Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Psalm 23: The Divine Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
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.
I have told you all this before, but I often think about it when I read this scripture. When I was in elementary school, I did not go to church regularly. My sisters and I occasionally went to Sunday worship with my grandfather. Those of you who attended the Alive and Thrive workshop the Maine Conference held here last weekend heard Marisa talk about how some kids get involved in church because their grandparents take them. I am one of those kids. We nearly always went for vacation Bible School in the summer. And, sometimes we'd make it to the Easter service, primarily because there was an egg hunt after church. But, that's really it.
I am from the South, a region that continues to be one of the most consistently religious and persistently Christian areas of the country. Much of my family and many of my neighbors were active Christians. My great-grandmother was deeply religious and wanted to make sure that I had a good foundation in Christianity. She sang hymns while she pushed me on the swing in her front yard. She made sure that a children's Bible was among the books I could read at her house. She also taught me some Bible verses. While Psalm 23 wasn't the very first passage she taught me, it was one of the ones that she made sure I knew.
My great grandmother wasn't the only reason I knew this passage. I felt like Psalm 23 was all over the place. It seemed like this scripture was on the back of every funeral bulletin. It was printed on little cards that sat next to the cash register in bookstores. It was occasionally on stickers on pick-up trucks and big rigs that roared past us on the local highways. As far as I could tell, most people, even people like me who didn't attend church regularly, knew this passage. And, many of them claimed that it was their favorite passage in the whole Bible. I must admit if you don't know much else in the Bible, this passage does seem like a good one to know.
I think people like this Psalm because it shows them a God who is involved and invested in their life. Through it, people engage with a God who is there, even in the worst times, to bring comfort and support. When people need help, they read it and see that even though they may feel like they are in the shadow of death, in the end, goodness and mercy will follow them. They will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. When times are hard, we need the comfort and protection of God's rod and staff.
While researching this Psalm a while back, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon. He encourages us to remember a few things that might help bring new life into a scripture that many of us know so well. He points out that this Psalm is about a journey. If you have ever met sheep, you know that they aren’t necessarily in the habit of walking in orderly lines towards a destination. They are actually hard to keep track of. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you hire an experienced shepherd to guide them.
This shepherd in the Psalm guides the sheep by leading them to what is called “paths of righteousness.” LeMon notes that the shepherd is not hacking these paths out of the wilderness. The original Hebrew indicate that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before the current flock. LeMon seems to argue that to move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and use this groove to make your own journey easier. You don’t travel this distance alone. Your community has cleared the path for you, and you clear the path for those who will follow.
One of the things that is hard about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When the Psalmist spoke of being a sheep as a metaphor for a faithful life, that also includes a recognition that a sheeply life is also sometimes a perilous one. Death is, too often, close. But, God, the shepherd, offers protection and safety. The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, plenty of food and drink. The enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It may have a more powerful meaning. LeMons says that the word that here is translated “follow” is more often translated as "pursue." So the sentence maybe be more like “I will be pursued by goodness and mercy my whole life long.” In this Psalm, faithfulness means that you will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by good.
As I said earlier, many of us read the last verse as a happy ending: I will live in God's house forever. We read the story as though we are working through a journey with a definite end. We are simply working our way from point A, our lives, to point B, God's house, where we can stop. LeMon suggests another reading of that last verse. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't leave us with the house of the Lord as an endpoint where you stop, but, instead, maintains the idea of movement and journey. This word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return”. He suggests the translation, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our return to the places where we most closely feel the presence of God. We can seek God down deep in the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God is present in the journey, not simply as the destination.
With LeMon’s work in mind, Psalm 23 becomes a more vibrant, active vision of faith. It captures the seasonal nature of life. The ups and downs of our journeys. It keeps us connected not just to God, but to the ones who helped break the paths that God leads us down. It reminds us that we will help make the paths for the ones who follow. And, this part about being pursued by goodness and mercy... what a gift in a time of anxiety to be invited to replace the wolves in our hearts and minds with a good shepherd, following along, keeping us safe and guiding us to the food and drink that nourish us.
I hope you’re finding good paths these days, with ruts that guide you along the way. Even when the journey is difficult, I pray that you feel the presence of a shepherd guiding you to places of respite and through the shadowy valleys. May you feel enveloped by goodness rather than chased down by death. And, may you return and return and return again to the presence of God, the one who tends to your needs all along this journey.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.