Sermon by Deanna Watson, April 22, 2018 at Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church
The 23rd Psalm [Copyright © Deanna Watson]
One of our best known pieces of scripture, the 23rd Psalm is the “go to” scripture for so many of life’s benchmark events. Especially, those times in our lives when we are hurting or when we are grieving. When I read it simply for the poetic placement of words, I see it as a Psalm of comfort.... that even when I am alone, I’m not. That even when I am tempted to despair, I should fear no evil.....that God is always with me, my guarantee of protection against everything bad. Except that’s not really true. And that truth becomes clearer as we break down each line....and it is born out in our life’s experience isn’t it....
Belonging to the flock of God, doesn’t ensure our protection from the struggles of this life, it doesn’t guard our heart from breaking. It doesn’t invite us to fear no evil because as Christians we have a see through shield to stop evil from touching us or those we love. And, if I am drawn to Christianity for the insurance I believe it should provide, that only good will come to me and those I love, then I am paying a premium on a policy that will not deliver what I think I am buying.
We are a people, prone to looking for a message that will give us an advantage, place us up on the rock where the surging waters cannot reach.
There are lines that speak to me in bold print at different times depending on what is happening in my life at the time of my reading. When I have been struggling with rough waters fearful that I might drown or get thrashed upon the rocks, I love to read that God leads me beside the still waters as I picture him first walking across the churning waters to rescue me, and then leading me into the warm sunshine and a resting place where I can sit on soft , mossy grass beside the still waters.
I spent some time with Marci Glass on Friday and as we talked about our impression of the 23rd Psalm she pointed out something I hadn’t thought of before....as all good Pastors do. She said she doesn’t like the part that says “he makes me lie down”.....
When I am (at least in my mind), being mistreated by people who don’t like me, or at least don’t love me, I am drawn to the line that says that God will prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies...but admittedly I am drawn to that line for all the wrong but delicious reasons. I even picture the table groaning with the weight of all my favorite dishes, no raisins or fennel seed or bell peppers to be found. In my mind, I determine the seating arrangements for my enemies making sure that those who are making my life the most hellacious will have a front row seat, hungry but without a plate or invitation to my feast that the Lord has prepared for me.
I realized as I began to delve into this psalm I thought I knew so well, that I’ve skimmed like a water strider over the top in places God intended me to dive.
So Today, I want to invest a few moments in looking a little deeper and in thinking about interpretation.
“The Lord is my shepherd.” In the era in which this was written, shepherds were commonly understood to be protectors of flocks of sheep or herds of cattle. They were nomads who owned no property of their own. With their rod and their staff, they moved the animals in their care toward new destinations, from pastureland to pastureland. In times of attack, the shepherds used those same tools to fight off the predators intent on killing the animals in their care.
So when we think of the Lord as our shepherd, we tend to think of our protector, our leader, our guide. But that doesn’t mean we have immunity from all harm. It doesn’t mean that at all. We will still be touched by violence and tragedy. We will still lose the ones we love, fight illnesses we cannot defeat, and feel the piercing pain of our hearts as they break. But, the knowledge that the Lord is our shepherd will give us strength and perspective and courage to get through our darkest hours as our shepherd stretches our vision from this world to it’s far horizons and beyond into his promise of the hereafter.
We will hurt but in most cases, we will heal, we will experience disappointment but we will work through it, drawn forward by hope. We will grieve, but we will grow. We will fear but we will weaken that fear as we strengthen our faith. We will sin, but we will have grace and mercy. We will die, but we will have eternal life.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want....”
We pray for greater faith. And which is greater: to love God because he gives us everything we want, or to love God because God is God, even when life hurts. Maybe the lesson of “I shall not want” is to teach us to recognize and separate need from want. And if there are empty spaces.... dreams that never came true, people who once held our inner circle together who now are gone... maybe those spaces are meant to give us room to learn and to grow...to remember to appreciate our cherished blessings in the knowledge that what we have today, may be gone tomorrow.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters....he restores my soul.”
Now thanks to Marci, I think of this line of making me lie down as God telling me to go take a nap and I view it as I did as a child when my play was disrupted by the requirement that I go lie down. But I also recognize that In the worst times of tumult of this world, we can feel ourselves being wound tighter and tighter as we fight for some semblance of power and control. When my world is all uncertainty and danger, I tend to buckle down, to work harder, to toil longer thinking without really thinking, that I must do all that I can to influence the outcome. I become a workaholic by habit and truly as a way to keep at arms length my deepest fears. I can’t control what is happening so I try to control something else. And in many ways, I do the opposite of what I need to do to find balance and Christian perspective, and a measure of that peace that passes understanding.
Because what my soul needs in times like that, is green pastures, stately trees, blue skies, and a gentle stream to play a melody to calm my jagged nerves.
Beginning when I was 9 years old, summertime often meant hospitalization and recuperation from surgeries on my bones, I struggled through long days of wanting to go swimming with my friends, riding my bike down the hills to the drug store and the endless supply of penny candy, but It seemed my friends and life went on without me.
My mother, the angel that she was, bought me a baseball almanac and publications about dogs. She used those resources to draw my interest to something beyond my focus on what I couldn’t do....or on what life was denying me. She set the card table up beside my bed, and gave me research assignments so she could later quiz me on stats like who could steal the most bases, who had the highest RBI’s and batting averages. And, I learned about working dogs and toy dogs and dogs that herd…and with my mother’s encouragement, I made three ring binders with a page devoted to each breed of dog, their personalities, what kind of coat and temperament they had, and whether they would be a good dog for me.... but by evening, my focus was once again on what I couldn’t do. So often, Mom would load me in the car and we’d drive around a bit before stopping at the drive in to get a couple of vanilla and chocolate swirled ice cream cones. From there we’d drive to a wide pull out beside the Clearwater river to enjoy our evening treats. Within a few minutes, I wasn’t whining so much, as the soft cadence of the river worked to soothe my misplaced energies and restored my soul.
But to this day, When I need restoration the most, I tend to seek it the least. Always rejoining the game from the sidelines where my health sent me, eager to make up lost ground.
And so, our scripture for today is a stern reminder to me. I don’t have the power to force my will on life. And so, it is a waste of my energy to expend it in an area that belongs to God. My job is trust, and to pray that God will be my shepherd, leading me and staying close to me each step of the way…for he leads me and you in the right paths for his namesake. And, I am reminded that what keeps us busy is not necessarily the most important thing.... that to be at our best, we need to take the time to restore our souls when they are weary.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me...”
Even before it is our time to die, many of us spend a part of our lives in the valley of the shadow..... when we don’t know that we will make it....we look to the Heavens for help but worry we will not find it until we get there. The shadow may be of our own death, or it may be the death of someone we love. They die and in their leaving, take the sunshine with them...but the pain and grief we feel is the price we pay for having loved...for to love someone is to make ourselves vulnerable. But we learn that if we try to protect ourselves from suffering, we will succeed only in denying from ourselves the very thing that makes life bearable and worth living. So we must realize that having our hearts broken by profound loss also means we had an equal depth of the blessing of great love.
And we come to learn that God’s role isn’t to protect us from pain and loss, but to protect us from letting pain and loss define and confine our lives.
When those we love suffer loss, what do we do? What would God have us do? I know what we shouldn’t do is try to explain their suffering or try to lessen it by pointing out those who have suffered more.... At a time of loss, the best thing we can do, is stand beside them, facing their harsh wind with them. God promises to be with us, and sometimes we, as Christians, need to follow the example and inspiration of God to faithfully carry out our responsibilities as the people of God.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 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...
As much as I prefer my interpretation of the meaning of that table in the presence of my enemies... As much as I momentarily dream of the satisfaction I think I would feel of those who have harmed me....those who are hungry too, as they are made to sit quietly and without nourishment, according to the designs of my seating chart.... And, as much as I don’t understand the true meaning of this verse, I have to admit, my scene of spite and smugness has no place in this story. I also know the temporary satisfaction I might feel would quickly be replaced at my own shame for the thought.....
Perhaps God is preparing a table in the presence of my enemies so I can invite them to break bread with me, to dine with me, to share communion...Perhaps God is leading me to learn from those who have hurt me or made me angry or who took an action that thwarted my efforts or blocked my path. Maybe a meal together could teach me that it isn’t all about me, and that maybe some people were simply pursuing their own path when they blocked mine, or maybe I hurt them and we both live by the judgment of our misunderstanding....Perhaps that shared meal could contain what I need to learn in order that I might reduce the number of people in my life I think of as enemies.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, i will 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.”
Being anointed with oil is part of a sacred ceremony which calls us to dedicated service to God. If we are truly a follower of Christ....then every one of us has been anointed in that we are selected for service as the hands and heart of God in this broken world.
Every one of us has a divine obligation to make this world more like the world God intended when he formed it. Perhaps the world is such a mess because it has depended upon each one of us doing our part, and too many of us, shirking our duties, have chosen complaints or ambivalence rather than action. Mother Teresa said “few of us can do great things but all of us can do small things with great love.”
“ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, i will 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 runneth over”
The grateful heart knows many blessings. It is rooted in the sense that life is a gift, not a given. It provides us a way of looking at life. It doesn’t change the facts but has the power to make the good parts more joyous and the bad parts more bearable.
The amazing thing about gratitude is that, like forgiveness, it is a favor we do for ourselves. God would have us develop the habit of gratitude for all the blessings of life not because he needs our thanks, but because when we acknowledge our blessings, the color of our experience of life is changed for the better.
And the more we become aware of our blessings, the more we say thanks, before long, we need a bigger cup. Our ability to enjoy God’s blessings has more to do with our capacity to receive than on God’s ability to bless us. The more we can see blessings, the more blessings we will have.
“ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, i will 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 runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
We are not promised easy lives. But God who loves us beyond our ability to measure, promises to be with us, to equip us in families and friendships, to face our storms with faith and a promise that through it all, when we are wandering in wilderness and when we are walking in right paths for his name sake, we will have the Divine escort providing goodness and mercy through the trials and tribulations of this life. And as we follow the one who has called and created us, we will fear no evil because he is with us and he fills our cup to overflowing as he leads us finally home to dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.