William Sloane Coffin once noted that just as there is ultimately only
one hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," there is also only one psalm,
the 23rd. You might select a different hymn, but the psalm that is on
the hearts and lips of most believers—and even those who reside at the
edges of our communities, emerging only on rare occasions—is the 23rd.
do the words of this psalm resonate with our deepest fears and desires?
Why does it continue to sing of God's presence to us? There is a power
in this psalm. Like "Amazing Grace," it belongs to the inclusive
community of which our weekly worshiping congregation is only a subset.
In its simplicity, the 23rd Psalm is profound.
The 23rd Psalm is
frequently read at memorial services, but it speaks of life as well as
death, and especially of the Lord of life: "The Lord is my shepherd, I
shall not want." God provides for us. We know this, but sometimes we
forget. Those who prayed this psalm remembered their history: in 40
years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel lacked nothing. Each day,
God provided enough for that day. In a time of economic anxiety, this
affirmation of God's providence is helpful.
Here we're wading
into the subject of trust, so it's necessary to name the abuses of trust
present in our culture and in the community of faith. The term
"shepherd" is often a reference to royalty: the rod and the staff are
the signs of office, and God led Israel through the wilderness as a
shepherd leads sheep. Rulers are supposed to shepherd and care for their
people. Yet the abuses of power that have harmed our communities give
us pause: who is worthy of our trust?
Also relevant is the human
temptation to create idols, alternate sources of security: the company,
our professions, our retirement accounts, our middle- or
upper-middle-class ways of life. When these sources of security are
called into question, where do we place our trust?
Because the Lord is our shepherd, we have all that we need. God provides.
phrase strikes a deep chord as well: the Lord "prepares a table for us
in the presence of our enemies." The Lord provides a place of safety. A
few years ago I was meeting with a group of people and struggling with
the meaning and mission of the church of Jesus. We were a new
congregation, and we were attracting people who had been away from
church for some time. Some had moved through a difficult experience that
had distanced them from the church. As we developed a mission
statement, one of the words that came to the surface was "safety." I
didn't quite grasp the meaning at first. But others were insistent: the
church needed to be a safe place.
People are looking for
sanctuary. They are searching for a community that embodies the
qualities of the shepherd who watches over, protects, provides for and
creates a safe place for those under his care. In years past, the
Christian witness has been compromised because the larger church has not
always been a safe place for children and youth. People instinctively
realize that when God is with us, we are in a safe place, a sanctuary.
a violent culture, it is understandable that the creation of a
sanctuary represents a risk, but we also remember that the good shepherd
"lays down his life for the sheep." The familiar psalm that seems so
accessible is in fact edgy, even radical—it pierces into our deepest
vulnerabilities and fears.