If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. And often we can recite it, amazingly, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.
In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. And when I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they asked for this one.
When I talk to people about funerals, either their own, or that of someone they loved, they ask for this Psalm too. Because unlike perhaps any other piece of Scripture, Psalm 23 gives us comfort in the most difficult of times. The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
So, to be honest with you, that’s why for a long time I could not stand this Psalm. After years of being a chaplain, I just sort of thought of it as the Psalm you read when someone was sick or dying, and I really only thought about it then.
I mean, really, nearly every time you hear this Psalm something bad is happening, right?
And that’s okay. I think in times of pain, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.
And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.
But, it would be a mistake to just think of this as the funeral Psalm, or the Psalm you read when times are hard.
When I was in college I heard a priest say once that the job of the preacher was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. That still resonates at some level. If you come to church and you are in pain, I do hope you find comfort in what is said here. But if you come to church and you are completely comfortable, and completely unmotivated to make this world better for others, then I hope you leave a little afflicted.
I’ve sometimes wondered if the same is true of the Psalms. I wonder if they too are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Like I said, almost every time I plan a funeral, the reading of Psalm 23 is requested. But the fact Psalm 23 has been relegated mostly to funerals is a tragedy. Because this Psalm isn’t about death; it’s about living fearlessly and in abundance.
The shepherd of the Psalm, who is God, is described as someone who can lead us through the scariest of places, all the while casting aside our fear. And God fills our cups, not just until there is enough, but until they overflow with so much goodness that we can’t help but share it.
That’s a good word for those of us who are so comfortable we could use some affliction. And, to be clear, that’s most of us, at least some of the time. We all have moments when we can use a little comfort but, whether we admit it or not, we also have moments where our cup overflows with abundance.
And so when our cup is overflowing the question that remains is who do we then follow? Who will be our shepherd through life? Will it be the one who has filled our cups to overflowing? Or will it be something else? In other words, can we really say with all honestly and conviction that “the Lord is my shepherd”?
Before you answer that, know that there are many shepherds out there you can choose. You can choose the shepherd of fear, who tells you that you will never be enough. You can choose the shepherd of anger, who reacts to the world with rage. You can choose the shepherd of greed, who tells you that you need more. Or you can choose the shepherd of narcissism, who tells you that you are the only one who matters on the path.
And there are countless other shepherds as well, all vowing for your time and attention. And, even if we believe that we are independent of their influence, the reality is that we are all following some sort of shepherd in this life. And, too often, they are leading us down the wrong paths.
And so, when we proclaim instead that the Lord is our Shepherd, we are saying something extraordinary. We are saying that we are not going to get lost anymore. We are saying that even as God leads us through territory that is so foreign and vast that it feels like we are in the “valley of the shadow of death”,you also know that you are still with God, and there is nothing to fear.
God does not promise us that if we follow we will always have an easy journey. Psalm 23 isn’t a warm and fuzzy affirmation of an easy life. But God does say that even when we are on those new and unfamiliar roads God will be there with us, leading us through.
And so, I also want to say this. What is true for individuals is so often also true for churches.
I think churches could learn from Psalm 23. Because in a time when so many churches are drawing inward, afraid of an unknown future, and clinging to the “hope” of austerity measures, and “wait and see” fearfulness, the Psalm offers us a radical alternative. Don’t live in fear. Live in faith. And follow the one who can lead you through the darkest valleys and make them seem like they were well-lit sidewalks.
Some of you know that my first parish ministry call was to a two point charge in Vermont. One church was relatively healthy, but the other was not. For nearly 200 years it had been a thriving small town church, and the center of the town. But those days were long gone. By the time I got there, my work was to help the church to close its doors and merge with the other church in a graceful way.
At that time a good Sunday morning was one in which the attendance was in the double digits. As in, ten people. Counting the organist and me. And it was rarely a good Sunday morning.
I wanted to understand why this had happened, and so did a lot of research into the history, going back even before any of the people who were left, because the truth was that the few who were left had come after the damage had been done. And as I looked deeper, I found out that there had been a time when the church’s cup had indeed overflowed in every sense of the word. But decades before, instead of sharing that abundance and using it in creative ways, fear had ruled the day. The church had turned more and more inward, and more and more fearful about its own future.
It was like as this cup overflowed they were trying to put all of that abundance and grace back in so they could hang onto it. They kept trying to build a bigger cup, instead of using what they had been given. They were so afraid of a future when they would not have enough that instead of looking at all they had as a blessing and gift to share with others, they saw it as something to fearfully store up for themselves.
And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, decades later those fears came true. Just not in the ways they thought they would.
At the end of the church’s life they had a whole lot of money in the bank account, a nice building that was hardly ever open except on Sunday mornings, next to no one in the pews, and most importantly, no one in the community being served beyond the doors of the church.
That’s not our situation. At all. But it’s a constant reminder for me. I don’t believe anyone ever consciously chose or even wanted that future for that church. But somehow, over the course of decades, that’s where they wound up. And so, I promised myself that no matter where I pastored next, I would tell that story. Because it’s too easy to have the best of intentions, and to end up there.
And so, I always want to say to churches the same thing I want to say to individuals: don’t wait until your funeral to live out this Psalm. This should not be your deathbed prayer. This should be the proclamation you make as you rise every morning: the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear.
And so, whether on your own path or on this path we walk together, live out that kind of faith everyday. God has already given you more than you need. You have an abundance. You have enough. Don’t be afraid to use it. Live boldly, follow the Good Shepherd, and you, and we, will indeed live. Amen?