I have to tell you, this was a hard preaching week for me. For one, today’s psalm is a difficult one. Someone once describes Psalm 23 as “burdensome in its familiarity.” I think that’s true. It’s the comfort of this psalm, what it has meant to many of us personally, that also makes it hard to see with new eyes.
I was also distracted this week by the news. The Boston marathon bombings. The fertilizer plant explosion. Poisoned letters. It’s been hard for me to focus. I keep getting pulled into news reports on the internet and the radio. These events have brought up an eerie memory for me from the summers I spent in the Middle East. This was years ago, almost a decade ago, during a time of unrest and violence. I can still feel in my bones this sense of the unease that filtered into every day, normal activity. A bus stop would be evacuated in a panic when a child accidentally forgot to pick up her backpack off the bench. Light skinned and dark skinned strangers eyed each other with suspicion in the street. You would say a quick but earnest prayer ever time you got on a bus.
This week I felt a familiar wave of nausea as I watched on television bombs exploding on a street I walked down countless times as a college student. Many of us felt the fear that comes from normal, familiar places becoming war zones. I know this is a week when many people turned to Psalm 23 for comfort. I was one of those people. But it also happened to be the week when the Psalm many of us know so well came up in the lectionary. So I read it this week like I never have before. And while it was comforting I was reminded of the need to reorient my expectations for that comfort. I was reminded that God never promises us that we will be safe. What God does promise is that he will be there with us.
I wanted to try and open up this psalm to you by giving three different translations. The first is likely the familiar version, or the one close to it. It’s comes from the New Revised Standard Version. The second was a contemporary translation called The Message. And the third is the Wycliffe Bible, the first translation of the Bible into English. This last version appeared throughout the 14th century.
One psalm; three translations. And as we move between them I think one thing we see emerge is that this psalm doesn’t hold up idealistic notions about God’s care. It doesn’t point us to naïve hopefulness. This is a psalm that comes out of experience – deep, gut-wrenching experience. The psalmist contrasts two phases of life here. The first are those incredible images of green pastures and calm waters. God has caused this sheep to find a place of rest.
But that’s not all. Life happens. The death shadow, or in Hebrew the tsalmavet, comes bearing down. “Shadow of death.” It’s probably one of those words we have heard so many times that we pass over it. But if we look at how it is used in the rest of the Old Testament we’ll see that there is physical and psychological horror in this word. The place we most often find the “shadow of death” is in the book of Job. For Job the shadow of death is the thick cloud of darkness that hovers over him as he loses everything – his health, sons and daughters, livelihood, and friends. He compares this darkness to the kind of places where miners go, places that have never seen the sun. This is the darkness of zombie-like murderers who go out searching to kill the weak and the poor. “In the dark they dig through houses; by day they shut themselves up; they do not know the light,” we read. Twice Job uses this word to describe his wish that he had never been born. This is the horror of non-existence.
Trust in God by the writer of Psalm 23 is the trust of someone who has been through the worst that life has to offer. And what I love about this psalm is that the hope we find in God does not come in the disappearance of the tsalmavet, that dark hovering cloud, the deepness of the mines. No, Psalm 23 puts us, and God, right there in the middle of it. The reason we can go on is that God is there, a God with a rod and staff. Now, I know the words rod and staff are used in these translations because these are the images denote royalty throughout the history of Israel. But there is a part of me that wanted to see the words “club and crook.” That’s the image we should conjure up – God with a club who beats back the wolves, lions, and bears who try to attack the sheep. And the staff is there to prod the sheep back onto the right road, to keep them from going over a cliff, or wandering out into places where he can’t protect them.
In other words, the shepherd is involved. He’s right there in the thick of it, in the middle of the hostility and blood and the pain. He’s there when enemies are all around. He is there when the sheep is about to faint from hunger and thirst. And somehow he manages to pull together this meal, not just a few scraps but as the Message translation reads, a six-course feast.
And while I like that picture of a more physical, more involved Jesus, I also know that those words – rod and staff – are important. So much of the beauty of this psalm is that God is with us and for us an individuals, that God cares about us in our uniqueness. But this is also a psalm about a community gathered for thousands of years. There are hints at Israel’s redemption all over this psalm. That meal and cup? That’s a reference to the Passover. That word “goodness,” the goodness that chases after us? That’s the word used specifically to talk about God’s covenant with God’s people. And of course, as you can guess, you never get one sheep at a time, you get a flock. The psalm consistently points back to the memory of God’s salvation in liberating the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. Everything about this psalm calls to mind this incredible story that God is written onto the people of Israel, and upon us as those grafted into Israel.
Community gathering with God as we manage to make a way in places of distress. That’s what the church is. And that’s where we find abundant life. Psalm 23 reminds us that our enemies, those things we fear, are NOT going to be blasted out of the way. No, “this kind of abundant life doesn’t mean that God wants to give us a lot of money. Or that we can have all our desires fulfilled. Abundant life is about people, it’s about a community, it’s about you serving one another, finding God’s life as you give your life. It’s about turning Easter into a verb, making hope into a verb, something we do through God’s enlivening presence.”
I had a first hand encounter with this kind of abundant life when Nancy Thorne and I visited Donna Herring at Mayview, the care facility where she is staying. For those of you who don’t know her, Donna is a pillar of this church community and now she is living with dementia. Seeing Donna and her daughter I know that it is a horrific experience to slowly lose pieces of yourself or your loved one over time. Dementia is an enemy. And that, I think it why this visit with Donna has helped me better to read Psalm 23. Dementia is a shadow of death, a closing in of darkness. Yet, for Donna it is also clearly a place where God is present. God is with Donna, in the thick of it, and she told me that God keep showing up. Right now it’s as if Donna’s life is written down in this book. She opens up pages at random and reads aloud. I heard all sorts of stories from Donna – stories from childhood, her experiences with Native Americans, recent memories of a child at church asking what she could to help Donna, memories of her grandparents, memories of friends from her old apartment. All of this faithfulness, all these people coming together, all these people showing up to be with Donna. A life’s worth of God’s faithfulness.
At one point Donna broke from her stories to watch a hawk that was building a nest in a tree near the place where we sat outside. Her face was filled with surprise and wonder. “Oh, look at that!” she said. Then she turned to me. “God has been in my heart, in my life for so long that now I can see so many blessings all around me. It’s amazing to me how every day there are more and more.”
As I thought about my visit with Donna I kept remembering this quote from Fredrick Buechner that I’ve heard a lot of people mention this week, and for good reason. It is a kind of Psalm 23 in its own rite. It’s from his book Wishful Thinking. And I leave you with it this morning:
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life….Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”