In the Valley, a Sermon on Psalm 23

IMG_1305The dress I am wearing is the traditional Easter dress from the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Some of you know that my family traveled to Ethiopia over Easter break. All the Christian women will be in their white dresses at Easter time and on special occasions. I thought it would be appropriate to wear it today – especially in honour of the Ethiopian Christians brutally murdered by ISIS recently.

(I am going to refer to ‘God’ in this sermon as ‘he’ because it is just easier for me. Sadly there is no good pronoun for God – who is so much more than our limiting gender definitions. I thought of calling God ‘hesheplus’, but that would be just confusing and hard to say. So I ask you to please bear with me on this one.)

What is the valley of the shadow of death? Have you wondered about that? When we were in Jerusalem, we were taken to a deep gorge just outside the city. At the bottom of it is a valley, which used to be a path for travellers. The gorge is so deep and so narrow that even on a bright sunny day (as most days in Israel are), the valley is very dark – almost like night. It was easy for muggers and thieves to hide among the rocks and surprise travelers.

Could that be the valley of the shadow of death for the Psalmist? Perhaps. I can think of many other kinds of valley of the shadow of death though. The most obvious, naturally, is a poor medical prognosis. Finding out you that have a short time to live – for whatever reason – seems like it would be a very dark valley indeed. But there are others… being persecuted for a situation that is beyond your control, for instance. The death of expectations or dreams or a child. How about the death of a marriage or a job? Even retirement sets off a grief all its own. In fact the list I started writing out was so long, it occurred to me that if you are ALIVE you are actually walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For your next moment is not certain. The passengers on the German Wings Flight could not have known it would be their last day alive. The migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean did not know it would be their last day. The poor people of Nepal right now as a result of continuing earthquakes do not know from one minute to the next who will be alive. If you are alive, you walk in the shadow of death. BUT I will fear no evil says the Psalmist. I will not fear. I will not worry. I will not succumb to my anxieties.

Why?
Have you ever followed someone you barely knew down a long path in an unknown place, trusting that that person was actually leading you where you wanted to go? During our trip to Ethiopia, I did just that. There were times when I felt a bit nervous as I couldn’t actually see a beaten path ahead of us. My female traveling companion, Rekik and I followed a young man through ploughed fields, swamps, herds of cattle and jungle – but there was no visible path! Was our guide leading us astray? Could we trust him? I had momentary doubts that I swept aside because we really had no option but to trust him. At one point, we entered through a gate-like structure and our guide turned to me and said, ‘Lots of wild animals live here -hyenas, leopards, lions.’ I replied, ‘As long as they don’t consider me lunch, I am fine with that.’ But I wasn’t terribly consoled by this information. The guide, however, assured us there would be a rock-hewn church at the end of our walk. All I could do was trust him, and keep walking. And indeed, there was a church worth seeing after our long journey.

The psalmist says: “The Lord is my shepherd”, my guide, my caretaker. I never need to wonder if where he is leading me is a good place. It will always be a place of refreshment – where water, food and rest are to be found. He restores my soul. In the midst of fear and danger, the Lord leads your soul to peaceful places of restoration. However, he can’t lead if you are not following! Jesus says in John, my sheep hear my voice. Are you one of his sheep? Will you let yourself be led?

“Your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” A shepherd’s rod is used to prod or gently nudge the sheep in the direction they are to walk. The staff is for them to see from afar where the shepherd is located. Sometimes, he is behind prodding them along. Sometimes he is in front leading them. And, of course, he is always protecting them.

During our travels, we arrived at a lodge in the Tigray region. Across from our rooms was a small mount with a large rock on one end. Do you remember the movie, The Lion King? There is a rock the King climbs to look out over his kingdom. Do you remember it? Well that is what this rock was like – except for one small detail – you didn’t walk straight up the middle to the end of the rock. No, this rock, you had to climb by walking along the edge in a circle to the top. When all five of us in our group scrambled up the mount to take in the view, we saw the path and the steep drop down one side and suddenly got cold feet. I mean it was a loooong way down. It was then that I noticed the presence of an older gentleman. He was wearing a shawl – a bit like a mexican poncho, and a white baseball cap. He had a staff in one hand. For awhile he leaned on the staff and just watched us. When he noticed that we were hesitating, he gently walked ahead and said, “Here, put your foot here.” And he tapped a place on the rock. At first, I shook my head no. He said, “Here, it is safe. You can do it. I’ll show you.” He stepped ahead of me and turned around. So I took a step. He smiled, tapped again, and said, “And here.” In this way, he gently led me up. It was very windy. I was scared. But I followed. The rest of our group came too. Some of us gained more confidence than others, but we all followed. I later learned that the older gentleman worked for the lodge. It was his duty to ensure that the guests got the most out of their stay. And a huge part of that enjoyment was regaining our lost confidence in climbing up rocks and hills. I say ‘lost’ because I remember having this confidence as a child. I had forgotten that I had that skill already mastered.

“The Lord leads me in the right path for his name’s sake” – not because he works for someone else, not to save my name or my family’s reputation or even my soul – but to honour His name! The Lord, our God, is one god. His name is pure and not to be blemished. He is a God with integrity. He will lead rightly because that is who He is. He IS righteousness. He can do no other.

And then what does He who is righteousness do for the psalmist? – “The Lord sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” He will preserve your dignity! Have you ever been under attack – verbal or otherwise – and had someone step forward to support you? This is what the Lord does. He steps forward and claims you as an honoured guest, anointing your head with oil and making your cup overflow. There will be more than enough; more than you need. And that leads me to the last verse: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. “ I used to think this meant that only good things will happen to me, but now I wonder. Now I think that perhaps I will leave a trail of goodness and mercy from the overflow of the cup when I follow the shepherd. One summer day while walking in Durham, England, it started to rain unexpectedly.  I was wearing a purple cotton dress and found to my horror that there was a trail of purple-coloured water flowing behind me as I walked. That is what I imagine when I read that goodness and mercy will follow me. It will not only happen to me, but will overflow onto my path for those coming behind me.  Is this what the psalmist meant?  I doubt it, but it is a picture I quite like because goodness and mercy isn’t just about what happens to me, but also about how I treat others.

This psalm isn’t promising us that we will never experience death, but perhaps that death is not to be feared – just as life is not to be feared. Bad things will happen, but He does not abandon you. Remember who your shepherd is. The Lord is your shepherd. Are you looking for His staff? Are you listening for His voice? He will guide you gently step by step through the darkness and lead you to a peaceful place of restoration.  May He restore your soul today, this week and forever. Amen.

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About Lois Loban Stuckenbruck

Trained as a Ballerina, then completed a BA in Business Adm and English Literature at Milligan College. More recently trained to be a lay pastor (Reader) in the Church of England. Wife of a Biblical Scholar, Mother of three. I'm an American who has also lived many years in England and Germany (currently Munich). I have worked as an Editorial Assistant, Systems Manager (Xerox Stars on Ethernet Network), and several positions in higher education fundraising (Alumni and Development).
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