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Sun, May 12, 2019

Through the Darkest Valley

Duration:16 mins 28 secs

“Through the Darkest Valley”

Sermon on Psalm 23

4th Sunday in Easter, Year C

          Is there a place on earth where the 23rd Psalm is completely unknown? The psalm has been read and recited and prayed all over the world for thousands of years: in hospital beds and at gravesides, on battlefields and in prisons; on land, on sea, and in the air. It’s been whispered by people with Alzheimer’s who can remember little else. It’s been silently recited at 3 AM on those nights when we wake up with our hearts pounding. It’s been chanted almost as a talisman by people from all walks of life facing known or unknown terrors or plumbing the depths of their sorrow. It is a psalm for all seasons.

          My family didn’t go to church much when I was a child, but somehow I grew up knowing the 23rd Psalm. I was puzzled by some of its words and images, especially the verse “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” I imagined a long picnic table covered with white linens and set in a grassy field: a solitary man sat at the table, gnawing on a turkey leg while a crowd of ill-wishers stared at him with malice, perhaps waiting to snatch that turkey leg. I also pictured a large beaker of salad oil being poured over his head as he sat there – I couldn’t understand why that would be a desirable thing.

          To be honest, I still have those mental pictures and that points to one of the problems of a very familiar text like the 23rd Psalm: we continue to read it the way we read it as children, so we don’t always discover its richness and depth.

          Another problem with knowing a psalm as well as we know the 23rd is that we come to think of it in only one context. This psalm has so long been associated with funerals that we may have a hard time reading it outside that context – like the woman who was meeting with her pastor to plan her mother’s funeral and, when asked what Scriptures she would like to include, said “anything but the 23rd Psalm.” She went on to explain that she had never heard the psalm in any other situation than that of death and sadness, and it made her feel even sadder. But it’s actually just in America that this psalm is so strongly associated with funerals – it’s not known this way in most other parts of the world. In parts of Asia and Africa, the psalm is most often used in services of healing and exorcism. Philip Jenkins, who studies the church in the global South, where Christianity often thrives under repressive regimes, says the psalm should be read as a “political tract,” a rejection of unjust secular authorities. The evil the psalm condemns is not merely personal – it refers to all the forces of tyranny that seek to diminish human life and to subvert God’s rule.

          In its original context, the psalm is a powerful expression of trust in the God who provides, sustains and protects. The psalmist “lacks nothing,” as some translations say: God provides for basic physical needs, food and water, gives the psalmist a sense of direction and purpose, and provides defenses against evil.  The psalm relies on a complex set of metaphors for its effect: God is first and foremost that “shepherd” who tenderly cares for his sheep and rescues them when they wander off and get themselves in trouble; but God is also a “host” who graciously welcomes the faithful to a “table” of mercy and abundance and salvation. The psalmist prays this prayer of trust and thankfulness in what must have been an environment of hostility.

          The Book of Psalms is full of “enemies.” There is lots of trouble in the psalms, usually coming from one of three causes: sickness, armed conflict, or (the biggest category) accusations by enemies. The accusations could be formal lawsuits, but it is more likely that they were betrayals by friends and neighbors, even family members. Of all the laments in the psalms, the complaint about enemies is the most prevalent. Enemies are everywhere: they conspire against the psalmist to trick him or trap him; they threaten him like wild beasts; they taunt him and mock him. They gloat over the misfortune of the righteous. They are deceivers, outwardly smiling while inwardly scheming.

          Psalm 23 is no exception to this pattern: the psalmist appears to be praying out of a situation of crisis. We don’t know who our psalmist’s enemies were. The psalm has traditionally been attributed to King David, who had lots of identifiable enemies and engaged in lots of armed conflict, but David probably was not the author of this psalm. It’s more likely the prayer of an Israelite poet, perhaps someone who served at the royal court. Maybe he is thanking God for having already led him through this crisis, keeping him on the paths of righteousness as he dealt with the enemies, or maybe he is in the middle of trouble and expressing his confidence in God to get him through it. Either way, some kind of mayhem has been happening, and the psalmist knows that God is the one to turn to for help.

          This question of enemies brings me to another one of my childish readings that I’ve had to revise. When the psalmist walks through that dark valley – the “valley of the shadow of death,” in the King James Version, the one we all know – and fears no evil, it is not because the evil has been banished or eliminated. The “evil,” whatever it is and wherever it comes from – enemies, illness or death itself – is real. The psalmist evidently knows what it is to be afraid – clearly there are people in the world who mean to do him harm. But the fear is manageable, because the God who leads him to the still waters and green pastures, those ineffable images of peace, is always with him. “Though I walk through the darkest valley…you are with me.”

          Not long ago I read Rick Atkinson’s excellent World War II trilogy about the liberation of North Africa, Italy and Northern Europe by Allied armies in 1943-44. I was struck by how many references there were to soldiers reading the small Bibles they kept in their kits before they went into battle. One Scripture is specifically mentioned: the 23rd Psalm. As I imagined all the soldiers saying the psalm to themselves on the eve of a great battle or hunkered down in their foxholes with shells bursting all around them, the words of the psalm struck me with a new force: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  The great battles of the Second World War -- Cassino, the Bulge, the Kasserine Pass: these were literal “valleys of the shadow of death” – the enemies were present and implacable, waiting in the hills. The soldiers went into the inferno of battle trusting that even there, even in the chaos and confusion of war, in the unspeakable ordeal of blood and fire and pain and terror, God would be with them – whatever happened to them. 

          The 23rd psalm is indeed a beautiful, hopeful psalm for funerals, but it is not just that. It is also a psalm for the living. It is an answer – perhaps not the only answer, but it is the Bible’s answer – to the question of how we can live in a world that is dangerous, unpredictable, and often violent. It is an answer to the question of how we will face trouble and suffering and evils we cannot control.

          We, too, have enemies to contend with. Most of them are nameless and faceless. They may even be enemies of our own devising. These enemies are the voices that taunt us and lie to us, telling us that what we are is not good enough, what we do is not important enough, what we have is not new enough, and, most of all, that a God who is “with us” is not sufficient for our needs. These are the enemies that disturb our repose, stir up those still waters and ruffle the grasses in those green pastures. They are illusory and insubstantial -- they have the power to awaken our fears only if we let them.

          Apart from these insubstantial enemies there is one very real enemy – the one Paul referred to as the “last enemy,” death itself, not yet destroyed but not to be feared, because the power of this enemy has been broken by Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, God “with us,” and who promises to be with us forever. Jesus Christ is the One who has faced down all the enemies, and risen victorious. He is the One who has loved us and sought us and rescued us, and who leads us on to green pastures and still waters.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

May 12, 2019

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