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 right paths for his name’s sake. 4 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. 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 my whole life long. [NRSV]
Just like you, in the church or not, most folks are familiar with some part of this Old Testament worship hymn. Books, movies, songs, hymns, greeting cards, and wall plaques have immortalitzed this song of praise ahead of others in the collection of 150 psalms.
There are some practical reasons why it is popular. It is positive. It is short. It is affirming, and paints couple of pictures-images that are comforting and protecting, if we can imaging being a sheep or at a party.
The are two scenes in this song. One verse is a lush green field beside a refreshing stream and the other is at a noise and busy dinner party. What do these two portents have in common and what makes them relevant for you and me?
Our culture is adopting the idea that “green” is good. This first part of the psalm is very green. Can you smell the fresh green grass. The sparkling clear water babbling by an ancient tree with broad branches and deep roots. There are other signs and smells that may be organic, but are not that green. Sheep are not known for their pleasing aroma. Every herd of animals leave a trail of processes green grass that the shepherd learns step around. But let’s not loose the romantic and clean image just yet.
The comforting message of the first scene is the restoring and renewing experience of God. God can be trusted like sheep trust the good shepherd to provide food and drink, rest and growth. One message this psalm affirms is God’s continues to be trustworthy to provide for our growth, health and protection.
Life is not always in the green pastures. God provides even in the reality of life-threatening times. The Valley of the Shadow of Death.. might refer to an actual geographical bend in the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and it might be metaphorical of life-and-death moments that come and go in our lives.
Where is God when danger, temptation and death surround us? We want to go back to the green pastures but sometimes that is not where we are. We are in trouble. God does not keep us out of the the shadowy valleys, instead God goes with us on the journey.
We thing God ought to hear our prayers and transport us out of tragedy or trouble, but that is not what happens 99.9999 percent of the time. The songs sings of the shepherd ‘rod and staff’. The staff is the long crook of nativity fame that is for rescuing wandering sheep. The rod is to beat off the enemies of the sheep, defending not chastising the sheep.
We are familiar with the proverb, “do not spare the rod” in child rearing. If we look at the function of the rod it is not to beat the sheep, it is to protect them. If we take that function of the ‘rod’ and read that as the proverb, our children need protecting from the evil in the world. As children of God, we need God protecting us, as much now, as ever.
Think of fishing with a baseball bat? You could tie a string to one end and dangle it over the water, but that is not it’s function. You could use a fishing pole to tan-someone-hide, but that is not it’s function. The rod protects the sheep. And in this evil generation, how we do need God’s protection.
Evil will tempt and surround us, God journeys through with us. Psalm 23..
The second verse, takes us to what is likely one of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament culture. The was a provision in the Hebrew tradition that if you harmed someone in one city there were two other cities that you could move to with immunity. The idea of sanctuary or witness-protect gave people the protection of being able to start over. It was an example and opportunity for grace.
In these cities, the injured parties might even gather for Passover or other festivals of worship and be seating at the common table together and yet be at the same worship of anointing and blessing.
What a great opportunity of grace is promised by God. Where can you gather with people that can check our sins at the door and still come together to sing, break bread, fellowship together… God’s house.
Q: Is that your experience in the church? As a pastor I hear more stories of those out side our churches saying they don’t trust us, calling church folks hypocritical and every worse. The idea of living in the household of God our whole life sounds claustrophobic to most folks rather than comforting.
The assurance of the second verse reminds us that God has a plan for us, including for our failures. God work and deals in Grace. We don’t always treat each other with respect, love and kindness. But God finds a way to bring us all to the table.
My grandmother’s dinning room table was a large round wooden table. She taught me that she wanted everyone to have a place and where ever you came to the table you were sitting at the head of table. Because the table was round, ever seat was the prize place to be.
The image and practice of anointing has healing and blessing qualities in this hymn of praise. The abundance of the cup teaches that same message told later through the twelve baskets of abundance in feed the 5000 by Jesus and the disciples. They mess in both, is for that none would be lost. God has enough for us all.
With all the familiarity of the 23rd Psalm I invite you to know God’s protecting is not only in the easy of green pastures, it is in the threat of evil that God’s word is the rod that defends us still.
The abundance of grace in the face of evil that sits at the same table with us, is the place to deal with the our sins and differences. Come to the table and bring your worst, because God’s grace is ready for anything.
That is the power and witness of Psalms 23. Read it anew, live it by heart.
Join with me: 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 right paths for his name’s sake. 4 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. 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 my whole life long. [NRSV]