Preached At St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, on Sunday, 22 April, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Lections: Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23, 1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18
Much of this sermon relies on insights from Joel LeMon’s commentary found on here on the Working Preacher website. MP+
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Psalm 23 is like comfort food for the anxious soul. Each of its lines exudes peacefulness and reassurance. It’s certainly the one psalm that most of us could recite by heart, and get mostly right. I’ve been in hospital rooms at the end of life, and I’ve heard family members join in as I read this Psalm, as if they were clinging to the promise of its words. Friends of mine who have served as chaplains in Afghanistan have told me about reading this psalm to troops before they went out on patrol. No doubt, Psalm 23 is one of the pieces of scripture that we turn to in our most anxious moments when we find ourselves in that “darkest valley”.
The images of the first few lines set a tone of peace and tranquility. The words “makes me lie down” and “still waters” suggest a kind of spiritual oasis, the rest we long for when we are spiritually exhausted and bone-tired. Small wonder then that we turn to this Psalm at our darkest moments, when we are confronted with our mortality. Like Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross beside him, “In my father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
It is lovely and reassuring to think of Psalm 23 as an image of the afterlife, as an assurance that we and are loved ones are safe in God’s keeping after death. But what does this beloved Psalm say to us in the here and now? Today I want to reflect on what how it can speak to us and support us as we live out our lives?
This week I came across a really helpful insight by a biblical scholar who pointed out that Psalm 23 is actually about a journey. Joel LeMon notes that “This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (vv. 2-4)”. It’s true that the Psalm begins with an image of rest by “still waters”, but that moment is like a short rest on a long hike. It’s as if God says, “Get up, we’ve got a long ways to go” and then we’re off again.
It’s quite a hike. We go past “still waters”, and the phrase “right paths” suggests trustworthy routes through a difficult landscape. The use of the word “leads” suggests a knowledgeable guide to keep us safe. I think of my own experience with a crusty old army Major who took a small group of us to the Rockies to climb three mountains in three days. “It won’t be a walk in the park, Padre”, he warned me when I asked to join. But he was an expert in mountain warfare, and for three days we followed in his footsteps, always trusting that he would get us up and down in one piece. I think of the guide in this Psalm as someone like that, skilled and trustworthy.
We need such a guide desperately, because the road we will take is a dangerous one. The verse “Even though I walk through the darkest valley” doesn’t necessarily suggest death, but it does suggest a bleak place, some moment of despair or depression where we feel might be tempted to feel that we are lost or abandoned. The Psalm promises us that however dark our road, however difficult, we are not abandoned. God will be with us.
God will be with us, or, if we go astray, God will seek us out. One of the things I learned about Psalm 23 this week is that the verb “follow” in the verse “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” is actually a translation of a Hebrew verb that can also mean “pursue”. Elsewhere in the Psalms, this verb is used to describe pursuit by enemies. Also, the word “surely” is a translation of a Hebrew word that can also mean “only”. Again, to quote Joel LeMon, another way to translate this verse would be “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”
Sometimes we use language of pursuit or chase to describe moments of adversity. For example, we can speak of being hounded by creditors, or of having our steps dogged by misfortune, or of having enemies at our heels. Psalm 23 invites us into a life where the only thing that is pursuing is is the immense and inexhaustible love of God. Psalm 23 invites us into a life where nothing has the power to catch us or ensnare us, because of God’s fierce determination to protect us and accompany us through our darkest moments.
Psalm 23 reminds us that there is no way we could mess up, and nowhere we could stray to, where God’s grace would not seek us out and try to bring us home. It is the same vision of God’s love that we see in today’s Gospel reading, of the passionate and resolute shepherd who will seek all the sheep, even the lost ones, and who will die for them all. It is a vision of a broad, inclusive, and persistent love that will risk all and do all for us at each and every stage of our lives.
I say every stage of our lives because there is one more point I would like to make about the language of the Psalm. Our bible translation says “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” which has a sense of permanence, perhaps suggesting the vision of heaven or the afterlife that comforts us at moments of crisis or imminent death. Again, Joel LeMon points out that the Hebrew word for “dwell”, shuv, can mean “to turn” or “return.” He notes that another translation of this line might be “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.”
In other words, our lives are only a long journey in which God is seeking, even being chased by God’s love, but in which we are also checking in with God, staying in God’s presence, long enough to be refreshed and recharged, before going back onto the road. Think of it as the sheep coming into the sheepfold for the night, or think of it as us, gathering in this church, pilgrims and sojourners stopping for rest and refreshment, before we continue on our way.