By the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley, Jr.,
Visiting Bishop for the Diocese of South Carolina
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Nearly always we hear the words of Psalm 23, one of the most beloved passages in the Bible for many of us. The image of God as shepherd springs from the lived experience of agrarian people who tended flocks and knew shepherding intimately. We do not see many shepherds in our day; yet the 23rd Psalm profoundly resonates with us. Most of us know it by heart. As a bishop I think of it always as I carry my pastoral staff, the symbol of the good shepherd.
Meditate on it with me for a moment, using the translation most of us have in our memory bank. There are three movements in the psalm: verses 1-3, 4-5, and 6. I like to think of them, mnemonically, as provision, presence, and promise.
The first, “provision,” begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” A shepherd’s task is to keep the flock moving to find what they need to flourish. God, the psalm affirms, does the same for us. Green pastures for nourishment, still waters for hydration, safe pathways for movement. These metaphors for God’s loving care “restore the soul,” giving us physical and spiritual vitality. The gifts of the good earth give us bodily nourishment; God’s love sustains us inwardly. “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days,” as Issac Watts’ great hymn says.
The second part, “presence,” acknowledges that we, like sheep, go though dark times. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The assurance is not that life won’t be difficult. It is for all of us at times. The assurance is that the divine presence is with us. The shepherd’s “rod and staff” protect us from the dark. Indeed in the wilderness times of life, God sets a table for us and our “cup runneth over.” I will always remember asking a young couple who had lost a young child to cancer about their faith struggles. They said that they could not have gotten through it without knowing that God and the church’s love were with them each day. Presence is the gift.
The final part, “promise,” is a single verse. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” the poet proclaims. The verb reminds us that a shepherd’s place is in the back of the flock, guiding them forward and, with the staff (or a sheep dog), nudging back those who wander. God’s goodness and mercy are in the midst of our life encouraging us to keep moving in just the same way. The promise is that God is always trying to give us what is good and will mercifully nudge us back when we fail. That promise, the psalm concludes, goes even beyond this life: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” God’s following goodness and mercy reach into the mystery of eternity. Beyond our final breath the good shepherd will never let us go. Our dwelling place in this miraculous world will one day open on to transcendent glory. As an old prayer says, “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven; to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling but one equal light…in the habitations of your majesty and of your glory, world without end.”
Saying this psalm and remembering the “3 p’s” helps set me right daily. I commend it to you.
The Rt. Rev. Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr.
During the uncertain times created by the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, leadership of the diocese will send out regular meditations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for the next while as we all adjust to a new chapter of living and being the Church.