at sacred moments in the face of death…But sometimes we miss that most fundamentally it is a Psalm about God’s provision on the journey of life.
You can hear the journey language throughout: “though I walk through the valley…”
Or, we read about the shepherd “leading” us by still waters. “Leading” us in right paths. And the Hebrew words there is a direct allusion to the Exodus story, summarized in Exodus 15:13: “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.”
It’s the same thing when we read I shall not “want” –or more literally, “I lack nothing.”
The word there alludes to Deuteronomy 2:7, which states that during the forty years in the wilderness when the Israelites after crossing the parted sea and wandered to and fro in the wilderness – and even so, the people “lacked nothing.”
Or again, we read about God who “prepares a table in the presence of my enemies,” and it is the same language used in Psalm 78 to talk about God’s leading the people of Israel through the dangers of the Exodus wilderness where the Lord “prepared a table in the wilderness.”
And then once more, there are the images of the rod and staff in Psalm 23, which scholars debate is that two separate items or one item with two descriptors…either way the image there immediately has one think of Moses ’staff through which the power of God was made known in the Exodus story.
Quickly, we can start to hear the not-so-subtle allusion going on in Psalm 23.
David is not trying to make beautiful pie-in-the-sky poetry here. David is using language that his original hearers would have recognized as Exodus story language.
It’s as if David is saying, “Think about our Exodus story – has not God provided an exit of replenishment and nourishment in the desert every time – in just the right way and just the right time? And really, when it came right down to it – isn’t it true we lacked nothing because God was with us?”
David wants his language to prompt the hearer to think back to the specific UHaul stories in their life that give the real texture to the promises of Psalm 23.
And David is perfectly clear: the Good Shepherd stories of God’s faithfulness…they are the ones that take place in valleys with enemies.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” as the King James so memorably puts it.
But the literal translation is “the valley of deepest darkness.”
This certainly includes confronting death, but also speaks to all of death’s cousins: addiction, injustice, pain, suffering, illness, emptiness, uncertainty, the cross itself. These valley settings for Good Shepherd stories.
And David makes it clear that the provision of God does not happen by God taking the people out of the wilderness, by taking people off the arid highway, by fixing every leak and mirror … “in the valley of the deepest darkness, you are with me…”
And lest we are unclear on that point, we can move from verse 4 about the valley of deepest darkness to verse 5 where it says God prepares a table, a meal before me…in the presence of my enemies.
This Good Shepherd does not pull the people into some ethereal realm or neighborhood or social media enclave or affiliation where the people think alive, vote alike, look alike.
Nor does this Shepherd pull the people into a church where everybody is perfectly faithful just like they should be.
Nor does the Shepherd does not pull the people away from annoying or mean coworkers or family members who have done or said this or…
“You prepare a meal before me…in the presence of my enemies.”
I confess, with that UHaul – the entire time I just wanted to get through the 1546 mile journey from Houston to Pasadena. Initially, each mishap, each frustration, each breakdown was a headache to get through. For me, that trip was all about pushing through and getting to the destination.
And my sense is that many of us are there with any number of things right now:
This many days until the move, the announcement, the documents are signed…
- This many weeks with the rehab, the treatment plan…
- This many dollars until we can…
- This many months until…
- This many county-wide vaccinations until…
- Or maybe we don’t know how to mark the distance in front of us, but instead, our plea is…“how long!?”
- “How long with these people? This person? This issue?
- “What is with all of the stalls, these breaks, and blown engines?”
And the temptation can be to just get through, push through, find a way to the destination.
And yet… do you know what the center of Psalm 23 is?
There are exactly 26 words before and 26 words after these words:“ You are with me.”
Those words sit at the center of the Psalm because it is the central truth of the journey. ‘You are with me.’
What if instead of trying to get through this, get past that, get over this, or even somehow just out of the mess altogether…what if we recognized that right here in the dark,
amid the evil,
next to the enemies…
…this is the space where the Good Shepherd is meeting us?
What if in the valley, we leaned in all-the-more attentively looking for God…Trusting ours is a God whose glory was revealed most fully in the darkest of dark valleys…believing this is exactly the kind of space where he is most likely to be?
What would happen if we did that?
The Psalm begins with David talking about God in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd…He makes me lie down…he leads me…”
But then, one David actively recognizes the presence of God in the valley…did you notice? His language shifts:
“you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me…”
There is this move from 3rd person to 2nd person. There is a new intimacy to this journey. There is this sense of God’s proximity and presence that is no longer just a third person theological truth, but a lived experience. “There you are, God. There you are.”
And the moment we begin speaking this way, praying this way, discerning this way right in the midst of the journey…that is the moment we begin the journey of 1546 miles deep.
That is the moment where we begin discovering life and life abundant in this (heart) terrain. And that is the moment we sense ourselves truly being formed, nourished, anchored, led.
Henri Nouwen, the 20th-century Catholic priest and author once wrote a short book on leadership toward the end of the 20th century called “In the Name of Jesus” – it is one of my very favorites. And in it he tries to imagine what leading into the 21st century would take…and he articulates his sense for what leaders would need to look like and be about.
“Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time (speaking in the third person about who God is and what God does and does not stand for). Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source of their words, advice, and guidance” (p. 45).
Nouwen sees the most critical thing is not better informed people. People with the most amount of data. People with the most resources just in case.
The most critical thing for navigating the extreme unknowns amid profound change and transition and valleys…it is a truly formed people.
The kind of formation that happens in that second person space, “You God…”
The kind of formation that is far more about paying attention to the depth of each moment more so than the miles yet ahead.
It is the kind of moment that looks upon the empty fumes or the waters rising from below or smoke now rising from the engine itself…and does not simply say, “Well now how will we get there? But also and even more attentively asks…where are you, God? How are you leading? What are you teaching? I do believe this is precisely the setting for your kind of story…and precisely the kind of space wherein your people are formed all-the-more fully in your likeness?”
What are your UHaul stories?
What is your UHaul story?
What is our UHaul story?
What if rather than pushing through or over or around or dreaming of how we will get out…what if we also discerned the presence of the Lord to such a degree that we can readily sit at the center of Psalm 23, “You are with me?”
For a people formed in that space find themselves shaped more and more by the Good Shepherd himself…and so become more readily Good Shepherd people. The kind who provide the extra push for those broken down on the journey. The kind who provide a warm meal and shelter to those at another dead end. The kind who are water in the desert.
May we know the nearness of the Good Shepherd upon our journey – and may we discover the ways that it is – through us – that his nearness is made known to others. Amen.