Grace Presbyterian Church
March 22, 2020, Lent 4A (livestreaming)
The Center of It All
The Revised Common Lectionary has this amazing knack for offering up a strangely appropriate scripture for particular unexpected occasions and situations. It doesn’t always happen this way, but just often enough to keep me freaked out.
For this fourth Sunday of Lent, on an occasion when the very idea of leaving the house becomes not only unthinkable but undesirable and when the basic act of a handshake or hug can be hazardous to somebody’s health, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up…the twenty-third Psalm. And as much as I might try to avoid it most years for the sheer unlikelihood of having anything useful to say about it, for this particular occasion it works, and it works because of one of the less eminently quotable parts of the psalm.
I very well know that, even while I was reading the psalm from the New Revised Standard Version that would be in our pews were we in the sanctuary, a very large number of you were totally tuning me out and reciting it to yourself in the old King James Version. The shame, though, is that we can’t read it in the original Hebrew.
Even in English, though, there is a key to this psalm that is easy to overlook, once it has become entrenched in our brains. Notice how the psalm starts: “The Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures; heleads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” Leaving aside the idea that God can be reduced to “he,” notice that all of this speaks of God the shepherd in the third person. Like many of the psalms this one is attributing to God, in this case speaking of God as the one who guides the psalmist’s life.
Also note that this is the imagery that we tend to think of as characteristic of the psalm: shepherd, green pastures, still waters, restoring my soul, right paths. These are images of safety and reassurance, but like so many such images in scripture they can be sentimentalized to the point of meaninglessness. We can get numbed to the idea of this psalm having anything to say about the darker times of life.
That’s a particularly bad trap to fall into, because this psalm is actually a product of those darker times, as the next section makes clear. Suddenly the psalmist is talking about walking through the “darkest valley.” Where did that come from? In fact Psalm 23 and others like it are actually products of those darker times. They are known as “trust psalms” or “dependence psalms” precisely because of their experience of the dark times and places, and the realization gained in those dark valleys that God can still be trusted and relied upon.
There’s another turn that happens in this middle section of the psalm. Notice what comes after that line about the darkest valley and fearing no evil: “for you are with me…”. Suddenly the psalmist is no longer speaking in the third person about God; his address is direct; the psalmist is speaking directly to God now. No longer is talking about God good enough: the psalmist talks to God.
Of course the very content of that short clause is all about how that’s even possible – “for you are with me,” the psalmist says, and such statement wouldn’t make any sense in the case of an absent God. Whatever the darkest valley was, the psalmist is now more convinced and assured of God’s presence than perhaps ever before.
For all of the lovely images and mellifluous phrases that abound in this psalm, it is this particular clause is central to everything that comes before and after. The presence of God the shepherd is implied in those first verses, and is made more explicit in the verses that follow, about preparing a table before the psalmist even with enemies all around and anointing the head with oil as a sign of hospitality and care. The psalm is, in short, dependent upon and centered on the presence of God.
As if that all weren’t clear enough, the psalmist has one more trick up his (or her?) sleeve to make that fact all the more decisively clear. Remember that wisecrack about reading the psalm in the original Hebrew? If you had the original Hebrew in front of you, you’d be able, with some care, to discover something about just how central this phrase is. You could even count the number of Hebrew words before this phrase, and then count the words after “you are with me,” and you know what? They’d be almost exactly the same. The psalmist has gone so far as to embed “you are with me” as the literally central statement of the psalm. Everything that comes before and after hinges on this basic truth that the psalmist has learned in the hard time, and it all balances on this basic truth that the psalmist has learned in the darkest valley.
I don’t know about you, but after a week of isolation this is a useful thing to remember. It can be incredibly difficult to keep in mind that even if we are holed up in our homes and cut off from most all human contact, we are not ever alone; we can with the psalmist say “you are with me.” It can be terribly difficult to feel, I know that much; it’s hard to know that reassurance in isolation or solitude or especially quarantine. But that truth never goes away. God is with you. God is with you, and you, and you, and all of you. All of us.
And that never changes.
God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #803, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need; #188, Jesus Loves Me!; —, When Hands Can No More Reach and Hold
Image: James Gilmour, Dark Valley