The Lord is My Shepherd
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 9, 2003
The 23rd Psalm
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures:
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul:
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I’m referring, of course, to the 23rd Chapter of the Book of Psalms, or the 23rd Psalm. We have grown comfortable and familiar with its wording; its phrasing touches our soul, and resonates within us. There are 150 psalms in the Hebrew bible, many of them very beautiful and majestic indeed. Why do we love this particular one so much? Why does it have such a hold on us? Why do we turn to it so readily at times of sorrow and distress (it finds its way into just about every funeral or memorial service I perform)?
As Rabbi Harold Kushner has written in his new book on the Twenty-Third Psalm (from which, if truth be told, this sermon is largely drawn):
Albert Einstein once said that science can tell us many things about the universe—how old it is; how large it is; what natural laws control it. But, Einstein said, science is powerless to answer the deepest and most profound and most important question of all: Is the universe a friendly place? Is it supportive of human hopes and aspirations? Is the universe our friend or our foe? That was not a question for science, Einstein said; it was a question of faith.
The Twenty-Third Psalm responds to that question in the affirmative—with a resounding “Yes!”. And it attempts to provide a faith-based foundation for that response—not through theological discourse, but by beautifully-crafted words and through images that speak to our hearts and minds and evoke within us the promise and the peace of God’s love.
But it’s not enough for us, as modern men and women—and especially as the peculiarly questioning religious men and women that we are—just to mouth the words and go along and accept the answers the psalm provides without wrestling with them for ourselves, and pondering them in our hearts, cogitating over them, and trying them on for size, and seeing if they work for us. So, perhaps a more in-depth survey of these familiar words is in order this morning.
Let’s start at the beginning: The Lord is my shepherd…
Better yet: let’s look first at just that title “The Lord”—in and of itself a problematic phrase for some of us. The Hebrew symbol for God “YHWH” (sometimes rendered in English as “Yahweh”—later “Jehovah”) is often translated into English as “The Lord”—that is, “God”, or “God almighty”, or “God himself”.
When we recognized God as “Lord” (and we’re talking God here—most certainly not Jesus—this is the Hebrew Bible after all, the so-called “Old Testament”) we are acknowledging a sovereignty over our lives more powerful than any human power or principality or institution or nation or presidency. We are saying that the Spirit of Life—the Creator—the Source of All Being—holds ultimate power over us. That sounds as much like science to me as religion.
The Lord is my shepherd… Long after the Hebrew people stopped being nomads, they retained the mindset of the shepherd guarding his flock with love and care for every tender lamb; knowing each by name; understanding its ways and proclivities; dedicated to protecting them from a threatening world.
To say that “The Lord is my shepherd” is to acknowledge that the world can be a dangerous and unpredictable world, full of toils and snares; it speaks of “The pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life,” as William James put it. But in spite of that, we can face the world each day because we know that there is a force in creation that cares about us, and strives to keep us safe.
The primary message of the Twenty-Third Psalm is not that bad things will never happen to us. It is, rather, that we never have to face those bad things alone.
Psychologists tell us that young children have a “morality of security”. Anything that makes them feel safe is “good”; whatever makes them feel anxious or afraid is “bad”. When we are children, our parents are like God to us, because it is they, primarily, who help us to feel secure in an insecure world.
But even as we grow older and more sophisticated, and come to know the complexities of the world more, I don’t think we ever entirely outgrow this mode of thinking. As we grow older, we come to understand that our parents can’t keep us safe all the time; eventually, we lose our parents, all of us, and take our own places at the head of the line of generations.
Who, then, will take that place of “someone to watch over me”, as Cole Porter put it? Who will help us to feel safe and cared for in this busy, impersonal world?
The Lord can be our shepherd—our heavenly parent—guiding us through the dangers and pitfalls of life.
“Well,” a skeptic might ask, “if it’s God’s responsibility to keep us safe—why isn’t He (or She) doing a better job of it? Why can’t we watch the news at night or open the paper in the morning without hearing about some violent crime, some awful tragedy, or some other horrendous example of the innocent suffering needlessly? Where is God’s grace in all of this?”
God’s grace does not exempt us from natural laws or the effects of society. “Our bodies are fashioned so that, most of the time, they fight off disease and heal from injuries. The tragic stories that grab our attention in the news each day are newsworthy precisely because they are rare…” [Harold Kushner]
And, Rabbi Kushner continues:
The Psalmist would have us see the world with eyes wide open—not deluded into thinking that nothing bad will ever happen, but without the fear that we will be utterly destroyed when bad things do happen, as happen they must. “We will hurt, but we will heal. We will grieve, but we will grow whole again.” All because “thou art with me”.
I shall not want…
Or, perhaps more faithful to the translation from Hebrew: “What more do I need?” The Twenty-Third Psalm declares that our Creator has fashioned for us a world which includes everything we need to lead full and glorious lives.
It doesn’t say that we won’t have urges, cravings, desires for things we can never have (probably should never have). It doesn’t say we’ll get everything we want in life—win the lottery, the job of our dreams, the big house, fancy car, kids that never misbehave, you name it.
It does say that we have been blessed by life in more ways than we imagine possible, and that we ought to live our lives in a spirit of gratitude for the simple yet profound gifts of life we have been given. The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank you’, it will be enough.”
Count your blessings, the Psalmist says—and use those blessings to create a better world and glorify your Creator. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be satisfied.”
There is something in the way we human ones are wired, I think, that will never let us be completely satisfied with life, and perhaps complete acceptance of things the way they are truly means death. We will always hunger and thirst; we will always crave for more. But let us hunger and thirst for the right things—the deeper gifts of the Spirit—and not for merely more baubles and trappings and stuff.
Rabbi Kushner writes beautifully: “My version of the psalm’s second line would read, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall often want. I shall yearn, I shall long, I shall aspire. I shall continue to miss the people and the abilities that have been taken from my life as loved ones die and skills diminish. I shall probe the empty spaces in my life like a tongue probing a missing tooth. But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am but what I have.” (And, by what we have had.)
He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
We feel most intimately our connection with God, with the Source of our Being, in nature: away from the garish spectacle of cities and bright lights (as exciting and empowering as these can be in their own way). When God makes us lie down in green pastures, we are being invited to experience the natural world which gave us birth, and in which we are most connected and alive to the Spirit of Life.
He leads me beside the still waters…
God, our shepherd, will not allow the raging floods of life to overwhelm us. We will not be drowned by the tides of life (though we may get pretty wet from time to time.)
Furthermore, God stills the raging waters in our own souls, the torrents within. God can be that power that helps us to control all the surging emotions that well up inside each of us. God becomes the help of the helpless, and the power of the powerless; the power that helps us to manage our out-of-control feelings. This is the genius of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs: When we acknowledge our powerlessness over our addictions and hand them over to our Higher Power, we gain the space and the peace we need to grow into harmony with the Divine.
Then it is that He restores my soul.
There is an epidemic running rampant in our society. It is not a medical epidemic, except by extension. The disease from which so many of us are suffering is what the Germans call Zerrissenheit—“torn-to-pieces-hood”. We have so many different pressures calling for our time—our energy—our money. So often, we attempt to divvy up ourselves over the whole mass and hope for the best. But we end up feeling as though we, too, were torn in little pieces, with no integrity, the ties that bind us together withered, worn, if not outright severed.
There was once a group of tourists on safari in Africa, who hired a group of native porters to carry their baggage as they trekked. After three days, the porters told them that they would have to stop for a day and rest. They were not tired, they explained, but “we have walked too far too fast and now we must wait for our souls to catch up with us.”
These simpler people knew far more than we about the dangers of having one’s soul torn to pieces.
“The world asks so much of us,” Harold Kushner writes. “We give ourselves totally to our work, to the task of raising our family and running a home, to our volunteer commitments that we often forget to take time to nourish our souls, forgetting that we need to rely on the wisdom of the soul to guide our work and our living hours. Our bodies are more active when we are awake than when we are sleeping, sometimes frantically so. But our souls may be as absent during the day as they are at night.”
We should never become so busy taking care of the things of life that we neglect our souls. This is much easier said than done, certainly. But the Twenty-Third Psalm reminds us of how important it is to find those times for sabbaths of our souls.
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
There is a story in the Jewish Talmud about a traveler who asks a young boy, “Is there a shortcut to such-and-such a village?”
And the boy responds, with the wonderful logic of children, “There is a shortcut that is long, and a long way that is short.”
In geometry, perhaps, a straight line is the shortest distance between two lines. But in life, the lines we walk are seldom perfectly straight. When the Israelites left Egypt, biblical accounts tell us that God led them through the wilderness for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. They needed that extra travel time—that extra life experience—that extra wisdom-- to lead them from being slaves to being a free people. Oftentimes in life, it is the (seemingly) most roundabout pathways that have the most to teach us, and it is the road less-travelled by that makes all the difference in our lives.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
Forrest Church once said that faith is our response to the twin realities of being alive and of knowing we have to die. We live all our lives in the shadow of death—our own deaths, the deaths of those we love. This is the tragic dimension of life from which none of us can escape: knowing that, sooner of later, we must let go of all we love. This is the foundation of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering. All life is suffering because everything in life passes away.
But it is also this knowledge of the transience of existence which makes life so precious—or which should. The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote that “Death is the mother of beauty.” We cherish the beauty of sunrise, of a New England autumn, of a relationship, of a child’s hug, precisely because those things will not be around forever and neither will we be around forever to enjoy them.” Or, as another poet has put it: “Death is not too high a price to pay for having lived.”
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Note: it’s not “I will fear no evil because there isn’t any such thing as evil.” Or, “I will fear no evil because I’m a good person and evil only happens to bad people.” Or, “I will fear no evil because it’s all part of God’s plan and will work out all right in the end.”
No: “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” God is with us as we face the evils of the world, and God’s power transcends all evil and transforms limitations into possibilities. Or, to change Testaments for a minute, in the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans:
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me…
Sometimes, when we mess up, life has a way of using its rod on us.
Sometimes, when we are open to life’s lessons the staff of God gently guides us to where we need to go.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies…
In his meditation, Sand and Foam, Kahlil Gibran writes: “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind. Yet, strange, I am ungrateful for all these teachings.”
Often, it is from our “enemies”, from those we don’t get along with, from those who make us uncomfortable, and sorely afflict us, and challenge us, that we have the deepest lessons of life to learn. This is not always a fun part of life, certainly, but sometimes at the feast of life, you have to eat your broccoli and your spinach along with the strawberry shortcake.
Thou annointest my head with oil.
In biblical times, having one’s head anointed with oil meant that one was chosen of God. It was the sign of royalty, of the messiah.
In the psalm, God promises to anoint all of our heads with oil, because we are part of the most royal family of all, the family of God’s people. Because we are sons and daughters of God, we are royal princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. And we are each, in some small way, messiah to ushering in the Reign of God which can make new the face of the earth we love.
My cup runneth over.
Gratitude is the fundamental religious emotion. Life is a gift for which we are grateful, and we gather as people of faith to celebrate the mysteries and wonders of this great gift. When we cultivate an attitude of gratitude for the blessings life has given us, there will be no cup large enough to gather up all the further, deeper blessings we will receive.
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
A rabbi once stopped a prominent member of his congregation in the street, and said to him, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. You’re always rushing somewhere. Tell me, what are you running after all the time?”
And the man responded, “I’m running after success. I’m running after prosperity. I’m running after a good living.”
The rabbi responds, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all these rewards are out there ahead of you, trying to elude you, and you have to run hard to catch up with them. But what if the rewards of life are behind you, looking for you, and they can’t find you.”
“God is at home,” Meister Eckhart once wrote, “it is we who have gone out for a walk.” Or, all too often in our own day, for a run.
Life’s not a race, someone once said. It’s a dance. Slow down before it’s too late. Slow down, and befriend the goodness and mercy (or loving-kindness) that are there in life, waiting for you.
Then it is that we shall “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
We shall know then, at last, the presence of God, which is the sacredness of life, and the holiness of each moment. There, at one with the God in our souls, the God transcendent in all creation, we will know again the Love that abides when all else passes away, the Love that beats at the heart of creation.