Stephentown Federated Church




Pastor's Sermons

Sermon for May 8, 2011 - Based on Psalm 23

Most people think that the 23rd Psalm is one of Comfort, or one of gratitude for God's benevolence and protection. However, if we look at it in the context of the psalms, we see that it is quite different. the Psalm immediately preceeding it, Psalm 22, cries out: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?" It is a lement of one who feels abandoned to "evildoers."

In that context, Psalm 23 is more of an affirmation that even in the midst of trial and terror, the psalmist is making a choice to believe in God as one who brings him to safe places.

Even though this psalm is often requested at funerals, it is actually more about life, trust and a choice to believe.

Some reflections:

"The Lord is my Shephed; I shall not want..."

Most people picture a shepherd as gentle. His symbol is not a whip, like a lion tamer, or any other tool of domination; it is a crook, which was used to lift a fallen lamb out of a ditch or hole. the shepherd does not walk ahead or behind the flock; he walks in the midst of it. And, did you notice? The psalmist refers to him as MY shepherd. Not "the shepherd" or "a shepherd." MY shepherd. Mine. This implies that we have a claim on God, just as we are claimed. It's personal.

When we live our lives in relationship with the divine and others, we really want for nothing. It is when we start to want "stuff," that we run into trouble.

"He makes me lie down... leads me... restores my soul..."

I love that this says he MAKES me lie down. Resting, being still, is not the first language for most people. We are busy; we have responsibilities and wish there were more hours in the day. So sometimes we are forced into a place of stillness, as when our bodies become ill from the stress. Other times, when we want to be still, we no longer have to feel guilty. It is mandate from our Shepherd; it is the only way that the soul can be restored.

"He leads me in the right path for his name's sake..."

Um... what? Well, for one thing, a highway is complicated; a path is simple. And "name" invokes presence. If we talk about or remember someone, then their presence is felt.

Perhaps we make our lives and our faith more complicated than they have to be. Perhaps if we live more simply, with kindness and compassion as our center, then God's presence will be manifest in this world.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me..."

This phrase is probably why many people want the psalm read at funerals, even though a better translation is " valley of deep darkness." It is interesting that the Psalmist now changes from the third person to the second, "You are with me." When we are most frightened, in times of deep darkness, then is when the personal, close presence is available to us. Another significant word is "through."

We cannot avoid sorrow or darkness; it is a part of life, and the shepherd does not lead us around or over sorrow, but walks us through it. Those of us who have experienced that dark valley know that the only way out is through it. this passage assures us that we are not alone.

"You prepare a table... anoint my head... my cup overflows..."

In David's time, his enemies were always amazed that his armies got the food they needed. This verse is David remembering that he has NOT been forsaken, and that he has been anointed, a sign of his importance before God. We were anointed at Baptism, and this is a good time to remember the blessing of that gift. Many of us were baptized as infants and don't even remember it, but the grace, compassion and love of God fills us beyond our capacity to comprehend, even when we are unable to participate or ask for it.

"Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dewll in the House of the Lord forever."

I call this the "Airplane" line, because I can never say it without remembering Leslie Neilson in that movie. Sorry, but that is the truth; I am human, after all. The good part about that is it makes me focus and say the word "surely" very carefully. It becomes an affirmation. A statement of certainty.

This psalm is not just for times of death. It is for the here and now and beyond. Yes. I shall dwell in the abode of God every day of my life.

I hope that now this Psalm will not be automatically relegated to the "funeral" list of prayers. I hope that now we can use it as an Affirmation of Faith, especially in times of difficulty. For we are living in he house of God right here, right now, wherever we are on the path.