I’ve never preached on the 23rd Psalm. It seemed too familiar, too commonplace. It is, after all, the quintessential funeral reading/prayer. But when it came up in the lectionary readings I gave it some thought. Maybe it was time to liberate the 23rd Psalm from it’s pigeon-holed place in funeral services. Maybe there is more to it than it gets credit for. And, you know what? I was right.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
Just in case you’ve forgotten how it goes, here is Psalm 23 in the King Jame’s Version (because that is the most familiar):
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death.
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
It’s very hard to give you a synopsis of the message because the community and I worked it out together. Knowing that this can’t possibly be taken literally, we discussed the metaphors for life in each of the lines. They become different for each person depending on one’s situation, yet they apply equally well to everyone. Whether you are a soldier in war, a patient in hospice care, a student being bullied, a homeless person, someone struggling with depression, fighting a battle with cancer, caught in the tidal wave of grief, or simply trying to get through the everyday trials of life, this psalm works.
It becomes an affirmation of faith in a Divine Essence who is always with us.
Here’s how it reads to me, in very general terms. God, the Ground of our Being, the Source, the Spirit of Life is to be trusted, tuned in to, and followed. When we are connected to the Divine Essence at the core of our being, we know that there is nothing more we need or want. We are brought to new levels of peace, harmony and well-being. Our souls are refreshed, healed and made whole. The things we have feared, whether inside or outside ourselves, no longer have their powerful grip on us, for we are dwelling in the Energy of Love. We find the courage we didn’t know we had. We feel comforted and protected from all that would harm us. Not that we won’t experience pain, difficulties and struggles, but we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God and nothing can harm our souls. Even when people belittle us, bully us, betray us, spew hatred at us, we are able to see it for what it is… an attempt to draw us into the smallness of their world. While the truth is that there is abundance of life and love around us to feast upon. To the Divine, we are sacred, holy, beautiful and unique. Certainly, in this place of connectedness and deep relationship with God, all negativity disappears, and we will see the amazing goodness around us. We will experience mercy (or love, as the Inclusive Bible says) for the things we are beating ourselves up over. We know that God has been with us, is with us, and will be with us always.
It is not so much a prayer for death as it is a prayer for life.