I know you know the 23rd Psalm. You may be used to a shall not want-ing. Maybe even shalt not want-ing. The shalts and the thou’s come from the King James Version of the Bible. And even with just the old-timey language taken out, the New Revised Standard, which is generally the standard of UCC congregations, takes its lead from the King James. Which is a little unexpected. Often the King James has been found to be not a great translation. The translators didn’t have the oldest versions of the text, didn’t have a clear understanding of ancient Greek dialect, and there were translations decisions that would support the powerful instead of the people. So, it is often seen as less reliable. The version you heard today is, by some, considered a more accurate translation.
The other reason to read a different version is because it is so well known. We memorize it, we heard it at funerals, we recite it to calm down, it’s used in pop culture songs and tv and movies. Love it or hate it, and I know some hate it, this Psalm about shepherds and tables is part of our world. And so hearing it in a new way, a different translation, in a way unexpected might just keep us open to think about the Psalm in a new way, with new understanding, so that it doesn’t become a stagnant chapter in the living word.
I know this is starting to sound a little Bible study/academic, bear with me. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that the Psalms can be divided into 3 types: Orienting, Disorienting, and Reorienting. We’ve looked at 2 of these already. Psalm 1 was an orienting Psalm, finding our place in the world and the connection with the law, the ways of God. Last week we looked at Psalm 13, a Psalm of lament with the Psalmist and we cry out to God in pain and struggle–our lives in that Psalm have been uprooted, undone, it is a psalm of dis-orientation. Psalm 23 is a Psalm of re-orientation.
Psalm 23 follows the lament Psalm in chapter 22 where the the psalmist cries out to God asking why God has forsaken them, not so unlike crying out how long? And because we started this process of looking at the Psalms recognizing that those who assembled the Psalms were not foolish or haphazard but that they, with intention curated this book. Disorientation cannot carry on forever. It must be followed by a new orientation, a new way to see, a new way to experience, a new way to live in the world.
Each aspect of the poem speaks to who God is and how we are built to live in the world, and it’s not always the way we think that we want to live in the world. Sheep have been given a bad wrap, that they mindlessly obey orders, I’ve watched enough sheep videos this week to see that’s not always true. They wander off on their own way, but they have also learned, not to mindlessly follow but to trust the one who is leading them. For example, these sheep have learned to follow Larry the llama… alpaca? They learn to trust, they learn that that the one leading them is worthy of following, has their best interest at heart, is going to do all to keep them safe–with their rod to fight off the predators and the staff to nudge them along, to supply them with what they need, to offer them rest and sanctuary, and eventually lead them safely home.
And when the poet got tired of the shepherd metaphor, they went to the host, the one who sets a table for you, and me, and everyone else. We don’t really use the word enemies like they would have in the ancient world when one would be defending their territory or kingdom or, well sheep, from other tribes, or nations. Maybe the way you think that enemy is the person who disagrees with you politically, has a different set of signs in their front yard. Maybe it’s the person who stands outside of Pride celebrations or Planned Parenthoods or military funerals telling you what God thinks. Maybe it’s a family member or your bully from high school or your bully from work or … and we like the idea of God setting up a table where we have all the food and the people we dislike the most have nothing but to watch us eat all of the food. But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think it’s spiteful or vengeful, but inviting us and everyone else, especially those who could be considered enemies, at a table together.
“These are not escapist stories, designed to take us out of the story, out of life and living, out of the reality of the world. Rather, they put us back into the place according to God’s creational design.”
This is a Psalm about setting the world right, about the way the world is intended to be, about being led to our place in it. We read it when we are overwhelmed and we recite it when we are grieving, we remember it when we are crying out “how long” and when we travel on dark paths. We have it because it centers us, it calls us back.
One of the ways we are called to read the scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, is to meditate on them. When I was young, I thought meditation was a bad thing, something other religions did but not my religion. I didn’t really know what it meant. I didn’t really know that meditation is moments with intention. Meditation grounds you in the moment, this breath in and breath out, and the moment between. Meditation invites us to come home to our bodies, created in the image of God and made good, invites us to recognize how they move, what they feel, to feel peace in them when there is so little peace in the world around us. Mediation invites us to settle our minds that are busy rushing with the next thing, with past things, with regrets and fears. Meditation takes all the swirling and whirlwind of the world and brings us back to here, now. Meditation centers us.
Because We live in a world with movement and noise and expectations and sometimes all of that is right inside our minds. From what we have to do and what we have left undone, what we might regret and what we hope for, from what we wish we could change and what we fear we can’t, from what we want and need and have and when they all get mixed up, between How long and Why we are given
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
It’s a meditation. It reminds us where the center is, where the peace is, where the calm is. It reminds us that we are the shepherd’s, we are God’s, and we are enough. We are cared for. We are brought safely to our God, to ourselves, to calm water and meadows. We are given rest in the space that sustains us. It isn’t about enemies but about finding communion with each other.
Because sometimes we wander away and all we want to do is make sure we have enough, or more. When we can’t tell the difference between what we want and what we need. When we are certain we are right and we are certain we need to let our kids, or employees, or co-workers, or bosses know how they should be doing things. When we are holding on so tight to the world and the people and the work around us thinking, believing, hoping that we can fix things, control others, guide the future.
The Lord is my shepherd.
It is a meditation that calls you to stop, to be led, to trust. It’s a song that calls you to rest, to breathe, to eat. It’s a Psalm that calls you to rest in the God who loves you and cares for your well being.
Even in the shadow of death, even on the long, hard days, even when you wonder how long or you feel abandoned–the psalmist tells us that God’s goodness and mercy and love pursues us, hounds us. God’s love doesn’t just follow us around but hunts us, like a hunting dog that just wants to attack you in face licks. Pursues us like enemies, but this pursuing is love.
We’re going to do something a little different today. I’m inviting you into a moment of meditation, wherever you are.
If you can, if you are comfortable, close your eyes
Take a breath in for 3 counts, hold it for 2, breath out for 5
put away the grocery list you’ve been making in your head
the things you still have to do today.
come home to your breath, your body-created good.
for a moment, find the green meadow, the still waters…
The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
2 He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
3 he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.
4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.
5 You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
6 Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.