Dreamy Psalm 23
April 30, 2023 RCL A Easter 4
Did they know that they had scribed history? Did it come in a momentary flash, or was it fiddled with for decades? Is it fermented in memories of deep satisfaction, and/or, of being rescued from the edge of an abyss? Could it be a prince running from assassins, or is it an artistic vision composed by an unusually literate shepherd? There may be few other segments of the Hebrew scriptures that are repeated more consistently across time and across the planet than the twenty-third psalm. It is an umbrella we hold aloft for ourselves, for our neighbors. It is a tool of assurance as chaos enters our best-laid plans again and again. It invites us beyond being sunk in the inevitable quick sand of decay death and depravity. It is a colorful banner raised high in the winds, it is sewn in colors of earth, but it looks and feels like shades of color beyond our field of vision. Have you ever noticed or felt that Psalm 23 feels a bit like a dream?
It is the kind of dream that when you wake up, you are sad because it is not your reality. A kind of nirvana, a kaleidoscope of eternity; of never being alone, of always being known It is a dance through greener, softer, and taller grass than we have ever touched in our manicured lawns. It is water more refreshing than even a fine crystal glass on a sweltering day. The wild truth and beauty of this psalm isn't just all that holy kind of further out and further in, it is also because it meets us in the shadowy rubble-strewn valley. It is a dream-like world as in the anxieties that surface in our actual dreams: whatever it means about the train you can't catch, or the class you walk into naked. Psalm 23 in its otherness and its mundaneness gives grace to fragile moments and glorious ones by placing them in an all-encompassing sacred reality. It declares that it all makes sense, the tears and the losses too, or perhaps it makes no sense at all, but we are still held by a real loving presence.
In Judaism, Psalm 23 is recited weekly, at least once, sometimes more, during the observance of Shabbat, which is the day of holiness and rest that stretches from sundown on Friday to the same on Saturday. Weekly repeating is writing on hearts and minds that God provides for all; that the union of heaven and earth is not displayed by temples or idols but throughout the earth itself. If this Psalm has touched your soul, the appropriate response is to care for the earth wholeheartedly.
In the Christian tradition this 23rd psalm is closely associated with the burial rites, meeting us with the abiding presence of the shepherd when we are reminded of how life is always threatened by violence and despair, and stupidity, and at the same time, the natural end of life is death. We repeat Psalm 23 to call forth the deep hope of our souls and put our whole selves, dreams, and nightmares, in harmony with the flow of the creation. The trust illustrated here isn’t spoonful of sugar platitude, this is the trust that asks questions, that requires courage. The trust of this Psalm is grounded in millennia of prayer and grace, and the ongoing communal story of salvation that needed and needs, humans brave enough to be it - to live this psalm.
In the Christian traditions, we have no dividing line between this poem and Jesus who declares himself the good shepherd. It is like an old song, that comes to the soundtrack of a new movie, and we can never hear the song and not think of the movie again. Perhaps it was his very embodiment of this psalm, living its clarity in the face of our pain, its call to mercy and simplicity. Maybe his closeness to this whispered in their hearts, and ours, who he is. Psalm 23 holds Easter and Good Friday side by side, because every day is Easter and Good Friday. Everyday God sets a table before us, even as all seems to be falling apart. The majesty of this simple work of art is that like an incantation of hope it dissolves the distance between eternity and our reality. Say the psalm, write it on your heart, take its repetition into a weekly practice, and live into it as if it will bring you closer to God’s dream, because you are brave enough to be just that - God’s dream.