I really need your help this morning for a number of reasons. Our choir sang the 23rd Psalm and it was also our reading today. Because it is so well known, and has been spoken about, sung about, preached about, so many times it has become almost like the wallpaper of the Christian faith. Hardly a funeral goes by without having the 23rd Psalm read. Weddings too. When people don’t know what else to point to in Scripture as a favourite verse, it’s the Psalm 23.
If you have had anything to do with the Christian Church at all you know the 23rd Psalm. Likewise, if you have been to a temple or a synagogue, you will be familiar with it. I feel a little bit like the singer, Selena Gomez, who sang, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Her song has become an earworm for me over the last few days. I can’t shake it from my mind. I feel like that when I’m preaching about the 23rd Psalm. I’m not sure what I can tell you that you don’t know already.
Here’s another problem. I don’t know about you, but whenever I go to say Bloor and Bay or Yonge and Queen, I don’t see many shepherds around. I haven’t yet found anyone with a rod and staff and some sheep running behind them in the urban world. I had to go back to Yorkshire and Lancashire to see them last year.
In other words, all the imagery of a shepherd and sheep seems a very different and distant metaphor. You see, I’ve got problems this morning and I need you to double down on your understanding of the 23rd Psalm because I still think it speaks and is very powerful indeed. It changes lives, and we have to look at it again.
Stepping back this last week and rereading it, a couple of things struck me, and these things I think are instructive for the way that we live our Christian today. The first of which is how to speak about God to others. When you look carefully at the Psalm there are in fact three audiences, and the first of these audiences are people themselves. Maybe it is the people who are resident within the temple, and therefore sing the Psalm of David and need to hear about God. Or maybe it’s the people in general, the public, who need to hear about God.
Either way, David, who I think is universally seen as the author of this, talks in the beginning of this Psalm about God in the third person, referring to him as “Him” or “He” and talking about the relationship between Him and this shepherd in a metaphorical way, but he is addressing it to an audience. It’s a statement of faith. The opening line says it all: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Now, it is not a simile. He doesn’t say “the Lord is like a shepherd,” but rather “the Lord is my shepherd.” There is a direct correlation then between his understanding of the Lord and the profession of being a shepherd. The literal translation Jehovah, or Yahweh, is my shepherd, Jehovah is my shepherd.
He’s making a statement of faith. Then he goes on to talk about this particular relationship. To an audience he says, “He leads me beside still waters. He leads me in the paths of righteousness. He restores my soul.” In other words, he’s telling an audience about his God. He is speaking about God in the terms that he knows, and as a shepherd, his language is the language of a field. This is how he refers to God.
In a sense then, the 23rd Psalm is a testimony. He’s letting people know that this God is his Lord, and this Lord is his shepherd. It doesn’t matter if it’s providing for him or leading him into still places of quiet waters where sheep will drink. It doesn’t matter if it is the restoring of his soul. As far as he is concerned, this is a testimony to an audience.
When the people collectively rise in the temple, they recite it, “The Lord is my shepherd.” They are talking to all of those are around them. But you will notice that the language is not abstract. It’s not as if David is trying to convince people about the existence of this God, he’s simply making declarations about this God. “The Lord is my shepherd, he restores my soul.” It’s a testimony. It is not an act of intellectual argument. He is not trying to be an apologist for God, he is simply giving a testimonial to what God is like.
Sometimes I fear, particularly in our day and age, we feel that we have to talk about God as an abstraction, that he have to make an argument for God rather than to have a testimony about what God can do and has done.
I was reading not long ago, after having seen the movie, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It’s a Stephen King movie so I’m not here advocating it, it’s a scary movie, it really is. I’ve only seen it once, years ago. I think it came out in 1999, I it saw it on an airplane, not a good place to watch scary movies. But anyway, I did, and I thought at the time, “Wow, there’s a lot of theology in this movie.” For all the scariness of it, it’s the story of Trisha McFarland, a young woman who goes to the Appalachians with her family and gets lost.
She goes to the bathroom in the woods and the family moved on to another path and she can’t find them. In the woods she encounters all kinds of difficult things. Then she has to think about, once she reaches a point of desperation, how to talk to God? How does she address God when she is in these woods? Then she remembers something her father said: “You know, God is sub-audible.” God is just there.
You know how your electric radiators, your board heaters have a hum to them? That is sub-audible. Or for example the refrigerators making their clicking sound. They are sub-audible. Or if you live in Toronto, traffic is sub-audible. It is always there but you never really notice it, or you certainly don’t take it into your consciousness. When he says God is sub-audible, he mean he is just there.
She didn’t find that particularly helpful, but then she thought about her hero, Tom Gordon, who was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. She was a huge fan of this Tom “Flash” Gordon and thought he was a great baseball player. She noticed something about him, after every match, a win or lose, he would always point his hands up above as if to thank God. And he was not one of these phonies who do it, you know, just as a matter of course, Tom Gordon was a very devout believer in Jesus Christ, and she knew that.
She recognized that his recognition of God was sincere. Tom Gordon, when being interviewed after games, talked about God as if God was a living being. Not sub-audible, but a living presence. Not just there, but actively involved in our lives. And for this young woman, this was the God she prayed to. In a state of terror for nine days in the wilderness, this is the God she prayed to. You can’t help but realize, as you read the story or see the movie, how striking it is that this relationship with God is the thing that saved her through the immense difficulties that she faced.
I think that’s exactly what David is like in the 23rd Psalm. He knows that God is there for him. He is there to, in a sense, lead him beside still waters, to restore his soul. He is there for him and he wants everyone to know that.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing a fascinating thing. I have been reading some of the inaugural addresses by American presidents. It has been a fascinating read because it gives you a window into the soul of the individual. What they say and how they say it at the beginning of their presidency sets the tone for other things that are to follow. It’s an interesting contrast in characters.
What struck me was the one by Jimmy Carter, who became the President, as you know, after the whole Nixon affair and Gerald Ford had had to step in. America was at its lowest, it really was, when Carter took over. I listened, or I watched, and I read with interest his address. In it there is this profound sense of humility, and this is what struck me, this is what I was left with. He quoted from the Book of Micah, “You have shown me, oh man, what is right. Namely that you love mercy and you do justly, and you walk humbly with thy God.”
This notion of walking humbly with thy God seemed to me, from what Jimmy Carter was saying, to be the most powerful part of the whole of the inaugural address. He wasn’t pointing to himself, rather he was pointing to the justice and the mercy that he has before Almighty God. Now Jimmy Carter, is the longest-running retired President.
He has cancer now but you think of the things that he has done since he’s been President: his role in Habitat for Humanity, his work with young people, and his desire for peace, and you realize then that the tone was set when he quoted that scripture from Micah. That his testimony – and this is the point – was about a real God and that this real God was the one before whom he would be humble and follow. A powerful statement because it’s the power of testimony.
Very often, we don’t know how to talk to others about God. How do you talk to others about God? You certainly can’t get anywhere in abstraction, and often you can’t get there with doctrine, although doctrine is important for us to know. The key is testimony. For us to say the Lord is our shepherd – and then put in our own metaphor, the way that we talk about God as a living being.
As the Psalm goes along, it talks directly to God. You’ll notice there’s a change, and it really hit me as I read it over this last week. In Verses 4 and 5, everything shifts. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” It’s not in the third person. There’s a big change here. Now it is “You are with me.” He’s talking directly to God. The valley of the shadow of death has clearly become a way in which now, as a Psalmist, he needs to address God directly.
He addressed all about God to everyone else, but now in the valley, things get real, and he talks to God. Precisely what the valley of the shadow of death is, one can only speculate. Some have suggested that maybe all it was was the Galilean hillside, and when a shepherd took sheep into the valley they were vulnerable from all sides to wild animals, criminals who would try to steal, rocks and ravines and wild running waters. Many dangers for shepherds and their sheep.
Maybe that’s what he’s talking about. Certainly on the surface it seems that way. But others have suggested that he may be referring to the fact that God saw him through the valley of the shadow of death when he had a stand-up conflict with Goliath. Remember, this is David. Maybe it was Goliath that’s the problem; I have gone through the valley of the shadow of death, and you, you’re with me.
Or maybe it is the valley of the shadow of guilt that he is experiencing. Maybe he’s remembering his time with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband, Uriah the Hittite that I addressed three weeks ago. Maybe he’s guilt-ridden and knows he’s come through the valley of the shadow of death, but the Lord has been with him. That is the key. No matter what it was, the Lord was there, the Lord was present. And how powerful it is to be able to say the Lord is present. You are not alone.
Just before Christmas I read a spectacular article in The New York Times. It was by a Dr. Cuellar, who practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital and taught at Harvard Medical School, a brilliant doctor. He talked about the problem of isolationism today. He wrote the following, and I quote in patches:
Social isolation is a growing epidemic, one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. Religious people should be encouraged to continue regular attendance at services and will benefit from a sense of spirituality and community, as well as the seniors and the young getting to spend time with each other.
A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition. Human connection lies at the heart of human wellbeing. It’s up to all of us, doctors, patients, ministers, neighbourhoods and communities to maintain bonds when they’re fading and create ones where they haven’t existed.
Deep thoughts by Dr. Cuellar. And he’s right about the need for connectedness when we live in such great isolation. One of the reasons why, weekly, gathering with other people who share the same language about God and who will pray for one another, encourage and support one another, and worship with one another, is so important.
But how much more, if he is right, is the ability to talk to God needed? Then like that girl in the Appalachians, how much more important is it for people who feel and know that they are going through the valley of the shadow of their own deaths, to have the language to be able to speak about and to Almighty God? How tragic it is when people die alone. How tragic it is when people live alone. How tragic it is when they feel totally isolated in this world and beyond.
Psalm 23 gives us the language to talk to God. When people come to you and say, “I don’t know how to talk to God. I don’t know what to say.” Just tell them the Lord is with them. The psalmist talks in terms of a shepherd. He says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” In other words, sometimes the hook of protection and the prodding of guidance is there. He says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” which is probably a reference to shepherds preparing another field that is safe for their sheep to graze. Where there are no berries, no thorns, and no dangers. Shepherds in Israel called that the preparing of the table, the safe place for the sheep to graze.
“You anoint my head with oil and my cup overflows” is probably a reference to shepherds putting oil on the foreheads of sheep to protect them from parasites that could attack their face, and the cup that overflows is like an herb, a drink that was given to sick sheep to settle their stomachs. In other words, you give us the protection, the security and the healing that we need. You go through the valley of the shadow of death, but this table is prepared for you, this oil is here for you, and this cup runneth over. Wow!
Finally, this is an affirmation, a statement of thanksgiving. Psalm 23 is about praise. When we’ve nothing else to say, when we look at the troubles of the world around us and we’re worried and scared about how people are treating one another. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the House of the Lord forever,” as the King James Version of the Bible put it. Or “I will dwell in the Temple all my days,” as our translation puts it.
Many years ago when I was studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was alone. Marial was back in Nova Scotia working and living and I was living in a residence, and I was lonely. I ran into an Anglican Episcopalian bishop from New Mexico, he was Mexican by birth and emigrated to the United States. He was a great man and he and his wife and children invited me and a couple of my friends to dine with them any Friday night that we wanted to have some really good food – they made Mexican food on a Friday night, and I took them up on it a lot.
I was so heavy when I left Massachusetts they were going to charge me more for coming back to Canada, I think. But they were so kind and so generous. I particularly loved Cinco de Mayo with them in May. That was a memorable occasion. It makes our Christmases look awfully boring, I must say. Every time you entered their house they said these words: “Mi casa es su casa.” My house is your house.
At the end of the 23rd Psalm, when you’ve peeled it all away, God is saying to the shepherd, “My house is your house,” “My temple is your temple.” But if you extrapolate it further, as Martin Luther does in his incredible term, anfechtung, which means “to go through the trial” – when you go through the trial at the end, if God is eternal then so is his House, and he is simply saying, “Mi casa es su casa.” My house is your house, and you can dwell in it forevermore. My, what a statement of thanksgiving that is, and one that the world needs to embrace. Amen.