May 19, 2019

“Surely, Goodness and Mercy…”

Psalm 23


This past week, my cousin Anne let me know that a very important individual in her church up in Cottage Grove died suddenly on Thursday. She was the office administrator and session clerk, and a good friend to many in the congregation. I wrote her back and prayed for God’s deep strength and peace as she and her congregation traveled through the valley of the shadow. I use that particular verse of the 23rd psalm often, to friends who are believers and friends who are not. It is a sentence that needs no translation- the valley of the shadow is a dark and difficult place.


I admit I found myself a bit in the valley of the shadow this past week, as Mother’s Day was the one year anniversary of my mother Rosamond’s death. In addition, we were having some difficulties with our kids at home. At times my mood would be melancholy; I found myself moody. It was difficult to sleep, and self-care took a back seat to comfort food and drink.


Fortunately, my spiritual director, whom I see once a month helped me in the midst of that valley. She reminded me I am not alone in the valley and that God is with me and I am a beloved child of God. Through her words, God’s rod and staff gave me comfort, and in time I found light on my path in the valley.


This psalm is possibly the most well-known and memorized piece of scripture in the Bible. This psalm is in a sense universal; it seems to transcend religious beliefs. I have put together a number of memorial services for children of older parents who do not attend church. Yet they almost always request this very psalm as part of their parent’s service. This psalm is used widely in mainstream culture: in popular songs: from “Love Rescue Me” by U2 to “Sheep” by Pink Floyd to "Ripple” by the Grateful Dead. It has been used widely in television shows and films as well; from one of my favorite shows, LOST, to movies like Pale Rider, Rooster Cogburn, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers and Titanic. In such films, it is often used as someone dies or a character in the film is coming to the end of his or her life.


But it isn’t just about death or life eternal. This psalm speaks to us today, and can apply to us here and now, whether we are in the valley of the shadow or on the mountain top. So let’s go through this psalm verse by verse and see how it applies to us.


The Lord is my shepherd- God watches over me, cares for me, knows me. This psalm is attributed to David, who before becoming king of Israel was a shepherd. David understood the role of shepherd-sheep well. A good shepherd cared for the flock, knew each sheep by name and by sight. David felt this close relationship with God.


Next comes the phrase, “I shall not be in want.” How does that apply to us? That response -- I shall not want -- immediately puts us at odds with our culture, in which we are conditioned to be consumers who always lack something. If people lived by Psalm 23 (lacking nothing because the Lord is their shepherd) our economy would collapse. To live by Psalm 23 would mean ignoring the constant barrage of messages saying, “You are unhappy, you need more stuff.” Those messages literally bombard us all the time. Recently I used an image of a pair of new basketball shoes for a sermon. For the next few days on my Facebook sidebar, I received all kinds of offers on new basketball shoes. Big Brother is watching, and wants us to buy buy buy! This verse resets that consumer mentality.


He makes me lie down in green pastures. I can remember as a child laying in the grass and looking up at the clouds, being totally for the moment at peace. That is the image that comes to mind when I read this verse. It is interesting to note the word “makes.” Does God make us lie down from time to time? Certainly, we can all get too busy with our daily lives, and I have found through getting colds that I have been made to lie down and contemplate life and my relationship with God while lying in my bed. This verse resets the hyperactivity of our lives, for the shepherd “makes us lie down in green pastures.” We can stop running, breathe in the beauty of creation, and rest in God’s love.


The next verse tells us that God leads us beside quiet waters, a beautiful image, and restores our souls. As one commentator put it, he restores my soul means he gives me back my life. What is the word “Restores?” The word in Hebrew, shoob means “to retreat back, or bring back home”. Our souls are brought back to their beginnings, to their initial homes for refreshment. How do our souls become depleted? Sometimes, what we watch on television depletes our souls, after all the eyes are often called the windows to the soul. Last weekend, Paula and I watched the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Both of us found that episode disappointing. Characters we had followed and either loved or hated were suddenly doing things quit uncharacteristic of their normal selves. It all felt rushed and rather poorly written. We followed that up by watching another show called Barry, which was marketed as a comedy, having to do with a hit man who wants to follow his dream of acting. In that episode, things took a turn to the dark side and were upsetting, to say the least. Both of us found it hard to get to sleep. Our souls were restless, full of dark and unsettling images, and in need of restoration.


How are our souls restored? Some of you may find that restoration on Sunday mornings in worship. I certainly find those opportunities for restoration when I am not leading a part of the service. Paula and I found restoration in hiking up Mt. Grizzly the morning after watching those unsettling TV shows. Being surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation is restorative in so many ways. As John Muir said, “Between every two pines is a new world.” That new world can be so restorative! We can have our souls restored in worship, in nature, in silence, in the midst of beautiful music.


Next, we read God Guides us in paths of righteousness for God’s namesake - To be righteous in God’s eyes is to live rightly, as God intended us to live - in love and care for others and for creation. It is to live out God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven,” trying to make that heavenly beauty an earthly reality. Walking in paths of righteousness for the sake of God’s name will put us at odds with many in this world who seem to be trying to kill any sense of heaven on earth. That is in part why next we hear about the valley of the shadow.


“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” There are some Biblical scholars who believe this valley may have been an actual place, on the way perhaps to Jerusalem, a dark valley with hills and dens full of robbers. Whether the place is real or not, the point of this verse is - we WILL walk through those valleys- just as I did earlier this week, remembering my mother while struggling with family life.


Yet, even though we go through those valleys in life, we will fear no evil. We have confidence that God is our shepherd. God is with us in those moments of despair, using rod and staff to bring comfort-guiding and protecting us.


Next, the passage tells us, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”. This is an image of God as host. Who are our enemies? Those who rob or unsettle our souls, those who are the opposite of love. They can be people. They can also be voices in our minds that tell us things about ourselves and others; that tell us to do things not good for our souls. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Webber from her book, Pastrix, wrote “Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are. And maybe, just moments after Jesus' baptism, when the devil says to him, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ he does so because he knows that Jesus is vulnerable to temptation precisely to the degree that he is insecure about his identity and mistrusts his relationship with God. So if God's first move is to give us our identity, then the devil's first move is to throw that identity into question.” The evil one can use those voices to point out our flaws, make us forget who we are and whose we are, or call us to numb away our feelings through overindulgence.


How surprising that the table is spread in the presence of enemies! It is hard to relax and be fed in their presence. Yet God invites us to the table, come what may and come who may. God prepares a table of hospitality right down in the midst of those voices, or those people and calls us to turn away from them and focus upon a feast. In ancient Biblical times, a covenant agreement often concluded with a celebratory meal. This table prepared for us reminds us of the covenant of unconditional love between us and God.


At this meal, God anoints our heads with oil. What is the significance of this act? Only a highly honored guest would have been anointed with oil in those days. It is generally the stuff that is meant for kings and priests. According to Wikipedia, “Anointing is the ritual act of pouring aromatic oil over a person's head or entire body. By extension, the term is also applied to related acts of sprinkling, dousing, or smearing a person or object with any perfumed oil, milk, butter, or other fat.[2] Scented oils are used as perfumes and sharing them is an act of hospitality. Their use to introduce a divine influence or presence is recorded from the earliest times;” God anoints us with esteemed welcome and hospitality.


In the midst of this anointing, God fills our cup to overflowing. God pours out more love than we can carry, signifying overflowing abundant love for us.


Regarding verse 6, Theologian Nancy Koester writes, “In verse 6, goodness and mercy do not just “follow.” They pursue. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the Hebrew verb…has the more active sense of “pursue.” God is coming after the psalmist. The bad news is, we have enemies. The good news is, God has our back, with goodness and mercy right at our heels!”


Finally, comes this comforting phrase, rendered in Hebrew as “I shall dwell in the house of God for as long as my days.” Often in a memorial service, this phrase is translated in our minds as, “ I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole eternal life long. There is truth and beauty to that knowledge. But this psalm is for us in the here and now as well, not just the hereafter. This verse suggests that, just like the people or pets currently living in your home, God is that close of a reality as well for the rest of our earthly lives.

Psalm 23 is a promise of comfort to us when we travel through those valleys of shadow, as we struggle with our enemies; it is a promise that God is with us, blessing, loving and anointing us, with goodness and mercy right on our heels. For the person of faith, I think it is one of those essential tools in your tool bag of faith; like the putter in your golf bag, or the essential recipe for the chef. It reminds us of God’s presence, speaking to us powerfully in troubling times, and our faith would be much less without it. Alleluia. Amen.

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