by Rev. Margaret Smart-Wheaton
“The Lord is my Shephard I shall not want.” When most people hear these words what instantly comes to mind is a funeral. It is the most requested passage for funerals so even those who have very little familiarity with the Bible seem familiar with these words. Though these are words we associate with death they are powerful words for life. Perhaps they are most requested at funerals because the line “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil” encourages us to entrust the one who has passed to the care of a merciful God. Yet these words also show us the way to entrust our own continuing lives to the presence of God.
Ultimately Psalm 23 is a prayer for help spoken in the midst of dire crisis. The crisis is described as “the darkest valley” and “a table … in the presence of my enemies.” There are times in our lives when we are like lost sheep wandering, scared, overwhelmed and hedged in by situations that seem to rise up on each side blocking the light of hope, casting dark shadows across the path we are walking. And there are times when it seems like we are surrounded by enemies and relationships mired in personality conflicts, hurts and misunderstandings.
In Psalm 23, the person speaking is in a crisis that threatens to overwhelm them but they counter the fears, questions and the torment of the situation with a confession of faith. A confession of faith is when we look at what the world and life are throwing at us and meet that reality with a statement of truth about who God is.
So yes – sometimes it seems that we walk through a dark valley – but equally true in that place is this: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” God is with us. We are not alone. No matter what we are going through God is available to us as the one to guide, correct and comfort us. God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But no matter what we face or how lost we feel, available to us is all we need if we will rest in God’s presence. God is enough for whatever we are facing and more than whatever it is that we may think we need.
“He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul; he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake” The journey though darkness can be hard and painful. But God invites us to come, rest and be restored from the long rough journey. We have the assurance that the things we really need – a moment of calm, living water, the right path, goodness, mercy will never be withheld from us. We are always welcome to turn, to rest and most of all to trust in and be restored by the goodness of God. Yes even in the presence of our enemies we are never alone. In fact it is there that God is most present… preparing a table to nourish us, anointing our heads with oil to heal us, filling our cup to overflowing with peace, grace and hope.
This is a Psalm that calls us back to the steady place of trust. Trust requires that we believe the promise of Scripture that declares God’s presence, God’s power and God’s personal concern and compassion for his people. The only possible responses to a promise are to believe it or not to believe it. To live as if the promise is real and trustworthy or to live as if the promise isn’t real or trustworthy. Sometimes we need a faith community of people who have lived through many great trials to bear witness to the trustworthy character of God. This community includes the writer of Psalm 23 and other witnesses through the Bible and this community also includes the people we gather with to share the journey of life and faith.
Next week I will lead my congregation through a funeral and an announcement of new life as we celebrate Easter. On Friday we join the ancient witnesses in the story of Jesus, hung on a cross and buried in a tomb. It is a dark and difficult day when we remember just how cruel people can be, how devastating it is to witness the death of one we love. On Sunday we will greet the morning with the announcement that Jesus has risen. New life triumphs in the face of death, love is stronger than evil. Most of all we will affirm together, that there is no valley so dark that God has not already walked it, there is not betrayal so deep that God has not already experienced it, no enemy so strong that God has not already triumphed over it. These are God’s promises – these are the promises that Jesus went to the grave to reveal to us – that he is the good shepherd, we can trust his voice and he will lead us to life. And so it is that we are empowered to lift our heads, face a new day of living and declare: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”