A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Psalm 23:1-6; Revelation 7:9-17
There are some passages of scripture that are so well known they become indelibly associated with particular events. We have mentioned this before, but if you don’t mind I’m going to do so again because it’s a perfect example…
When you hear a recitation of 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter of love – “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” – what do you think of? Chances are, the first thing that comes to mind is a wedding. Right? We hear Paul’s admonition repeated just about every time we witness two people joined in matrimony.
The same is true with the famous passage from Ruth… “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to turn back from following thee! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die…”
Perfect scriptures for weddings. Absolutely perfect.
Except, neither of these passages has anything remotely to do with marriage or the love between two people that leads to the altar.
Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, the passage that has to do with love, is inveighing against their spiritual smugness, trying to get them to see that they have let selfless love take a back seat to other, less important considerations. And Ruth is committing herself in fealty to her mother-in-law, not to her groom. That will indeed come later in the story when she weds Boaz, but what was said at the wedding can only be left to our imagination. The Bible says nothing about that.
But, these passages have become so entwined with the wedding event, we might as well just go ahead and give in and let it be what it will be. In fact, that is exactly what I do. For awhile I refused to quote these passages at weddings because I feared being caught using scripture out of context, and then I realized how silly that really was. My former seminary professors who might have frowned at such a thing never attend any of the weddings I officiate, so why not? If the words fit, use them! So I have, a number of times at the wedding altar, gladly taking them out of the context in which they first were written.
So, with that as a background, let me ask you… when you hear the 23rd Psalm being recited, what comes to mind? The first question out of your mouth is, “Who died?” 1
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
It is true… the 23rd Psalm is read at just about every funeral conducted in this church, and in the ones you attend in other places from time-to-time. There’s good reason for that. Almost every time I recite it, I see the effect it has on the family of the deceased, and often on the congregation in attendance. It’s as if a wave of calm and understanding comes into every human heart. Heads will begin to nod, and many times I will see those in the congregation voicing the psalm with me silently as they move their lips.
We often use it as a responsive reading in our funerals, as we did earlier in today’s worship, because it is simply perfect for this kind of use. Not only is it truly a wonderful passage of scripture, it is beautiful poetry as well. The words comfort and inspire us, but even more, the very rhythm of it just gladdens our hearts. This psalm is the perfect example of how certain words, when put together by true inspiration, can enter into a person’s heart and soul and penetrate in way that nothing else possibly can.
There is a possible negative side to this. Frederick Buechner says, “The music of the psalm is so lovely that it’s hard sometimes to hear through it to what the psalm is saying.”2 Yet, even then, it can have a powerful effect upon us.
I have a minister’s manual that I bought when I was in college. I’ve used it so often the book’s spine is being held together with a kind of duct tape. It’s a small book, but includes instructions on how to conduct everything from a child dedication to deacon ordination. It even tells you how to organize a church, though I don’t plan to do that any time soon! It includes pertinent scriptures for just about any occasion that comes up in the life of the church. And, of course, it does the same when it comes to weddings and funerals. I don’t use it for weddings, but I’ve conducted enough funerals and burials over the years that I’ve just about worn it out. If you’ve ever attended a burial I’ve conducted, then you’ve seen it in my hands.
The one time I did not use it was when Dr. Hicks died.
I am currently, for our Centennial celebration and with the help of Edwina Mann, writing an interpreted history of our church. It is indeed a labor of love. One of the most meaningful things I have done, in preparing this history, is re-visit the life and ministry of Harold Hicks.
For those of you who were here when we came in 1996, you may recall that my very first funeral was for this church’s beloved pastor emeritus. If you are fairly new to our church, perhaps I need to tell you that Harold Hicks commanded this pulpit for almost thirty years, and was the pastor when the church transitioned from the old, original sanctuary to this building in 1951. It was during his years that this church witnessed phenomenal growth, and became known as one of the most significant Baptist congregations, not only in Arkansas, but throughout the South.
Known affectionately as the “benevolent dictator,” he was a kind and gentle pastor, but he had his definite and strong beliefs, and was not hesitant to let his feelings be known. If you doubt that, just ask Rosie Dunham. She worked with him every day, and can tell you how he kept the thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer, and wouldn’t allow food or drink in the church office.
Dr. Hicks’ family requested that at his burial in Pinecrest I use his old minister’s manual, much like the one I showed you. It had been given to him a number of years before by the good folks at Ruebel Funeral Home, but was still new enough that in it the 23rd Psalm had been translated into a more modern English from the King James. I noted at his burial service that Dr. Hicks had taken a pen and crossed it out! He preferred the psalm in the old King James, as do I… and, I would imagine, as do you.
But still, why is it such a favorite at funerals? After all, there is no – not one – past tense usage in the entirety of the psalm. Every verb, until we get to the last verse, is present tense…
The Lord IS my shepherd…
He MAKETH me to lie down in green pastures.
He LEADETH me beside still waters.
He RESTORETH my soul…
And then, when we do get to the last verse, the verb is future tense, not past…
And I WILL dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Isn’t it true, that when we conduct a funeral service, as we talk about the deceased, we do so by referring to the past?
But if the 23rd Psalm uses the present tense, doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that it is for the living and not the dead? Precisely. We don’t read it at funerals for those who have died. We read it for those who grieve. We read it for the living who are going through the sadness of loss. And we read it because everyone of us, at one point or another, will experience what it means to walk through the valley of the shadow of death… not just our own death, though that will inevitably come. The 23rd Psalm gives comfort when we lose those dearest to us. It is for the living.
It may very well be that what the psalmist had in mind, when he referred to the valley of the shadow of death, was the Baca Valley in Palestine. The valley is filled with balsam trees. I remember balsam from when I was a boy. We used to fly small, lightweight model airplanes that were made of balsam wood and propelled by rubber bands. Do you remember them? The wood is so lightweight that it was perfect for this.
Balsam trees exude a gummy substance, so were known as the trees that weep. In 2 Samuel, there is a reference to a Bacaim Valley, which may just be the same. In some of the ancient non-canonical writings, it is associated with Gehenna, which, in the Greek New Testament, is the term for hell. So the psalmist is depicting experiences which could be characterized as “hell on earth.”
I started preparing this sermon Monday morning, prior to the running of the Boston Marathon, and had in mind the hell on earth that comes when we lose a loved one. I concluded this sermon Friday morning when the dramatic manhunt was on for one of the suspected terrorists. We are living in difficult times, to say the least. These days, if we’re not careful – or should I say faithful – we will find ourselves giving in to the evil forces that try so desperately to overcome us. We will yield to the hell on earth that comes when we do not know what evil is lurking around the next corner… or the next finish line. Fear will be the name of the game, not faith. Never before have we more desperately needed the 23rd Psalm.
The 23rd Psalm may be an ancient writing, but its message is as real and contemporary as this morning’s news headline.
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.
The imagery that runs throughout the psalm, of course, is that of a shepherd. The staff to which the psalmist refers was long, with a crook on the end. Sometimes, a sheep would fall down a precipice onto a narrow ledge. The shepherd would use the crook to lift it up to safety. Earl Palmer, a Presbyterian minister, wants to know what our testimony is when we find ourselves hanging precariously on the ledges of life. Have you ever been there, hanging on, wondering how much longer you can hold out? Are you there now?
Well, let me share a word with you that has fallen out of usage somewhat. In fact, my own experience tells me that it is becoming a rare commodity, especially when it is applied to the life of faith. The word is trust. We often talk about faith and hope and love. Didn’t Paul mention them as being the “Big Three” in his letter to the Corinthians? But let’s not forget about trust.
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that trust is not something that comes easily… or should… that you have to build up your trust like you would your muscles if you wanted to get in good physical shape. And the only way to do that, she says, is to get lost. It is when you get lost that you need someone to come to your aid and help you find your way again.
She tells of the time she was in New York City and took the wrong train on her way to the Botanical Gardens. She ended up walking through a pretty scary neighborhood in the Bronx. A bus driver stopped and opened his door for her.
“I don’t have the right change,” she said, admitting that her eyes were huge with fear.
“Get in,” he said simply and rather forcefully, “Get in.”
God was driving that bus in the Bronx that day, she says, and it is through experiences like this that we learn to trust.3 God may be using the 23rd Psalm today – right now – in order to tell us to “get in.”
Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when everyone seems to be searching for certainty. There are no question marks with certainty, no room for searching and finding. The 23rd Psalm, I do believe, would tell us that trusting in the One who saves us is far more valuable than knowing without doubt how He does it. So if this timeless psalm does nothing else but inspire you to reach out your hand in the darkness, trusting that there will be a nail-scarred hand ready to receive it, it has fulfilled its purpose. The question is, will you let it fulfill its purpose in you?
Lord, may we walk in trust that you hold our hand no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Through Christ, our Good Shepherd, we pray, Amen.
1William F. Brosend, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 435.
2Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 125.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 83.