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Psalm 23 in the King James, NRSV, and Common English Bible translations
It is a risky, almost dangerous, thing to preach—or even reflect—on the 23rd Psalm. For some of us, it is our most beloved passage of scripture, possibly the only part of the Bible we know by heart. For many of us, it conjures up deep feelings, tender memories, particularly personal associations.
The 23rd Psalm almost screams: Don’t mess with me! Don’t try to explain me or exegete me. Just feel me. Just let yourself be comforted and reassured by my beautiful images and powerful faith statements.
We might be thinking: Just let the 23rd Psalm be. Don’t make me think about it. Don’t let it challenge me. Just bring it out for funerals and memorial services, when I need something familiar and comfortable—and make sure it’s the King James Version. Keep it quaint and old-fashioned, something to pull out of my spiritual pocket when I’m feeling sad.
I understand all those impulses and reactions. Sometimes I even share them.
But then I read the news. Then I find myself flat on my back in an ambulance. Then I catch myself worrying about my future or feeling too tired to go on. Then I lose myself in one dark valley after another, alone and scared and seemingly surrounded by forces that oppose me at every turn—and I go to the 23rd Psalm. Sometimes it comes to me.
And then I remember a memorial service I did last year for someone not connected to First Church. As I met with the family of the deceased to plan the service, I suggested that we include the 23rd Psalm. The dead man’s young-adult daughters looked at me with blank stares. They had no idea what I was talking about. Even after I recited a few lines, they didn’t recognize it. It meant nothing to them.
Experiences like that remind me that, as another psalm says, God’s Word has the power to be a lamp unto my feet, a guide for my path. They draw me to Jesus, God’s Word Become Flesh, who, in one of the metaphors of today’s gospel reading, is a Living Gate, showing us the way to abundant life. Encountering people who don’t know the first thing about God or Jesus, Spirit power or the 23rd Psalm, makes me wonder:
What does the 3,000-year-old 23rd Psalm mean for non-sheepherding, a-religious people in the 21st century? How would we explain it to them? For that matter, what does the 23rd Psalm mean for those of us who are trying not only to follow Jesus into the heart of God, but are also trying to love our neighbors and our enemies, to usher in the reign of God on Earth? Is it relevant to our lives?
What does it mean for you and for me, people desperately in need of still waters and soul restoration who can’t stop checking our smartphones?
What does it mean for the heart-of-gold activists who go from meeting to march to protest action to another meeting, and then more emails and phone calls and actions, rarely stopping to rest or to pray—much less to take a load off and enjoy the feast God has prepared for them even in the midst of all that is wrong in the world?
Where are the green pastures for the homeless, the unemployed, the poor, those who are sick and perhaps soon-to-be uninsured?
How are we supposed to stop wanting when everything in our culture tells us we don’t have enough and that we are not enough?
What does being shadowed by goodness and mercy, blessing and kindness, look like for transgender folks, the incarcerated, the lonely, for the African American youth encountering a police officer?
How can we speak of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever to the tens of millions of refugees who have lost everything and are now stranded in refugee camps and denied entry into our country. How can we speak of dwelling in safety to the millions of undocumented persons who are threatened with separation from their families and deportation from our country to places of rampant violence and abject poverty?
Is it really possible not to fear evil when each day brings a new outrage, a greater injustice, and the likelihood of even harder times for the most vulnerable?
(And, you might be thinking: Have I really managed to turn a reflection on our most comforting of scriptures into a major downer? Well, I hope not.)
Because this is not a dry theological exercise. Friends, these are not unfaithful questions. These are just some of the vital questions that our faith calls us to ask, some of the ways in which we must wrestle with our scriptures—even the ones we would rather not touch, even those that bring us comfort.
We who believe God is still speaking must consider how not only how he spoke in a faraway place long ago, but especially how God speaks to us here and now. We who believe Spirit has something to say to our hearts and the struggles of our times must listen for her voice with the ears of the young, the marginalized, and the un-churched who are thirsty for meaning, purpose, and community.
We must come together on Sundays not only to revel in the gifts of community, not just to be comforted, not simply to worship the Source of Life and Love, but also to be renewed in our identity, to be sent out as so many love-lights into a world filled with darkness.
Wrestling with the scriptures, making them come alive again, figuring out whether and how they have anything to say to us is not my job alone. It is part of our holy calling to be the church in the world: to be relevant, to provide hope, and, ultimately, to be instruments of God’s peace, vessels of God’s healing, transforming love.
It is both holy calling and tall order. Wrestling can be restorative and renewing, clarifying and inspiring. And, in the end, we trust that every question, every prayer, every outreach action, every ministry team, every encounter will bring us back to the same comforting, challenging, life-changing truth:
For you are with me.
Because God is with us, we can walk through dark valleys. Because God is with us, we can rest assured that goodness and mercy are, too. Because God is with us, we need fear no evil. And we know God is with us because Christ, our brother, is risen. And we know God is with us because he lives in each of us.
So let us wrestle when we can and lie down when we need to. Let us celebrate the feast prepared for us and drink deeply of the cup that overflows. Let us remember that goodness and mercy go before us and bring up the rear, that are lives are shaped by grace and grounded in love.
Friends, hear the sacred words again, anew:
God is your shepherd. You have all you need. When you walk through deep valleys, even as you approach death’s door, you need not fear—for God is with you. God showers you with love; your cup overflows. Goodness and mercy will follow you—yes, you!—all the days of your life. And you will dwell in God’s heart forever.