The Rev. Susan Bennett
O God, you are my shepherd; I shall not be in want. You make me lie down in green pastures and lead me beside still waters. You revive my soul and guide me along right pathways for the sake of your Name. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of God for ever.
The twenty-third psalm is one of our most beloved and familiar passages of scripture. I learned it in Sunday School when I was six years old. King James’ Version, of course. Nowadays, we tend to hear it on Good Shepherd Sunday and at funerals. And it’s so familiar, that I think it’s import and impact may have been dimmed for us, at least a little. We still feel the beauty of it, are moved by its poetry and images. But this psalm can be such a balm for us. It can give us heart and bolster our courage. Because this psalm isn’t just a pastoral idyll, it’s a hymn that sings of trust in God.
Psalms come in several varieties. There are psalms of praise and psalms of lament; psalms of thanksgiving and psalms used as liturgy. There are royal psalms and Zion psalms and historical psalms. And there are trust psalms. Like Psalm 23.
We are living in a time of crisis upon crisis, crises that, in the historical big picture may not be unique, but that in our lifetimes are devastating, confounding, and disheartening. The same is true of the poets who wrote the trust psalms. Trust psalms are spoken in the midst of dire crisis. They express the poet’s belief in and reliance on the goodness and mercy of God. The lament psalms, those raw and honest cries for help, often include statements of trust. But the trust psalms are about trust and trust alone.
Trust is a very fragile commodity in our time. We can’t tell from one day to the next which person or authority or set of experts to believe, whom to rely on, or who to trust. Maybe it’s always been this way. In all the confusion, we long for firm ground for our feet, for a place that’s steady and calm. We pray for relief. The psalms that testify to trust in God help us, by example, to be honest with God about our very real terrors and to reach down to find a gritty, gutsy trust in God despite our fears. This psalm leads us into a simple and saving knowledge of how it is God provides for us, the ways in which God shepherds us.
The song opens with the assertion “I shall not be in want,” or “I shall lack no good thing.” Does this mean that all I have to do is ask to have God shower me with the latest iPhone, a new SUV, and a vacation home on the Outer Banks? Does this mean that the consumer culture, which tries to convince me that I need whatever they have to offer or I’m not good enough, is right? Of course not.
Although we sometimes act as if God will magically manipulate the world to suit us, we know deep down that this isn’t the way God moves in our lives. So we must ask, what really matters that I don’t have? And we find that we don’t lack a lot of things – we lack one thing: a deeper intimacy with God. God is our ultimate satisfaction. God fills, no God exceeds our true desires. God provides us with ENOUGH.
Now we lie down in green pastures and are led to still waters. God revives our souls; in other words, God gives us back our lives. In a world that worships busyness, God provides REST and God provides PEACE.
Because of the nature of God, we are guided along right pathways. God leads and teaches us to love justice and kindness. This can be hard for us; walking in God’s way is counter cultural and can lead to scorn for us and division amongst us. In a world that preaches “every one for themselves,” God provides GUIDANCE.
Every day these days, we feel the cold and dark of the valley of the shadow of death. It doesn’t help to pretend our perils and our problems aren’t real. Evil is real. But we don’t need to fear evil, not because we don’t suffer hardship or lose loved ones or weep in the night. We don’t need to fear evil because God is with us in the midst of it. God is our true bread and nothing can starve us of it. God is our true strength, and no matter how weak feel we become, our spirit and our true life are safe in God. Because God is with us, we have COURAGE. Because God is with us, we have COMFORT.
God prepares a table for us in a place where we are surrounded by enemies. Not the most comfortable of meals, as we sit confronted by those who hate us and wish us harm. We feel the presence of evil and death yet again. But God invites us to God’s table, come what may and come who may. No matter what the circumstances of our life and our times, God is our gracious host, who feeds us with God’s constant love and presence. God provides NOURISHMENT.
And God nourishes us in only one way: by being present with us. With us and within us. We are God’s anointed, God’s chosen honored guest. And our cup is overflowing with the love of God and the life of God. It is the life of God within us that makes us happy, truly happy. It is the life of God within us that is our true life.
Psalm 23 is a psalm about trust. And trust is evoked by a kept promise. For us, it’s the divine promise, “I am with you.” Our responses to this promise are simple: we can believe it, or not. We can trust it, or not. We can live as if the promise is real and trustworthy, or we can live as if it is not. The psalmist hears “I am with you,” and declares in response, “I fear no evil, for you are with me. I’m surrounded by enemies, but you still provide a table for me.”
God is still with us. Jesus, Emmanuel, came to us to show us that God is with us and all of creation. This is the center of our lives. The whole Gospel is summed up in this promise, God is with us.
God doesn’t promise to shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t manipulate the world to suit us. But God is with us. And that is life and joy indeed. The singer of Psalm 23 celebrates God as the shepherd who provides: enough, and rest, and peace; guidance, and courage, and comfort; nourishment, and love, and the very life of God.
And God chases us down to give us this life. Like a hunter after prey, God is relentless in offering us goodness and mercy, a seat at God’s table, and room in God’s house. Our immediate circumstances are not the end of the story. There is more to our life than the now. God is with us still and always. In spite of our doubts, in spite of our failure to follow, God provides, nourishes, and comforts us all the days of our lives.
Today and always, beloved, remember:
The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
May your hands be so blessed that everything you touch is a sacrament.
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,
That your love, your love changes everything. Amen.