Well Worn Words: A Sermon on Psalm 23

Oh the 23rd Psalm. Those who prepared the lectionary texts, the series of scriptures that churches throughout the world work their way through each week, had no idea that we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic this week and desperately need to hear these well-worn words. 

They had no idea that we would have spent the last ten days scrambling to move from our campuses back to home, wonder where “home” is, have our lives thrown into turmoil, wonder and worry about our families and friends and finances, be asked to move much of our lives and study and work online, and hear the words “abundance of caution” and “unprecedented times” everywhere we turn.

Those wise souls who brought these bible texts together, and placed the 23rd Psalm on this fourth week of Lent, they didn’t know about the coronavirus, they didn’t know about the need for social distancing, they didn’t know (as we are desperately reminded) how vitally important ventilators and proper protective gear for healthcare workers are.

They didn’t know the moment we would encounter this psalm in our three-year cycle of scripture. What they did know, and what we know and lean into this evening  is this: God is always with us. God is with us in scripture. God is with us in our prayers. God is with us in our deepest struggling and unknowing. God is with us in it all. And this well-worn psalm brings us back to that deep and needed truth: Even in the hardest of times, we are not alone.

I have been craving the well worn psalms and prayers in these past days. Craving the words that pray for me when I’ve run out of prayers in myself. Craving words that have been repeated over and over, prayed by the faithful throughout time, sung across the globe and throughout history.

I find comfort in these words, as they speak to us here, in March of 2020. I find comfort in these words because I know they have been prayed and sung and repeated in other hard times. The faithful sang this Psalm in monasteries as millions of people suffered and died during the Black Death that swept through Eurasia from 1347 to 1351. The faithful have repeated this Psalm at deathbeds and funerals, clinging to the words through times of struggle and times of famine. Soldiers in various wars repeated it while in foxholes, and many of us may have said it as children in Sunday School, or before we went to bed. 

These are well worn words.

These are words that have stood the test of time, these are words and images and promises that we can lean on, that can lead us through.

The Lord is my shepherd:

This psalm starts right at the core of things, naming who God is, and who we are. 

The Lord is our shepherd, the one who shepherds us, who leads us, who guides us.

God is loving, and present, fiercely and tenderly holding all of us whom God lovingly created. 

In a time of suffering, as we’re trying to make sense of it all, we can project on God to try to make sense of hard and painful things. You may be hearing people say that this virus is God’s punishment to specific people, or divine retribution for the evils humans are doing.  I GET that when something terrible and hard happens, we want to make sense of it. We want to make sense of it in a way that we can be assured that we, our family, our loved ones won’t be hurt. We want to distance ourselves from it and so we attribute the suffering as a one-to-one equation with belief or behavior so that we are sure to draw the lines in a way that we are safely outside the circle of harm. 

But dear ones, while I understand each of our desire to keep ourselves and loved ones out of harm’s way, that is just not how God works. God created ALL of us. God loves all whom God created, and God is not in the business of isolated punishment or divine pinpointing of suffering.

This virus is not from God, and it is not God’s way of inflicting suffering on anyone. If this virus isn’t proof of that, I don’t know what is. Unlike a natural disaster that might hit one area, where we could start making up stories about the morality of the people there and try to create some narrative that connects the dots to reason for punishment, this virus couldn’t care less who it infects. Getting sick is not the result of one’s beliefs or moral behavior, it’s the result of touching a doorknob, and then your face, of being in the same space as someone who is infected, of unknowingly having these germs shared. This is not punishment, this is not from God. This is a dangerous and destructive little virus that is wreaking havoc on people’s bodies and on the interconnected global family. The interconnected global family that God created and God loves so deeply.

So who is the Lord in the middle of a global pandemic? The Lord is our shepherd. The Lord is the one that is watching over us. The Lord is the one who is guiding us. The Lord is the one who is walking with us, though it all.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

These words, “I shall not want” are becoming further and further away to some people as communities scramble to provide food and supplies. These are words that were already so far away for so many in our communities, where “want” for the basic necessities was already a daily experience. 

And this line of this well worn psalm reminds us that God provides, yes, and that one of the main ways that happens is as we provide for one another, as we are God’s hands and feet in the world.

Jesus shows us an example of this… What a shepherd does so that we won’t “want.”

In the gospel stories we hear about the hungry crowds and the five loaves and two small fish that the little boy brought to Jesus, and Jesus blessed them and then gave them to the disciples to distribute.

That is a whole sermon in itself, but the point to take with us today is that we don’t want, not because the Lord magically shows up on our doorstep with delivery from our favorite restaurant. 

We don’t want because we are living in generosity and solidarity with our neighbors. 

We don’t want when we sit down to our simple dinner of leftover soup that we’re making stretch for a few days, because we know that staying home and not running out to the grocery store for that “one more thing” is a way that we can love our neighbors right now. 

We don’t “want” as we donate to our local food banks, as we support those who are feeding the thousands of children who relied on school breakfasts and lunches for their food, and as advocates for the care of our unhoused neighbors. 

We don’t want, when we or our loved one, heaven forbid, needs hospital care and maybe even a ventilator, because as a society we discover how to be generous with our medical supplies, we take seriously the task of extreme physical distancing, we listen to the imploring of our medical professionals and we stay home and sacrifice a little, to play our part in easing the suffering and sacrifice of the whole.

“Want” is a crucial concept right now. And one I invite us to continue to explore. “Want” and “need” are so different. We so easily can get caught up in the consumerism of “wanting,” and we may be pretty used to the instant gratification of “wanting” something and getting it. This, dear ones, is an opportunity for us to re-orient, to turn and be transformed, to have our “wants” changed from our own self-interest, to the wants and needs of our global family, to let go of our desire for instant gratification, and instead act for the greater  health and wholeness for our communities and our world.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

The Lord leads me through green pastures. The Lord leads me beside quiet waters. 

So this is a little embarrassing, as someone whose job it is to work with scripture, I have degrees in this stuff. But I JUST got something really basic about this Psalm this week, and it kind of changed everything. So if you have known this since you were five, just nod and smile and remember that God is always revealing God’s self through scripture, and sometimes it just takes some of us longer than others.

Okay, here’s the thing. This whole psalm starts out with the establishment of an analogy, “The Lord” equals shepherd, therefore the “I” that doesn’t want, must be the sheep. I have heard many a sermon, okay I’ve also preached many a sermon, on sheep and shepherds and are sheep dumb, and why would God compare us to dumb sheep, or maybe sheep are okay, and it’s okay to be compared to them, etc. God equals shepherd, we equal sheep. Got it. For the first line.

But then there’s the next two stanzas.

The Lord leads me through green pastures. The Lord leads me beside quiet waters. I’d hear these, and I’d immediately turn into a person again. Ah, I can smell and wander through these beautiful green pastures, I can skip and run, enjoy the fresh spring colors. And that quiet water…isn’t it peaceful? Doesn’t the creek make a nice gentle sound as I go by? But friends, this is still a metaphor right? 

And we’re the sheep. And to a sheep, what is a green pasture? Food! 

And what is a quiet water? Drink. Drink that a sheep can safely and easily drink from. The basic necessities of a sheep’s life. God leads us to those basics. Green pastures. The food we need. Still waters. The drink we need. 

These two may remind you of another pairing that we often share, when we gather together to be fed as a church. The bread and the cup, the shared sacrament of communion. God leads us, and God feeds us. And this is still true in this strange time apart. We might be fed differently than we’re used to. We’re on zoom rather than in person, our food may not be our very favorite, or it might be extra special because we took the time to cook it with our loved ones. But God will keep feeding us, and we’ll keep feeding one another. And God will continue to restore our souls as we do.

The Lord restores my soul.

The Lord leads us in the path of righteousness for the Lord’s name sake.

Yeah, though I walk through the valley, of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me.

Dear ones, God is with us in the dark valleys. God is with us in the wilderness. As we entered into this Lenten wilderness together just four weeks ago, none of us really had any idea what we were going to be facing. But we did know, as we hear from the psalmist again tonight: That God is with us. Through our most difficult struggles and our darkest valleys, God is with us. Reminding us that yes, there are going to be hard times, yes, there is going to be loss, yes, we will likely be called on to grieve, and to support one another as multiple people are grieving. This path will not be easy, but we are not alone. The Lord’s rod and staff will comfort us. 

The Lord will prepare a table before us, in the presence of our enemies. 

The Lord will keep gathering us together, and feeding us, even in the depths of the valley, even when the enemy of this terrible virus is wreaking havoc around us. God’s table is here. 

The Lord will anoint our heads with oil.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow us—pursue us—all the days of our life and we’ll live in the house of the Lord forever.

Dear ones, this is hard now, but it is not forever. We’ll come through this changed, individually, and collectively. So may we let ourselves be changed by goodness, pursued by mercy. May we be the carriers of goodness, the givers of mercy. May we be filled and fed by goodness, held and comforted in the warm embrace of God’s mercy. Through this time, and for all the days of our lives. Amen.

Rev. Anna Woofenden, March 2020

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