Many years ago, I was planning the funeral of a longtime, beloved church member. We had visited on multiple occasions, and I knew all the stories about her children, including the son who was no longer going to church. We talked about Jesus and her faith walk, and I always looked forward to sassy, witty, heartfelt stories. When I sat down with her children to plan her funeral, I had an idea of what I could expect. As we chose the lessons for the funeral, I shared with them that many people appreciate hearing the 23rd Psalm. “Oh, no, we can’t do the 23rd Psalm,” the family protested. A bit taken aback, since the parishioner I knew would have loved the psalm, they explained to me what had happened in her last days. Her daughter had been comforting her one afternoon and decided to start reading scripture with her mom. She started with the 23rd Psalm, and the mother snapped at her, saying, “Don’t read that one! I’m not dead yet!”
Every year, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear the 23rd Psalm. Though many of us are more familiar with the King James Version, the words of Psalm 23 are words that are familiar even to those who do not attend church regularly. Whether we have heard the psalm at a funeral, or read the psalm at someone’s deathbed, or seen the psalm on someone’s wall, the 23rd Psalm is one of the most well-known psalms in our culture. Even in surveys, when asked about their favorite piece of scripture in times of trouble, many respondents name Psalm 23.[i]
In some respect, this familiarity and preference is a blessing and something to be celebrated. But in other ways, this familiarity can be a tremendous hindrance to hearing these sacred words with fresh ears. For example, most of us hear the psalm’s words as words of comfort for the dying. We hear the words, “the valley of the shadow of death,” and we assume the whole psalm is about death. Lying down in green pastures, remaining by still waters, gathering at a table, and having goodness and mercy follow us all sound like end of life images. We envision the peaceful, beautiful resting place, gathered around the heavenly banquet table, and we take home the promise that no matter what happens in life, at least the ending will be a place of respite and relief. And in some ways, that is true. But I am not sure that is what this psalm is ultimately about; this is a psalm not about death, but about life.
The 23rd Psalm is a psalm on the move.[ii] Throughout the psalm, we hear the activity of life. Those green pastures we are going to lie down in are the places where we will find rest after a long day. Those still waters are the sources of water we will need to drink in this earthly life. Those righteous pathways we will be on are the paths of ethical living, those paths where we will seek and serve Christ, loving our neighbor as ourselves. That rod and staff that will comfort us because those are God’s tools that will push and pull us toward our vocations and the purposes God gives us. The dwelling we do in the house of the Lord is not the eternal dwelling place, but the earthly church where we find renewal for the journey. That valley of the shadow of death is not the valley of death, but those shadowy places in our lives where we are reminded of the darkness of death: times of illness, divorce, unemployment, loneliness. The 23rd Psalm is not ultimately about a promise in death, but about the promise we are given in life – the promise of refreshment, restoration, reinvigoration for the journey of life.
This winter Charlie and I attended a training on church development. One of the first images from the presentation was that of a base camp on a mountain. We talked about the purpose of a base camp – what people need from and do at a base camp. Ideas included rest, refreshment, preparation, and stocking up for the journey. No one mentioned making a permanent home or using base camp as a place of escape. Our instructor then asked us how a base camp is similar to Church. We began to talk about how Church does the same thing – is a place of refreshment, rest, preparation, and stocking up for the journey. Church is not a place to escape the real world or to hide away from hurt and pain. Instead, Church is the place where we refill our tanks so that we can go out into the world – gathering the strength we need for the journey. Church is not the house of the Lord where we will dwell forever. In fact, that translation, “to dwell” is not helpful. The word in Hebrew that is translated as “dwell” is better translated as “return.”[iii] So instead of talking about a place where we will hide out from the world or imagining the heavenly kingdom where we will dwell, the psalmist is talking about the place we will keep returning – the base camp, the Church, where we will keep returning for strength so that we can get back into the world doing the activity of discipleship – the life where we will rest, drink, walk, be righteous, commune, and serve.[iv]
So just in case I have ruined Psalm 23 for you forever, making the psalm feel more like a psalm of work and labor as opposed to a psalm for rest and relief, have no fear. There is one more line that similarly gets mistranslated which may open this text for you in another way. In verse six, the psalmist says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Again, understanding the original Hebrew is helpful. The word translated as “follow” is better translated as “pursue” or “chase down,” Goodness and mercy shall chase me down all the days of my life.[v] Shifting that word does a similar thing as the rest of the verbs in this text. When goodness and mercy follow us, we often think of hindsight. Bad things happen to us, but when we look back, we will see goodness and mercy came out of the bad things. But the psalmist says something more powerful than that. The psalmist says that goodness and mercy will pursue us – will hunt us down and knock us over with their power. We will feel threatened by that valley of the shadow of death, or we will worry about places to lie or drink or walk. But the psalmist tells us those worries are futile because even in the midst of those stresses, God’s goodness and mercy is constantly seeking to bowl us over.
Scholar Gary Simpson says this about God’s goodness, “The goodness of God is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place. The good things that happen to us along life’s journey do not happen because we have arrived. God’s goodness has already been where we are planning to go. The goodness of God is so present that every direction that we turn to look, wherever we are, we bump into goodness again. It is perhaps egocentric and arrogant to think that goodness follows us. The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut.”[vi]
I think that parishioner resisted hearing the 23rd Psalm in her last days of life because like many of us, she had trapped the psalm in the land of the dying. But the 23rd Psalm is a psalm for the land of the living – a psalm that commissions us to continue our work of discipleship, to move out into the world with the promise of the essentials we will need, to keep returning to God’s house for sustenance and refueling, and to remember that no matter what we face, God’s goodness is already there, chasing us down. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, perhaps you were hoping to hear a few words of comfort, longing to dwell in this house for longer than an hour today. But today, that Good Shepherd is prodding you with a staff, filling up your tank so that you can go out into the world, serving as God’s disciple in all the green pastures and right paths where God leads. You can do your work because no matter how much those shadows linger, God’s goodness will chase you down – all the days of your life. Amen.
[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 23,” March 30, 2014, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2004 as found on April 19, 2018.
[ii] Joel LeMon, “Commentary on Psalm 23,” April 25, 2015, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3646 on April 19, 2018.
[iv] Cameron B.R. Howard, “#602 – Fourth Sunday of Easter,” April 14, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1008 on April 17, 2018.
[v] Gary V. Simpson “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 438.
[vi] Simpson, 440.