A Psalm of Love
Given at Mount Vernon Ohio on May 3, 2020 * 2007
By Scott Elliott
I had a friend in high school who heard me describe a cut-throat event as part of the “dog-eat-dog world.” He made me say the phrase again and started laughing. He told me he thought that the saying was “a doggie-doggie world.” When I asked what he thought that meant he laughed some more and said he never did quite get it.
Most of us have, I think, been surprised to learn a phrase or two we’ve misunderstood in sayings or song lyrics. I read that Paul Simon’s lyrics “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away” has been misheard as “Mama don’t take my clothes ‘n’ throw ’em away.” And Credence Clear Water Revival’s words “There’s a bad moon on the rise” has often ben mistaken for “There’s a bathroom on the right.” For the longest time I thought Elton John was singing “Good-bye Aztec Road,” not “Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road” – but I’m probably alone on that one.
I want to confess another one. Well into my adulthood I misunderstood the Elizabethan phrasing of the first verse of today’s very famous Psalm, the 23rd. I thought when the Psalmist claimed that “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want” he meant that God was a shepherd that he did not want. Why a beloved Psalm would laud someone not wanting God, like my friend did with “doggie doggie world” I chalked up to something I just did not quite get.
Psalm 23’s phrase “I shall not want,” I’ve long since come to learn, means (of course) “to not lack” to “never be without.” So as pretty as the King James Version is, a modern understanding might better be: The Lord is my Shepherd so I shall not lack. Or I shall never be without. To circle back to the King James wording slightly rephrased: Since God is my shepherd, I will not be in want!
Even understanding the meaning of “want” – though– the first verse can still be problematic. Most of us are good with the idea of God as our shepherd, but most of us are probably wanting something. Not just things like a car, or an i-pad or jewelry or clothes, but things that matter, a job, health insurance, resources to survive, or on all of our minds these days the want for a healthy world, or we just want a return to pre-corona virus way of doing things.
A calamity free world is not a new desire. Corona virus is not the first illness to plague humanity. There have been, and are, many other types of catastrophes too, personal, communal and global. Some unfold through bad choices by humans, others unfold under the laws of nature. Some have been a mixture of both. When bad things happen, in our finest moments, we can only react and do the best we can, whatever the cause. Religions have long functioned as a means of organizing and helping humans to avoid bad choices and providing ideas on how to best react to calamity, whatever the cause. The Old and the New Testament are recordings of religious ideas about how to best react.
In our religion Christians understand Jesus as the decisive revelation of God so his ideas outrank – or ought to outrank– both secular and religious ideas to the contrary. (Including conflicting Biblical ideas) Jesus’ top ranking religious idea is that humans, above all else, love God and others as we love our self. It’s Jesus’ greatest commandment, and no commandment can out rank it. It is how we are to act. On Jesus’ Way we are to love and give loving responses.
And while Jesus’ Way is about the well being of others, it is also about our own well being. We are to love others as we love our self. We are to give ourselves loving responses too. This is especially so when WE are facing trouble, especially deep trouble, like a valley of the shadow of death, like a global pandemic. Love for self matters. Christians understand that God is love. That is why my Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms not only states that Love is the care and desire for the well being of others, but that love “is the primary characteristic of God.”
The idea of love and God being connected is of course also found in the Old Testament– which should not surprise us since Jesus and his early followers were all Jewish – and THEY anchored their faith and understanding of God in that part of the Bible. AND throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we are told God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. We tend to think of the New Testament love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 as the definitive declaration of love in Scripture, which is why it is so popular, and why I paired it with the Lectionary Psalm, Psalm 23. But you know what? Psalm 23 is probably even more popular than 1 Corinthians 13. And while we may NOT tend to literally have love come to mind when we read or hear it, IT IS about God’s love and that is why it gives us comfort. It evokes love.
When I made my first hospital visit as an intern pastor in St. Louis I visited their chapel. I walked to the altar and there sat a Bible open to Psalm 23. I don’t know how old that Bible was but the mound of pages under both sides of that Psalm were clean and crisp. The page with the Psalm, however, was marked with the soil of what looked like hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of fingers that turned to, or touched, that Psalm in the verses before me. In times of trouble, in times of sorrow and worry and even death, Psalm 23 offers something in life, something that we go back to in times of darkness and need. It calls to us. It beckons us. God calls us from this Psalm.
Psalm 23 sets out for us not only what we long for God to do for us, and what we hope God can do for us, but what God wants for us, what God provides us. What that is . . . is love, as well as the corresponding tranquility that comes with the type of love played out in the verses. God’s love is with us always and the Psalm helps us experience that truth. It focuses us on God. When we turn our focus to God, when we allow God to be our Shepherd –– to shepherd us–– God takes us to places of peace. To green pastures. To still waters. To tranquility.
We don’t have to look very far to see that this is true. Think about it. Like Psalm 23, worship focuses on God. In worship each Sunday we turn our focus on God, and we sense moments of beauty and calmness, of peace. That is true whether we worship in this building or in our home or somewhere else. Tranquility awaits us each week when we focus on God in worship services. Some days it’s the music in worship. Some days it’s the words. Some days it’s things we see. Some days it’s just being a part of loving community together in person or together in spirit like we are right now. Some days it’s a mystery. Some days it’s a mixture of it all. But always, always it’s intentionally coming to worship to focus on God and to let God be our Shepherd – and when we do, God makes us lie in green pastures and leads us to still waters. Maybe it’s only for a fleeting moment, maybe it’s not every week, but somehow in worship services, the Word, the music, the loving people seeking God together can serve to get us to a place of tranquility. Green pastures. Still waters.
What wonderful metaphors for personal peace. The consequences of God making us lie in green pastures and leading us to still waters gives us peace. The Psalmist tells us that our souls are restored. We can hear that to mean we are saved from our lesser self that wanders away from the shepherd, encountering dangers alone. With God our full potential is given back to us. The Shepherd’s rod and staff are love and light and darknesses. With God leading us the very essence of our being, the soul, is restored.
And as a result of that restoration we wander down paths of righteousness. With God as our shepherd we do what is right. We can see that here in worship, where we aim every week to love God, to love self and to love others. With God our neighbors (even our enemies) are loved. We act as the Shepherd acts toward her flock with steadfast love for all humanity. It’s true; here in worship in God’s arms of tranquility we do as God does: We love.
Of course we don’t always come into to worship calm or even loving. And when we leave it there’s usually a mess or two – or thirty– out there waiting. Sometimes it’s a deep dark mess. If we stay with the Shepherd or find our way back to the Shepherd even – even– as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can fear no evil: because God is with us and the power God has, alone, comforts us. The power, the protection, of steadfast love.
I think most of all people turn to Psalm 23 in hospitals, on battle fields, at funerals, or anywhere really in dark times, because of the promise of comfort offered by the remarkably unforgettable phrase:
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.
The phrase is so true that we have used in in three out of our six worship services during the pandemic, because we all need to hear that truth and focus on that part of God in this shadowy valley.
With God we still walk through the shadowy valleys– like this time we are all in– but, we are not alone, we have no need to fear evil. In sorrow, suffering and strife, in disease and discomfort and displacement from our once normal lives, in every upset and pain God is with us. God’s presence and power is there. It is here. When we focus on God – let God be our shepherd– we can find, feel, and experience comfort, we can find feel and experience love, the very anchor of our life, of our soul – even in the darkest valleys.
In addition to Psalm 23 I have also been bringing up Paul’s words in Acts 17 a lot. “In God we live and move and have our being.” God is right here and right now always and forever. That won’t take away the shadows, it will not instantly end the pandemic, but it gives reason not to fear it and it gives comfort as we face it. No matter what– no matter what– we have God’s love.
And “with and in” God we are called to love. To add more love to the world. Today we are going to have communion, a time of adding more love to the world. At whatever table we may be using, we need to remember that table is God’s table. So I want to also discuss for a moment the Psalm 23 verse that reads: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. . .” Most of us tend to mishear those words as meaning that we get to go to God’s table while our enemies sit and watch so we can lord it over them, a sort of dog-eat-dog idea. But we can hear them to mean that God prepares and calls us to the table with our enemies because that fits with finding the green pastures and still waters of peace. That fits with walking down the path of righteousness, the path of love Jesus taught–that Way to even love enemies?
All around he world people are sharing in this table today, even if it is in the privacy of our homes we are breaking bread with many, many others. I mention that because God “preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” as a metaphor for breaking bread with enemies is especially true on communion Sundays when everyone – EVERYONE- whether we are angry with them, or just don’t like them – everyone– comes to the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s table where even enemies are welcomed and loved and present as equals and partake with us as such,
In this church God does not prepare a table for us while we sit and watch and lord it over others. We reject the dog eat dog world. It’s not Jesus’ way it’s not God’ way. God prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies so that we might come and share at the table with them, practice seeing them as equals at God’s table as surely Christ calls us to do. And Christ, Christ while loving everyone, even our enemies, still in fact loves each of us individually. Christ anoints each of our heads with oil. Christ picks us out of the crowd and loves us for who we are–just as we are.
And when we turn and face God, see God as Shepherd, our “cup runneth over.” We have in our moments of letting God be our Shepherd an abundance of everything we really, really want: tranquility and love and it leads to peace. God’s steadfast love fills our cup to overflowing. And here’s the hardest part: letting God be our Shepherd everyday, acknowledging it every moment. If we do, if we can, when we focus on God, we lay in the tranquility of green pastures and we are beside still waters, we have our souls restored and we get on that path to righteousness, Jesus’ Way of love. If we did this everyday “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow [us] all the days of [our lives].. .”And [we] will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
And it’s not just true for us as individuals. Imagine if the world would heed God’s call to tranquility and love each day. Souls restored. Lives lived on paths of righteousness. Enemies loved. Knowledge that each person is anointed by God, loved by God as special. Ah, then the world would no longer be a dog-eat-dog. We’d have to call it something else. Doggie-dog might do. But a better description would be: the fulfillment of God’s reign on earth. Heaven.
Psalm 23 you see can be read to be about the promise, the real potential of heaven within our reach. We prove it’s possible in this hour together, every Sunday morning. If it’s possible here, it’s possible out there! Not just in our homes today but everywhere all the time! With God as our shepherd; we shall not want, we shall not lack peace, even in a pandemic. With God tranquility and love are the norm. With God as our Shepherd heaven itself is within our reach. AMEN!
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2007
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED