Livestreamed service

Psalm 23, different versions

        We could do worse this morning—much, much worse—than to simply meditate on one or more versions of this familiar poem of spiritual comfort, deep faith, and understated praise.

        We could do worse—much, much worse—than to chose any version of this psalm, perhaps even a version we’ve written ourselves, to read often and perhaps even memorize until it becomes a part of us, a place of still and nourishing waters in the roiling, tempest-driven seas of our world.

        I say this because I’m well aware that some of you are tired of this psalm; maybe you’ve heard it so often that you can’t hear the truth of it anymore. Perhaps you have a hard time getting past the images of sheep and shepherds that, while foreign to most of us, would have been second-nature to ancient Israelites and to David, who was a shepherd before he became a king. Perhaps you associate this psalm with funerals, memorial services, and therefore, death, and you’d rather not go there with any regularity, thank you very much.

        I’m not here to try to talk you out of any of those feelings. I’m not here to change your mind about anything.

        My job in this moment, to put it plainly, is simply to share with you the good news. My job is to share God’s love and care with you and then trust the Holy Spirit to accomplish whatever you need—whether that is comfort, reassurance, hope, rest, renewal, confidence, or all of the above. It’s truly amazing what wonders the Spirit can work with only Psalm 23 and a heart that is even the slightest-bit open.

        I remember, many years ago now, preparing for a memorial service for a man I had never met. Neither he nor his family had any connection to this church but he had, apparently, volunteered at and/or benefitted from Not Bread Alone, and so his survivors—an ex-wife and two estranged adult daughters—wanted to have his service here.

        As I planned the service with the man’s daughters, I suggested the 23rd Psalm as a possible reading. “What is that?” they asked.

        But during the service, I watched eyes filling with tears as we all said the psalm together.

        I remember praying the 23rd Psalm from the back of an ambulance after I was hit by a car not two blocks from here. I didn’t know how seriously I was injured or what was going to happen, but it helped to remember that God was with me. It took away some of my fear.

        I don’t need to tell you that the world can be a scary place, that regardless of how privileged we are and how charmed our lives, we’ve all had, or will have, times in our lives when we need guidance, reassurance, comfort, and rest, goodness, mercy, and a place where we’ll always be at home.

        I don’t mean to reduce the 23rd Psalm to some kind of ancient happy talk or a religious version of the new-age self-affirmations that some would have us say to ourselves while standing in front of a mirror. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not what this psalm is.)

        I do mean to acknowledge that we all have times when we need to know that someone’s got our back, when we need to feel cared for, when we need to be reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, all will be well.

        I do mean to assure you that there is nothing weak or wrong with needing reassurance.

        What I mean to say is that, contrary to my feelings about the wishful thinking behind so many Internet memes, self-help programs, and well-meaning affirmations, contrary to the implication that if we simply say something enough or believe it to be true it will become true, I believe the statements of the 23rd Psalm are true whether or not we believe them or feel them be true in any given moment.

        And I believe that life-giving spiritual grounding comes not from telling ourselves how good we are but in reminding ourselves how good God is. I believe that inner peace comes not from trying to be God ourselves but in letting God be God and slowly but surely learning how to trust in God’s goodness, God’s care, God’s provision, God’s protection, God’s promises, God’s safe, solid, huge, and ever-expanding heart.

        I believe there is much more power and peace in affirming who God is and what God does in us and through us and for us than in affirming our own fleeting feelings and our own limited capacities.

        And because I believe there is life-giving truth in our scriptures, and because I believe there is value in reading and reflecting on the scriptures, I invite you now to pull out your pew Bible and turn to page 435—or, if you prefer, to look up the 23rd Psalm on your phone.

        I invite you to follow along with me as I offer a a brief commentary—or, if you prefer to just close your eyes and listen, that’s fine too:

        The Lord is my shepherd—my protector, my provider, my guardian.

        Therefore, I shall want for nothing, for God is all in all, and all my desires lead me to the Holy One.

        God makes me lie down in green pastures so that I can find rest and be refreshed.

        God leads me beside still waters so that I can drink deeply and be sustained.

        God, my Creator, understands better than anyone the strong connection between body and soul. Having first cared for my physical needs, God restores my very soul, empowering me to hope and love again, renewing my love for life.

        God leads me on pathways of justice because our love and care for one another is the only sacrifice God desires.

        Even though I walk through hard, painful, and even hopeless times, I will not fear what outside forces can do to me, because you, Gracious God, are with me.

        Knowing about your rod, which shepherds use to fend off lions and wolves, comforts me. I trust that you will protect me.

        Knowing about your staff, which shepherds use to rescue sheep who are trapped in thickets or holes, comforts me. I trust that you will deliver me.

        I find comfort in knowing that it is your will that nothing hurt or destroy me.

        I find comfort in knowing that it is your will that I always be safe and free.

        You prepare a feast for me, not only in good times but also when I am weak with fear or grief, when everything seems to be going wrong.  When I cannot find a friend, you are there—not only sustaining me, but blessing me with the very best.

        As I prepare to sit at your finest table, you, the host, bless me again by anointing my head with oil. It is I who should be thanking you for the invitation and the food, but you are delighting in my presence.

        As the celebration continues, you fill my cup to overflowing.

        And I realize: My cup is not half-full; my cup is not half-empty.

        Because of you my cup of blessing is overflowing with goodness and grace.

Because of you my life is overflowing with presence and potential.

        Whatever else happens, I can trust that your goodness and mercy will always be with me. Even when I stray from the path, even when I want nothing to do with you, goodness and mercy will follow me like a love-sick puppy who just can’t get enough of me.

        And nothing will ever separate me from your love. I will live in your heart forever.

        Alleluia and amen.