Psalm 23: A Lament and a Love Song

A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

April 3, 2011

  1. The LORD is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.
  2. He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.
  3. He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
  4. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
  5. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
  6. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

– Psalm 23

It is music; it is poetry.  A lament and a love song.  Within it are the memories of dozens of funerals and loved ones we miss.  It’s nearly everyone’s favorite and is the most widely-recognized section of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  We don’t completely understand it but we love it anyway. It is the 23rd Psalm, our text for today and a Lenten script if there ever was one.  We each have our own memories of when this psalm provided a comfort and consolation beyond mere words.

Jesus is often portrayed as “the Good Shepherd” but the Psalm predates him considerably.  The 23rd Psalm is ascribed to David, whose selection as king of Israel is described in today’s reading form the Hebrew Scriptures).  This events takes place in what will be known as “the City of David” – Bethlehem.

Before going to what I suggest is the heart of the Psalm, some general comments:

First, sheep and lambs are a common reference in Scripture, being mentioned almost 500 times. I’ve just talked with the kids about some of the differences between sheep and cows. Although cows are mentioned in the Bible, neither there nor in our own culture are cows sentimentalized in the way that sheep are. Cows are not cuddly; they’re big and smooth instead of small and wooly. Cows have a whole different aura from sheep: They stay closer to home and seem more philosophical, while lambs and sheep seem more scattered and in need of direction. We don’t count cows when going to sleep. It would not work to say ‘The Lord is my rancher or my wrangler.”

Secondly note that there is a major shift in view point in the middle of the psalm, going from speaking of God in the third person “He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” to the more personal You – “You are with me.  Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”   The first half of the psalm is talking about God; the second part is about an encounter with God. From  “God is my Shepherd…” to “You will always be with me.”

The psalm speaks of the valley of the shadow of death, and indeed it is sometimes death itself that frightens us less than its menacing shadow, the darkness and hopelessness that threaten to overcome us at points in our lives. We humans are the only species  we know of that live with the knowledge that we must eventually die, and sometimes this idea can assume tremendous force in our lives.  But note that the psalm says that we walk through the valley of the shadow – through….Human beings are not fashioned to live in permanent darkness and eventually we are led out of the dark, shadowy valley.

“You anoint my head with oil,” the psalm goes on. In ancient times a shepherd would put oil a on lamb’s head both to repel insects and to accelerate healing.  This anointing with oil reverberates within our own religious tradition, both before and after the time the psalm was written. We are anointed with oil at our baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  The priest may anoint us for healing to prepare for death, as  Jesus was anointed before his death by the unnamed woman.   David is anointed as king.

And the response anointing, to such tender caring and touch  is deep, almost primal  gratitude: The knowledge that “My cup runneth over.”  The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury observed: ‘We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.”  He adds:  “The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

Although they may have cared about their flock a great deal, shepherds didn’t raise sheep out of love. The sheep were not pets, like. “Mary had a little lamb.”  They raised sheep because they were useful; their wool and their flesh represented the shepherd’s livelihood.

Perhaps God wants us to prove to be useful; that as recipient of unbounded love and care, we will prove our usefulness in carrying out the mission of God on earth, speaking the words that only we can speak that will sooth and comfort and empower, and doing the things that only we can do to ease the pain and suffering that comes across our path in some way each day. To anoint each other with compassion and caring.  In these ways we are useful to our shepherd.

Psalm 22 –  begins: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (words repeated by Jesus on the Cross).  Psalm 24 – proclaims that the King of Glory is coming through the gates. The 23rd psalm is also a bridge between a despairing lament and a song of praise to God.  It serves that function in our own lives as wel, nrining us from the valley to the house of God.

So with that background, let’s look at the psalm as a whole.  I think that, most of all, this is a psalm about longing.

I like the word “longing,” for it evokes a reaching for something we can’t quite get to, stretching, elongating our arms to touch, to make contact to grasp.  We long for a things we cannot even name ; for thing that will fill an emptiness that cannot be filled by people or things;    Longing is deeper than wanting or needing and no amount of love from another person can completely quench it.  It is a strong persistent yearning or desire, especially one that cannot be fulfilled, perhaps like Paschal’s ‘God-shaped vacuum” in every human heart. we long for a place where we are seen and loved and celebrated for who we really are instead of who the world tells us we should be or who we think we should be.  What do you most long for today, in your deepest heart? Springtime may awake this undefined longing; so may a song or a memory or a picture.

Dr. Temple Grandin a professor at Colorado State University, an animal behavioral scientist who has devoted her life to improving conditions at the large processing plants that slaughter some of the 40 million pounds of cattle and pigs for human consumption every year in the United States.

Grandin is autistic and she is brilliant.  She has authored numerous books and articles, as well as being the subject of an Emmy Award wining HBO movie starting Claire Danes.

From an early age, Grandin felt an unusual affinity for animals.  As a teenager, she would lie down in the middle of a pen of cows and be at peace. and she credits their autism for her success as a scientist.  One she recognized that animals and autistic people share certain traits, such a reliance on visual clues to navigate their environment (thinking in pictures not words) she b began to consider how livestock are handled.  She has said, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve to do it right.  We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death.  We owe the animal respect.”

So now almost half the cattle headed for slaughter in North America are handled in systems she designed.  Through careful observation, she learned that cows are calmer going around curves than corners, that high walls prevent visually-induced panic, that cows are comforted by going down a gentle slope and walking through water.  And she designed systems to reduce as much stress as possible on the animals who were about to be slaughtered.

And she was smart enough to prove to cynical livestock barons that her system provided economic benefits; otherwise, who really cared?

To devote your life to reducing the fear and anxiety of cattle in the last few minutes of their lives represents to me a level of empathy and compassion that is divine.

This is the kind of outrageous love that is spoken of in the 23rd Psalm.

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