Out of the Shadows: March 26, 2017/ Fourth Sunday of Lent

Out of the Shadows

“YEA, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!” Is often the first line that comes to mind when many of us think of Psalm 23. In our country, this Psalm is often read at funerals, which is perhaps why that particular line stands out.

When I was in elementary school, we were often given the task in Bible class to copy down Scripture from our Bibles. And we were required to use a King James Bible. Which, as pretty as it sounds, is not actually a great academic translation from the original languages. It’s an especially unfit translation for six year old children who are just learning to read modern English well.

My dad, an academically minded Presbyterian Minister – in case you were wondering where this particular pastor got it from – insisted on getting me a NEW King James version Bible. That said, the language in even the New King James is very similar to the regular King James translation. And every time I think about passages that I had to copy by hand in elementary school, they come to me in the King James.

I think that’s true for many people who grew up in the church or in a Christian school any time until around the 1980’s. One of the problems with that translation is that it is such old and dramatic language that it can be confusing or distracting. I remember thinking as a little kid, “Why are we saying ‘yea’ before walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death? That doesn’t sound like an appropriate response. . .” Eventually, I figured out what it meant.

For those who grew up with it and have learned the special code of what the thees and thous and yeas mean, it’s a rhythmic reminder of days gone by. For those who haven’t heard it before, it’s weird and doesn’t make much sense all the time.

The King James English is so flowery and expressive, even when we are privy to the “code”,  it misses much of the simple, parochial poetry of the Hebrew. The life of a shepherd thousands of years ago was not dramatic or glamorous or flowery. It was every day work. It was simple and peaceful in many ways, but it was also often dangerous and always pretty stinky. Sheep look nice from a distance, but if you’ve ever spent time in close proximity to one, you know that they are only pretty from a distance. There is actually a unit of distance measurement invented by one of my favorite authors, Douglass Adams that is “A measure of distance equal to about  78 of a mile (1.4 km), defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque.” It’s called a “Sheppey” after the Island of Sheppey, which as you may be able to guess, has a great many sheep. I promise you that shepherds have to stay well within a sheppey of their sheep to protect them and care for them. David, the shepherd grown into king who wrote this particular Psalm wrote with simple words that were easy for the people around him to understand. Even those who had never been shepherds could relate to his analogy of the Lord’s care because of his simple, relatable language.

The simple language of this Psalm is made even more powerful when we think about the shepherd who wrote it. He took his own job and said, “God does that for ME!”

I might say, “The Lord is my pastor. God provides me with spiritual care and nurture. He makes me think about my Bible in new ways and he challenges me to engage in the world.”

My husband might say, “The Lord is my programmer, he wrote my very code and debugs me when I start to do the wrong things.”

My cousin could say, “The Lord is my nurse. God heals me when I’m hurting and makes me to feel better when I’m sick.”

My sister might say, “The Lord is my teacher, he shows me what I need to know to survive in the world and helps me to learn and grow each day.”

You could take a passion or hobby:

“The Lord is my painter, God created every beautiful thing about me and made me a masterpiece!”

“The Lord is my gardener, he planted me carefully and waters me so that I grow and blossom. God gets down in the dirt and the mud to care for me.”

“The Lord is my running coach. . . yea, though I run up that terrible hill into Oakland, I will finish the race.”

That last one might not be super relatable for everyone, but I’m thinking about getting it printed on a T-shirt for myself for my next race. But you get the idea.

The powerful and relatable metaphor in this Psalm is exactly why, no matter which translation we prefer, this Psalm is a favorite of many around the world. It’s easy to picture the streams and the meadows and how God brings us through them. We can all relate to times in life in which we have felt like we are under the shadow of death.

Part of the reason that I had Tim chant it with me this morning instead of just reading it – aside from the fact that I just think chanting the Psalms is one of the most beautiful art forms ever – is that it helps to break us out of our regular patterns of how we listen to such a familiar part of Scripture. It forces us to listen to the words differently. Our brains process music differently than spoken word. While this Psalm is often used at funerals in our culture, it is not just a Psalm for the valley of the shadow of death. It’s a Psalm for the green meadows and the still waters as well. It occurs in the lectionary something like six times!

When we are walking in the valley of the shadow of death, it’s easy to long for the still waters and the green meadows, but when we are walking beside still waters and resting in green meadows, it’s much harder to remember who put us there. It’s easy to take credit for our own hard work when times are good and easy to say “woe to me!” in the hard times. We must remember that we cannot find the still waters or the green meadows on our own.

The reason sheep must have a shepherd is because they are not very smart or resourceful. If left alone, they will just keep grazing and grazing until the green meadow is barren. They will strip it of absolutely everything good and healthy. They have to have someone to lead them to more grass. They need someone to take them to the water. When we’re in the green meadows, we have to remember that we did not take ourselves there. And we have to remember that the green meadow is not our final destination. We have to keep moving, following our shepherd, lest we get stagnant and stuck. Things are always changing and we must trust our Shepherd to lead us through the valleys to the meadows and streams.

When we’re in the meadows and streams, we have to remember that we aren’t there to stay forever. And while this is, primarily, a Psalm written for individuals, this is true of our lives as a flock of sheep too. Churches get themselves into trouble when they refuse to be led by the Shepherd from one meadow to the next. Sometimes, the meadow has been picked clear and the flock has to follow the Shepherd to the next meadow.

In many parts of the world, this is not a funeral Psalm, but a political Psalm. “Shepherd” was not just a literal job in the days this Psalm was written. It was also an analogy for leadership. It’s a defiant way of saying to the powers of the world and culture, “The LORD is my shepherd, NOT YOU!”

GOD is the one who leads me to still waters.

GOD is the one who shows me where the food is.

YES, even when death is on the prowl, GOD is leading.

YES, even when my enemies are prowling around, GOD IS LEADING and PROTECTING.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me” is better stated in English as “God’s steadfast love and mercy will stalk me and hunt me down till the end of my days!” For all of its parochial, sheep-filled charm, this Psalm is anything by tame.

Where is God leading us as a congregation? God is still leading, even if we are determined to stay in the same old, chewed up meadow we remember from years gone by. We just have to follow. Ee might have to go through a scary valley to get to the next meadow. But God doesn’t desire for us to stay in the same place for too long. Even if it’s comfy. Even if we remember when that particular meadow was green and lush. There is another meadow to be grazed.

Where is God leading you as an individual? God is leading you, friends, even when you are in the scary valley, and especially when you are walking alongside still waters. We can’t sit by the same water’s edge forever without starving to death.

As we sing our next hymn, listen once again to the powerful words Psalm and ask God where you, where WE are being led.