Sunday, 17 April 2016
My Story in God's Story ~ The Most Famous Psalm
Psalm 23 needs to be heard with new ears. Pastor Adam walks us through what a modern day version of this Psalm might be.

4.17.16 My Story in God’s Story Psalm 23

It was the last, most important, and by far the most terrifying task that we had ever assigned to our confirmation class, the first year Amy and I were pastors.  We were co-pastors in Harris, MN.  In order to “pass” the first year of confirmation, these 12 year-olds had to write their own psalm, and worse yet, read in front of the congregation, from the pulpit, during worship.  They were absolutely terrified and intimidated by the process because they had learned in confirmation, of course, that the psalms were this strange combination of poetry and prayer, theology and song and history, so beautiful that they have been teaching the people of God about God for centuries, so now it was their turn as Jr. Highers to carry on this noble tradition.

Now, we played a little good pastor, bad pastor with them.  I was the loveable pastor who understood their fears, Amy instilled the fear of God in them.  But in the end, we weren’t complete tyrants—we gave them several choices for HOW to write their psalm.  They could write a psalm of adoration or confession or thanksgiving.  They could write what is called an “acrostic” psalm, which meant that each letter of the alphabet became the beginning of their psalm’s lines.  Or they could re-write one of the Biblical psalms using contemporary language and their own experiences.

So they began to write.  And, of course, what they wrote surpassed our highest expectations.  They were amazing psalm writers, each in their own way.  But there was this one kid, it is always that one kid, it was Danny’s psalm that stuck out.  It was a rewrite of Psalm 23 and it went something like this:

“The Lord is my sixth sense, I have no worry of the future.

He lets me sit like a potato on the couch.  He lets me go where I please.

He gives me good sleep.

He lets me choose my decisions, but guides me along the way.

I shouldn’t have to be scared when he is there.

I am never hungry.  I can eat my fill.  Maybe someday we will all follow you.”

Brilliant!  You want to talk about someone understanding how their story is in God’s story?  Here it is!  This 12 year old boy took scripture and worked in new metaphors that fit his life.  And yet?  God is still all over it.  And yet he seemed to get what Psalm 23 is all about.  He just made it his own.  He’s at that age where he’s beginning to want his independence – God lets him go where he pleases, lets him choose his own decisions – yet still desires security and comfort of guidelines.  For him, the most restful and comforting and joyful place imaginable is, of course, on the couch watching TV, I would have said video games.  And nothing could offer more protection than a sixth sense, a special ability to see what others do not.  Don’t you see?   He really understood the essence of Psalm 23.  He got it.  He got the prayer and the poetry and the praise of the psalmist’s words to the extent that he could put it in his owns words and teach us a little something about what God is like.  That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it.

Today we are going to see if we can have a Danny like experience of God as we look at Psalm 23.  An experience where this poem, this song, this beautiful piece of scripture speaks into our lives in a real and powerful way as we find our story right here in God’s story.  Let’s Pray.

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.  Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.  Amen.

It’s hard to hear Psalm 23 with new ears.  I think that it is one of those scriptures that almost too familiar; we have seen it on pillow and postcards and greeting cards and seen it represented in paintings, both good and bad, and we have heard so many times that we don’t really hear it anymore.  It has almost become a cliché, this image of God as a shepherd.  It is almost at every funeral I go to, which I understand because Psalm 23 is so beautiful and comforting, but it is also ironic because it’s really not a psalm about death, it’s a psalm about life—about walking and sleeping and eating and drinking with God in the midst of everything we do in life, God is with us in all that we do.

And so when the Psalmist wrote this 23rd psalm, he was trying to give us a picture of what life was like when one trusted in the protection and provision and power of the Lord.  Now he could have just said it straight.  He could have said “I trust the Lord.  God is my protector. God provides for me.  God is the ultimate power in the universe..”  And that would have been true, but it would have been booorrring.  So what do we have instead?  We have poetry.  Why use poetry?  Because metaphors and creative words have a way of getting underneath our skin and awakening our hearts and souls to truth that needs to go deeper than just intellectual understanding and go so deep within us that it becomes a part of who we are.  That’s poetry.  You English teachers out there better say amen.

So the Psalmist could have said the “Lord is my Protector” and he would have been right, but we probably would have forgotten what he said.  So instead the psalmist wrote “the Lord is my shepherd” and it was so beautiful and poetic once you hear it you can never forget it.

Now, of course, saying, “The Lord is my shepherd” is a metaphor.  Metaphors are powerful and effective ways to say something.   But, please hear me on this, they are NOT to be taken literally.  They are to be taken figuratively.  Let me give you an example of a metaphor.  If I say, “Bob is a lion” – what do I mean?   I certainly don’t mean that Bob actually IS a lion, right?  No.  Instead by saying Bob is a lion, I might mean that Bob is brave or strong or loud, or kingly or maybe I’m just referencing a last name like Leon.  That is metaphor.  I don’t mean that Bob is actually a lion, but I do want you to understand some truth about Bob as I describe him.

When I was young, my mother would often say “it’s like Grand Central Station in here!”  Now, she had never been to Grand Central or even New York City, but somewhere along she had picked up this phrase, this metaphor, and so every time she said it, we knew she meant us kids and how noisy or messy we were.

Metaphors communicate truth powerfully precisely because they help us imagine more deeply.  They speak to our hearts and souls along with our heads.  So, when we read the first line of Psalm 23“The Lord is My Shepherd” this was and still is a powerful piece of truth because the Lord our God really, truly, does watch over us, protect us, and leads us every day to places of love, and peace and calm.  And I can say it like that, straight out, or I can say to you, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”  That’s poetry, and it sinks in deeply.

Now metaphors are most effective if we have some experience with the imagery.  Like it is helpful if you understand what it means to be a shepherd if you want to understand Psalm 23.  The problem is most of us only know about shepherds from stories, pictures, or maybe you have actually talked to a real shepherd at some point.  Most of us don’t understand this metaphor like the ancient Israelites did.  You see, sheep and shepherds were part of their every day reality.  When they heard, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  They all knew, intimately that a good shepherd is a matter of life and death.  That a shepherd is everything to the sheep, because sheep are wonderful, but they are dumb and they need a good leader.  The ancient Israelites could hear this metaphor and it would speak to their hearts and souls and lives.  We hear it and we can understand it with our heads, but I’m not quite sure it gets to our hearts.

So let’s re-write it.  For us, today.  For you, here this morning.  Remember Danny?  Our confirmation student.  Danny rewrote the 23rd Psalm and he said “the Lord is My sixth sense” and this was his 12 year old way of making God a part of his life.  What about you, who is the Lord to you in your everyday experience?  What guides you and protects you and empowers you throughout the wee?

Maybe you are a forester, okay we only have one forester that I know of here in the church.  But maybe you like Bruce Robinson like to walk in the woods.   Maybe for you you might say “the Lord is my compass; my true north; my point of reference; my way forward and my map home.  With God I am never lost, and my path is always found.”  Or what if you are an accountant or a treasurer or you work with numbers and figures all day long?  Then you might say something like “the Lord is my excel spreadsheet.  My organizing principle.  The Lord gives form and structure and shape to my assets and liabilities.  In Him, no calculation is too complex and the formula is always right, the equation always balances.  My work is always saved and backed up to the cloud.”

Or maybe you are a teacher and you are striving to help the next generation understand concepts and ideas, but also how to navigate life and this world.  And so you might say, “the Lord is my curriculum, my lesson plan, my always perfect teacher’s guide, who supplies answers and wisdom as to how to apply what we learn.”

What is it for you?  In your everyday life, the ins and outs, what metaphor, what image would you use to help you understand who God is to you, in your everyday life?

Because metaphors are at their most powerful and profound when they reach into your life in a concrete and tangible way.

I was trying to come up with a modern version of this for us Western New Yorkers.  Like who or what watches over us and guides us here in Jamestown, or in Chautauqua county?  Is it our state assemblyman?  Our mayor?  Maybe it is our history like the Lord is my furniture carpenter, or the Lord is the producer of I love Lucy, or the Lord is my a capella choir director, or something.  I couldn’t come up with it.  What is it that all of us need, all of us are guided by, all of us rely on.  And I almost went with the Lord is my Starbucks barista, but that won’t work for those of you who haven’t seen the light when it comes to coffee.  Then it hit me.  The Lord is my pothole repairer.  He leads me down smooth streets and my car does not swerve.  Yea, though I have come through the harshest of winters, His asphalt, comforts me.  He prepares a straight road before me in the presence of all the crazy, get off your phone, stop texting right now drivers that surround me.  Surely Fairmount, Foote, and 5th Avenues will be paved and we will dwell on beautiful streets until those people from the Institution show up, I mean we will dwell on beautiful streets all summer long.

Do you see how metaphors are at their most powerful and profound, even funny, when they reach into your life in a concrete and tangible way? Because you almost have to be a Western New Yorker to understand the pothole metaphor, right?  Not every city has the same yearly issue that we do with potholes.  Or to really get the excel spreadsheet metaphor, you have to know something of how the program functions or what it’s purpose is, or how the formulas work.  And to really feel the power of the compass metaphor, you have to know what it’s like to be in a place like the woods with no road signs or trails; you have to know what it feels like to have no way of discerning your direction.

Now, I do want to point out that metaphors also have limits.  They can only be extended so far before they lose their power to communicate truth.  For example, when I said Bob is a Lion, I didn’t mean that Bob has fur or claws or likes to kill and eat gazelles, or is from Africa.   No, Bob is not a lion in every way, just in certain ways.  When I say “The Lord is my pothole repairer” I don’t mean that the Lord shows up only when the weather gets nice enough, drives a truck around all day long and shuts down the lane you were hoping for.  The same is true when we imagine God as a shepherd; God is not a shepherd in EVERY way.  Right?  Shepherds eventually eat their sheep and the psalmist was certainly not saying that God protects provides and cares for you only to make a meal out of you—that is not what it means when we read “the Lord prepares a table for me.”  Metaphors have their power and also their limits.

Now, of course, metaphors are all over the Bible and this metaphor of the the Lord being a shepherd is not just here in Psalm 23, but it is one of the primary ways God gets talked about.  Even Jesus calls himself the shepherd, in fact, he calls himself the Good shepherd because in so doing he was evoking the image the meaning the power the understanding that the Jewish people around him had, because they had been picturing God as the shepherd of the people for centuries.  And so, he calls himself the shepherd and by doing this he is drawing on the daily life of his listeners who lived with sheep in their homes and had family members that were shepherds and who would’ve known that at night the sheep were gathered into large, fenced sheepfolds in the villages and that these did not really have gates with locks, but instead a small gap in the wall and the shepherd would actually lie in the gap at night, placing his body as barrier so that the sheep could not wander out and so that thieves and beasts could not wander in.  That is a good shepherd who watches over you at night.  And they would know that in the morning the shepherd would have to lead the sheep out in the pastures and fields far beyond the safety of village so they could find food and they would know you can’t get a sheep to do anything by prodding or poking or pushing him out, but that sheep learned to recognize the sound of their own shepherd’s voice and when he called, they would just follow the sound of his voice.  They would know that the purpose of the shepherd was to walk with the sheep in their coming in and their going out, and do all this for the sheep.  This is the love and the life of a shepherd.  And Jesus is trying to help the people see that that same love and life of a shepherd is how God deals and lives with us.  Every day, in all that we do, leading, guiding, protecting, hoping that we will listen to His voice.  Jesus is trying to show all of us the truth and power of who he is.  He is trying to let who he is sink down beyond just the words we understand with our minds, and instead sink down deep into our hearts and souls.

Now I said before that metaphors have their power and also their limits.  And when it comes to Jesus using this shepherd metaphor some people thought that he had gone too far.  Now yes, Jesus said he was the good shepherd in John chapter 10 verse 11, you can look it up if you don’t believe me.  But do you remember how John starts?  With another amazing metaphor?  John starts like this, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Okay, cool metaphor, God is THE WORD.  We will unpack that some other time.  But then we hit something astounding, something that goes too far, something that pushes the limits of this metaphor.  Because then John writes, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.  Wait.  What?  Do you know what that means?  Can you unpack that image?  Let me tell you what it means.  It means that the shepherd became a sheep…wait, What?  Why would a shepherd become a sheep?  Why would God become a human?  Oh, to show us what it is like to be a sheep at its best, the sheepiest of sheeps.  Oh, to show us what it is like to be a human being fully alive and at their best.  The Word is willing to become flesh, the Shepherd becomes a sheep, the Pothole repairer becomes a road?  Wait?  What?  Jesus has gone to far, this is too weird, we are now talking about something completely new.

Because now we are talking about the amazing lengths that God will go  to try and show you who He is and how He loves.  We are talking about a God who is Words jumping off the page.  A God who is a road that fills it own potholes.  We are speaking of a God who is the good shepherd who becomes a sheep, a lamb and that sacrificial lamb dies on a cross so that you and I might never have to leave the protection, provision, and power of the shepherd, the good shepherd both now and for eternity.

And this is the truth.  We might have to use metaphors and imagery to explain it because straight literal words don’t always cut it, but this is the reality and the hope and the truth of God, that we, the sheep, we the potholes, we the broken down, messed up, in need of a savior people, we are given a shepherd, a pothole repairer who understands us, has become one of us, so that we in our turn, might turn around and understand God and love, and the fully alive abundant life that only the shepherd can give.  This is the gift of God through Jesus to us.  And I pray that God will meet you not just here this morning, but in your everyday comings and goings.  And whatever metaphor you want to use to describe this God with you life is fine with me and it’s fine with God.

Remember that God loves you and I love you too.  Amen.