A Psalm for the Living

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Psalm 23

Psalm 23. This is the Psalm very well remembered in the Jewish and Christian community… I just mentioned last week that I would be preaching on Psalm 23 and a few of you mentioned memories or connections with that Psalm.  It is just that powerful.

I want to ask you a question. What do these have in common? Kanye West, Good Charlotte, U2, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. (Punk Rock, Rap and Rock singers) They all have included Psalm 23 in some music they’ve performed. Psalm 23 also appears in movies like Pale Rider, Jarhead, We were Soldiers. Titanic.

In the church, I hear it said and say it most often at the time of a death – at the funeral or graveside… "The Lord is my Shepherd" and it does provide comfort.

But the more I read the Psalm, the more I have come to realize…and maybe this is what the culture is trying to tell us… that this Psalm is not just for the dead… at the end of life… it is for the living… a Psalm to be treasured throughout life.

I want to read the Psalm again…slowly… to invite you to listen in a way that speaks to your living… not just your dying. I will read from a contemporary version in order to stir your imagination.

GOD, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

4 Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

5 You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

6 Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of GOD
for the rest of my life.

When I listen to Psalm 23, it is full of life! I feel springtime… lush, green pastures… I hear the voice of a loving God trying to guide us and be with us every day of our lives… to the end of our lives. I think about how this is a great metaphor our walk with God.

What is the story of the Bible but the story of a God who is on a journey with his children and of God’s people on journey with their God? When I come to this place, among you, I realize I am in a community of others who are also on this same path with God. What is a church, after all, but, to use the image of the Psalm, but a flock of sheep who have the Lord God as their shepherd. A community of those who desire to be led by God and even pursued by God when we go astray like lost sheep… What is the story of the Bible but the story of a God seeking to guide and lead his people… in the ways of life… to life itself… to green pastures, still waters, to that place where our souls are restored? Anyone here working hard to find some green pastures beside a refreshing stream? Anyone here want to go there? Who doesn’t?

It’s a story of a God who gives us a beautiful earth filled with green pastures-a beautiful world… creation itself is filled with lush meadows, beautiful mountains, places of rest and re-creation. Everything you would ever want. What a gift of God! God gives us life and for a few decades we can enjoy this gift of life.

Of course, God knows it is not an easy life… it is a fallen world after all… and so God seeks to guide us… to teach us… how to live in a world full of danger and temptation.

What is Scripture but God trying to teach us the ways that lead to life? Huge sections of the book of Leviticus (that book people love to either ignore all together, or pick and choose which laws they will follow)… huge sections are devoted to God teaching people how to discern between life and death, clean and unclean, light and darkness. The 10 commandments are God teaching people how to discern, how to live well in relationship between right and wrong with their creator… with each other. God teaching us the ways that lead to life. The Bible is filled with stories of God teaching people how to think. How to discern. How to sort and sift and figure out which paths lead to still waters and green valleys… and which ones lead us over a waterfall or cliff… What is good and what isn’t. What brings life and what brings death.

Being a Christian… a person of faith is largely an act of listening to the voice of God… the voice of the Shepherd as God seeking guide us.

But sometimes, and you know this as well as I, we don’t listen very well. Or we don’t want to listen. Or we have listened to the wrong voices.

God offers to guide us and we say, "No thank you, I think I have a better idea"… and like my own children used to say when they were 3 years old, we say, "I can do it all by myself". Usually that led to trouble. Or we listen to other voices: "Might makes right"… "You better look out for number 1" (no one else will)

So what happens? Let’s take a look-when we "do it all by ourselves" or listen to the wrong voices. God gave us an earth with beauty and wonder… filled with green meadows and still waters… that are restoring to the soul… We had it all and God gave us responsibility to care for the gift.

We became what someone called, "the CEOs of planet earth, its managers, principals, overseers (and shepherds). And we botched the job. We lost the plot, missed the point, forgot what it was all about. Many became bad shepherds.

The result of going our own way? War. Waste. Wealth at the expense of others. Stripped mountains. Green pastures became eroded soil. Extinct species. Ghettoes. Genocides. Refugees, slums, squatter camps, kids begging on sidewalks where they sleep. Slaves. Hostages. Prisoners. Obscene opulence for a few, obscene deprivation for many. Tears. Curses. Fear. Mocking laughter. Raised fists. Wailing widows, grieving mothers and fathers, orphans… so many orphans.
Funerals. Depression. Agony. Angst. Atheism and even worse corrupt and vicious religion." 1.

All I can ask you is this: Please don’t blame God for that. That’s not where God was trying to lead us.

What happened? We forgot who owned the world in the first place and ever sense-since the beginning of time almost-we have fought over the world… saying "me and mine"… we forgot who the shepherd was… we forgot to follow the shepherd.

Still, by God’s grace, the Psalmist says that the shepherd has not forgotten us. When we lose our way, the shepherd will pursue us… goodness and mercy are pursuing… The shepherd seeks to find us and bring us back to rejoin the flock… the shepherd invites us to follow him once again… to places where God will provide rest and restoration for weary souls… along paths that will lead us to life and joy… and even when the paths are hard… God will be there to walk us through them… until we come to that table he has set for us… a feast really… meal where we find joy and life and thanksgiving because our God has brought us home… to his house… the house of the Lord… where God becomes the gracious host…

Walter Wangerin knows something of that journey. It’s a journey I understand all too well for myself. Wangerin, a pastor and an English professor, remembers his days in graduate school. Wangerin says,

"I had entered the masters program for English literature convinced that all I needed for survival and success was my own intellect, my marvelous self! I saw no need for God. God, to me, was the Infinite Other, the source of all existence, surely, but not a personal being who might know me, whom I might know. No need then, to supplicate the Mysterium Tremendum, the Big Secret. I trusted in myself.

And though I did well at first, I began to suffer a loneliness so deep that there were not words for it. I didn’t make the connection. I just felt sad. Near the end of my first year in graduate school the loneliness became debilitation. It so consumed my heart that I couldn’t pay pure attention to my teaching or my studies. I began to lack even the simple ability to deal with small pains. When I cracked my head on the corner of a kitchen cabinet, it was enough to make me cry. Loneliness had become abandonment. I tried to heal myself by rushing to friends in other cities, but this was always unsatisfying, because my friends all had their own lives. And beside, the dread in me refused to be explained. There were no words for it.

Finally, I went to Dr. Spiro Peterson, dean of the graduate school. I had four papers due as well as oral exams for the M.A. I could neither think straight nor write a line of prose. So I sat in Peterson’s office and asked whether I might take incomplete in all my courses and still keep my fellowship. He asked me why such extraordinary measures were necessary. To my surprise, I blurted out: "I’m having trouble with God." He sat awhile, considered my question, I thought. Then, gently, he said, "I’m sorry. No." I burst into tears. My last recourse had been taken away.

I walked out of his office, across campus, through the college town and into the country…. And there were these stupid sheep! (reminds me of how I feel about seeing those geese at the Kirk) Whey-faced, blinking idiots! Nonentities, stupid, stupid! I wanted to scream at them, to prove what fools these sheep be. But I didn’t.

Just as I turned toward the flock, a farmer emerged from the timber behind them. A man in coveralls and a John Deere hat, he clucked twice. Immediately every sheep was oblivious of me. They turned and began strolling to the farmer, who had himself turned back into the woods- and I was left on the country road alone.

For the second time that day I let my tears come. Oh, how I wanted the peace of these sheep! Dear God, I wish someone would relieve me of deciding and doing, of responsibility and the desperate diffusion of this life! Just come and whistle. Give me your self , O Lord, as my single focus and all my thought, and I will in great relief follow you! Lord, be my shepherd, and I shall not want!

That same day I returned to my apartment with this one thought in my mind:  "It doesn’t matter. I don’t HAVE to achieve. I will do what I can-and I’ll leave the rest to the Shepherd. Jesus, I hold you to your word: I am the Good Shepherd.
As for me, I am done with worrying. I am done with this failing effort to be my own guide, dependent on none by my own self only."

Wangerin says, "It is no coincidence that I was able, thereafter, to write my four papers. As soon as I was no longer my own creator; as soon as my class work diminished again to its proper importance; as soon as I relaxed into the pastures of my Lord, my native gifts (gifts, indeed from my Lord) were free to accomplish what God intended for them. "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: …

No, I am not a sheep. But I have been like a sheep. And though the Lord is in fact no shepherd, he is like that farmer of my experience. Out of the trees he comes walking and calling, and because of him I am safe and able and foolish and wise all at once." 2.

Wangerin reminds me what a gift it is when we decide to let the Lord be our shepherd. How blessed we are when we listen to that voice and follow.

In a few minutes, the Lord will be calling us again to a table… a table which our Lord has prepared for us… the Lord’s table. Follow our Lord there… hear our Lord invite us there again… and hear us say, "taste and see that the Lord is good is good, blessed are those who have their refuge in God."Blessed indeed. For they shall dwell in the house of the Lord, their whole lives long. Amen.

1. Finding Our Way Again by Brian McLaren p 175

2. P 54 ff

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