Monday, May 04, 2009
In the Valley: Sermon on Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Every minister I know can tell you some version of this story, because it has happened to all of us. This is how it goes. You are at the bedside of a dying patient, say, an elderly woman who has been unconscious for days. The nurses have warned you that she won’t even know that you are there, that she no longer speaks, even when she has periods of consciousness. You sit quietly by her bed for a little while. Eventually you decided to pray the 23rd Psalm. In wonder you watch as the woman begins to move her lips. She isn’t necessarily speaking distinct words, but her sounds match the rhythm of what you are saying. She is praying the psalm with you. This supposedly unresponsive patient is responding to the words of this psalm—words she has probably known her whole life. In a moment of grace, she joins you in prayer.
In the valley of the shadow of death the words of this psalm speak to that woman. For her, the valley is the prelude to the last days of her life. For you and for me, the valley could be any number of things. We may take our first steps into the valley because of illness, our own or that of one we love—a beloved partner or spouse, a child, a grandchild. We may pass into the valley because of fear… the fear of losing a job, or not finding another one, the fear that we are somehow under attack, or will be. We may enter the shadowlands because of problems in our relationships, when we recognize the scary and disheartening signs that all is not well with the person we love most in the world, or even with ourselves. The deep darkness may come upon us when our children make choices that baffle us. Even in the most blessed life, even when we spend the majority of our days in the sunlight looking down upon dazzling vistas, each of us walks into that valley sooner or later.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
David, the shepherd, the king, the writer and singer of psalms, knew the valley of the shadow of death intimately. He knew what it was to be pursued by his enemies who wanted to take his life, and even the torturous understanding that one of them was his own son. He knew the valley of the shadow of his own guilt, after he took the woman Bathsheba like a piece of property and sent her warrior husband to the front lines of battle to be killed. He knew the valley of the shadow when his own infant son died, and when the son who sought his life died. But David knew something else about the valley of the shadow of death. He knew that his only chance of getting through that valley was to surrender himself into the hands of the shepherd—and not just any shepherd. David knew that we need the kind of shepherd described in this psalm. And so, perhaps David sang: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Everything following this statement—I shall not want—is a recitation of actions taken by the shepherd. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” It is intriguing to me, this idea of “making” someone lie down. My head is immediately filled with memories of being a young exhausted mother with a recalcitrant toddler, both of us badly in need a nap. The shepherd, like a good mother, knows that the sheep need their rest, even when they’re restless. He makes them lie down. Sometimes, I think we won’t lie down—we won’t pause for rest or refreshment—until something knocks us down. I don’t believe God knocks us down. But it may be that when life has knocked us down, we can finally pay attention to where it is the shepherd is trying to lead us.
“He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” Still waters… this is a deceptive little phrase. I used to think it was about the shepherd giving the sheep water to drink, until it occurred to me. If you are hiking and you need a drink of water, you don’t look for a still pool. You look for running water—what in the biblical era was called ‘living water.’ The still waters are not about refreshment for the body: they are about restoration of the soul. Even sheep, it would seem, need beauty, and transcendence. I remember a family fight, an evening of anger and hurt that was somehow softened and eased because it took place against the backdrop of a stunningly gorgeous sunset. The shepherd ushers us into these quiet places of rest and beauty, knowing full well that our fractured and fragmented souls are in just as much need of refreshment and restoration as our bodies. Maybe more.
The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.
“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.” I have learned that our contemporary view of shepherds can be highly sentimentalized. I know that for years I had an image of a sweet youth sitting on a rock with his panpipes or his harp, gently serenading the white, wooly lambs (and perhaps a pretty shepherdess). It is in the nature of sheep to not be too terribly bright, to be followers rather than leaders, to scare easily. Sheep can find their way to danger, it is said, one bite at a time. And fear is contagious, no matter what your genus and species. The descent into the valley is the journey into fear, into the things that scare us and haunt us and disrupt our dreams.
The shepherd is well-equipped to care for us in our fear. Instead of that idyllic image out of a renaissance madrigal, try to bring to mind the biggest, burliest bouncer you ever saw at a bar. Shepherds were rugged, tough individuals. “They worked long hours in the cold and rain; they smelled like sheep. The rod and staff that comfort us were used to beat away wild animals, killing them if necessary.” We go into the dark valley comforted, because we go there with someone who is willing to fight for us. We go with someone who is willing to die for us.
The psalm takes a turn here, leaving behind images of the pasture in favor of images of the royal banquet hall—perhaps a reflection of the life of David, the shepherd who became a king? “Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The psalm doesn’t leave us in the valley. The shepherd doesn’t even leave us in the sheep. Abruptly, we have been welcomed into the royal hall, and clothed with rich garments, a ring put on our fingers and shoes on our feed, and we have been ushered to the table. Notice… the enemies have not gone away. But their power is diminished, vanquished in the presence of the shepherd-king who is intent on providing us with everything we need.
Of course, this was the destination all along. The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. We shall not want: for green pastures, for places of beauty. We shall not want: for comfort, for reassurance. We shall not want: for the bread of life, and the overflowing cup of salvation. And all this in the presence of the things that we fear the most: the nameable and unnameable threats of the valley, the tangible and intangible fears that haunt us. Instead of threats and fears we are served a lifetime of goodness and mercy. And we are assured: this shepherd-king and this home and this table: they are ours forever.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Becky Ardell Downs, Midrash Lectionary Discussion List, 2003.