The 23rd Psalm
A wise person once said that there are two responsibilities a minister has. One is to comfort the afflicted. The other is to afflict the comfortable. I plead guilty to afflicting the comfortable from this pulpit many times… but only because that is also what Jesus seems to do much of the time. Just read the sermon on the mount or his run-ins with the religious authorities of the day. But, today Jesus is comforting the afflicted and so am I. Today’s gospel from Mark is about Jesus comforting the afflicted. It says that “(people from that region) rushed about and began to bring the sick on mats… And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
It’s good to hear a reading which speaks of healing them, but the reading which heals us is the Psalm … the 23rd Psalm…a psalm of comfort, protection, providence, and hope. One commentator has said that pastors need to keep two sermons on the 23rd Psalm – one for funerals and one for Sunday worship. I have a number of sermons for both. I’ve used the funeral sermons on Sunday morning and I’ve used the Sunday morning sermons at funerals. I find that listeners in both venues need to hear of their Lord as Shepherd, they need to hear of green valleys and still waters, they need to hear hear that they are not alone when they face evil and even death. They need to hear that goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their lives and that they will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
But there are some things that the Sunday morning crowd needs to hear from the psalm which, in fact, challenges comfort. For instance, when we say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” are, in fact, confessing that we do want. Another translation is, “The Lord is my shepherd and provides all that I need.” But we find ourselves dissatisfied with what the Lord has provided us.
Our entire culture is predicated on wanting. One commentator has said that, if everyone truly took seriously, “I shall not want,” that our entire economy would collapse. Consumer spending now accounts for about 70 percent of our gross domestic product, which is significantly higher than most other industrialized nations. Consumer marketing encourages us to want more, not less. It leads us to believe that we need more meals out, more trips to the grocery store, and more shopping sprees. This last week was Amazon Prime day which, for some unknown reason, was hyped by all the major news media. So many people were led to believe that they needed things they didn’t really need that the entire site crashed.
We are seduced into thinking that happiness comes from getting everything that we want instead of coming to appreciate everything we already have. We think that the road to happiness is paved with gift cards. I like the translation which says, “The Lord is my shepherd and provides all that I need.” It is a confession, really, that we already have that which is needful. All else is “wantful.” Once or twice a year we feel comforted by, “I shall not want,” and then go right out there and want.
As a matter of fact, maybe it is when we get away from the want that our souls are restored. A loose translation of “restores my soul” says, “gives me back my life.” I don’t generally like the Bible paraphrases or loose translations, but I do like, “You give me back my life,” for “you restore my soul.” It is a confession – a confession that someone or some force took away our lives and made us captives to other peoples schedules, other people’s expectations and con games. When we come to appreciate what the Lord has given us instead of carrying around this nagging feeling that we need more, more, more, then we get our lives back again.
The same thing with, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” I think we’ve always been very attracted to the poetry of that image without thinking about what it actually means. It seems to say something about making peace with our enemies. But who are our enemies? Russia? Terrorists? The other political party?
What if our enemies were not outside of us, but inside of us? What if our enemies were things like want, and apathy, and pride, and fear --- those very things which take our lives away from us? What if we were to think of that table which is set before us as a communion table in which the body and blood of our Lord takes away those demons which make us opposite of the people God made us to be? What if the communion restores our souls, gives us back our lives again?
It is comforting to repeat that “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” But I am told that the phrase “follow me” is a fairly week translation of the Hebrew and that a more accurate translation would be “pursue” me. Goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life. Chase me. Hunt me down. Could we even use the verb “stalk.” Goodness and mercy shall stalk me all the days of my life. It says that God actively pursues us with his love and grace and won’t give up on us until he has given us our lives back and has led us to green pastures and still waters.
Here’s one last thing about the Psalm which sounds comforting, but is less so on second glance: “Your rod and your staff, they will comfort me.” I’ve never paid too much attention to their significance. But rods and staffs each have separate functions, almost opposite functions. The staffs (the shepherd’s crooks if you will) are for the purpose of pulling – pulling the sheep away from harm, of saving the sheep. But the rods are for prodding – poking the sheep to go in a direction it probably doesn’t want to go. The rods are for getting sheep up and off their fluffy bottoms.
God works with us in much the same way. When we recite the 23rd Psalm we are usually thinking of the staff, the tool that pulls us from harm and saves us from danger. But God often prods us, too – jabs us and pokes us and nudges us to get up off our fluffy bottoms and go about doing the things that members of his flock do – like leading others to green pastures and giving others their lives back again.
Yes, the 23rd Psalm comforts the afflicted. We shall continue to hear it that way at least the couple of times a year that we hear it in church or pray at home. That is the staff. But there is a hearing of it which afflicts the comfortable. That is the rod.
But both the staff and the rod are tools of God, tools that God uses to pursue and stalk us until we are safely through the shadow of death and are safely with our Lord in the green pastures and beside the still waters.
Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56