He restores my soul
Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43, April 17, 2016
“He restores my soul” The Reverend Doctor Thomas C. Willadsen, First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43, April 17, 2016
One of my colleagues says that Psalm 23 is the absolute hardest text in the Bible to preach. He even says it’s the hardest one to read aloud. It is so familiar, he believes that no one gives their attention to a sermon based on it because they already know it so well.
I have some sympathy for that opinion. The 23rd Psalm is easily the most recognized passage in scripture. More than ten years ago I started ending each meeting of the confirmation class reciting Psalm 100, the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. My hope is that saying these things out loud between 30 and 35 times will embed them in the students’ memories. I chose Psalm 100 for the simple reason that there’s a good chance that the students will have learned Psalm 23 already.
It is a really good thing to have scripture, a prayer and a statement of faith in your memory. It’s always there. Every kind of technology fails—and at age 52 I also must confess that human memory fails too—but things that we memorize orally, and rehearse periodically are reliably retained and can be recalled easily.
But there’s also a downside of this kind of memory—it can become rote, a mere repeating of the sounds, without reflecting on the meaning. And in the case of Psalm 23 that’s really unfortunate, because the psalm is filled with meaning and comfort.
I’ll never forget riding the el in Chicago more than 30 years ago hearing a man recite the beginning of Psalm 23…”the Lord is my shepherd…The Lord is my shepherd...” he kept reciting those five words over and over and over. Sometimes he’d emphasize them differently…”the Lord is my shepherd….the Lord is my shepherd…” It became almost hypnotic. I felt as though I were eavesdropping on this man’s private devotion… and what a gift! I heard the psalm in new ways. These most familiar words of scripture were revealing truth to me. And then I looked out the window. I was on the red line, rolling through the northside of Chicago…where there has not been a shepherd nor a sheep for at least seven decades! How could these words bring peace and comfort to this man, in this place? So far in space and time from when they were first written? It really got my attention.
Tradition has it that David, son of Jesse wrote Psalm 23. David was a shepherd, the youngest of eight sons in his family. He was a skilled musician and an able protector of his flock of sheep. The job of the shepherd was to keep the sheep safe from predators, and to lead them to places where they could eat and drink. David was both a skilled protector of the sheep and also good at keeping them calm and feeling secure.
David is known for killing Goliath, the giant of the Philistines; he probably used the same skills in killing Goliath that he did protecting his flock from wolves.
I’m going to go through the psalm line by line this morning, pointing out some things that you have maybe never noticed, or overlooked because the words are so familiar. You already have heard “The Lord is my shepherd…the Lord is my shepherd…the Lord is my shepherd…”
The second line of the psalm, “I shall not want,” is sometimes misunderstood. I know one person who read the psalm to mean “I don’t want the Lord as my shepherd.” I’ve heard one translation that goes “I have everything I need.” Which sounds kind of crass to me. The Message reads this way, “I don’t need a thing.” Sort of like saying, “because God is my shepherd I am safe, secure and provided for. I have nothing to worry about!”
The next verse, He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
is all about rest and refreshment. Green pastures have plenty of food to eat, that’s fresh and easy to chew if you’re a sheep, but it’s also significant that the waters are still. Sheep are very timid and easily frightened, rushing water scares them, so they need fresh, clean, still water. Enough food to eat, quiet, still, calm. The second verse is one of Sabbath and renewal.
The third verse, He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
For his name’s sake.
is easily overlooked. I want to linger on these words, “he restores my soul.” I will never forget visiting a woman in the hospital about 20 years ago when I was serving in suburban Baltimore. The hospital chaplain called me and asked me to visit this very, very tough lady named Nan. Nan was a polio survivor. She had numerous health problems throughout her life, but up until this moment her iron will and determination had helped her overcome all of them. But here she was unable to work hard enough to get better. It was humbling for her, and, when she admitted it, terrifying. She was not connected to a church, but for some reason she thought a Presbyterian pastor might be able to help her. I got the call.
I found her room and introduced myself. She told me what her situation was. She was quite knowledgeable about her condition and very articulate. But when we got past the facts of her condition, and started in on the feelings….it was very difficult for her to find words. She asked me what I thought and I told her that I believed that no matter what happens, God’s love for her was secure. I recited the 23rd psalm and I watched as the tension left her face. When I was done, I was quiet for a little bit, then I asked what her favorite part of the psalm was. I could tell she was reciting it in her head, then she stopped and said, “He restores my soul.” I’d never paid much attention to those words before. But something about Nan’s situation, her vulnerability, fear and honesty made me hear them with new ears. And what I noticed for the first time is that those words are in the present tense. God is right now restoring your soul. The psalm does not say, “God will deliver you in the end” or “God has been good to you for a long time.” No, right now God is restoring your soul. And that word “soul” can be translated “life.”
That verse is why this psalm is paired with the reading from Acts this morning. Peter literally restored Dorcas’s life. She had been dead and they were preparing to bury her, and Peter brought her back to life. He restores my soul.
I’ve been asking people this week what it means to have your soul restored. Better yet, can you describe a moment when you’re soul has been restored. Two words that keep coming up are “hope” and “relief.”
The next part of v. 3 about being led in the right path. It’s good to remember the symbolism of the shepherds crook at this point. It’s got a bend at one end to lift up sheep who have fallen into ravines, but it’s also a stick for leading sheep from behind and keeping them on the correct path. Part of the shepherd’s job is to keep the sheep from straying from the protection of the herd. Sheep naturally protect the most vulnerable ones in the herd. A friend who left a large animal veterinary practice for the Presbyterian ministry told me that “a sick sheep is a dead sheep.” Sheep are so good and concealing the weak and vulnerable members of the flock—even from the shepherd—that usually when a sheep is identified as ill it is very, very ill. A sheep that strays from the herd is very, very vulnerable.
Verse 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff—
They comfort me.
“The darkest valley” is how the New Revised Standard Version has it, you probably also think of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Think of the most terrifying place you can imagine. Now imagine that you have no fear of being there, because you trust the presence and protection of the Lord completely. The shepherd protects, reassures and comforts you.
Verse 5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
This verse is the one that needs the most explanation to a modern audience. In David’s time, when one was being chased by enemies, one could be safe from attack by simply touching the tent of someone to receive refuge and security. The protector does not have to do anything beyond allowing the person who is in danger to be in his presence. In the case of the psalm, however, the host offers extravagant hospitality, far beyond what is required, or what can even be hoped for. The person who is being protected is “saturated” with good food, protection and even expensive perfume. This is not Motel 6.
Verse 6, the conclusion is Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
It’s a continuation of the last verse, where one needs protection from one’s enemies, instead, one is literally pursued by goodness and mercy. Isn’t that an arresting image? Goodness and mercy are chasing you—and remember, this is the Lord we’re talking about—so they will find you, and surround you with protection and love and security. Your whole. Life. Long. You’re not just touching the fabric of the tent of your protector—you’re living in a mansion, fed, safe, refreshed. Forever. That’s why this psalm is so well known and beloved. It is a song of praise to God’s loving protection of vulnerable lambs like all of us. Amen.