May 3, 2020

“Life in the Valley of the Shadow?” 

Psalm 23


This psalm is possibly the most well-known and memorized piece of scripture in the Bible.  It 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 and find it meaningful. 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. Verse 4 of the psalm is often highlighted in those films and songs. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me…”


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, yet God is with us in the midst of it.


Hopefully, some of you are familiar with the movie “Ground Hog Day”, starring Bill Murray. In that film, Murray plays a reporter who wakes up to the same day, Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania over and over again. He is stuck reliving Ground Hog Day repeatedly. Eventually, through repeated trial and error, Murray’s character learns a lot about himself, life, and how to treat others before finally waking up to experience a new day.  I think I know a bit about how Murray’s character felt. I find myself waking up each day, stuck in quarantine land-over and over. I have the same routine-working mostly from home, zoom meetings, and phone calls and for the most part staying at home, day after day after day…It feels to me like we are like Murray’s character-yet stuck in the midst of the valley of the shadow rather than Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.


Does this psalm speak to us today, we who seem to be stuck in that valley? Let’s go through this psalm together and see how it might apply.


First, 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 to sheep well. A good shepherd cared for the flock, knew each sheep by name and by sight. David felt this close relationship with God, as a shepherd does to the sheep. The correlation for us- Our relationship with God, our closeness to God can bring comfort, for we know God cares for us and knows us by name.


Next comes the phrase, “I shall not be in want.” How does that apply to us, especially now? We ARE in want. We want to go out. We want to go to our favorite restaurants, see some Shakespeare, have our lives back as before. I will say that I am learning that although those things are important and fun, I don’t really NEED them. I’ve been able to focus on what has been provided by God, and I am thankful in the midst of the valley for the abundance God has blessed me with. I truly am not in want.


There are those, however who are in want, who are desperate, or who will soon be desperate. According to Oregonian, 1 in 8 Oregonians have lost their jobs. Nationally, 16.8 million have lost their employment, a staggering number. Those of us who have been blessed with plenty are called to help those who will be in want during this crisis, to reach out to and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.


Next, the verse, “God 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 at peace for that moment. 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 find at the moment that I have been made to lie down and contemplate life and my relationship with God and the world in which I live. This virus has reset the hyper-activity of our lives. It is difficult to experience, yet there is good in the midst of it. 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 does God restore our souls in the midst of pandemic and social distancing? I certainly have more time to pray, more time to contemplate, more time to see the beauty of God’s creation than I did before. 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. Those things, along with being together with our virtual worship team once a week, and our virtual fellowship time after the service restores my soul.


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. HOW does one do that today? Reach out to your neighbors, friends, and families any way you can. Write cards. Put together Zoom gatherings. Call people to let them know you care. Keep collecting water bottles for the unhoused. Work in food banks like the one in Phoenix Pres.  Pray with God regularly to help you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly on the right path even now, even though we are limited in how far down that path we can walk.


Next, just a little more about that phrase - “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” Some Biblical scholars 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, and are walking through one now. This valley we are in is indeed in the shadow of death, and I think it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable because death is so near, so real. This virus reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we are not in control of our lives, of our destinies. Our lay reader for today Paul sent me an article last week that speaks to this reality. Rev C. Kavin Rowe, from the Duke University Divinity School, writes, “The COVID-19 pandemic has swept away the illusions that led congregations-and much of the world- to ignore death. The virus will kill only a small minority of the world. Yet is prevalence has reminded people everywhere that if COVID-19 doesn’t kill them, something else will. This realization recalls a truth central to the Christian tradition: No one will get out of life alive.” I am reminded of one of my favorite statements of faith which we will be closing the service with later-A Brief Statement of Faith, written in 1983 for the reunification of the PCUSA church. It begins, “In life and in death, we belong to God.” We do not control our destinies, nor own our lives, and that can be an uncomfortable realization.


Yet, even though we go through this valley, we will fear no evil. We have confidence that God is our shepherd. God is with us in those moments of despair and even death, using rod and staff, guiding and protecting us- A comforting image for us today, one to hold onto.


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.” The evil one can use those voices to point out our flaws, make us forget who we are and whose we are, may call us to numb away our feelings through overindulgence. Those voices can be quite pronounced these days, can’t they?


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, God’s Communal meal reminds of the covenant of unconditional love between us and our Shepherd.


At the meal in the psalm, 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. 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. Even in times such as these, God’s love overflows for us.


Regarding verse 6, “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” 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. Like it or not, and I hope it is comforting- God is with you, hunkered down at home too- always has and always will be.


Psalm 23 is a promise of comfort to us when we travel through those valleys of shadow as we are now. For it is a promise that God is with us, blessing, loving, and anointing us, with goodness and mercy right on our heels. It reminds us of God’s presence, speaking to us powerfully in troubling times like these, and can bring comfort even in the face of death. Our Shepherd does indeed supply our needs. Thanks be to God! Alleluia. Amen.

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