Sermon for 4 Easter Yr B

4 Easter Yr B, 25/04/2021

Ps 23

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Our caring, protecting, and loving Shepherd”

A mother was concerned about her kindergarten son walking to school. He didn’t want her to walk with him, and she wanted to give him a feeling of independence. However, she also wanted to know that he was safe.

When she expressed her concern to her neighbour, Shirley offered to follow him to school every morning for a while, staying at a distance so he wouldn’t notice. Shirley said that since she was up early with her toddler anyways, it will be a good way for them to get some exercise.

All week long, Shirley and her daughter followed Timmy as he walked to school with another neighbourhood girl.

As the two children walked and chatted, kicking stones and twigs, Timmy’s friend asked, “Have you noticed that lady following us to school all week? Do you know her?”

Replied Timmy, “Yes, I know who she is. That’s my mom’s friend Shirley Goodnest and her little girl Marcy.”

Shirley Goodnest? Why is she following us?”

Well,” Timmy explained, “every night my mom makes me say the 23rd Psalm. It says, ‘Shirley Goodnest and Marcy shall follow me all days of my life.’ So, I guess I’ll just have to get used to it.”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 23 two titles. The superscription reads: “A Psalm of David.” The second title is: “The Divine Shepherd.” The Good News Bible also has two titles: “A psalm byDavid” and “The LORD Our Shepherd.” The REB gives it the following title: “A psalm: for David.” TheLutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 23, along with ten other psalms, as a trust psalm. “Trust psalms express faith and confidence in God amid great difficulties, threats, and dangers.” (p. 850)

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. However, because the appointed psalm is the same one every year on this Sunday, it is also referred to as Shepherd or Good Shepherd Sunday. The twenty-third Psalm is the best-loved psalm of them all. In fact, for millions of people, it is the all-time favourite scripture passage. Clergy and laity alike read or recite the words of this psalm when people are on their death-beds, at funerals or memorial services. Musicians also seem to have adopted the twenty-third Psalm as their favourite, since they have composed several settings or tunes for it. Artists also love this psalm. My earliest childhood memory of this psalm is the picture of Jesus with a lamb in his arms and carrying a shepherd’s staff. Many people from a variety of backgrounds have composed take-off poems of Psalm 23 or paraphrased it. You probably have read some of these over the years. There’s something about this psalm that appeals to almost everybody. We all find comfort and strength, encouragement and hope in the words of this psalm. Today I’d like to look a bit at verses 1, 4 and 6, and explore possible meanings for us.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Or, in the words of the Contemporary English Version: “You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.” Or in the words of the REB: “The LORD is my shepherd; I lack for nothing.” Or, my favourite rendering of verse 1 from the Good News Bible: “The LORD is my shepherd; I have everything I need.” The Hebrew sense of the word “want” here literally means lacking nothing. The word want also is directly connected with God: it is precisely because God is my shepherd that I shall not want. God provides for all of my needs in every area of my life. God provides for the needs of my whole person—body, mind and spirit/soul.

Another way of looking at these words may be because we have everything we need, we don’t have to be caught up in the materialism, the obsession with consuming for the sake of consuming, we don’t have to be greedy or horde things. We can live contented lives because the LORD our shepherd meets our needs. The LORD provides my basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, and, in our part of the world so much more! We really do have so much to thank the LORD our Shepherd for! So, I would like to give you a little homework. Today after this worship service, please go home and write out or verbally discuss all of the many ways that the LORD has provided for your needs beyond the basic ones of food, clothing and shelter—then offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Actually this might be something for you to consider doing every day. Of course the greatest spiritual needs that he provides us with are: faith, hope and love.

Turning to verse four now: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff—they comfort me.” Or, in the words of the CEV: “I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.” Or, as the Good News Bible renders it: “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, LORD, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.” The Hebrew here literally means “pitch-dark valley.” This certainly could be a real danger for sheep, since their vision is rather poor, and if travelling on a dark night they might very well fall off a steep cliff or lose their way placing them in danger to predators.

During this time of COVID-19, I think verse four is especially meaningful, since many probably feel like they are walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” For those who are dying of the coronavirus, and for their families, it can be very scary, and a painful and lonely death—especially if family members cannot be with their loved one when they die. Or the valley for others might be depression—especially those who live alone and feel isolated, or those who may have lost their job. For some wives and children, the valley might be a terrible experience of domestic violence. Fear of such evil violence can paralyze people.

There are so many things in life that fill us with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of succeeding. Fear of disappointing someone or yourself. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the great unknown, Death.

And then there’s everyone’s fear. The fear of being found out that you’re not who you really say you are. That you will be exposed. That kind of fear often freezes us out of doing something to change, doing something to become the person we want to be.

And then there’s the worst fear of all. Whenever we fail, or fall or stumble in our walk of faith, the enemy begins to creep in with words of doubt. “You failed. You fell, God can’t really love you like that. You’re supposed to be better than that. What if someone else finds out? What will they think? What does God think? God’s probably up there, disgusted, ready to thump me on the head and boot me out.”

That kind of fear can cause us to doubt. Fear freezes. But that’s not what God wants.1

In contrast to such fear, verse four gives us confidence in God’s protection, and that we don’t have to be afraid even in death. Albrecht Dürer, a contemporary of Martin Luther’s, put this assurance into art. His engraving, “Knight, Death and the Devil” is a classic expression of the spirit of the Reformation. A knight in full armour is riding through a valley accompanied by a figure of death on one side, the devil on the other. Fearlessly, concentrated, confident, he looks ahead. He is alone but not lonely. God is with him, walking through that dark valley.

In reference to death then, the words of verse four are true, since dying does not last forever. The LORD our Good Shepherd walks us through death and leads us safely to the other side, into his heavenly realm. We don’t have to fear death with the LORD our Good Shepherd leading us through it.

That leads us to verse six: “Surely (or Only) goodness and mercy (or kindness) shall follow (or pursue) me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD (forever) my whole life long. Or, in the words of the CEV: “Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD.”

The Hebrew word translated “follow” can also be accurately translated “pursue,” it is a forceful, strong, active verb. So the LORD our Shepherd wants us to have his goodness and mercy so much that he never gives up on us. Rather, he actively runs after us until he catches up with us in order to give us those wonderful gifts of goodness and mercy, love and kindness. The sense of the Hebrew word for mercy can refer to God’s loyalty, God’s faithfulness. During this Easter season, his loyalty, his faithfulness is, of course, epitomized in the resurrection—which we continue to celebrate every Sunday. He is with us here, now, and always. Christ’s resurrection also is the sign of hope that one day we will share in a resurrection like his and be with him forever in a more complete way. For that, thanks be to God!

1 Billy D. Strayhorn, “Close Enough For Comfort,” at: <https://sermons.com/sermon/close-enough-for-comfort/1440724&gt;.

Funeral Sermon for Bertha Gurke

Funeral Sermon for Bertha Gurke, based on Ps 23, Heb 10:19-25 & Jn 14:1-6 by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

A mother, grandmother, friend, neighbour, resident of South Ridge Village, and sister in Christ, Bertha Gurke, has left this life for her eternal home in heaven. Today we remember Bertha, give thanks to God for her life, and commend her into the LORD’s loving hands.

The last few years have not always been easy for Bertha—having to live and cope with all of her health problems. Nor has it been easy for you, the family members either; with most of you living out of province. Yet, the LORD was there for Bertha during these past few years, just as he was throughout her lifetime. You see, Bertha was a woman with a strong faith in her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Bertha knew and trusted that because the LORD was her Shepherd she had everything she needed.

Bertha’s strong faith in the LORD her Shepherd certainly inspired me as her pastor and, I’m sure many others too. Her close relationship with the LORD her Shepherd reminds me of this beautiful story. The Lord is my shepherd…” A famous actor was once the guest of honor at a social gathering where he received many requests to recite favorite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received lengthy applause. The preacher’s voice was rough and broken from many years of preaching, and his diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied, “I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”1 Bertha knew the Shepherd; I am certain of that—and what a precious gift that is! Bertha knew the LORD was her Shepherd and now she knows the reality of our Psalm’s last verse: “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

For Bertha, her home was important. On occasion, when I called on her, she would point to the picture of her home where she lived in Maple Creek. I think she was proud of that home, and enjoyed it very much. Looking at the picture, her home certainly had some unique qualities and character. In that home, Bertha raised you her children, and she also welcomed others, so they could feel at home there.

Bertha knew the LORD her Shepherd and she wanted you, her loved ones to know him too. She wanted to dwell in the LORD’s house forever. So Bertha was faithful. During her seven years with us at South Ridge Village, she faithfully attended the Sunday afternoon Worship Services and Wednesday morning Bible Studies. In fact, oftentimes she was the first resident to show up at the Worship Services and Bible Studies. She wanted to be there and she committed herself to be there to worship the LORD her Shepherd and study his Word. Bertha told me that she so looked forward to them, and they were a highlight of her week. Bertha was also a friendly neighbour to Irene—bringing Irene along with her.

Yes, Bertha was a faithful follower of Jesus; and I am sure that her hope and prayer was that you, her loved ones, also be faithful followers of Jesus; that you too attend Worship Services on a regular basis to grow closer to Christ and be at home with him. As I think of Bertha and her faithfulness I’m reminded of these words from Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” For Bertha, a home was important; therefore she attended Worship and Bible Studies to help her be close to Jesus and at home with him. She was a faithful role model for you and others—encouraging them to worship the LORD on a regular basis so that you too can be close to Jesus and at home with him. By faithfully attending Worship and Bible Studies, Bertha grew in her faith in the LORD her Shepherd and received the encouragement of other faithful Christians. Yes, for Bertha a home was important and she wanted, more than anything else, to be at home with her LORD the Good Shepherd.

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks words of encouragement and promise regarding an eternal home, saying: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” And he goes on to say that there is nothing more that he wants for us than we be at home there with him; he wants nothing more for us than to fulfill this promise: “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

You see, as comfortable and friendly and loving as any home can be in this world—nothing, not even the best home on earth can compare with what we have to look forward to in heaven, our eternal home. On earth there are no perfect homes. We gather our loved ones around us and think we can be permanently happy. However, death comes to rob us of our loved ones. Or one of those near and dear to us decides to move far away from us. Our earthly homes are in a state of flux and being broken up. Not so with God’s heavenly home. Our eternal home in heaven is permanent and there death shall no longer rob us of loved ones—nor shall loved ones move far away from us. In heaven there are no broken homes. We shall all be celebrating a wonderful family reunion. The greatest celebration shall be to have the holy privilege of living forever in the presence of God our heavenly Father and Jesus our Good Shepherd who is also known as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Yes, one day you and I shall be in that eternal home; the place of joy and love unending. On that day we shall meet up with Bertha and all of our loved ones again; we shall be with the LORD every day. Jesus promises this to you, me, and everyone who believes that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” My hope and prayer, and I’m sure Bertha’s hope and prayer was and is that you do believe Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life. Amen.

1 Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technologies, 1994).