Pastor Becca Ehrlich
A friend of mine attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. She told me how the funeral was pretty standard, for the most part—prayers, a sermon, all the normal parts of the service were there, all done in good order… until the pastor got up after one of the hymns. He stood up, walked over to the microphone and said “Let us all say together the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord is my shepherd….” Knowing full well the pastor had made a mistake, my friend looked around to see the shock on peoples’ faces. But what shocked her even more was that, once people got over the initial dismay of the pastor making the mistake, most joined in the words of the 23rd psalm regardless. Just as they knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer from memory, they also knew the words from this psalm.
And if we spoke to most Christians, I think that the results would be the same. The 23rd psalm is one of the most read, most known, most memorized passages from the Bible. And it has staying power—generation after generation, most Christians have learned this passage and can recognize it quickly when it’s read. When we read the psalm a few minutes ago, how many of you nodded your head in recognition of the familiar words, or said “Oh, I know that one!” in your minds? Psalm 23 is so famous, people who don’t go to church or read the Bible know of it and recognize the words.
So what about this psalm makes it so timely? What makes it so famous? Why do we recognize the words to this psalm, when it is just one psalm out of 150? What do you all think??? ….
I think one of the reasons is that it’s short. Seriously! No one wants to memorize a long Bible passage. But there’s more to it than that, of course. There are other Bible passages that are much shorter that most people wouldn’t recognize. The shortest sentence in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” And you don’t hear people quoting THAT on a regular basis!
No, I think the reason that Psalm 23 has an incredible amount of staying power is much deeper. This short psalm—and it is short, only 6 verses—concisely and poetically describes how God acts in our world. So often we wonder how God is acting in our world and in our lives—and this 23rd psalm helps to answer that question: “What is God doing??”
In the first few verses, the psalmist tells us how God provides for us. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.” The words of this psalm tell us that God is our shepherd, our guide. We are God’s flock and God leads us. God provides us with guidance, and gives us what we need. And God leads us to green pastures—for sheep, that means God provides us food—and beside still waters—God provides us water to drink.
Even more than that, still waters are usually deep waters. Running water tends to be relatively shallow—but deep water, that’s usually still. With deep water comes the danger of drowning. But God leads us beside the deep water. God protects us from the dangers of drowning. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by all of the things going on in our lives. But God protects us from drowning in the deeps waters, sends us help by way of others people, or events, or direct intervention.
What else in Psalm 23 tells us what God is doing? The psalmist says: “He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.” God is again the guide, showing us which paths to take. If there are right pathways, then that means there are wrong pathways. God keeps us on those right pathways, the ones we should be on. And God does it for God’s name’s sake—in God’s name, God’s provides us guidance on which paths in life to take.
And God revives our souls, that spiritual part of us. Sometimes we’re like a cup of coffee. When you go out to eat, you can get a hot cup coffee. And it’s steaming, warms up our hands when we hold the cup, and you can feel the warmth go down your throat as you drink it. But after a while, the coffee gets lukewarm. And after a longer time, the coffee gets cold. But when the waiter or waitress comes by, they offer a refill—“Would you like a warm up?”-- and new hot coffee is poured into the cup. And the coffee is hot again, steaming and ready to drink.
We’re like that cup of coffee spiritually. We may start out on fire and excited and ready to do things for God, but after a while the enthusiasm starts to fade. We become lukewarm, or even cold. We need God to fill us with that hot coffee again, give us that “warm up,” that fire and enthusiasm to love God and love others. The psalmist reminds us that God refills our souls.
What else does the 23rd psalm tell us about what God is doing? In the next few verses, we hear of God’s presence and comfort when we are in times of trouble. “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.”
Walking through the valley of the shadow of death? That sounds horrible. When I was younger and I heard this psalm and we got to that line, I used to picture death as a shadow, stalking me as I walked through a never-ending valley. (Animate) Needless to say, it was a scary image for me.
I taught a class a few years ago, and we looked at the book 3 Colors of Our Spirituality. And in the workbook for the class, the author Christian Schwartz describes what many saints and mystics have called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” As we go through life, and especially during times of spiritual growth, we end up in a valley, like how the psalmist described it—a valley of the shadow of death, a dark valley. These valleys are necessary for our spiritual growth, but, well, they stink. We end up in this low point of our lives, and it feels like we’ll never get out of it, it will never end. But the psalmist also says that there’s no need for fear in these valleys, because God is there in the valley with us. God is leading us and guiding us, comforting us along the way.
I had a very deep and dark valley during my life 9 years ago. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia and becoming a children and youth director at a Lutheran congregation, I began to realize that God was calling me to be a pastor. And the more I followed that call, and took the first steps in pursuing ordination in the Lutheran church, the worse my life got. I was engaged to be married at the time, we had been together almost 3 years, and my fiancé decided that he couldn’t handle marrying someone who was going to be a pastor, so he broke off the engagement. A week later, my car was stolen outside of the church I worked at. Family and friends, shocked at my new life path, backed away. I felt alone, rejected, and angry at God.
But the story doesn’t end there. Although that time in the valley was awful, God didn’t abandon me. God was still there, guiding me on the path I was supposed to take. I could have said forget it, and abandoned my call—and quite frankly, it would have made my life easier, at least in the short-term—but I felt God’s call so strongly during that valley time, felt God guiding me where I needed to go, and so I knew God was there and was leading me even when I felt horrible. And knowing that God was there, feeling God’s presence and God’s leading—comforted me, even when I hated what was going on in my life.
And now, looking back, I learned a lot about myself and about my relationship with God during that valley time. I learned that I can only be with someone who is supportive of my calling (and God sent him to me many years later! Thank you God for my husband Will!). And I also learned that God does not abandon God’s children. My life felt awful at the time, but God helped me go through that awfulness, and kept me on the path God had laid out for me. The psalmist’s words have become my words—though I walked through that valley, I didn’t fear evil, because God was with me, and God’s guidance comforted me.
What else is God doing? The 23rd psalm also tells us of God’s promises for us. “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.” Even though the psalmist is surrounded by enemies, God promises a feast, a wonderful meal. God shows us hospitality even when others do not. And we are told that God anoints us with oil, and fills our cup to overflowing. Anointing with oil is a sign of being chosen, being special, being royalty. We are sons and daughters of the King, chosen by God, and filled to the brim with God’s presence and love.
God’s promises continue: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
One day when I was walking in the neighborhood around my church in Philadelphia, I was rooting around in my pocket for my chapstick. I found it and applied it and then stuffed it back in my pocket and kept walking. Shortly after that, I heard a kid yell, “Hey you!” I ignored him. I had had situations in the past where neighborhood kids had harassed me because I stood out in the neighborhood. I kept walking. “Hey you!” he yelled louder. I realized he was following me. I walked faster. He kept following me. I walked as fast as I could, almost breaking into a run. Finally he caught up with me. Huffing and puffing, he held out his hand. In it was a 5 dollar bill. “You dropped this!” he said.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “follow” is closer to the word “pursue.” Goodness and mercy pursue us. We can try to run away, like I did with the neighborhood kid, but God’s love and mercy will always pursue us. That kid was going to give me that money back, no matter what. God pursues us with love and mercy and goodness.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I find this last line describing God’s promise to us maybe the most comforting part of the whole psalm. Maybe it’s because the buildings we live in and worship in get old and start to wear down. Doors break. Blinds and shades cease to work. Toilets overflow. It seems like there’s something to fix, all the time.
But God’s house never wears down. In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus tells the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you there myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus is preparing a place for us in God’s eternal house, and is even taking us there so that we can live there with him, forever. We will be with Jesus, in God’s house of infinite rooms, always. It’s the perfect ending to the psalm—and to our lives. We will be with Jesus forever, living in his love and goodness and mercy.
It’s all there—no wonder we know and love this psalm! God providing for us, reviving us when we need a spiritual “warm-up”, comforting us and leading us in times of trouble, and promising us life and mercy and love forever-- what more could we possibly need?? God is everything to us. And we will always be God’s beloved children— living in God’s house, forever. Amen.