Thursday, June 18, 2009

psalm 23

A young man was trying to sort out what to do with his life. He did have a sense that God was calling him to do something, and this call had led him from New York City to rural Kentucky, where he found himself living in a monastery. Being in a monastery did not always help him to feel more spiritual, or give him any clarity about his direction in life. The monastery did put in touch with the Psalms, which were read every two weeks. This young man, Thomas Merton, wrote a prayer that expressed something of his search at that time:

“O Lord God, I have not idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire to please you. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear. And you will never leave me to make my journey alone.”

Merton’s prayer has within it echoes of the 23rd Psalm, which begins with the words the Lord is my shepherd. It is an act of trust: who is going to be our guide? It begins as a call to obedience. Whose voice are we going to listen to? The psalm calls for a response in the words of the gospel hymn, to “trust and obey”. And in that trusting and obedience, there is a realization: I shall not want”. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and God provided each day, enough for that day.

To say “I shall not want”, is to say “I have everything I need”, I have “enough”. This is an important word for us, given the experience of our community, our country, our world over the past year. We are prone to hear a different voice, saying “You do not have all that you need”, “there is not enough”. From a human point of view, there is never enough. From a human point of view, we live in perpetual scarcity. But from the psalmist’s perspective, there is perhaps not abundance, but there is enough, it is sufficient, “I shall not want”.

This is a psalm about the basics of life. The images that follow next, about green pastures and still waters, were really about survival, what was necessary: food and drink. The shepherd would supply the need. Years ago the psychologist Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs, and the most basic needs were physiological: food, water, breathing, sleeping. In his pyramid, the next need was safety, then belonging, then self-esteem, then what he called actualization: morality, purpose, creativity. But at the foundation was the question: will I survive?

When we know this, we have the confidence to move more deeply into the psalm. We have focused on the external---what we have or do not have---now we move to the internal---and we can begin to hear the psalm in a different way. He makes me lie down in green pastures (rest), he leads me beside still waters (recreation), he restores my soul.

This is the great work of God, the personal and spiritual renewal of his children, and as we trust and obey we are guided forward in the journey: he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. A better translation is that he leads us to walk in the right path. To be led down the wrong path is the road to destruction. For a sheep, to take the wrong path was to be separated from the shepherd, to be in danger of predators, and this could be a matter of life or death.

A word here, about this image of the shepherd. The shepherd is one who leads. In the gospel, Jesus is the good shepherd. The sheep hear his voice and they know and follow him.

I love being a pastor, and one of the images, across the centuries, of being a pastor is a shepherd. This week I will attend Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska, along with a number of our staff members and lay delegates. I always attend the ordination service and it is an opportunity for me to reflect again on what I started out to do, what I felt God was calling me to do, as a young man, and what I find myself doing now.

Over the last 26 years the church has become a much more complex institution, serving an infinitely greater variety of needs, having increasingly demanding expectations placed upon it. It helps me to go back to this basic image. The role of the pastors, and I would include all of our clergy and someone like Adam Ward in this definition, is to lead us to sources that not only sustain life but to help life to flourish: biblical teaching that is like solid food and not junk food; great music that inspires; Christian community where forgiveness and growth occur; outreach to others that meets the most basic needs of life: food, shelter, protection, education, faith.

And now we come to our focus for this morning: though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. There is the recognition that we are sometimes in the valley of the shadow of death. These are the dark times, the confusing dilemmas, the despairing moments. The mystics call this the dark night of the soul. The whole biblical tradition had wrestled with the valley of the shadow of death: Abraham, called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob struggling all night with someone, maybe an angel, maybe God. Jesus agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane and later on the cross.

In the dark times, this psalm is helpful. Time and time again I will be leading in a memorial service, and we have entered the sanctuary and offered words of greeting and prayed and sang a hymn, and then we have read this Psalm, and when those gathered begin to say these words, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me”, something happens.

The effect of these words is calming, healing, almost tranquilizing. They are a response to a powerful reality. The psalmist is correct to name the elephant in the room, and that is fear. We live in a culture of fear. In part this is based on marketing. Marketers know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they know about fear. And so we really need a certain product because of the fear of….our own personal safety, or a catastrophic health incident, or, having sufficient financial resources. Politicians play upon our fears: if the other side gets in office, you will be unsafe, you will be out of work, you will you’re your life and liberties. And religion has made use of fear as well. When I was a little boy, many of the largest churches in our community preached, in essence, a gospel of fear. If you do not change your life, you will burn in hell. I remember those messages even now.

The problem with fear is that it does not motivate us. Over time, it paralyzes us. And in more subtle forms, fear can grip us, fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of losing something that is important to us, our work changes, our children grow up, our health declines. We are sometimes stuck in the valley of the shadow of death, and paralyzed by a fear that we cannot get beyond. The psalm helps. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. The psalm does not deny that threats that surround us; the psalm simply affirms that we are not alone. God is with us.

This is a brief psalm, only six verses, and for that reason many can recite it from memory. In verse five the imagery shifts, from shepherd and sheep to guest and host, but again, the teaching is simply reinforced: a table with food and drink, the anointing of protection. The host protects the guest, provides for the guest, even in the presence of the threat of enemies.

The psalm concludes with a promise. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The Message actually translates the literal meaning of the Hebrew more accurately: Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. God is not passively keeping a distance from us. God is actively pursuing us, for our good.

The sixth and last verse: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. To dwell in the house of the Lord is to inhabit a different world. The house of the Lord was the temple, of course, and for the Christian this is heaven, but it is also this life, speaking practically for our congregation it is the sanctuary and the atrium, it is wherever God’s people are, wherever the community gathers, it is a confirmation that we are not alone.

We have moved, in the course of the psalm, from the valley of the shadow of death to the house of the Lord. And this is a journey that many of us have made: from an initial crisis, a threat, a fear, a paralysis, to the knowledge that we are not alone, to the reminder that God, and at times through his people, provides for us, to the presence of God, who is our refuge and strength, and his people, who are his dwelling place.

This morning we hear this psalm in the context of a meal, a feast that has been prepared for us. As we receive the bread and cup, we remember that God provides for us, at a most basic level: I shall not want.

As we receive the bread and the cup, we know that we are strengthened not only physically but also spiritually: he restores my soul.

As we walk toward the altar, and then as we walk away from the altar, we are reminded that life is a gift of grace that we receive in order to give. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

As we kneel or stand to receive the bread and the cup, we know that a table has been prepared for us, and even as we become more conscious of our enemies, those with whom we have conflict, we also count our blessings: we know that our cup runneth over.

As we sit in the pew after receiving, we might reflect on the comings and goings of our lives, the straight paths and the wandering diversions, times of nearness to God and others times when God seemed far away, and yet it is true that God has always been following after us, even chasing us: goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

And just to be together, for a moment, to stand at the end of the service, knowing that through the bread and the wine God dwells in us, and that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

These are the gifts of God for us, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, a favorite psalm. They sustain us with the basic necessities, they protect us from danger, they guide us in the path. The 23rd Psalm is about everyday life---the necessities---but it is also about crisis, and perhaps then we hear the voice of the good shepherd most clearly and compellingly, when we worry about the basics, when life is threatened, when we are not sure if we are lost, or headed in the right direction. In those moments to pray the 23rd psalm is enough.

Sources: Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude. Scott Bayer-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Clint McCann, Great Psalms of The Bible.


Post a Comment

<< Home