I am so grateful for the technology that allows me to be with you,
I am imagining your beautiful faces peering back at me as if we were physically together.
I speak to you in the name of our loving and gracious God, who creates, redeems, and walks with us through darkness and light, through good times and bad. Amen.
I have a friend, Debbie, who is a Christian Educator at the church I served last summer. This week she posted the following: “As I have been distracted by the constant barrage of information that has been vying for my attention the past couple of weeks, my daily cup seems to have been running over … but not in the way David intended in Psalm 23!” She goes on to wonder if perhaps the cup tipped over and cracked, causing the overflow, or maybe, that it was in fact, her tipping over and cracking and it had nothing to do with cups.
Like Debbie, I am prone to think of the overflowing cup as the many demands on my time, my energy, and my patience, the very places where I start dropping balls and letting things slip through the cracks. I’ve certainly had my share of those feelings this week.
You may know that each week our assigned readings are from a system called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three-year cycle of readings assigned for Sunday services, and a two year rotation for weekday services. There are some weeks, where I look at the coming readings and think, how in the world will anyone relate to this passage! And then other times, the timing of a particular message is profound. This is one of those profound weeks.
For today, tucked in between first Samuel and the Gospel of John, is Psalm 23. You don’t usually hear a sermon on the psalm assigned in the lectionary. Classes on preaching the Old Testament are usually electives in seminary offerings. However, if ever there was a week to steep ourselves in the beauty of a Psalm, this is it!
We often think of the 23rd psalm as suited best for funerals, those intimate times of grief and sorrow and loss, when there is a great need for comfort and reassurance from God. How inspiring to hear our choir singing it just now. Their voices lifting and crossing the wires to reach us wherever we are, providing beauty and comfort.
I am betting that we all could use some comforting these days. Our world has turned topsy-turvy by a virus that easily spreads in that stretch of time when we aren’t showing any symptoms, making it necessary to limit our exposure to one another, to keep our distance.
Which is hard… we are social people. We choose to live in a bustling city that is full of daily interactions and sounds and a sense of “being with,” and “being part of” and perhaps especially “being in the middle of.” We love the bustle and the energy of this place. Of knowing that there are others around.And so here is your good news for the day: while we don’t have as many people around, God is certainly around!
And there is no finer expression of God’s presence and faithfulness, or the assurance of leading us through dark times than the 23rd Psalm. It is comforting in its familiarity alone.
However, I wonder if it is so familiar to us that we miss some of its subtleties. So, I’d like to explore three of them:
In verse 1, there is that great line, I shall not want. The Hebrew word for Want, comes from the
Verb khawsare, It means a lack, or a decrease of some kind. So, it’s not like we would say, I want to win the lottery or that I want to go outside, but more a sense of having enough. I shall not want: I am not lacking what I really need.
Verses 3, 4 & 5 speak to being led by God through the darkest valley, or shadow of the valley of death. In this time of fear, of rumor, of who or what source do I believe, we find ourselves in a new kind of darkness. And dark it is.
Note though, that the shepherd does not lead us away from this place of darkness, or around it by another route – we walk right through it. We face the darkness, and it holds no power because we are in the presence of the Lord. God, in the image of a shepherd, is gathering us close, a rod nearby to ward off evil forces so that we stay safe.
Finally, verse 5 tells us that God anoints our heads with oil and our cups overflow. The word anoint is tricky here, because in Hebrew, Dashen is not the same word as the anoint we use for spiritual cleansing, but literally means to grow fat, or become prosperous. Its secondary meaning includes the removal of ashes from our heads. Remember the ashes we put on our heads a few weeks back? Dashen is the opposite of that – a joyous place where there will be prosperity and feasting, and our cups will indeed overflow not with stress, but with abundance.
What a comfort to know that God is not only around, but through and with and surrounding us, loving us, providing those essential things so that we may not lack, helping us to face the darkness by walking with us, and offering prosperity and growth all the days of our lives.
So to conclude, my friends, let’s say the 23rd Psalm together, using the traditional King James version that our choir sang. You can find it on page 476 in your Book of Common Prayer.
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.