Cheryl Pyrch - Summit Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2010 - Psalm 23
Wanting and Needing
Some scripture is easier to preach than other scripture. Before I began preaching I always thought the most difficult scripture to preach would be those passages we call "difficult texts." Those places in the Bible where God or Jesus appears cruel, prejudiced or violent, or when teachers and prophets give unenlightened instructions. In the gospel of John, for example, when Jesus calls his opponents - John calls them "the Jews" - children of the devil. Or in the book of Samuel, when the Lord tells Saul, " Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” Or when Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters and women to obey their husbands. I could go on. It's easy to find difficult texts in the Bible. And those passages are hard to preach, but the task of the preacher is clear: to try and hear what God is saying through the scripture, and to wrestle and even argue with it until you discern the good news. The challenge is not so much to come up with a sermon as it is to tame one. No, I've found the most difficult passages to preach are the ones that are just plain beautiful. Beautiful, clear, well-loved. What more is there to say than "listen to the Word of God"? The 23rd psalm is one such passage.
But before you get too excited, and start thinking oh, maybe we'll get to coffee hour early today, I do have a few things to add to God's Word. Some clarifications. Because there may be one or two things about this psalm that have always bothered you. First, the psalmist compares herself - and by extension, us - to sheep, and some folks don't like that. We don't think sheep are intelligent or spiritual - although people who study them disagree. We don't know them very well, encountering them most often at the dinner table. But the Bible was written by people who lived with sheep and herded sheep. They naturally used sheep and shepherds as metaphors. So in the Bible, religious leaders, kings, and God are often compared to shepherds --- and their people compared to sheep. It makes sense: shepherds protect sheep, make sure they have enough food and water, and guide them through thickets and fields. Jesus, in John's gospel, talks about himself as the good shepherd; the prophet Ezekiel criticizes the shepherds of Israel for being poor leaders (Ez 34) ; and Isaiah and other psalmists talk about God as the shepherd (40:11). Indeed, the fourth Sunday of Easter is called "Shepherd Sunday," and every year the lectionary gathers readings from the old and new testaments that refer to sheep and shepherds. Being a sheep is not an insult.
You may also be bothered - as I was - by the line where the psalmist says to God, "you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." It may seem like the psalmist is gloating, or that God is punishing his enemies by laying out a banquet that they can't have, encouraging envy and jealousy. But if we keep the metaphor of the shepherd in mind, thinking of God, or Christ, as both shepherd and host, we find another meaning. Sheep were often in the presence of their enemies - lions and wolves lying in wait - so it was the presence of the shepherd that allowed them to eat in safety and to eat their fill. So it's another way for the psalmist to speak of God's protection and provision even in the face of those dangers that would destroy us.
For this we're thankful and the psalm can be read as a psalm of thanksgiving: for God's protection and provision; for God's restoration and renewal; for God's guidance and comfort. Especially in those times when we're enjoying green pastures and quiet waters, when our cup overflows with good things and we know it, the 23rd psalm is a way to give thanks. It's a way to acknowledge that all good gifts come God, and that it's Christ who leads us in the right paths, keeping us safe, giving us comfort, protecting us from danger. But most often we read or hear this psalm when we're not feeling especially thankful. We go to it in times of drought, when the grass is brown and the creekbed dry. We read it in times of danger, when our enemies seem close -- even if those enemies are only the thoughts in our heads. We especially read it in times of mourning, when our cup seems full of grief and sadness. When we pray it in those times it's also a psalm of yearning, of yearning for God's presence, comfort, and guidance-- and also a psalm of trust. A statement of confidence that even though there may not seem to be much goodness and mercy in our lives right now, it's coming behind us. It's a psalm of faith.
So this is my sermon: Listen to the Word of God in the 23rd psalm -- and memorize it, if you haven't already. Memorize it so that whether you're feeling thankful or lost, you can say it. So that wherever you are, at home or away, you can say it. So you can say it in times of stress or boredom, before going about your day or as you go to sleep. And you may find - as I have - that the psalm itself becomes the green and restful grass; that the psalm itself becomes a comforting staff and an overflowing cup. You may find that simply saying the words from your heart and picturing them in your mind restores your soul and feeds you as though you were at a banquet table. You may find that reciting the psalm leads you on the right path and eases your fear. Try it. You may wish to memorize the NRSV translation, the one in your pew bible and the translation closest to the Hebrew; or you may wish to memorize the beloved King James Version, or any other one. My hope is that the psalm will become a sacrament for you, a means for God's grace to enter into your life, in the greenest pastures and in the darkest valleys. I'll end with the King James Version. You may join me if you know it:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.