“Reflections on the 23rd Psalm”
October 15, 2017
Last week I asked, “Where is God among all the pain and suffering in our lives”? After 9/11 Rabbi Harold Kushner found the answer in the 23rd Psalm. He inspired this sermon today.
Reading into the lines, it appears to be the story of a man leading a comfortable life, shattered by an experience that left him in darkness, and another that brought him back into the light. It begins:
“The Lord Is My Shepherd.” Remember that old song: “Someone to watch over me”? From infancy we are looking for that someone. The ancestors of the Hebrew people were shepherds, guiding their flocks to grazing lands, protecting them from harm. So it was natural for them to picture God as a shepherd: “that Presence that makes the world seem less frightening.” God can’t prevent bad things from happening, but God reassures us that we are not alone.
When my mother was in ICU for six weeks on a ventilator, she remembered my brother holding her hand and telling her he loved her, (this was totally out of character), and white fluffy beings hovering over her bed protecting her. When have you had felt protected?
Then the psalmist says: “I Shall Not Want” Wait a minute! We all have wants. It’s part of our DNA. How many prayers are filled with our wants? Kushner tells us a better translation is “I shall lack for nothing.” OK, but I imagine that too would be difficult for someone living in the countryside of Puerto Rico right now, or in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. The challenge is for all of us to want more of the right things.
I sat next to a young man on a plane years ago. He was returning from Africa. He had climbed up the corporate ladder - highly successful, but empty inside. His father had invited him to join him in a small village in Africa where he was working. Riding out to the village he noticed grass huts (What were they?) and out of them came smiling people who called them home. They had nothing, according to his standards, and at the same time they had everything he was lacking, because they were happy, content. He learned from them and came back with a different set of “wants”.
Kushner suggests we say: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall often want… But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have.”
What do you yearn for, and what are you blessed to have?
“He Makes Me Lie Down In Green Pastures.” Have you ever laid down in lush, green grass, looking for animal shapes in the clouds? Many of us have become alienated from the natural world as we live and work in artificial light, spending our time staring at smartphones, computers and televisions. “When we’re so busy admiring the work of our own hands, we miss the work of God’s.” Today, in a world overwhelmed with stimulation, we need to spend some time in God’s quiet presence.
“He Leads Me Beside Still Waters” Water, the source of life. We can’t live without it, but as we have seen in the past month, it can also be the source of chaos and death. To the biblical mind water was frightening. It represented chaos. In Hebrew, the term “still waters” is mei menuhot, “waters of rest and relaxation.” When “chaos” best describes our world, and our lives and emotions are spinning out of control, the psalmist thanks God for leading him to life-giving water, where he can rest in the assurance of God’s comfort and peace.
When your life is spinning out of control, where are you led to find still waters? - to a trusted friend? an AA group? a grief support group? a pastor or therapist? - or just a quiet walk around Walden Pond?
After leading him to still waters, “He Restores My Soul,” but what is a soul? I understand it as that part of God planted in us when we’re born - that source of love, wisdom, compassion, morality - that still small voice trying to get through to guide us in God’s ways.
Our souls grow or are diminished by our thoughts and actions. We can be so busy with our daily lives that we neglect our souls. We can be led astray by our own unhealthy desires. Harvey Weinstein, as we’ve been hearing, neglected his soul. I’m sure we can all think of people who need a little soul restoration.
Souls are nourished by love and relationships, and time spent with God. We can’t replenish ourselves when we are emotionally empty or morally bankrupt. We need God and others to provide us spiritual resources to find light in this often unfair and painful world. What restores your soul?
“He Guides Me In Straight Paths for His Name's Sake” This has got to be the most confusing line in the psalm. The Hebrew phrase translated “Straight paths” literally means “roundabout ways that end up in the right direction.” Sometimes it takes more than one career to finally find out what God is ultimately calling us to do. Where is God guiding you? Is it by a straight path or a roundabout way?
“Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death” We will all walk through that valley. It’s the knowledge that we will one day die that casts a shadow over our lives, that blocks out some of the light.
The psalmist tells us that even in the face of death God is with us. My cousin was born with hydrocephalus, an enlarged head. He spent his days and nights lying in a bed, unable to sit up or even raise his head unaided. When he died in his early teens, with his mother at his side, his upper body lifted off the bed, his arms reaching out, as he looked at something beyond and said “I’m coming. I’m coming.” God was with him in that moment, and with his mother too.
“I Will Fear No Evil for Thou Art with Me” We’ve now come to the heart of the psalm. Bad things happen, even to good people. We can’t escape that. Hurricanes and fires destroy property and lives. Evil persons gun down innocent people. We suffer and grieve. We ask “why me?” when there is no answer to “why.” God does not cause bad things to happen. Nature does. People do. God is not punishing us. But God is with us through it all.
People will tell you that when something tragic happens, it’s the presence of another caring person who makes the pain less, who shines a bit of light in the darkness. We’ve seen that over and over again in the outpouring of love and support from people across the country in the past weeks.
Kushner tells us, “the key to surviving misfortunes is the realization that, when bad things happen, God is on our side. When we choose to affirm goodness in the face of evil, we are on God’s side. He is with us, and we are with Him, and the future does not frighten us.”
“Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me” The shepherd used his staff, not only to lean on when walking, but to help stray sheep out of a pit they had fallen into. He also used the rod as discipline for those that got out of line and wandered into danger. We often hear in the Hebrew Scriptures of God striking wrong doers with his rod.
I’m not one that believes in a vengeful God. Like Kushner, I “believe in consequences rather than God’s punishment. Wrong behavior carries with it the seeds of its own retribution.” But I have to admit feeling a certain satisfaction when I see bad behavior exposed and punished. Knowing that gives me comfort.
“Thou Prepares a Table Before Me in the Presence of Mine Enemies” The word for “mine enemies” in Hebrew is neged. It ordinarily means “opposite.” So Kushner suggests that it might mean: “God, You prepare a table before me in contrast to the people around me, to whom I turned for emotional support, only to be disappointed.”
When faced with difficult times, we often find out who our real friends are. Churches are known for delivering food at such times, but often people stay away, not knowing what to do, afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, when it’s their presence that is really needed. The psalmist thanks God for nourishing him with God’s presence when others could not.
“Thou Anointest My Head with Oil” Anointing with oil was an honor in his time. It dedicated that person to the service of God. To anoint means the person is special, designated for greatness. But with that comes responsibility. Each of us is special in God’s eyes. We each have the responsibility to reach out to others and create the kingdom God has envisioned for us.
“My Cup Runneth Over” What a beautiful image of gratitude. Our lives are a gift from God. Being able to see that, no matter the circumstances, can bring us joy despite sorrow. The psalmist was able to thank God, despite the pain he went through. He didn’t see his cup as half full or half empty. Instead he saw it all as a gift. It is in the most difficult times that we often grow the most.
I met a woman years ago, who, despite suffering from a life threatening illness, was determined to live a full life. She told me that when she took her meds, she blessed them, even when she knew they would make her feel lousy. She thanked God because she knew someday they might make her well. My mom, in the last years of her life, when she was paralyzed from the waist down, and had lost most of her vision, said to me, “Well, at least I have my mind!” She saw her cup running over despite it all.
“Surely Goodness and Mercy Shall Follow Me All the Days of My Life” Goodness is defined as “feeling good about yourself and your life.” Think about those times when you say “I like who I am. I have a good life.” Mercy comes from the word ‘hesed’ meaning “loving kindness” or “undeserved love.” It’s the experience of being given things we may not have earned or even deserved. When has that happened to you? When have you done things for others that they may not have deserved?
The psalmist sounds confident and full of hope that “he will be blessed with God’s love, not because of who he is, but because of who God is.” We call that grace.
“And I Will Dwell In the House of the Lord Forever” God couldn’t prevent the psalmist’s suffering, but he discovered that through it all, God was with him, guiding him out of the darkness, back into the light, into God’s presence, God’s house, where he will live all his days. Through his pain and suffering he found God.
A dear friend of mine was raised an atheist. Her husband was very spiritual. On his death bed he laughed and cracked jokes with the nurses. “How can you be this way?” she asked. “Watch and learn” he said. Months later she told me, through all of her loss and grief, she had come to believe in God. Finding God’s presence in her life brought her back into the light and gave her the courage to go on. May it be so for all of us.