A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Eastertide, on Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10
I would venture to say that the 23rd Psalm is the most well known and beloved of all of the psalms, perhaps even of all of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It is one of those texts that for many people still rings with the cadences of the King James Version:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
And then, of course,
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
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How many times has it been requested for funerals, at the side of a hospital bed, or when someone has just died? For good reason, too, and not simply because of that phrase about the “valley of the shadow of death.” You might have noticed that in tonight’s reading, that phrase was translated as “though I walk through the darkest valley”, which is actually a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew. As Brueggemann and Bellinger observe in their commentary, “[T]he psalmist speaks out of a context of deep a danger and articulates confidence in YHWH as the one who will keep the flock safe and protected in the face of every danger.” Still, at funerals and at the time of death, I inevitably go back to that older translation, because at that point it is the grieving ones who are in need of that confidence and trust; it is the mourners who walk in the shadow of this death. The person who has died? Well, they’ve already passed through that valley, haven’t they?
This psalm is for the living, and if we forget that we might just skip past one of its most important assertions. “Surely goodness and mercy,” the psalmist proclaims, “shall follow me all the days of my life.” And here Brueggemann and Bellinger again draw our attention to the force of the original Hebrew. They point to what they call a “remarkable verb”, which tends to be translated as “follow”, though that is just a bit too thin. Instead these two scholars of the Hebrew bible speak in terms of “pursuit”:
[T]he psalmist is able to recognize that “goodness and fidelity” have been “in pursuit of him”; this remarkable verb suggests that the subject thought he was being pursued by dangers and threats, but in fact it was the providential goodness of God that was what had been following him and chasing after him.
This is the stuff of Francis Thompson’s mystical poem “The Hound of Heaven,” and it is something that the jazz legend John Coltrane played on his saxophone in the third movement of his spiritual autobiography, A Love Supreme. That four-part suite begins with his “acknowledgement” of God’s grace, and his “resolution” to accept and live into grace, but in Coltrane’s sometimes troubled life there followed a stretch of years when he lost his way and lived out of a more restless spirit. It is the third movement of that suite—called “Pursuance”—in which he acknowledges that all that he was running from was in fact the thing he most needed and craved; that it was God who had been “following him and chasing after him,” and only when he collapsed in an exhausted surrender could he truly recognize it. And how often is it only in a place of exhausted surrender that we finally realize how thirsty we’ve been for the water of life?
A Love Supreme resolves with a final movement called “Psalm,” which is a prayer of gratitude Coltrane plays on his saxophone. Here again he bumps up against the heart of the 23rd Psalm, for the written prayer that accompanies the suite is all about trust… finally, trust. James Limburg points out that in the Hebrew original of the 23rd Psalm, it is the phrase “for you are with me” that sits at the very centre of the psalm, with exactly twenty-six words preceding it and twenty-six following. “For you are with me”, even in the dark valley when I couldn’t see it. “You are with me,” even when I thought I was being pursued by something threatening. “You are with me,” even as I sit “in the presence of my enemies.” You begin to see that for all that this might be a psalm of comfort, it is one born of a resilient, seasoned, and even stubborn sort of faith. “The Lord is my shepherd” is a phrase that can sometimes be prayed through clenched teeth.
I believe that there were some clenched teeth at work in this passage from the Gospel according to John, as John tells of how Jesus drew on the imagery of shepherding. At least some of those teeth, though, were clenched not in resilience and faith, but in hostility. This passage flows seamlessly from what precedes it in the gospel, the story of the healing of the man born blind. Though physically blind, this man can see Jesus as a source of light and life, and it is from this that the gift of sight flows. Yet the ire of some of the Pharisees is raised, as for them the claims Jesus is making are unacceptable. This is what comes immediately before today’s reading begins:
Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains. (John 9:39-41)
And then without a pause, he continues, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” He is now launched into an extended teaching, in which he plays with shepherding imagery, first identifying himself as the “gate” to the sheepfold, and then in the verse immediately following today’s passage, as the “good shepherd.” John is quite clear that “they did not understand what he was saying to them”—that the imagery was quite lost on them—and so he begins again:
Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:7-10)
So given the context, who do you suppose Jesus has in view when he speaks of thieves and bandits? It is not a wholesale condemnation of everyone and everything that has gone before him—as if the prophets, the torah, the psalms were without truth—but a very specific critique of those he considers to have corrupted their calling to be shepherds of Israel. In her comments on this passage, Elisabeth Johnson offers the following:
The Pharisees who have interrogated the blind man in John 9 are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, those who care for, protect, and nourish the people. Instead, they expel the healed blind man from their community, refusing to believe that Jesus and his healing work come from God.
They are the blind ones, whose commitment to their own version of the truth has kept them from seeing truth itself. And in their blindness, they have blinded others. Though they may be able to say those great words of trust from the 23rd Psalm—“for you are with me”—they’ve lost sight of what the words really mean; of the deep possibilities that such words of prayer bring. To truly identify oneself as sheep of this fold, a lamb of this flock, requires humility and openness, and those are things that these Pharisees have lost.
Now listen to this psalm again, in this setting offer us tonight by the Shiyr Poets. Listen and embrace the humility, the openness, the resilience, the trust, even the stubbornness that it calls out of us. Listen, and pray… and see.