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I Shall Not Want

I Shall Not Want          Psalm 23                      Grace Presbyterian Church, Tuscaloosa, AL

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Mary McQueen Porter on May 7, 2017

 

Psalm 23 is a favorite of many people. It may be a favorite of yours.  (Or Not!)

It is one of the most frequently read scriptures at funerals.

It is also often recited at patient beds in hospices, rehabs and intensive care..

It’s one of the most frequently memorized passages of scripture.

I’m guessing that some of you learned it as I did—as a child in the King James Version.

It is traditionally considered to be a psalm of David, the premier king of Israel, who was once a shepherd boy.

 

Jesus, a faithful Jewish boy, would have recited it from memory—during his youth and surely in his own dark valleys of ministry.

Jesus knew that throughout Israel’s history, kings were considered to be shepherds of the people; their calling was to guide the people rightly, and Jesus gladly wore that mantle.

as we heard it read in the passage from the gospel of John this morning.

Jesus said, I am the good shepherd.

 

The first verse sums up the entire psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want,

which is better translated, I shall not lack or I shall not be in want. 

 Because God is my shepherd, I shall lack for nothing. I have & I shall have all that I need.

Not only that, I won’t “feel” lacking, won’t feel needy.

I won’t notice what I don’t have.

 

That’s well and good, but I do lack.  I do have losses and wants.

And I’m pretty sure that you do too.

My mama used to say, You’re old enough for your wants not to hurt you.

Now I don’t know where that came from!  But to give more power to that stance, she had a personal practice and advice for me, as well:  Stay out of the stores.

 

Now that used to work.  But not anymore.  We are bombarded—at every turn, almost at every blink of the eye--by glitzy invitations—enticements--to want.  It’s not just billboards any more that clutter up our landscape.  We can’t turn on the computer or phone screen

without visually & sometimes literally being screamed at, pulled into the lure of something beautiful or delicious or fun that we may soon decide we need—the line between needs and wants being lost forever.

 

We’re even told that it’s good for the economy when we buy--so that it’s down right

un-American to do as my mama proposed:  just say No--and avoid places where temptation lurks.

Spiritually, that’s a lot for faithful people in our culture to deal with.

Yet, if we listen, we hear another voice,  The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

 

And there’s more to our sense of lack than just our consumer culture.

As we move through middle age and beyond, our awareness of personal lack increases.

We do lack; we are in want; and it bothers us!

After a certain age—with each passing year, we lose more and more.

Our bodies fail us, a little at a time.

Hearing loss, I understand, begins around age 20.

Sometime in our 40’s our vision starts playing tricks on us

(Mine happened about the time I began studying Hebrew)

When we are not looking, our skin becomes less supple, our joints less elastic, our belly

fat more prominent.

Our hair falls out or simply grows less, at least in the usual places.

We become less skilled at remembering things.

 

Not only do our bodies and minds fail us.  Our loved ones do as well.

They die on us—parents, spouse, siblings, friends, pets.

Some of us even bury our children.

Each year that we live, the number of our peers declines.

In addition, we accumulate other losses over the years—some of us through divorce.

Many, through retirement, moves across the country or just across town,

Estrangement from various others—not to mention, lost opportunities, abandoned hopes.

 

And at times—even for the healthiest, most upbeat, most faithful among us—

At time, our lacks, our losses loom large, especially with the prospect of more losses as we age.

At times (whatever our age is), it seems our losses define us—

So that we may feel ourselves as the sum of all we have lost.

What we have left and who we are may seem miniscule—worthless—in comparison to what

we’ve lost.

And such a sense of loss is reinforced by our culture’s love affair with youth,

with youthful beauty and vigor,

by its denial of anything of value in people beyond a certain age.

It is reinforced too by the jokes we tell each other about getting old, the birthday cards we send             and receive about being over the hill (and worse).

Yet that other voice:  The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.

 

So how do we get to stand with David and recite by heart those opening verses of Psalm 23?

How do we get to the place where we can sing,  The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want?

singing from our heart center, feeling it in our bones, all the way to our toe nails---The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  I have everything I need.  I live in confidence that I will have what I need—and that my children will have what they need ?

 

How did David get there—to Psalm 23?

Like us, David knew losses. Before he was very old, he knew trouble—

the deep darkness of losses in battle, a civil war that tore his family apart,

a son turning against him and competing against him for the throne.

that beloved son slain by David’s own men.

 

David was guilty of adultery and murder.  He knew what it was to have a prophet of the Lord confront him—get him to all but admit his own culpability—as that prophet pointed a finger at him and said, “You are the man.”

 

He knew what it was to have an infant child die and to have a wife who was barren.

He knew the sadness of having his best friend killed.

That’s a lot of loss.  And loss is cumulative.  Grief can pile up in us.

 

I don’t know this, but I suspect that David was not a young man when he first sang the song that has come down to us as Psalm 23.

 

I have to believe that this song of confidence welled up in David after a whole lot of living—a whole lot of both losses and gains.  It surely came from a place of reflection,

perhaps under a starry night sky, reminding him of his days as a youth, keeping watch over his flocks by night:  Making the connection between what he did in his daily work with sheep—preparing the pasture, guiding, protecting, feeding, saving—and

how he came to see God, weaving in and out of his life, caring for him, being with him over the years.

From that reflection surely he knew in his bones there could be no trouble, no darkness however deep through which God would not lead him, in which God would not be with him.

And when he composed the psalm, he was remembering and projecting ahead to future times of deep darkness that he would surely know.

And he was believing with confidence that the same would be true then too

 

It’s only after—sometimes long after—events, in reflection,

that we see clearly, that we know.

And that’s one of the gifts of older age.  We can take the long view.

We can re-frame our picture of the past, using what’s gained through long years of experience.

 

Older brains aren’t as quick as young ones, it’s true.

But they’re better at making connections, better at seeing patterns.

 

Making those connections—

beginning to see how God might have been lurking in and around the events of lives—

starts with looking back over our lives.

Life review is good at any age, but especially as we’re older.

There are a number of advantages, beginning with

*sheer enjoyment—

delight in remembering good times and favorite people, relishing our accomplishments &

acknowledging lessons learned.

—giving thanks and celebrating all that has been good,

 

Also

*mourning the hard stuff that hasn’t left us, asking God to help us with it.

*Noticing where we have regrets, where we made mistakes, where there are ruptured relationships. Figuring out if there is something we can do to make amends.

*Looking at those old experiences with the new vision of long years

and daring to judge them differently.

*Forgiving ourselves.

 

Also

*noticing what has been and is most important to us—

Noticing how have we spent our lives and what will remain when we’re gone.

 

Once we’ve acknowledged what’s really important to us, we can begin the important work:  turning loose of more and more that is peripheral, irrelevant—starting with grievances, grudges.

But also our stuff, our belongings.

We all have different things that are precious, that we cling to (clothes, shoes, golf clubs, books, music, electronics).  And we all have too much stuff.

 

Reviewing our lives, taking stock of our priorities, can help us begin to let go (& then keep on).

One of my teachers—Music Thanatologist Therese Schroeder-Sheker teaches her students to practice letting go of something every day--in preparation for the big letting go—which is dying.

 

You could say that’s what Psalm 23 is really about--being ready to die.

You could also say it’s about being ready to live.

 

Another of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi said of the increase in longevity during the last century:  If we’re not growing spiritually, we’re not living longer; we’re dying longer.

 

As a nursing home chaplain and a hospice chaplain, I’ve been blessed to be with a number of people as they near death.  And I have to tell you, it’s those who have faced their life in all its beauty and ugliness and have been willing to let go of the peripheral, to let go of everything that is not central—they are the ones who have not been afraid to die, who have stepped into the Great Unknown trusting that they really don’t need anything else.

After all, just as we entered the world naked and helpless, so we leave it with no helps, no props.   The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.

 

Back to the question:  How did David get there—to Psalm 23?  How do we get there?

I believe honest, intentional life review can help.

But one more thing. I detect a hint in the structure of the psalm, which is

a slight 6 verses.  I’ll mention that hint and then be done.

 

In the first half of Psalm 23, the psalmist is talking about God—comparing God’s ways to those of a shepherd with his sheep.  He is looking at God—an object for his understanding.

(And that’s not a bad thing.)

In the heart of the psalm, however, the psalmist turns ever so slightly.

He quits talking about God and turns to God.

He addresses God. He says Thou/ You.  Me:  You are with me

Your rod, your staff comfort me. You prepare a table for me, you anoint my head with oil.

 

God is no longer an object, an It, to be discoursed about.

God is subject.

This is Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

The psalmist is out on a limb with God—subject to subject—no props, naked, vulnerable.

 

I am led to think Maybe,

just maybe, it is only in such intentionally being with God—

that we can, like David, come to the point of saying and knowing

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. I do not want. I lack for nothing.

Just us,

all by ourselves,

at the edge of the world with God—Creator, Crucified-dead & risen Son,

and Holy Spirit:  I and Thou

We don’t even have to say what is on our hearts .

It’s enough to sit in silence and stillness, and God does the rest. Thou art with me.

+++

You may know the little verse from Psalm 46:  Be still and know that I am God.

One of my colleagues at First Presbyterian Church  in Bismarck, ND, had those words next to her computer.

Underneath, she repeated it 4 times on 4 lines, each line dropping a word or 2 or 3.

So it began:  Be still and know that I am God.

And went to:   Be still and know that I am

And then:  Be still and know

And then:  Be still

And finally:  Be               

 

 Letting go, letting go, letting go.  [drop papers]

 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.