The tensions in Psalm 23 threaten to rip it apart and shatter it into microscopic pieces of nothingness like a soap bubble
Occasion: Lent 4A
Text: Psalm 23
Topic: Coming to terms with our own fragility
Lord, you are my shepherd,
And I’m very pleased, for I’m a bit of a sheep (David Koshoff)
The Lord is my shepherd
He converteth me to lamb cutlets… (Pink Floyd Sheep Lyrics)
Am I my brother’s keeper? (Gen. 4:9)
Hanging on a cross, half-naked, sun-burnt, thirsty, struggling to breathe, bleeding, Jesus sub-consciously combed his memories to make some sense of dying at the age of thirty three. Mustering his last strength, he did not cry out ‘The Lord is my shepherd!’ Instead he voiced in utter despair the opening verse of Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!’ In his last moments Jesus did not experience God as a Psalm 23 shepherd, but as a Psalm 22 deserter.
We find this contradictory tension also in Psalm 23 itself. The astoundingly beautiful poem which we all know by heart seems like a soap bubble. For a few seconds it hovers in the air with its exotic colours and fairy-tale reflections. Then the tensions in its fragile surface rip it apart and it shatters into microscopic pieces of nothingness.
There are opposing forces in the poem which even threaten to tear apart the page on which it is printed. On the one hand we find a perfect religious symmetry between the likes of God and the likes of us. We picnic on the green pastures of our nature reserves. We relax next to the quiet waters of our swimming pools. Our GPS’s guide us onto the right paths. We are at home in our dwellings which are paid off before we retire. We feel secure in our gated communities protected by our security company’s crook and staff. We have enough food on our tables to follow the Paleo Diet, regulating our cholesterol and insulin. God is good. Yeah. God is great.
The reason why God shepherds us is for the sake of God’s name. God is intent on establishing such a good reputation with God’s creatures, that we will be at home in God’s temple forever—worshiping, praising, praying, kneeling, prostrating, Sunday after Sunday. Do you see this perfect balance? God gives; we obey and honour. We worship God; God provides forever. It is a beautiful bubble floating in the air.
To the contrary, Psalm 23 also exhibits an imbalance, a lop-sidedness, a theological lack of symmetry. Think about it. What happens to the sheep once it has been led from green pastures along peaceful rivulets, through dark valleys, rescued from predators, guided, eventually, to the house of the Lord? It ends up as a burnt offering on the sacrificial altar. Sheep are not raised and protected for the sake of the shepherd’s good reputation—he is looking for wool, leather—and lamb chops! In the psalm itself we find a world that is orderly, trustworthy and predictable. But we also find a world that is potentially dangerous, life-threatening and unstable. It is indeed a bubble waiting to burst because of its inherent tensions.
These are also the tensions of our own lives—our suburban and pastoral bliss with our shopping centres of plenty and our Jacuzzi-spas running over with oil and perfume. Then Reeva Steenkamp gets shot to pieces cowering undignified in a toilet of a secure apartment complex with her cell-phone in her hand one morning in its early hours.
When his baby girl had died a premature death, the Japanese poet, Ujoo Noguchi, wrote the following delicate poem in 1922 (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabondama)
The soap bubble flew
It flew up to the roof
But reaching the roof,
It broke and was no more
The soap bubble broke
It flew no more
So soon after it was born,
It broke and was no more
Wind, wind, please pass us by,
We want to see our bubbles fly.
These are the strains and stresses we all know and experience: Psalm 23 versus Psalm 22, The Lord’s my Shepherd, versus, God has forsaken me, our peaceful suburban life versus chaos and mayhem.
In a strange way, Psalm 23 has become the focal point of the young and the restless who want to radically challenge the establishment. On T-shirts and web pages you will find phrases like, ‘The Lord is not my shepherd because I am not a sheep.’ The underlying argument is that sheep blindly mimic or follow others, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps it was acceptable in ancient times to regulate your life according to the shepherd-sheep model; to view the king as the shepherd who guided his people, providing them with food and security. In the twenty first century we cannot live like this anymore. Nowadays we want people to think for themselves.
Francois Rabelais, that great French writer of the Renaissance, tells a story about a character called Panourge (Greek for ‘Scoundril’). He buys a sheep from a merchant and loads it onto a ship with his other sheep. He suddenly realises that he has been overcharged. Disgusted he throws the sheep overboard. Then something extraordinary happens: the rest of the sheep in his flock follow the first over the side of the boat. In spite of his best efforts to stop them, they all drown. Who wants to be like a sheep?
Nowadays, when we talk about government, we don’t like the shepherd-sheep model. In our thinking we as individuals delegate our power to a leader or a party who remains accountable to us, the voters. We don’t think top-down any more; we don’t raise our children to be like sheep; we don’t train our students to listen and reproduce uncritically; we think and function bottom-up.
Don’t despotic leaders who loot the treasuries of their countries trust in this herd-mentality to get away with it? Cosmas Mairosi, a Zimbabwean poet, wrote a poem in 2007 which, indeed, he called The Lord is my Shepherd (http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/10384/auto/THE-LORD-IS-MY-SHEPHERD).
Some of its lines read:
the lord is my shepherd
I shall not associate with members of the opposition
I shall not walk with demonstrators
for should I be found out
I shall be beaten or tortured
the lord is indeed my shepherd
I shall not starve
for I shall certainly be given food handouts
to vote for him
and other people’s land for free
and unto me a new law hath been given:
‘thou shalt praise the lordship in all his follies’.
Most of us can witness to the fact that the twenty third psalm has meant something to us at some or other point in our lives. It jumped into our heads when we had reason to be grateful for a great blessing; or when we had to face a trial of dark dangers. It has consoled us at funerals and given us joy at baptisms. On the other hand we have also experienced a sense of being abandoned, of being lost and afraid in a world we did not make.
Perhaps some of the tensions in Psalm 23, and indeed in our own lives, may be resolved if we accept that we are, in a sense, shepherds, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
The late Raymond Carver is one of my favourite authors. He wrote a story, ‘A Small Good Thing.’ The way in which I retell it may illustrate what it means to be each other’s keepers.
It is about a mother who went to a baker. She ordered a birthday cake for her son. With his radio blaring country music, the baker accepted the order. Working at night, as was his custom, he formed it into a space ship and placed eight candles in the red frosting. Nobody came to collect the cake, for, on his way to school, the boy was run over by a car. The parents kept vigil in the hospital as the boy battled for his life. They kept praying, and did not eat. They took turns to go home and freshen up.
The first night the father went home. The baker was upset about his clients. In the middle of the night he phoned the customer. ‘There’s a cake here that wasn’t picked up!’ The father did not know what it was all about. He slammed the phone down and later told his wife about a weird call he had received.
The next evening his wife was at home. Again, the phone rang. ‘Is this about my son?’ ‘Yes, it is.’ He answered rudely, ‘Have you forgotten about him?’ Very agitated, he slammed the phone down. She thought it was the hospital and rushed back to no avail.
The next day, the boy died. Late that night, the phone rang again. The husband picked it up, but only the sound of country music was heard in the background. The mother now realised it was the baker. Upset and angry they drove down to the bakery.
They screamed ‘What sort of person are you to harass us in the middle of the night about a birthday cake?’ He asked what sort of parents would forget their own son’s birthday? What sort of people would order a cake, and not come to collect it? ‘I worked right through the night to finish it, you know!’ The mother yelled that her son had died. ‘I wanted to kill you, you good-for-nothing’ she exclaimed, ‘I wanted you dead. Shame on you!’ and she burst into tears.
The baker allowed himself to be crucified by her curses. He invited them to sit down and made some coffee and took a brown loaf from the oven. He broke it and they could smell the molasses and coarse grains. For the first time in three days they ate; they swallowed the dark bread. He said he was sorry. And they told him about how their son had died and how unfair it was. And he told them about the child he never had, and his own loneliness. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Please God. Don’t let the wind come by.
We would like to see our bubbles fly.