(Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2014 || Easter 4A || Psalm 23)
In six years of priesthood, I’ve preached on the psalm exactly twice. Today, I’m going to make it three times. Psalm 23 is among the most well-loved and oft-quoted passages of scriptures. We read it at funerals or by the bedsides of those who are sick. When you listen to these words, you might hear an echo of your grandmother reciting it to you when you were a child. The words of Psalm 23 are powerful and gentle at the same time. But, as with anything you hear over and over again, the words can grow stale and distant. So I’d like to try something. I’d like to offer a meditation on Psalm 23 by expanding the thoughts contained in each of the six verses. Saint Francis of Assisi did something similar with the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m going to follow his example. As you listen, see how the venerable words of the twenty-third Psalm strike you anew.
The LORD is my shepherd.
For most, our agrarian days are long past and we see pastureland only from the car window as we drive by on the highway. We see the animals in the field, and we think, “How quaint and how beautiful.” But something tugs inside, and we notice a secret longing for a simpler time. We desire to tramp through the long grass, the only sounds the swish of our clothes rubbing together and our voices calling the flock. Each sheep has a name, and as we call, they come. We have a shepherd, too, who calls us each by name. We have a guide. A protector. A provider. The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
It’s a statement of faith that hangs on the promise of provision, the expectation that the Lord will provide. But this English rendition of the Hebrew words gives them more than one meaning. We will not be in want; that is, we will lack for nothing we need to sustain us. But we will also be free from the concept of “wanting”; that is, when we believe the Lord will provide, we will resist the siren song of consumer culture that seduces us, that tries to tell us security only comes with more stuff. “I shall not be in want,” means that we understand proportion, that we have a realistic notion of the word “enough,” and that we find contentment in living simply.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
These are the good days – the days of plenty, the days of refreshment. The still waters reflect God’s peace. The green pastures announce God’s abundance. Peace and abundance feed our awareness of the One who leads us. We notice that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”* Noticing this grandeur re-“charges” us. Or in the words of the psalmist:
He revives my soul
My essence. My life-force. The gift God gave each of us in the sparkling moment of creation that connects our fleetingness to God’s eternity. God’s grandeur is present, and yet we might still miss it. We tire. We burn out. We feel more fleeting than eternal. Thus our Lord revives our souls time and time again…
And guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Oftentimes in the psalms the poet reiterates a thought with a parallel one, which is why many psalms have a repetitive nature to them. Here we have a hidden parallel: reviving our souls and guiding us along right pathways are two sides of the same coin. The pathways along which our shepherd guides us lead to revival, to green grass and refreshing water. And all for God’s name’s sake; in other words, all to make God’s grandeur apparent. And yet…
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
If the shepherd is leading us, why do we walk through this particular valley? Why is it on the route at all? Do we stumble into the valley of the shadow of death because we have strayed from right pathways, or do the right pathways include a road through this valley? We all know life isn’t just green pastures and still waters. We are a people formed by the reality of the cross. But the cross – the shadow of death – is not the end of the story. The joy of the resurrection proclaims that we are not abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death. No. We walk through the valley and out the other side. Perhaps we make this journey because there are people stuck in the valley. It is our duty and our joy to help them find their way out.
In the valley we fear no evil; not because evil doesn’t exist, but because fearing evil gives it power. Fear keeps us from trusting that we will make it out the other side of the valley. Evil seeks to separate us from the One in whom we put our trust. But evil will not succeed…
For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This is our mantra while in the valley: “You are with me. You are with me.” Just because we have trouble noticing God’s presence doesn’t mean God is absent. And so we breathe these words, “You are with me,” until they become, “I am with you.” And dwelling in that truth, we find comfort. Comfort and sustenance, for…
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
On the bad days, we might not be able to find the green pastures or the still waters. We might stop believing we have enough and start listening to the seductive voices of those who trouble us, those who chant: “More. More. More. Then you’ll find comfort.” And so, on those bad days, instead of leading us to the pasture to forage for ourselves, the Lord sets a banquet before us. The Lord places what we need right in front of us so we can’t miss it. And we discover once again the abundance inherent in trusting in the Lord to provide.
You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
When the Lord provides, the Lord provides. What we are fearful won’t be enough overwhelms us instead. Our cups overflow with blessing, both because there is so much blessing, and also because we have made ourselves too small to contain it. The extravagance of God’s blessing fills us in a way that the “More” of the seductive voices could never achieve. When our cups run over, we have the opportunity to spill God’s blessing on all those we meet. As the Lord guides us along right pathways, overflowing blessing marks the way for us and for those who will come after. And as we walk those ways…
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The Lord, our shepherd, guides us, leads us by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and still waters. The Lord takes the lead. We follow. And notice what follows us: God’s goodness and mercy trails us like the churning wake of a ship at sea. Thus, we are surrounded: God’s blessing and abundance before us, God’s goodness and mercy behind us. And above, below, and within us is the truth of God’s promise that…
I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
For ever includes right now. To dwell means not just to live, but to abide. To unpack all our boxes. To put our clothes in the drawers and fill the refrigerator. To make a home for ourselves in the palm of God’s hand. This is the witness of this beautiful poem, Psalm 23. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have a home in our Lord’s house. We have a provider in the Good Shepherd. And we have eyes to witness, here and in the life to come, a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”