Sunday, July 22, 2018

9 Pentecost

Psalm 23 painted by Alyse Radenovic with the valley of the shadow of death 
July 22, 2018

Psalm 23

+ So, just think for one moment. Think about all the times you have heard, throughout your life, the 23rd Psalm. Think of all those funerals. Think of all those times when you have heard it and you could recite it by heart.   Or think of all those films you may have watched in which the 23rd Psalm was recited.

I remember well, in the original film of In Cold Blood, how the 23rd Psalm is read in the powerful closing scene as the murderers are hanged.

Or in the film Titanic, how the psalm was recited as the ship went down.

Or, in the great Clint Eastwood Western, Pale Rider (a film full of Christian symbolism), how there was a great dialog version of the 23rd Psalm in which a girl whose dog was killed by marauders recites the psalm, but then responds to the verses with comments like “But I DO want” and “But I AM afraid.”

In fact, that dialog version from Pale Rider is really what the Psalms are all about, in my opinion.

Now as most of you know, I pray the Psalms every day—at least twice a day—when I pray Morning and Evening Prayer the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. And when you pray the psalms like that, day in and day out, trust me, you often find yourself in a dialog form of prayer with them.  For me, that’s the correct way to pray the psalms.  If the psalms aren’t used as a kind of dialog—if they don’t become our prayers—then they’re being used incorrectly.

But, even for me, for someone who prays the Psalms on a daily basis and has for almost twenty years, I also have taken the 23rd Psalm for granted.

Oftentimes when something becomes so ingrained into our culture, we don’t even give it a second thought. We find ourselves missing its nuances, it beauties, its depths.   Because it is so popular, because we have heard it so much in our lives, we really do take the 23rd Psalm for granted.  We don’t really think about it and what it means.

So, this morning, let’s take a close look at this psalm to which we have paid so little attention. We’re going to do something this morning that we haven’t done in a while, but it’s fun to do on occasion. We are going to take a line-by-line look at Psalm 23. If you want to follow along, you can do so on page 612 in the BCP. Of if you want to the traditional KJV of it, you can find that on page 476 in the BCP.  (And I apologize for the all masculine language for God in the quote here, but I’m trying to use a version close to that which we are all most familiar)

OK. I know you might be inwardly groaning at such a prospect. But bear with me. Sometimes it’s good to have a poet for your priest.  Sometimes.

So, let us take a good, in-depth look at this psalm which we have taken for such granted. And there’s no better to begin, than the beginning.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

There’s an interesting choice of words here.

Want.

I shall not be in want.

Why?

Essentially, this line is perfect, really. Why would I need to want anything, with God as my shepherd, as the One who leads me and guides me. If we are being shepherded, if we are being watched over and cared for, there is no need to want to for anything.

We are provided for by our God.

We are taken care of.

And want is just not something we have.

   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.

So, here we have sort of this idyllic image.

Green pastures.

Still waters.

The sense here is of calmness.

For all those funerals at which this psalm has been recited, this image no doubt calls to mind images of heaven.

But, for us, right now, this image is important too. God’s presence in our lives essentially stills whatever anxieties we might have. God, who is our shepherd, will only find the choicest places for us, the best places. Just as we don’t want, just as we are taken care of and cared for, so we are led to a place of safety and beauty, because God loves us just that much. And we will be well.

He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake. 

Again, God the Shepherd leads. And where does God lead? God leads us on the right path, through the right way. But then we come across this strange wording,
”for his name’s sake.”

Again, notice at this point how often we have taken this psalm for granted. How many times have we recited or prayed these words. But without asking, what does that mean?

“for his name’s sake?”

Well, for us, it shows that God’s reputation is one of goodness and mercy and rightness. For God’s Name’s sake, in this sense, means that it is God’s will, God’s purpose, God is known for doing good things for us, for leading us on those right paths.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;

Those are iconic lines if there ever were any.

Now, this is not bragging mind, you, but I, for one, know what the valley of the shadow of death is. I have been there. I have ventured through it more than once.

I went through it when I was diagnosed with cancer.

I am going through it now in my season of grief.

But the valley of the shadow of death is different for each us.

I remember well my mother saying that giving birth, for her, was like walking through the shadow of death.

The shadow of death for us is the darkest, most horrendous place we can think of in life. And for us, we know that even there we are not alone. God is with us even in that darkness, even that close to death.  And not only with us, vaguely hovering over us.

No.

God is there to support us, to hold us, to guide us forward. Hence,

   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me. 

God’s strength holds us up and sustains us even then.
But then, we come to this strange verse,

You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;

Didn’t I just talk about how God only leads us into places of beauty and light?  And now, here we have God preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies.

At first glance, this seems like something horrible, like a cruel joke. Why would God put us at a table with our enemies?

But, if you notice, there is a bit of defiance in this verse. Go ahead and sit with your enemies, God seems to say to us. You can’t be protected from all harm.

There are dangers out there. There are bad things in this world. There is a valley of the shadow of death! There are people who don’t like us. Yes, we may very well have real enemies.

But don’t fear, God says in this psalm. I am with you. And because I am, you can even sit down at the table with your enemies and you will be fine. Even there, in the presence of our enemies,

Our heads are anointed with oil—we are blessed and consecrated by our God.
And there, at the table in the presence of our enemies, our cup overflows with God’s goodness.

Even there, we will be all right. Because we are following the right path.

And on that path, there is goodness and mercy following us.

Not just today. Not just tomorrow. But all the days of our lives.

This how God rewards those of us who are faithful in our following of God.  
And at the very, we know what awaits us. We know what the ultimate goal is in following God our Shepherd. We know where God will lead us. God will lead us to that place in which we dwell in the house of God, our whole life long.

See, this psalm really is amazing! No wonder this psalm has been so important to so many people over so many years.

This psalm is our psalm.

It is a wonderful microcosm of our faith journey.

And it is a beautiful reminder to us of God’s continued goodness in our lives.
So, when we are at a funeral and we hear the 23rd Psalm or we hear it being recited in a film, let us truly hear it for what it is. Let it speak to us anew. And most importantly, let it be a reminder to us of God’s goodness and mercy, of God’s care for each of us.

God is our shepherd. God leads us and guards us and guides us.

We have nothing to fear.

And, one day, we will dwell in the house of our God forever.




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