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Song of Passage, Song of Hope

April 18, 2016

Note: Read the psalm in several different translations, which may be found at www.biblegateway.com/versions.

“Song of Passage, Song of Hope” Psalm 23; John 10:11-16, 27-28 © 4.17.16 Easter 4C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The term “rite of passage” wasn’t coined until 1908, but ever since there has been a human race, people have been growing up and growing old, marking significant events along the way with ritual and record. Today, like our ancestors for eons before us, we celebrate birth, puberty, engagement, marriage, becoming a parent. We mourn the dead and prepare for our own passing. We could think, too, of the first tooth or step or day of school or date, graduation, getting a driver’s license, moving away from or buying a new home, starting a job, retiring.

All of these marker events are associated with what we have become accustomed to thinking of as definable stages of life, thanks to authors both scholarly and popular. We speak, for example, of the “terrible twos” and the “midlife crisis,” and maybe the “tweens” and “emerging adulthood.” With each stage, there are particular tasks to accomplish, passages to negotiate. Sometimes the journey is easy, but quite often, it’s hard. We come through, but having learned lessons at great cost to soul and spirit and body.

Psalm 23 presents us with the experience of an anonymous poet who has endured a particularly harrowing passage, so traumatic that he or she describes it as an encounter with death’s shadow. The psalmist has walked through not a valley, as in the traditional translations, but a ravine, a gully, a drainage ditch where deathly forces are very much present and at hand. He or she has felt hemmed in, surrounded by evil. Indeed, this psalm is best read as the editors of the Psalter intended, namely, in light of the preceding one, which begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The author of that poem complains about being a worm, scorned, despised, mocked, encircled by beasts, thirsty, lying down in the dust of death. “A company of evildoers” surrounded the poet. In the midst of such horror comes the cry: “Do not be far away, O Yahweh! Come to my aid!”

It’s a tortured psalm. But it ends in celebration, as the poet there tells of rescue and invites all the congregation to join in the praise of Yahweh, the one who hears and delivers. Psalm 23 continues the rejoicing. But if its companion pictures the Lord, Adonai, as Savior, the present poem imagines Yahweh as Provider, Protector, Guide, Companion, and Host.

The psalm is framed by two uses of God’s name, and tells us he acts “for his name’s sake.” It’s a sustained reflection on the identity and character of Yahweh. He’s first a shepherd, which in that day, also makes him a monarch, since kings were considered to be shepherds of their people. The shepherd and king are expected to provide for their flocks three things: food, drink, and shelter or security. These are not just spiritual, metaphorical blessings the psalmist claims Yahweh gives. For the poet, every necessity comes from the Lord’s hand, so “I nothing lack if I am his,” as the hymn paraphrase puts it.

A persistent claim of scripture, even against the raw and hurtful data of everyday experience, is that God will provide, whether manna in the wilderness or a way out of crisis or healing or even a mate or a child. When we are sorely tempted to deny such provision, the psalmist asks that we trust a little longer, look a little more closely, reach out to those around us in whom God is present. So often, I must admit, I go it on my own, get what I need and want by my own effort without a confession that God gave me this or that. I certainly don’t believe daily bread and opportunities just fall out of the sky like manna and quail. Are you ever like that? Our attitude may resemble a character in a novel I once read about: “he believes in God the way he believes in politicians—he knows he exists but doesn’t depend on him for anything” (Russell Banks, Continental Drift).

Against our unbelief, the psalmist insists that like a good king or faithful shepherd, God provides this-worldly care. He gives food and drink, even to the extent of a fine banquet. He grants shelter and security, whether by keeping watch through the dreaded ravine or by a life-long stay in God’s house with the community of believers.

The poet claims to fear no evil even in the death-ridden ditch, the close-pressing ravine where passage is difficult, for “thou art with me.” This is the heart of the psalm for then and for now. Ours is a day of fear on every side. It drives our politics and infects our religion. It undermines our relationships and makes us sometimes into monsters, because fear is the root of hatred, and hatred grows into violence. If we could not fear, what would happen in our individual and common life?

We find the poet naïve, don’t we? Evil is so strong and real and all around. How can we not fear it? But if we hear the psalm claiming evil is not a force to be reckoned with, we have misunderstood. If we hear the words as dismissive of our pain and hurt and sorrow, we must listen again to why the writer makes such an audacious statement. “I fear no evil” because “thou art with me.”

I use the archaic language because it gets at something modern English, though not other languages, has lost. “Thou” used to be the intimate second person pronoun, like “tu” in French or “du” in German. It was a word of friendship and love, mutual knowledge and appreciation, the word whispered in a spouse’s ear, the pronoun of brotherhood and sisterhood, companions gathered for good times. It was not the formal thing that ironically it became in a later day, serving to distance God when we addressed him. “Thou.” The one who, as the philosopher Martin Buber said, gives each person an identity. “Through the Thou a person becomes I.” The relationship with God is one of covenant partnership, an I and a Thou, in which neither is merely an object or a servant. Instead, we are companions on a journey. “I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”

Walter Brueggemann has written: “It is God’s companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean there are no deathly valleys, no enemies. But they are not capable of hurt, and so the powerful loyalty and solidarity of Yahweh comfort, precisely in situations of threat…. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of new orientation” (The Message of the Psalms: 156). When we must make passage through a difficult place on our journeys, when death and destruction and despair threaten to overcome us, we look next to us, behind us, and ahead of us, and there is our Emmanuel, God with us, the I AM, the Thou we know in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The great rabbi Harold Kushner and his wife lost their son to a rare disease, progeria, at age 14. Surely a passage through a dark valley. In an interview about a dozen years ago, he said: “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side. He will give you the strength you need to find your way through.”

He went on: “The psalmist is not saying, ‘I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.’ He’s saying, ‘This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side,… not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.’ The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question, ‘How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’

He concluded: “I want to believe in a loving God. And when you see children dying, when you see innocent people suffering, and when you see young parents stricken with an illness, how can you believe in a God of love and compassion unless you are prepared to say, ‘Some things happen in the world that God does not want to happen.’ God is good. Nature is not good. Nature is blind. Nature is amoral. Fire burns and bullets wound and falling rocks injure and disease germs infect everybody, whether you deserve it or not.

“I was inspired to write all of my books, starting with When Bad Things Happen to Good People by the death of my son, who was 14 years old and was born with an incurable illness. I asked myself, how did my wife and I get through that? You would think that would shatter the faith of the average person. Where did we find the strength and the ability to raise him, to comfort him when he was sick and scared, and ultimately to lose him? And the only answer is, when we used up all of our own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenishes your love and your strength and your faith.

“But people who have been hurt by life get stuck in ‘the valley of the shadow,’ and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that’s the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and not to justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again” (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/?p=15271).

But God’s companionship behind, before, and beside us is not only there to comfort our anxious hearts, assuage our fears, and restore our humanity when hatred and hurt have taken it. It’s there to keep us on the right paths, to ensure that we never stray.

Apparently sheep have a very poor sense of direction and sight. They can’t find their way like a dog or a horse or a cat. They get lost, wandering into cul-de-sac canyons instead of to green pastures. They need the shepherd to keep them on the right way.

The psalmist likens God’s people to such sheep, needing guidance to stay on the right path that leads to God’s house, where there is laid out an abundantly provisioned banquet. The poet doesn’t say how Yahweh guides us, but I think we could mention scripture, conscience, prayer, and my favorite, the listening ear and the wise counsel of others in the community of faith. Do you want to know how God is with you to guide? Look around you in this place. Your sisters and brothers are the presence of Emmanuel.

Many years ago, near the beginning of my ministry, I was let go from my first staff position. After that, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or could do. I thought about going to law school after I started working for a law firm in Mobile, chucking ministry that had already been so hurtful and soul-destroying. One night at a party, an older minister struck up a conversation with me. Somehow he knew I was “floundering,” as he put it later. His name was Tom Walker, and he became my mentor. He guided me in the right paths, helping me get into Columbia Seminary where I began work on my doctorate, taking me out for pecan pie and coffee on Sunday evenings to talk about my many questions and problems, even arranging for me to have an unpaid position on his church staff, just so I could keep connection with the church. I can’t imagine where I would be now if Tom had not taken me under his wing. It was through him that Yahweh led me beside still waters and restored my soul, which as one of my doctoral professors observed, had been in “emotional retirement from ministry.”

Perhaps we all have or have had someone like that, whom God uses to lead us. Or we have become that person to another, gently guiding and guarding, a companion through a dark valley.

However he is present, God never leaves us alone, even if sometimes we wish he would let us do what we want, which may be to stray “perverse and foolish” from time to time. See, he has these two heavenly hounds named “Goodness” and “Faithful Love,” “Tov” and “Chesed” in Hebrew. They don’t just follow us around like little puppies with their tails wagging, as so many translations might lead us to believe. No, the original says they “pursue” us. They chase after us when we are in danger of wandering off and put us back on the right path. They watch after us, not letting us out of their sight. If you’ve ever owned a hound, you know they are relentless, never giving up the pursuit. The psalmist is saying God will not give up on us. Love and goodness are his very name, and he lives up to his reputation, acting “for his name’s sake.”

This psalm is almost exclusively associated with death and funerals, and it’s fitting and helpful that we hear it at the grave. But it’s also or even primarily a song for every passage of life, the negotiation of a treacherous road to our little detours and sidetracks to the good and hopeful experiences of dwelling in peace and plenty. From birth to death and every moment in between, the Lord, the Holy Thou, is with you, with me, as he shall be forever.

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