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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 4/26/2015

In one of Garrison Keillor’s early Lake Wobegon monologues he talked about Memorial Day celebrations from the past when schoolchildren, having been properly prepared, were called on to recite either Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the old poem “In Flanders Fields” about World War I, or the 23rd Psalm but there it is; the psalm was among the things the children of Lake Wobegon were required to memorize.

I remember in my own early elementary school days, opening exercises every morning consisted of the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the singing of one of several patriotic songs we’d memorized, then the Lord’s Prayer and I can’t say for sure, but I think I remember the 23rd Psalm being part of it at least some of the time. I was in about third grade when prayer in school was abolished so it was a long time ago, but I do think there were times when we recited Psalm 23 and it was just assumed that everyone knew it. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” and of course it is the old King James Version that we remember, other versions just don’t sound right. What the choir sang this morning was kind of hybrid translation but I think it had enough thou’s and enough –eth’s and –est’s at the end of verbs like maketh and preparest so it passes muster.

The 23rd Psalm is without question the best known of all the psalms to the point of being something of a cultural icon. It resonates deeply with a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons, for some it might be the only piece of scripture that they know.

Because the psalm does have such meaning for so many people, I’ve always been hesitant to preach on it for fear of messing it up for someone, overanalyzing it so it takes the emotion and sentiment and poetry out of it; I wouldn’t want to do that. Thinking further about it though, it’s perhaps presumptuous of me to think that I could do that with such an iconic text. It’s well enough established that it can probably stand up and hold its ground regardless of anything I might have to say about it.

Even so, I’m not really going to preach on the 23rd Psalm today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday; it’s more like I’m going to talk about the psalm, sharing with you some history so this may be more of a history lesson than a sermon. I’ve got a book upstairs titled “The Psalms through Three Thousand Years” by William L. Holladay, and I hadn’t looked at it in a long time. It’s not really a commentary on the Psalms, I’ve got a few of those too, but this is more a history of the psalms, where they came from and how they have been used by both Jews and Christians for about three thousand years and I found out some things I didn’t know about the 23rd.

What I found particularly interesting is that it didn’t always have the iconic status that it came to have and…this status is a peculiarly American thing and particularly an American Protestant thing. Backing up a little bit though, one of the factors involved in this psalm becoming what it became is the gospel text for today from John 10 where Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.

Whether or not the psalm was the source of that image, I don’t know, but that identification helped with the popularity of Jesus being depicted as a shepherd in Christian art like the things I showed the kids today. For a lot of people Jesus as the Good Shepherd is their favorite image of him and because of that popularity there are lots of Good Shepherd Lutheran churches out there as well; it’s the tenth most common name for ELCA congregations. Trinity is number one if you were wondering; Bethany didn’t make the top ten, but I digress.

There is shepherd imagery all over the Old Testament too, but clearly the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the New Testament is an important part of Psalm 23 becoming an icon. As is often pointed out, even though most of us don’t know that much about sheep or shepherding, it’s still imagery that we find very comforting maybe because we don’t know that much about sheep and shepherding. If we did we might not like what we found out about sheep (supposedly they’re pretty dumb) or about shepherds (that they were not viewed very favorably by the general public).

One of the things that happened though, was Psalm 23 did become connected with death and dying with the line “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” It does get used at a lot of funerals because it is a source of comfort, but apparently that wasn’t always the case either. In the first part of the 1800’s churches did have something of a preoccupation with death. The emphasis, in preaching but also in Sunday School materials, was on living a good life in order to be prepared for a happy death. Fear however, was the major motivator, fear about what would happen if you didn’t live that good life; so the 23rd Psalm with its images of comfort didn’t play much of a role.

The same thing was true in general education. The old McGuffey’s Readers that were a staple of education in the 1800’s contained Bible verses, including some psalms, but not the 23rd. It did ultimately become a popular funeral text but that wasn’t until the first part of the 1900’s when hope rather than fear became more of a focus in religious conversation.

The point is that the 23rd Psalm wasn’t always as much a part of religious or popular culture as it is now; it took awhile to evolve, but if you think about it, the potential was always there. First of all, it’s short, six verses, so it’s easy to memorize. Content-wise, it’s pretty much just a simple, but beautiful affirmation of God’s presence and care through life, “He leadeth me beside still waters,” and death, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and into eternal life, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” From an American perspective it could be used in groups that included both Christians and Jews and at least where I grew up, that’s all there were or at least that’s all we knew about so again, the potential for popular use was there.

Apparently there were a couple of key factors in Psalm 23’s rise in popularity in the United States beginning in the late 1800’s. First of all there was the shift I mentioned earlier, at least among some Christian groups, a shift away from that “sinners in the hands of an angry God” theology. There was a move away from fear tactics toward a new emphasis on the goodness of God’s creation, on the life and teachings of Jesus as an influence for good, more of an emphasis on a loving rather than a wrathful God. The fear stuff didn’t disappear by any means, but other approaches gained ground making room for a psalm that spoke of God providing comfort.

Another factor was the evolution of “civil religion,” civil religion representing shared national beliefs, symbols and rituals, supposedly separate from identification with any one religious group, but in reality pretty closely aligned with Protestantism although not necessarily one particular denomination. Despite the separation of church and state defined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, if you read American history you know that politicians and others frequently used biblical imagery to describe what this country represented. Such imagery was part of the civil religion so Psalm 23 could be used to describe the Lord shepherding the country through its various trials, leading it to the still waters of goodness and mercy. It helped contribute to the idea of this being a Christian nation.

The role of women in the church is also thought to be a factor in Psalm 23 becoming so popular. In most Christian denominations women were second class citizens, in some denominations they still are, but even in those denominations women have always, mostly been the Sunday School teachers. The men who thought they ran the church were perhaps oblivious to the influence women could have in developing the faith of children as they focused more on a loving God, including focus on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23 would be part of that focus, with the shepherd, when you think about it, playing a very motherly role.

These are some of the factors Holladay mentioned in his book, certainly there are others, but however it happened, the 23rd Psalm became a cultural icon and despite the decline in biblical literacy, it still is although maybe to a somewhat lesser extent.

The question that can be raised is, is it bad for a biblical text to achieve such status? Does it risk becoming a cliché that doesn’t mean very much? I would say it’s bad only if it reduces the text to just being a piece of sentimental schlock. Psalm 23 can probably be susceptible to that and maybe it is that sometimes, but I think when it needs to be more than that, it is, especially when you hear it read at the bedside of someone who is sick or dying, or at the funeral of a loved one. Then it rises to the occasion, providing needed comfort and consolation and even more than that, it contributes to that image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, holding you or one you love in his arms, forever. That’s the power of if, when we say, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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