Comfort Food

February 14, 2021

Series: February 2021

Category: Deepening Our Understanding of Familiar Passages

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Tags: faith, steadfastness, integrity, psalm 23

Today's Scripture

Psalm 23

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.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

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.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


Today's Sermon

“Comfort Food”

            We continue a series on deepening our understanding of well-known Bible passages with the 23rd Psalm.  I read it in the King James Version because it is the most familiar, familiar and comforting.  You might say that Psalm is like comfort food for the soul.  Just as we often hear I Corinthians 13, the passage we discussed a couple weeks ago, at weddings, we often hear the 23rd Psalm at funerals.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me…and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” These are immensely comforting lines.  I had a colleague at a large church who specialized in pastoral care.  She did something like 70+ funerals in a year and read this at virtually all of them.  Like I Corinthians 13, however, we may not be honoring the 23rd Psalm’s full range.  It may be about more than comfort, or it may be about comfort in a deeper and broader way than we realize.

            Our reading of this passage as a funeral text is a cultural one.  Acknowledging cultural influence is not criticism; it’s observation.  Sometimes people get defensive when we name how culture influences our religious understandings, but religion and culture have a dynamic relationship and always has, each flavors the other.  This can lead to a warping the message, but it can just as easily allow for new contours of the message to emerge.  It is only limiting when one confuses one’s own cultural lens on the text with its absolute and complete meaning.

            In some cultures, this Psalm is not primarily a comfort passage; it’s a victory song.  It’s a celebration of triumph not just a companion in loss.  Consider the words again, “You prepare me a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5).  These are a people partying in full sight of their enemies, enemies who they have just defeated, presumably with God’s help.  Their cups are flowing, overflowing with wine, oil running down their faces.  It’s a banquet, and God has set the table.  One might even say this is a scene of divinely ordained gloating.  Now, that offends sensibilities here, but if you are from a culture that has a history of being invaded, overrun, oppressed, or otherwise kicked around, the image of a banquet feast set for you by God where your enemies have to watch you eat, well that tastes pretty good.  How must that feel for God to be that kind of on the side of those who live and faithfully and with integrity?  Moving from a human enemy, won’t there be a sweetness when we can all break bread together, share drink with those we love when the pandemic has been defeated?  Will we not toast to our survival and God’s deliverance?

            Walter Brueggemann helpfully classifies the psalms into three categories, as I may have shared with you before:  Psalms of orientation, when things seem to be working the way we think they should – good behavior is rewarded with good outcomes.  Justice prevails, and the response is praise.  Psalms of disorientation, when the opposite is so.  The righteous suffer and the wicked prevail.  It’s not fair, and the response is lament.  Psalms of reorientation, finally, are for when the properly-ordered world has been disrupted, yet you have been seen through the valley and have now emerged on the other side where the world is again properly oriented.  All is right, and the response is gratitude and celebration.  What’s interesting is that for the psalmist, each of these is an occasion for prayer.  All of life calls for communing with God, whether it’s offering praise, crying out in distress, or giving thanks for having made it through.  The answer is always the same--stay in touch with God.  Don’t just pray what you think are the proper things, just pray.

             You actually see pieces of all three categories in Psalm 23:  God is the good shepherd safely leading the flock, the flock travels through a treacherous valley, but then is safely delivered as the metaphor shifts from pastoral to personal.  There is something to the movement through these parts of the psalm that expand our understanding of this psalm even more.  Notice at the provision at the outset.  The writer has everything they need – “I shall not want” (v. 1).  They are given green pastures, led beside still waters (v. 2).  These are material needs met.  Even soul is not a disembodied soul as we hear it; think of it as life force.  Our faith may indeed lead us away from wastefulness, but too often we make it about deprivation for deprivation’s sake.  Here the starting point is having enough.  How many of us, even in this land of plenty run ragged, beat ourselves up, or do not take proper care of ourselves for reasons that are both within us and the society we have created?

             Then the psalm travels through the valley, and Lord knows there are valleys in this life’s journey.  Valleys are not only darker – think about how short the daylight is in Yosemite Valley – they provide little room to escape from predators.  These are the exposed and dangerous places in our lives and collective life.  Again, the threat is existential.  Finally, the deliverance returns us to a state of being physically satiated, a table, a meal, a feast.  The two bookends are nurturing and restorative.  The message:  God wants us to be okay.  One of the interesting, and maybe perverse, things of our culture, which has so much is that because we have so much we, some of us at least, have this sense that we should torture ourselves to make us feel better (there’s an oxymoron) for having so much.  This, of course, does nothing to help those who actually need more and deserve better, and it doesn’t really make ourselves better either.

             No, the message of this Psalm is God wants us to be well.  If we were well, among other things, perhaps we wouldn’t constantly be chasing more.   This psalm is about comfort, but a broader and farther-reaching comfort than just at death.  And, lest you think this is all self-absorbed, wondering when the worrying about the other comes in, the mandate of the gospel, consider this:  if we deprive people of their physical and material needs, we deprive them of chances to feel both orientation, moments when the world seems right, and reorientation, moments when we’ve come through something difficult.  We deprive them of the experience of green pastures and a forever home in God’s house.  We, in essence, sentence them to a life in the valley where they are exposed and in danger.  In other words, because this is a psalm that stands up for comfort, it is a psalm that stands for justice, and that becomes our calling.  It, therefore, is not only a psalm for death; it is a psalm of life.  Amen.

Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“Romans gave Luther his theology, but it was the Psalms that gave him his thunder.”  — Steven Lawson

  1. What are your earliest memories of Psalm 23?

  2. Read it again and consider what your accepted interpretation might be leaving out or misconstruing.  Look at several different translations and note the differences.

  3. What do you make of the psalm’s treatment (and the psalms’ treatment) of enemies?

  4. What is the relationship between this psalm and integrity?

  5. What other than comfort might this psalm give us?