By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 30, 2023
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Psalm 23:1–6 (ESV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Today we contemplate on a Psalm once again. I remind you that Psalms are both songs and prayers. And as we engage with these words, they should be hymns of praise as well as the deepest cries of our hears. Today we have read one of the most popular of all the Psalms. Even those that have never attended meetings for worship, have probably heard the words of this Psalm. Usually, we hear this Psalm read at memorial services, and I know that this passage is carved into the stone at my sister’s grave. They are words of comfort.
Like many things that have become familiar, we often forget how or why they have taken that place. We hear things like, “I have fallen out of love with someone.” What does this mean? It means that they have become familiar, common. And we no longer actively pursue the things that are common, and we become distracted. We do not fall out of love, something else has changed. Either our relationship was built on something other than love, or we are bored. And I would venture to say those that get bored built their relationship on something other than love.
At times words of scripture become familiar. We can quote them by rote, and we may know the words, but we tend to neglect them because they have become routine and thus, we become bored. We might put them in a box somewhere and bring them out for a special occasion, but even at those times we may not really think about what lies just beneath the surface. That is often the case with the twenty third Psalm. One commentator that I read while I was in study this week said this about this Psalm, “The challenge in this regard is the fact that Psalm 23 has become…an American Secular Icon, and it is almost exclusively associated with a particular contemporary setting: the funeral service. To be sure it is appropriate that Psalm 23 be read and heard in the midst of death and dying. It may be more important, however, that this psalm be read and heard as a psalm about living.”
We have become familiar with this Psalm, is what that commentator is saying. We have relegated it to be used in certain places and for certain times, and because of this we are missing the deeper calling within the words. Yes, it is a comfort for those in grief, I myself have used it in that context both as one who morns and as one presiding over a service. But is it more?
“The Lord is my Shepherd.” This is a Psalm attributed to David. David, his youth, tended his father’s sheep as a shepherd. Usually when we think of these verses that is the image we see. We see a young boy sitting on a bolder, holding his lyre and as he is mindlessly watching the sheep, he strums the strings and comes up with these words. But shepherds were often used as a metaphor for a king in ancient times. Just as a shepherd leads the sheep, as king leads the people. This kind of gives us a different perspective of that jeer we often hear calling people sheep. It is in many ways true and has been from ancient times.
“I shall not want.” Many people have agued that a more accurate translation for this phrase would have been, “I shall lack nothing.” Have we stopped to consider the implications of those words? God is the king, and those that are within his scope of influence, do not lack. I do not know about you but there are a few things that I believe I lack. This is, in many ways, a testimony of where my attention is. I want things to such a degree that it distracts me.
David continues, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” This is imagery from the sheep herd, but it has importance. When we think of the word make, it can bring in an idea of exerted force in some way. When David says, “he makes me lie down,” he is writing with a sense of cause. He causes me to lie down, and he then explains why this happens as he continues by saying, “in green pastures.”
Most of you know that I grew up on a farm. And I often get a bit homesick for the farm because city life tends to make me feel confined or crowded. While I worked on the farm, we raised cattle. Cattle are by no means equivalent to sheep, but there are some similarities because they eat the same things. In the winter we must bring bales of hay to feed cattle, because we move them closer together to protect them from the harsh winter weather. Every day I would go out in the cold, bundled up so much that I could barely move, and I would have to take hay to the animals. They were grateful, just so you are aware. Often the giant bull would come up and rub against me before he went to eat, but as the temperatures began to rise and the grass began to turn green again, it became increasingly more difficult to contain the cattle. They wanted the grass not the dry bales of hay. When the pastures began to grow again, we would move the cattle from their winter pens and let them roam once again in the pastures. And they would run to the green grass. The moment they reached that fresh growth they would immediately stop and begin eating. They would collide with each other in their hurried pursuit just to get their fill, and they would eat as if they had been starving.
This is the image that David is portraying with these words, the sheep have gorged themselves on the fresh green grass and like I do after a big Thanksgiving Day meal, they stretch out their recently filled bellies and they take a nap. The shepherd causes them to lie down because he has guided them to a feast. And they can rest because they lack nothing. When the grass is not green, these animals will continue to walk and eat as they walk. They will walk all day long, always eating along the way. But they lack nothing the grass is green so they eat and can lie down where they are, with the assurance that when they get up there will be more to eat.
“He leads me beside still waters.” Again, this is in reference to sheep. I do not care much for sheep. When I was growing up it always seemed that those people that had sheep were always having to do something to keep the sheep from getting into trouble. And they would get into trouble because they would put their heads down and eat. Each step they took was a step to their next bite, if you left them to their own devices they would eat until they were completely lost. But the next problem is water. Cattle will drink from just about anything that is wet, sheep get scared. The water must be still for a sheep to drink. This means that if the only water source was a flowing stream, a shepherd would have to divert the water to slow the flow before the sheep would go close. Both the phrases; the green pastures and the still waters are giving us a glimpse to the character of God as a shepherd and the state of fulfillment those that seek God can obtain.
“He restores my soul.” Last week, in the 116th Psalm, we read, “Return o my soul to your rest.” This is the same sense that this phrase has. When we consider the word soul, we often think of it as the part of our existence that continues after death. Soul is much more than that. It is our being. Our true self. David is saying, “He restore my true self, my real identity.” And when he speaks of restores, it in many ways is like the word return. The word, “restore,” is also connected to the concept of repent and return, but in this sense, it goes a bit beyond a turning. When we embark on this return, we have restoration or renewal. Our true self is reinvigorated and enlivened. He restores our true self, our true being.
How often do we go through life feeling unknown? While at pastor’s retreat, one of the exercises we were encouraged to participate in was to identify the lie we live in, that prevents us from the rest and re-creation that God is calling us to in Sabbath. That lie is preventing us to reveal our true self. This is not an easy exercise to participate in when you are surrounded by people you respect and want to impress. As I sat with these fellow pastors, and in my case, I was in a group with one of our yearly meeting superintendents, I listened to what they had to say, and we were supposed to pray for them to overcome that area in their life so that they could rest. But then all the eyes looked to me. What was my catch? What was my hang up? I often struggle with what many describe as imposter syndrome. I do not feel as if I should be in the place that I am. I do not feel as if I am adequate and that because of my inadequacies I am becoming a hindrance. That is why I spoke so much last week about seeing beyond our emotions, because I do feel those things, but that is not the truth. I am where God has called me to be, I do not always understand why but even in my deepest bouts with my own self-doubt, I know that I am where I am supposed to be. I cannot even imagine myself anywhere else.
“He restores my soul.” He renews our true identities. He reveals in some cases, who we truly are. We might go through life feeling unknown, but then we come to a place where we just fit. I hope that our Meeting is one of those places. The people around us encourage and empower us. And when we are in that place, we know we are accepted. That is the restoration of our soul. And it is there that we find our rest in the green pastures. But oddly we do not just lie around. Eventually we get back up and we are moved into action. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
The word we translate as “leads,” is used eighteen times in the Psalms and it means guidance and direction. When we rest in the presence of God, he restores and renews our true being, and as he renews us, he then guides us in life. We come in distracted and confused, and after we rest in that place the confusion melts just a bit more and we can begin to discern a way forward. This is where the path comes in. This word means conduct or way. It points to wisdom or instruction in a manner of activity. We are led in a direction. We gain or discern how we should deal with whatever we are facing. We are lead in the path of righteousness.
Righteousness is the adherence to what is required according to a standard. In other places within scripture the word used here also points to victory, truth, honesty and justice. In most cases it is being correct in the situation we find ourselves in. This is not just being right in my own eyes, but just to all. David is telling us, as we listen to God, as we are led by him into those places content rest of plenty. We are restored and renewed. We get a glimpse of who we truly are, our essential being. And as we rest with God, he speaks to us, he guides us, he shows us the way. And that way, that mode of conduct is not for our own gain, but justice. He led us there because that is who God is, and our true self bears that image.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This phrase is probably why this psalm is most often used for funerals, and for me is where I often leave it. We are led to paths of righteousness, when we are in that place of rest and restoration, but we do not stay there. We get discernment and we are expected to then move. That is why David begins to walk here. To walk is to move forward along that path, it is putting what we know into action. We spend some time in the green pastures but then we move out into the world again. The valley in geographical terms is a depression between ridges. But could there be valleys in life? Could part of our struggle be that we live in depression, or that the struggles we face appear to be mountains encircling us on all sides? “Even though I walk through the valley,” David says, “of the shadow of death.” This phrase in Hebrew is used eighteen times although it is not always translated as the shadow of death. Ten of those occurrences are found in the book of Job. I do not know if you are aware of the book of Job, but it is about a man that lost everything. The sense of this word is not death, but gloom. It is a darkness, a deep darkness, a deep or large area of dark shadow cast by an object. We often think of this as death, but it is not it is a gloom, a darkness that is cast over us by something seemingly beyond our control. It is our struggle, the thing or things that keep us from becoming and living our authentic being.
Which brings us to evil. Fear is dread or to be afraid or scared. When David says, “I will fear no evil,” it means even though I am living within a depression of deep darkness or gloom I will not be frightened. And then something interesting happens. I am not frightened because the Shepherd is there. His rod comes along side rendering that which I dread invalid. And David does this with an interesting linguistic anomaly. The symbols used to form the word evil, and shepherd look similar with one exception. The word, shepherd, has a rod and staff standing next to the word for evil. That which was once evil, no longer exists because it has been swallowed up by the shepherd.
That is just fun, but there is more to it than that. The rod and staff are both tools used by a shepherd. But the rod can also be seen as a scepter of a king, and in some cases the same word is used to represent a tribe. We often look at this psalm as being personal, but it is communal. A shepherd does not only tend one sheep but has a flock. We might be led by the shepherd, but that individual is leading more than one “I,” the shepherd leads us. I mentioned before that a shepherd was often a metaphor used to describe ancient kings as well. When we look at this in terms of a flock instead of an individual sheep, we can see that the shepherd could be leading a nation or tribe also. We are comforted not just by the tools, but by the community and the flock that the tool is used to protect. And in this sense comfort is more than just an alleviation of sorrow or distress. It is a sense of consistency or home. It is that place where we can be known and get to know others.
This communal aspect continues as David then goes into the third verse of this song. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is an interesting phrase. The word before means in front of, in the presence of, or facing. The shepherd is preparing a table, or he is spreading out a feast in front of our faces. But then David says, “in the presence of my enemies.” We do not struggle with the word enemies; we know who they are. They are those people who treat us with hostility, who attack us physically or verbally and hate us. We have these people all around us. They are in other nations at times, but they are also in our places of work, and sometimes they might even be within our own homes. The interesting thing is God is preparing a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The word presence is like the word before. It is also in front of, but the difference is opposite to.
This creates in our minds an image. I am sitting at a table. And sitting opposite me is that person that despises me, and I, myself am not fond of either. Between us is a feast. Both friend and enemy are present in that green pasture where the sheep lie down in comfort. Friends and enemies are gathered at this table. What do we do? We eat, we share a meal, we break bread together. There is something powerful in the sharing of a meal. If we want to look at it scientifically, you will find that as we eat, our bodies release chemicals that give us pleasure. This is important because our stomachs stretch as we fill it with food, and this stretching without those chemicals would cause pain. But eating is not painful, in fact it is one of the things I enjoy the most. Relationally something happens when we eat as well. When these chemicals are entering our bloodstream and being carried throughout our bodies, they also enter our brains. When these chemicals enter our brains, we tend to look at those eating with us as sharing in that pleasure. And those that we share pleasure with tend to develop a closer relational bond with them.
God places us at the table with our enemies. He is challenging us to walk through that valley of the shadow of death and look our fear in the eyes. He is showing us what he sees. That enemy, that person we may hate is equally loved by God. And from their perspective we are the ones sitting opposite.
Jesus took the bread at the table, and he broke it and gave thanks, and he said to his disciples this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In our various traditions we see this as the institution of a religious sacrament, or a means of grace. We eat with our God. But there is more to that scene, it is a meal and at that table is Jesus’ betrayer. And Jesus gave his enemy bread. We should share meals with others, because in that meal we begin to see those around us in a different light. We eat, we talk, we laugh, and we become something more. Those that eat together become friends, and friends become family. David speaks of this change in the Psalm when he says, “He anoints my head with oil.”
The anointing is a ceremonial practice. It is a symbol of the spirit residing with an individual and an acceptance within the community. When we think of Jesus, most of us will follow that name with Christ. This is not Jesus’ last name, which I though as a child, but it means anointed in Greek, and in Hebrew it would be messiah. Priest and kings were anointed. And at times regular individuals were anointed in other ceremonies. The anointing was usually done with oil and this oil was part of the cultic rituals within the temple. Jesus though was not anointed with oil, instead his anointing was with water. Again, this anointing became enshrined in religious practice and tradition, and it too has become familiar. Baptism or the Christian anointing is a symbol of acceptance and companionship. The anointing joins former enemies as friends. And when enemies become friends the resources that were once spent in conflict are reallocated. David says, “he anoints my head with oil and my cup overflows.” Last week we mentioned the cup of salvation. I mentioned that cup could also mean vessel and that salvation could be victory, and that we become the vessels of victory. Cup does mean vessel and it can also mean purse. “My purse overflows,” that is an image I like. When we stop fighting, when our enemies become friends and companions, we join in a place of peace. Peace promotes abundance. Peace promotes charity and generosity. We cannot give if we are not at peace, because we are living in fear of want. But if we remove the fear, when we see beyond the emotions surrounding enmity we recognize once again that we have all we need and generosity becomes the norm, and our purse overflows.
We often live in the shadows of our struggles. We often live under the darkness of fear. We wander through this world wishing we were known, and in that wondering we wish we knew ourselves. David in his prayer is calling us to something more. He is calling us to God. He is calling us to a life and lifestyle where we have peace and rest. Where we can face our fears and have the tools to face them. He is calling us to live.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David is calling us, and God is calling us. Goodness and mercy are attributes that help define God. They are words that he uses to describe himself, and follow does not exactly fully represent the fullness of what is being said. Pursue or chase is more accurate. God is chasing us, pursuing us with goodness and mercy. He like a shepherd is redirecting our sheepish minds away from following our teeth and guiding us back into the fold. And it is in that fold, in that community that God wishes us to dwell. It is his house, the green pastures of Eden. Paradise. This is not just a place in the great here after, but it is a place we can be here even in the shadows of death. But will we find comfort there? Will we find peace across the table of our enemies. Will we be anointed and changed? Will we realize we have all we need in Christ and recognize that even in our poverty we have abundance? Will we dwell?
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