Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 3, 2020
“What Do You Want?”
Psalm 23 – Common English Bible
The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
2 He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
3 he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.
4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff--
they protect me.
5 You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
6 Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house
as long as I live.
There are two types of people in most churches. Ones who want Psalm 23 read at their memorial service. And ones who say, “please, please do not read Psalm 23.” People either think it’s so overused that the words have lost their meaning or that it’s so familiar, the words flow without having to think. And that’s ritual at its best. Not rote memorization but when the words are written on our heart. It was probably no surprise that on the very first Sunday of this pandemic, I read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear.” I’m grateful that Psalm 23 provides such comforting words when the life of a loved one ends. But at its best, it’s really about how to live.
In fact, Larry Ricketts, at our Lunch and Lectionary on Thursday, suggested that Psalm 23 should be read at every baptism. The group agreed that this is the best distillation of our faith: to be realistic about the dangers in life and that we have a comforter.
What do you think about when you hear Psalm 23? Today we could think of it in the context of nearly 200 dead in Denver, 800 in Colorado, 65,000 in the United States, and 234,000 people dead from Covid 19 around the world. And likely many thousands more under-reported. God rest their souls. May they live forever in peace. We are grateful to know that when each of them walked through their valley of the shadow of death, they were not, and are not, alone.
But I want to think about Psalm 23 in the context of the living – that is, living today while we are sheltered in place. Let’s look at the very first line from the translation we read this morning in the Common English Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” A good definitive statement. Straight-forward. As long as we have some toilet paper in the closet and some hamburger meat in the freezer, most of us are pretty good. But that line – “I lack nothing” – doesn’t sing. I don’t love it. It doesn’t tug at my heartstrings and doesn’t capture my imagination. It doesn’t roll off the lips like the King’s English, “I shall not want.” Plus, in the midst of a pandemic, to say “I shall not want” isn’t true.
I want lots of things. I want you to be here with me. I want human contact. I want to breathe without the smell of cotton and fogged up glasses. I know a lot of grandparents who desperately want to hold their grandchildren and give them kisses and tussle their hair. I know a lot of parents who desperately want to get their children out of their hair and back to school.
To say, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want?” That’s not true. I want a lot of things. A lot of good, righteous, and holy things. I want people to be able to go back to work so they can earn a living and take care of their families. But I also want it to be safe for them and people who are most vulnerable. I want a vaccine. I also don’t want to waste this opportunity to create a different kind of world, instead of going back to what may have been normal for us but was full of terror for others.
Psalm 23 might help us think through creating a new normal. What do you want right now that is meaningful and adds value to your life and to the world? What do you want right now that is shallow and takes value from your life; that takes value from the world?
The American economy depends on us wanting things. My apologies to small business owners and manufacturers and shipping companies and everyone involved in the supply chain, but we needed a pause to our addiction. To detox from our addiction to wanting. Prior to the pandemic, 70% of our gross domestic product was consumer spending, significantly higher than other industrialized nations – a combination of needs and a lot of wants. How much of what we wanted did we need? Well now, after some experience of sheltering in place, we may have a better idea.
Amazon has fulfilled some of those desires, requiring warehouse workers and delivery people to put their personal lives at risk to satisfy our addiction to wanting. But shopping online lacks the satisfaction of wandering up and down the aisles to see what flirts with us, tries to catch our attention, wants us to take it home. New stuff, better looking stuff. Renowned biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann said, “most of our wants are contrived and imaginary and phony. And driven by the notion that we are entitled to it.” Yes, how often do we fall for marketers doing a great job of making us aware of what we don’t have or that what we have isn’t good enough anymore. And who offer an easy fix: want more and buy more.
What happens when we can’t? Now we know. Not because we can’t afford it but because, well, you know. We can’t leave the house. There’s either going to be a huge surge in spending to meet our pent-up demand or a realization: we didn’t need what we couldn’t have. And that was a good thing. And, it can still be a good thing once we have a choice again.
That’s one of those side benefits of The Great Pause I spoke of last week. Just be aware that there will soon be a relentless onslaught for us to “help” the economy. Luring us back to an addition to wanting. But, as we emerge from our shelter, as you come out of the Pause, when you see that newer and nicer version of what you already have, remember the mantra from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” Or, “I lack nothing.” In this case, both translations work very well.
One commentary writer had a great sermon idea to have people take out a sheet of paper and make two columns. On one side, list ten things you want. On the other side, list ten things you have. Ten things you are grateful you have. And then ask, which would have a greater impact. Losing all the things you have or gaining all the things you want?
But I don’t know, that may have been a good idea 10 years ago (or 3 months ago), but is that really what we are struggling with today? I have my doubts that what we write down on our “I want” column would involve new clothes and going to the movies again. What do you want? Other than a haircut, I bet it’s mostly about relationships. And wanting people to live. No one wants anyone to have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death in order to make a living. We don’t need meat that badly.
On my “want list,” I want the Vice President, the official head of the national coronavirus task force, to wear a mask into a hospital. To demonstrate intelligence and show some (damn) respect to health care workers. I want the president to stop talking. And stop tweeting and stop threatening and stop blaming. Just stop. Of course, I have no control over that, except the power to vote – a power, I have to remember, that people in many countries don’t have, who are living under dictators who can successfully manipulate the pandemic into more power and money for themselves.
I want all the things I mentioned before. To be here together with you. Hugs. Fog-less glasses. But, I also really want to know what to expect next. Good or bad, what to do. Not so much about the virus or when we’ll have a vaccine, but I want to know what’s expected of me. What is expected of the church and each other during this in between time.
It’s similar but not exactly the same as what I said last week about wanting to know what our new normal will be. Here we are, stuck in between an end and a beginning. Knowing what’s expected of us would help answer the question: What should we be doing? Some of the things we did as a church just two months ago, without giving them a single thought, have ended. They are done. At least for the time being. Or is even saying that setting an unrealistic expectation? Can we promise that anything will be “normal” again? See how difficult this is? It doesn’t matter, however, because no matter how much I want it, we ultimately don’t and can’t know what to expect.
The Lord is our shepherd. And we shall not want.
We ultimately don’t and can’t know what to expect,
The Lord makes us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters.
We ultimately don’t and can’t know what to expect,
The Lord restores our souls and leads us in the paths of righteousness.
And so therefore, can you say it with me,
Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil: for thou art with us; thy rod and thy staff they comfort us.
We ultimately don’t and can’t know what to expect.
Except we know that,
You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies and anoint our heads with oil. And our cups runneth over.
What can we expect?
That Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives; and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Or, the one line I really like from the newer translation: “Goodness and faithful love” won’t just follow us but God will “pursue us all the days of our lives.”
And what more could we want? Yes, I’ll be honest – I still want more certainty. I want to know what I’m supposed to be doing. But what do I need? To trust our shepherd, who has always provided for us everything we need.
What do we need? To trust our shepherd, who has never left us alone and will never lead us astray.
What do we need? To trust the leading and guiding of the shepherd in this difficult in between space – knowing that some things have ended and other things will begin. And that’s OK. It’s just not for us to know yet what that is. We can’t make it happen by being busier or more innovative. And so, we can only learn to trust. A future that only God knows. And only God holds. But a future indeed.
Is Psalm 23 about death or is it about life? Is it morbid or is it hopeful? On a more practical note, do you want it read at your funeral or not? Just make sure your family knows. And why.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world