Not just for funerals (A sermon from Psalm 23)
There is no way to prove this, but I suspect that no scripture has been read as often as Psalm 23. I can’t prove this either, but if there was a way of accessing all my comments and messages that I have delivered at funeral and celebration of life services over the years, I would wager that I read Psalm 23 at some point in the liturgy, either in the service itself or at the graveside in every one of those services. But let’s not relegate this text to funeral services. It is a passage for pilgrims of all types at all stages of our journey, not just in the final one. It’s a witness to the presence of God through all of life.
The passage begins with a statement that many have aspired to, but few, if any, have actually attained. Really, I think this whole Psalm sets forth spiritual realities in their ideal form, that we never experience fully, but experience in varying degrees.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Have you ever came to the place in your spiritual life where you want for nothing? I haven’t. And I would question whether any of you have either, if you are honest. Most of us have any number of wants. Sometimes our wants control us and may even consume us. I doubt very seriously that any of us have entered a place of spiritual rest where we are completely and totally content. In fact, I wonder if it is even humanly possible.
The Psalmist describes this state of spiritual contentment and rest in a beautiful, rich pastoral scene of dwelling in green pastures and beside still waters. Spiritual rest is such an important aspect of the spiritual life that we are introduced to the idea in the first creation story as being essential to the Divine life. Following a series of creative acts, the story says, “God rested.” Jesus modeled a life of spiritual rest for his disciples by periodically withdrawing from the crowds and entereing into prayer and solitude. If Jesus needed a balance between active engagement and spiritual rest certainly we do too. In Matthew’s Gospel the living Christ invites us into his rest. He says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Entering into spiritual rest is important, but it is not an end in and of itself. If you have kids or grandkids you might have seen the movie “Cars.” These cars have personalities and can talk. Imagine one of these cars pulling in to fueling station and as the gas is dispensed the car says, “O this feels so good, I think I will just sit here and feel good all day.” Cars get filled with fuel so they can hit the road running and get to where they need to go. Jesus, our spiritual mentor, modeled in the Gospels a life of spiritual retreat and solitude that fueled his tank and empowered his mission and ministry.
I think those who tend to be movers and shakers, folks heavily invested in taking on injustice, speaking truth to power, and working to redeem unjust systems can sometimes undervalue and neglect this important dimension of our lives. This is why you see some people who invest heavily in taking on injustice sometimes just give up or walk away, becoming angry, bitter, and disillusioned. When we fail to invest in a spiritual life we might just discover that we don’t have what it takes to persevere against great odds. And justice work is very slow work against great odds. You can do this for years and not see hardly any change. And so it takes a deeper life, a deeper connection to wells of spirit to keep the joy and gratitude in our hearts that can sustain us through the slow grind. But make no mistake about it, spiritual rest and restoration ultimately sends us out into the unjust world to bear the fruits of the kingdom, to work and serve and minister to see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.
This balance is reflected in the psalm. Just the Shepherd of our souls leads us to quiet waters and green pastures he leads us into paths of righteousness. I do not like the translation in the NRSV and some other translations that says “right paths.” The reason I dislike it is because it leaves to much up for grabs. Right paths can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But what the psalmist actually says is “paths of righteousness.” This is captured in the alternative reading listed at the bottom of the translation.
In the biblical tradition of both testaments “righteousness” and “justice” are two closely related ideas. Righteousness includes social and restorative justice, but is the broader concept and therefore used more often. Frequently the two words are used interchangeably in our tradition and righteousness would be better translated justice in certain passages. Hebrew and OT scholar Walter Brueggemann says that a righteous person is one who seeks to fulfill his covenant obligation to love God and love neighbor as one’s self. This is a person given to the healing and betterment of community life. He says, and I quote, “The righteous person is characteristically one who invests in the community, showing special attentiveness to the poor and the needy.”
So the righteous person is a person who on the one hand, gives to the poor, cares for the vulnerable, and does acts of mercy and kindness. On the other hand, the righteous person stands with the poor and vulnerable, and advocates for them, challenging systems that oppress them.
Last week I was walking by the television in route somewhere and overheard an NFL player being interviewed about kneeling during the National Athem. I caught it after it had started so I can’t tell you the athlete’s name. But this is what he said, “This isn’t about disrespect for anything, our flag, our country, our military; I have the highest respect for all of that.” He then went on to mention all the loved ones, all the people in his family who served or are currently serving in the military. He said, “I have the highest respect for all of them and what they are doing. This is about systemic oppression against people of color. That’s what we are protesting. And that has to change.” And he’s right. It has to change, if we are going to make any progress toward a just society that has to change. It is a simple fact (not an alternative fact, but a real fact) that people of color often receive much harder sentences at the hands of the criminal justice system than white people who commit the very same offense. It is a simple fact that racial profiling does go on in some policing communities and that people of color are far more likely to be victims of police brutality than white persons. And that has to change. The reason the good Shepherd leads us into spiritual rest is so we will have the wisdom and courage and moral strength to help bring about such change.
Next, the Psalmist suggests the possibility of having a banquet in hell. Even when we walk through the darkest valley God is with us on the journey and invites us to celebrate life even in the midst of death. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The enemies we face might be powerful economic, religious, political, and social systems that would chain us down and crush us. Or the enemy may be cancer or some physically and emotionally ravaging and debilitating disease that diminishes life. The enemies we face could be of our own making or they could be the natural consequence of the acts of nature or others like hurricanes or earthquakes or terrorist attacks or random shootings like the horrific one in Las Vegas. Or the enemies could be our own inner fears and insecurities, feelings of loneliness or isolation or depression, or feelings of bitterness and resentment.
The Psalmist is suggesting that the Good Shepherd of our souls is able to help us confront and overcome these enemies and can lead us into a celebration of goodness right in the midst of all the badness. God’s mercy and goodness follow us and pursue us into all the hells of our lives – whether these hells are of our own making or the work of other persons, systems, or circumstances.
On this day as we observe Holy Communion we are reminded that our Lord, our spiritual guide and mentor, descended into hell – not literally of course, but it was a real hell nonetheless, when he was executed on a Roman cross. Even his closest disciples, in whom he had invested the most, deserted him. Jesus knew they would. He knew they were not strong enough or courageous enough to take up their cross too and walk with him through his darkest valley. And yet when he shares a final meal with them, he promises them forgiveness.
It is unfortunate I think that we have done so much theologizing about Jesus’ statement of forgiveness in the final meal. We take that promise of forgiveness and we make it fit whatever atonement theory we cling to. And I think in doing so we miss what it was probably all about. I suspect Jesus, knowing his disciples will abandon and desert him, is promising them forgiveness. At some point in the aftermath of his death and their failure he knows they will remember his words of forgiveness. I wish people could believe that. That no matter where we go or what we have done or whatever hell we live through, God’s goodness and unfailing love, God’s mercy and forgiveness pursue us there.
As we share this sacred meal together today maybe one meaning we can attribute to this Holy Communion is this: We are in this together. We are on a journey, a pilgrimage together. No matter what hell any of you go through, the rest of us will be there to walk with you through it. No matter what enemies we face that seek to diminish our lives, the rest will be there to face them with us.