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Or Would You Rather Be A Sheep?

Janine Zabriskie

July 19, 2015
Psalm 23

 

A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths*
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely* goodness and mercy* shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Janine ZabriskiI want to begin by saying thanks. As I was formulating what I wanted this service and this sermon to look like, several of the staff members here offered up various snippets of insight or interpretation on the 23rd Psalm. In order not to play favorites, I won’t be using any of them… but I appreciate the support and enthusiasm they have all shown for this project.

As soon as I saw the 23rd Psalm listed as part of this week’s lectionary, I wanted to have a chance to explore it a little more. The Hebrew subtitle of this text is “a psalm of David,” and while it has been disproven for many years that the great Biblical king actually wrote the psalms as was once believed, this one somehow remains linked to him. Perhaps it has something to do with David’s rags to riches story. Maybe it’s our fascination with royalty. Or it could be that we aspire to follow his example of earnest devotion to God. But there is something about this text which stirs people. We go one of two ways. Either we have our favorite parts which we find comforting in our unsettled moments, or conversely, there are those words or phrases that have never quite sat right in our minds, so we wrestle with them whenever they cross our brains. Most commonly, this text is used in times of grief and sadness, usually at funerals. So, these words have crossed our brains an awful lot lately. Seven times in the last two and a half months for members of this congregation. Too many to count for those of us who keep track of the toll taken by gun violence, or mental illness, or hate crimes. A month ago, it was nine people studying in a church. Three days ago, four Marines in a recruiting center. It seems these days we hear this psalm over and over and over again. Lord, in your mercy.

I’m not exactly certain how it is that this psalm came to be so closely associated with death and funerals. Did we just slip into it, like a pair of beat-up old shoes? Do we recite these words out of some sense of duty, as if somehow our loved ones have not been properly sent off to heaven if there hasn’t been a recitation of the 23rd Psalm? Are these words of praise and laud somehow our last chance to “kiss up” to God on their behalf? Do we want to believe that we are somehow forestalling our own death by keeping these words close to our hearts and our lips? The words themselves are not particularly mournful, especially when compared to some of the other psalms. The most ominous of the images presented, of course, is the valley of the shadow of death… but the speaker is still upright and walking, not cowering in a corner, or curling up in utter resignation. Anybody who is up and walking around can’t necessarily be all THAT close to death. And as Charles Spurgeon notes in his “Treasury of David,” to walk indicates “the steady advance of a soul which knows its road, resolves to follow the path, feels quite safe, and is therefore perfectly calm and composed.” We are walking through the valley – not running through at top speed, nor stopping and building condos there.

Using the psalm during a funeral service seems to have become a standard way of looking back over a loved one’s life and history, and then somehow tying that past to an untouchable and unknowable future, as if we were using the images of the psalm to envision what the recently deceased might now be experiencing, in a realm we do not and cannot know about. But… I look at these words as objectively as I can, and… That’s present tense, friends. King David, or whomever we imagine the speaker to be, is not talking about what awaits us in holy afterlife. We are not being given a forecast of our heavenly future. We are being shown what is in front of us. Right now. In, I believe, some very absolute terms.

I think sometimes we get so caught up in the images that are presented, we forget to look at the structure of the text, and what it’s actually saying. For example, the verbs are all sort of coaxing us toward a particular course of action, as if the words themselves were shepherds’ rods or hooks. They leave little room for negotiation, as in goodness and mercy SHALL follow me, and I SHALL dwell in the house of the Lord… I will fear NO evil. Not big, amorphous, smoke-and-thunder, undefined evil. Not zombies, or spiders. No. Evil. And there can be no mistaking it, I shall NOT want! Not maybe every now and again I might wish for a little something I didn’t have. No. Shall not. And the shall not want is interesting, because there are so many nuances to it, so many ways to think about that idea. I shall not want. I will never be in need. Anything that I might need? God will provide for me. Or… if God hasn’t provided it for me already, guess what? I probably don’t really need it. I will never need it. Everything I need, I already have. You could probably find other ways to interpret those words by using different tone or inflection. But there is no getting around that “shall not.”

In a similar vein, let’s go and talk about that valley. Ohh, that valley. As I mentioned earlier, this is the scary part, the most foreboding of all the images in the psalm. And there is no getting around this, either. We will walk through our valleys, all of us. Walking, still walking, things aren’t really that bad. And, Spurgeon also points out, it is not the valley of death, it is the valley of the shadow of death – in order for there to be a shadow, there needs to be at least some small sliver of light. But even that shadow is not the most powerful word here. The really potent word in this sentence as I read it, is “although.” It does not read, “I don’t really have to walk through the valley,” or “I can avoid the valley altogether by doing X, Y, and Z.” It says “ALTHOUGH I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We’re gonna have to do it. The dark times, the rough times, the sadness – they are a given, and cannot be avoided or removed from our lives. Even Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, walked through that valley when he cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” If the perfect being of Christ can’t get out of having that moment of despair, then let’s face it, neither can we. But ALTHOUGH we go through these difficult patches, the Lord is with us. And we don’t need to fear anything. In fact, we shall not. It says so right there…

As I heard in class one day, “We fear God not because God is scary, but because God is amazing and mysterious and surprising and holy.” We don’t know God’s plan. We often don’t understand God’s work in the world. But I truly believe, God loves us, and wants to be loved by us. We are to fear nothing. We do, of course, fear lots of things. Including God. But that’s a fear we have created for ourselves, not one which was created in us, nor desired for us.

I think that’s the purpose of all of these shepherd images. The sheep… well, let’s face it, the sheep really aren’t very bright. They wander off, away from the flock, into craggy, rocky places where they can fall and be hurt, or be preyed upon by other animals, and they have NO sense of direction, so once they’re out there, they will never find their way back on their own. That’s why the shepherd and the rod and the staff are necessary. For complicated sheep extraction purposes. And here’s the part we REALLY don’t like to admit. We are the sheep. We’re the ones who find ourselves in situations where we don’t want to be, or in places where we don’t know what direction to turn, or we forgot to make sure there was food, or we wander away from the other sheep in the flock who know us, understand us. But the Lord is OUR shepherd. The Lord is always there. Caring for us, looking after us, tending to us in all our sheeply limitations.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Wow. What a statement that is. I… WE… are constantly being looked after, protected, and provided for. There is never a moment in our lives when we are without God. These words should not comfort us just simply because they are well-worn and familiar. They should comfort us because they are about overcoming fear. We have nothing to fear. I’m reminded of the quote by the late Reverend Robert Schuller which asks, “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?” Can you imagine it? We are being cared for, held up, looked after, held onto – whatever mental image works best, go ahead and run with it. We can focus on one another instead of ourselves, we have the freedom from want which allows us to step up, to speak out, take the risk, ask for help, say “I love you.” We can. And we must do more of that.

It’s true, there are a lot of disturbing things going on in our country right now. We have flags, symbols of old and deep hurt, waved in ignorance and disrespect. We have guns everywhere. We have LGBTQ youth and people of color being killed simply for being who they are. We have political and financial systems which are so clearly corrupt and broken. No matter which side of the fence you come down on as to the best way to resolve these issues, these are troubling times. It’s no wonder, really, that we retreat into what is familiar and comfortable. But if we expect to get out of this valley, friends… we have got to keep on walking. And have no fear. For surely goodness and mercy will follow us if we do.

Amen.