Sunday, May 12, 2019

Psalm 23: the Psalm that Exactly No One is Excited to Hear a Sermon About

We never preach about the psalms. But if we ever preach the psalms, I suppose it’s on days like this one. Psalm 23 contains some of the most familiar words in all of holy Scripture. Words most of us came to know before we were aware of our knowing them, even if we did not grow up in church. The Lord is my shepherd. Let me ask you, where did these words first find you? Or better, when did you first become aware that these words were inside you? When did you first feel the support or the intimacy of the images lifted up in this psalm? Which of the visuals first spoke to you, opened something of the life of God up to you? Or maybe it was someone close to you whose affection for this psalm you came to know through their sharing.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4 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.
5 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.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

My relationship with psalm 23, in a lot of ways, is a picture of my relationship with the rest of the Bible. Mostly, the things I notice in it change over time. Things that jumped out as a kid - I mean really jumped out, they were THE ONLY POINT of a story - are still there, but they no longer demand center stage, at least not always. Some of those things have receded in importance, some things have showed themselves to be connected to other things I hadn’t yet seen over time, and so my understanding of their meaning has grown or been transformed. None of the seeing is wasted. All of it shapes. All of it contributes. Sometimes one image builds on another. Occasionally, a new thing here appears to undermine an old thing there, but mostly the landscape continually opens up, deepens, and layers. It all points to God, who is at once unchanging and surprising.

The Lord is my shepherd. “I shall not want.” Right off the bat, that was a problem phrase for six-year old me. The language was hard to follow; it felt somewhat antiquated (a forgivable feeling, it turns out, this being the KJV), , but I couldn’t have told you how. “Lack for nothing” is closer to the meaning, but that’s how exactly nobody memorizes the verse. Some of the confusion came from the sequencing, combined with the old-timey language: not wanting came after mention of the Shepherd, whom I was pretty sure we were supposed to want, which confused me. Moreover, it was not clear to my six-year old heart why not wanting anything was good. I am not sure age or experience in this world of being sold to has entirely resolved that tension, although time and exposure have certainly highlighted the stakes of it.

As a kid, it was hard to miss, too, the VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH (all caps) - there was an eye-opener! - and, with it, the stakes of the trust. That the shepherd wanted life for the sheep was a simple but important thing for me to hear. And that the shepherd wasn’t above walking in valleys. Downward mobility toward the pain of another was a feature of this shepherd’s love. And of course it foreshadows the cross. If Jesus was this Good Shepherd, who knew my name, I discovered in the shadows an invitation to trust that that love would walk with me there. And also that I could go into another’s shadow without fear, even if I could do nothing to make things better for them or dispel the darkness by myself.

This part of the psalm - the shepherd’s refusal to abandon the sheep, even to death - prepared me, I think, to cherish the eucharistic hymns that talk about Christ the victim, Christ the priest. The most famous of these are Easter hymns. And of course they’re not original. Today we heard from Revelation, some of the source material: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." The lamb will be their shepherd. The shepherd becomes the lamb.

As I got older I noticed other things. I had always liked the thought of a feast, but one day I read the whole sentence. A feast prepared in the presence of my enemies (or those who trouble me). As our kids have learned to say when they find a possibility repulsive, “No, thank you.” Just, why? While I suppose the point of the story was that a feast in such a context would bring humiliation to my enemies, there was an honest part of me that wondered why they had to be there. And then a fearful part of me that wondered if they had been invited as more than spectators to witness the fruit of my divine favor or success. Was this all a part of that love your enemies business? I began to grow suspicious. What if my enemies had a place at the table, too? Worse still, what if my presence was to them what I had assumed theirs was to me? And what did such a party say about God? What if God wasn’t just with me in discomfort - what if God brought about some of my discomfort, you know, on purpose? What if God’s ends included - but did not center on - me, with my ideas for how things should go? It was blasphemy to imagine.

My nervousness increased years later with a thoughtful consideration of still waters. What I had earlier assumed to be a poetic repetition of the goodness of green pastures now struck me as a detail that could go either way - toward green, lush goodness, on the one hand, or equally toward the way of shadows and enemies at the table, on the other. For context, I was fresh off a family camping trip in which my brother, dad, and I had gone tubing down a river. After a few runs of the chute, we let confidence get the better of us and we floated down past where the signs said we should definitely get out. The pace slowed down suddenly. The quick-moving waters, that had made the chute so much fun, were nowhere to be seen. Before long, things stopped completely. The banks of the river weren’t accessible and it seemed like we’d be lost forever. Our imaginations filled with images of snakes - both in the water and dropping from trees - snakes and stagnation as we strained our muscles hard to keep hands and feet out of and above the water, which of course was to seal our fate as stuck, without the capacity to paddle. Was still water the gift of the oasis in the desert, the match for green pastures, or was still water more like the valley, more like enemies at the table? More like Lauren Winner, the Christian author of Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath, who followed up these books with an unlikely successor, her memoir Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis? In an NPR interview for All Things Considered, Winner described the situation in which she found herself, her mother dying, her marriage failing, this way: “In my life, I had this dramatic conversion to Christianity and it had lots of intense emotions. I thought that those feelings would just endure, and that those feelings would sort of sustain me in the life of faith forever. And then I came to a place where I was no longer in the glow of the young adult new Christian conversion; I was now just in the middle of my faith life.” She found herself where things got still. He leads me beside still waters. It’s a harder sell on campus, where it is possible that I am talking to at least some students for whom the waters have not yet stopped, but it is maybe easier for us to know that faith that is faith must be faith when things get still. Where it is still, still God is there.

That Easter is fifty days long invites such an observation. If Easter were just the one day, we could maybe imagine that Easter is all confetti eggs and Alleluias, that Easter marks the end of grief, but fifty days - no one can pretend that long. The promise in Revelation, after all, is not the end of the tears, but that God will wipe every tear away. We are right to rejoice and to sing our songs loud, but at some point we also get to let God be God when we are tired and wounded. Yes, Easter is true celebration. And Easter is also the risen Christ finding Thomas one week later in the excruciating anguish of his doubts. Easter is true resurrection, yes, and Easter is the risen Christ seeking, finding, breathing forgiveness on Peter and Paul, walking in the valley of the road to Emmaus when understanding fails his friends and they lose the way, consoling Mary outside the tomb, among the rocks, in the depths of sorrow, grief, and loss. This is all a part of Easter, because this is all the landscape on which, to which, the risen Christ visits us. This is Easter, his touching every broken place, the shepherd calling his sheep by name; the movement of the love Jesus has for his friends, to whom he returns with healing and life.

There is no friend or stranger, however strange they seem to us, who is not in herself the location of the presence and reign of the risen Jesus and so who is not a person for whom we are not called to show up in hope. And on those days when you seem strange to yourself, and you wonder, the love of the risen Christ is already near, the cup already overflowing with forgiveness, the psalmist tells us, the oil prepared already for your head.

Whom then shall we fear?

The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want. To dwell, to trust, to rest in the care of the Shepherd/Lamb/King is to meet the wonder, love, and praise of the age-old, anonymous hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true,
No, I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea,—
'Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love, but, O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.

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