Meg Peery McLaughlin
“Back to the Basics”
March 22, 2020
I find in these strange days that we are going back to the basics.
Washing our hands.
Following the rules.
Saying I love you.
In our house,
we’re playing hide and and go seek
and sitting on our front porch to wave to neighbors.
This is a time for Basics. Classics.
Of course when it comes to church
doing the basic things like:
gathering for worship
breaking bread together
holding hands in prayer
have all been disrupted by this pandemic.
so in the midst of this, what Word does the preacher bring?
Over the internet of all things?
I found it providential that this Sunday’s lectionary is the 23rd Psalm.
If you were going to bring it back to basics,
the Lord is my shepherd
gets you there.
And this morning I’ll read it from the King James,
because there is something about the cadence of the words that is comforting,
and if we ever needed comfort, it is now.
So close your eyes for a minute
so you don’t have to stare at my face,
and recite it with me if you like, or just listen now, for the Word of God.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
My friend Tom is right when he says that when we hear the words of the 23rd Psalm
it’s quite likely that we then smell — flowers and fresh dirt,
we hear sounds of grief,
and feel the weight of the heart weighed down.
I read these words at the grave more than I read them anywhere else.
They are good words to use when we are at a loss for all others.
And while we are not at the edge of a grave today,
we are grieving, are we not? church?
We are grieving:
disruption of life and the lack of company
the postponed trips, graduations, weddings, sports seasons,
the market drop, the longer wait now for the knee that needed replacing and all manner of hopes we had for these days ahead.
And then we’re even grieving that we are grieving!
Because we know there are those sick, those who are dying
and those putting their lives on the line for them.
We know there are those whose livelihoods just evaporated with all the shut-downs. Those for whom the schools in recess is not a pleasant break but a cut-off from their daily bread.
So we need these words
But let’s slow them down a bit today.
Because sometimes, as we’ve noted in this quarantine time,
that we go through the motions,
and it takes coming to a halt to pay attention to that which we’ve missed.
The Lord is my shepherd.
Which must make me a sheep.
There’s a whole host of scholarship about sheep being not altogether smart and such, but at a basic level, what I know is that sheep are dependent on the shepherd.
Dependence isn’t a thing we like to admit,
and perhaps we’re getting more of a taste of it this Lent,
realizing our dependence on toilet Paper, on connection with other people,
on school, on work, on paychecks, on the capacity of our health care system.
This text articulates our dependence on a shepherd[i].
A bit of Bible study on this reveals Jacob’s summary of the job[ii],
way back in Genesis, when he is working for his father in law, Laban,
he says: These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself; It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night.
This is what good shepherds do. They take care of the sheep entrusted to their care, in intimate, exhausting ways. They live a life vulnerable to the elements and predators, all for the sake of the sheep.
And we have a faithful shepherd, friends, one we can depend on–
one who provides, gives rest, leads, feeds and restores,
even through the valley of the shadow, perhaps especially through it.
This is the first half of the psalm.
In Hebrew, it’s original language, the first 26 words.
Then there is a hinge.
And a change.
After the words: I WILL NOT FEAR
All of a sudden the poet begins to speak of God in the first person,
not about God, but TO God, with a language of relationship and trust.
I WILL NOT FEAR for YOU are with me.
Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table, you anoint my head.
At the very center of this Psalm are the words:
YOU ARE WITH ME.
There are 26 words before,
and 26 words after.
At the center of it all,
the absolute center,
not only of the Psalm,
but of all of Scripture,
and of our lives, there is God.[iii] With us.
we are not all gathered in this sanctuary today,
and you may be in your pajamas,
or on a break from your shift at the hospital or clinic
or on another long day of not being able to touch another human’s hand
or hiding from your children for a few precious minutes in your bathroom
but we are all going back to the basics today
wash your hands
follow the rules
remember that you are loved
by a faithful shepherd
we need not fear for God is with us.
[i] Thanks to Ellen Crawford True for this scholarship.
[ii] Genesis 31: 38-40
 Limberg, James, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000). With thanks to Pen Peery for this scholarship.
[iii] With thanks to Jenny McDevitt for this poetic language.