It’s been said that the 23rd Psalm is the Mona Lisa of Psalms. Perhaps you can recite it from memory. We did that as a congregation yesterday, and it seemed that despite the difference in our ages across the pews, it was the King James version that we remembered. The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.
It can be a daunting task to try to bring a fresh and renewing word about verses as familiar as these. I don’t think I’ve ever used the 23rd Psalm as the primary text for a sermon until yesterday. As I was preparing during the week I had the sense that I might sound like a tour guide standing at the base of a beautiful mountain explaining its beauty — when all you really had to do was look up and see if for yourself!
I was also sensitive to the many personal attachments that people bring to these often recited words. Did you learn it from your mother? Was it read when you buried your dad? Did it get you through a dark night in your soul? Whatever I had to say I wanted to honor what was already etched in people’s hearts.
And for as powerful a text as these words are for a funeral, my purpose was to try to get our heads around how powerful these words are for us, the living. Psalm 23 poetically promises that God will provide. To limit its use to memorial services robs it of the impact God’s providence has on our everyday lives. So, in order to explore with fresh eyes and to open our ears for a new take on the familiar, we read The Message translation which begins: God, my Shepherd. I don’t need a thing.
I shall not want. I don’t need a thing. Really? There’s nothing I should want that I don’t already have? I shouldn’t want more of I have? I shouldn’t want nicer stuff than what I have? Can’t I want new stuff to replace my old stuff? I don’t need more stuff? I beg your pardon! We are bombarded at every turn with messages that tell us otherwise. It seems that we are far more aware of what we lack, than we are aware of what we already have.
We certainly do that in our churches. We do that in church board meetings when we talk about budgets. If you are part of a 21st century mainline protestant church in an aging inner-ring suburb in a “severely depressed real estate market” (as Cleveland was described to me by my bank manager recently) as I am, it’s likely you’ve had conversations in which budget and deficit are in the same sentence! I challenged my congregation yesterday that when we are in the midst of these critical conversations that we interrupt the usual proceedings and recite together the 23rd Psalm! Would the conversation turn? Would we think in terms of blessings rather than deficits? Would we remember that we have been blessed through other tough times? Would we remember what we have accomplished? What miracles have happened? What prayers have been answered? What opportunities for ministry lie ahead? Perhaps the conversation would turn.
And, for us as individual consumers and want-ers — I suggested making two lists. One list containing our ten greatest blessings. The other, our ten greatest wants. Which would have greater impact? Losing one of the things for which we are most grateful? Or gaining all ten of the things we want? I haven’t actually written my own list yet, but it’s been ruminating in my head for a week now. At this point, I”m not sure I can even come up with 10 things I want, but I”m quite sure I can come up with 10 blessings. My cup overflows. I have made a promise to myself that if I start to backslide into deficit thinking that I will recite the 23rd Psalm until I”m back on track! I hope you’ll join me in that promise.
I shall not want. I don’t need a thing. Really?
Just one more thing before I close. Not only is the 23rd Psalm a reminder that God is our Shepherd, it is also a model for behaving like a shepherd. We were created in God’s image, and if God is a shepherd, then so too are we. I offer a prayer of gratitude for our Prayer Shawl Ministry which has provided tangible evidence of God’s enveloping love to so many people who needed to literally wrap themselves up in that love. We began yesterday what I hope will be a annual tradition of inviting our congregation on a Sunday morning to take a prayer shawl for themselves or to take one to give to someone they know. The shawls looked beautiful draped over the pews and scattered throughout the sanctuary. But all that beauty cannot begin to compete with how even one person must feel right now with a shawl around his or her shoulders.
(Thank you to to Rev. Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN for helping me to find a new perspective in preaching on these familiar words.)