The 23rd Psalm Unbound
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Just when when we though that we could settle-in and bask in the peace and quiet of Easter season we are once again presented with that aggressive, irritating, subversive and challenging psalm about the Good Shepherd. Sure the 23rd Psalm quickly gets one hooked by the sweetness of its opening pastoral scene… ‘God makes me to lay down in green pastures, and sit beside still waters… God restores my soul.’ But just as we are getting settled in the bucolic scene, relishing the airy perfume of grass and flower, accented with the essence of light-flecked water… just when our parched, cracked lips are being soothed …. our serene intoxication is interrupted as we are scooped up and shown that terrifying place known as the “Valley of Death.” The valley in Israel that probably inspired this image has such sheer walls and plunging depth… that shadows descend upon the valley well before the sun goes down in the rest of the land. The spiritual geography of this place is filled with all of the fears and bogeymen that hide under our beds at night as well as those that dog us in the daytime. It is a valley that is overflowing with all of the fears that come in the shape of death, the death of our bodies and all other forms of death that call out from the shadows…. Shadows that describe the insides of our eyelids when we are exhausted from weeping, or the darkness of depression, or the abyss that is the absence of hope.
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me… shepherds use their staffs to keep sheep from wandering off, to grab their necks or trip a leg up with the crook end of the staff and to poke and push with the other end, though, admittedly the straight end of the crook is mostly used to fend off predators such as wolves. The point is… this psalm, that has been a soothing comfort through the generations, is active and engaging. A good shepherd both protects and agitates the flock in order to move them in the direction they need to go… and too often we bathe in the psalm’s blessed calm… while ignoring its edge. The psalm ends with the line, “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life”… but a closer look shows that the translation from Hebrew into English goes beyond “follow”… it is more like “pursue”… or “chase” ….it is more like “hounding”… surely the God of justice and mercy… the God who guides us through the rough patches and into calm places… this God is one who hounds us… relentlessly… with a desire to be in relationship with us… Our God is one who hounds us with the promise of ultimate protection and steadfast love in the midst of our messy and complicated lives… even in the midst of death. Our God is one who hounds us onto right paths of that are of justice and salvation… into the heavenly vision of peace on earth that is not yet… but will be.
The God of Israel who guided the captives out of Egypt, with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, continues to hound us with guidance, and caring, and life even in the midst of life’s most desperate situations, even when death and loss feel as though they are going to swallow us up. The 23rd Psalm comforted my grandmother Fannie as she lay dying from pancreatic cancer, and my friend Donna after her husband Bill’s death. It is probably one of the most requested psalms at funerals. The 23rd Psalm is powerful in its ability actually to move us to lay down our many labors and to feel God’s presence… if but for a moment.
Let’s look a little closer…
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..” If but for a brief moment… I shall not want… from all of the things that… I want… and I want them because I don’t have them…
I want a happier life
I want to feel that others care about me
I want to feel heard and understood
I want better health
I want my loneliness to end
I want that pesky “To Do” list completed
I want my stresses to disappear
I want my financial woes resolved
I want to go that trip that I cannot afford
…or to a live in a house that actually feels like my home
I want to die peacefully in my bed…
I want to feel like I belong
….and that my life has meaning
….and maybe, too, I want that new Tesla, or Prius, or BMW…
….you fill in the blank_____
The reality is that our culture and economy is built on “want”. When we pray the 23rd Psalm we are engaging with God in a countercultural activity of loosening the earthly distractions that draw us from the true peace and fullness that God promises. And that promise is not just our heavenly reward. That promise is for us here and now under God’s guidance and love.
The Good Shepherd promises protection from our enemies… but what if the enemy is within? What if the enemy is our own apathy and indifference to the needs and sufferings of others? What if the enemy is our own pride, pride that keeps us from reconciling broken relationships… old wounds and resentments… pride that keeps us planted firmly on our own plot of stubborn ego? What if the enemy is a settled comfort that feeds an unhealthy ability to get up and get going… inertia that keeps us from rolling up our sleeves when we are sent forth in peace to love and serve in Christ’s name beyond this place? The shepherd calls us by name and knows us thoroughly and completely inside and out…. When we rise up and when we fall…. God knows our enemies, even those unknown to us… enemies from within and enemies from without…that seek to tear us down. God pursues us even as we scramble to flee in fear because, God is present, with us, always, to guide us onto paths of well being and wholeness, especially when we are prone to wander from God’s life-giving path. God’s urgency is to call us back, again and again, and to bring us to that place, that moment, that way of being… in which life is healed, renewed, and sustained.
So let us enter into this psalm once again. I would like to invite you to join in a guided meditation in which we encounter the psalm afresh. I invite you to enter into this meditation in whatever way feels most comfortable to you. You may close your eyes or keep them open. If your mind wanders off… that is OK… God is with you even as you wander. You may want to let images come to mind and your senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste join in. You may prefer not to enter in. That is OK too. Take a cleansing breath in and out and invite the experience…
“The Lord is my shepherd”…. Feel the presence of the one who is looking after you, protecting you, sometimes catching you, maybe prodding you, even as you seek to wander off….feel the presence of the one who is guiding you to places of wholeness that you don’t even know exist. Feel this life-giving presence…
“I shall not be in want.” I invite you to let your nagging “wants” show themselves… and then release them… let God lighten your load…
“God makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.” Feel this place… let the details of this place come into focus… the sights… the sounds… the smells… the feel of green grass and firm ground beneath you… the vision of still water… Know that this is a place that you can return to again, and again… as often as you like.
“God revives my soul.” Feel God’s life stirring inside. Where in your body are you experiencing sensation? Pay attention.
“God guides me along right pathways because God calls us to life.” With your mind’s eye see the path of life and well-being that is before you and know God is with you… to guide you… to guide us… if we but yield into God’s big love working in and through us… guiding us…
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” Can you look into the shadows… and feel God’s presence steady and sure, right beside you? Feel God’s strength.
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” A symbol of strength and protection is powerful. The image may be a shepherd’s crook. It may be a cross. It may be a strong hand ready to catch us when we fall. Feel God’s strength and comfort.
“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.” Can you see the faces of those who cause trouble and grief in your life? In hospitality God invites us to the table of reconciliation and healing. God is there at the table welcoming us all to sit together and share a meal.
“You have anointed my head with oil” Feel the warm touch that marks you as worthy,feel the anointing that turns commoners into royalty. You are deserving.
“My cup overflows” There is more than enough… more than enough. Feel the abundance.
“I know, God, that your goodness and mercy and love will pursue all the days of my life” …I need not run away, I can rest in you… and I will dwell in your presence now and forever.
I would like to end with a version of the 23rd Psalm from Eugene Peterson’s The Message”:
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.