Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning or relearning the 23rd Psalm as much as I’ve enjoyed teaching it over the last few months. I originally memorized it in the King James Version as a child, as I know some of you did, too, back in the day. If that’s the case, I hope you’ve felt free to slip back into that language as we’ve gone along. There’s nothing wrong with a hybrid version either, if you find yourself saying some of the lines the way we’ve learned them together and others from a different translation.
There’s a beauty to memorizing Scripture, in whatever version we use, and there’s strength that comes from doing so too. As I’ve said before, once these words are lodged in our hearts, they are there whenever we need them. Whether we intentionally call them to mind, or we simply find a line surfacing in our consciousness at an opportune moment.
I recently came across an article by Samuel Wells about joys that come from the 23rd Psalm too, and today seemed a fitting day to share a few of those with you.
First, the joy of an abundant life. When the psalmist says God makes me lie down in green pastures, I’ve been holding up that picture of lush green grass. I grew up in upstate NY where there was green everywhere in spring and summer, and certainly this time of year in Seattle is like that too. But remember this psalm was written in a climate more like New Mexico. Picture yourself as hungry sheep in a dry place like that. Green pastures mean food. And for God to give us enough green grass to lie down in – that means there’s so much we (sheep) can’t even eat it all! The line about still waters is similar – again, try to hear it with the ears of someone living in a desert climate. “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” God’s saying to us and to every one of God’s children: “I want you to have an abundant life. I want you to have plenty. I want you to have enough and to spare.”
The psalm also tells of the joy of being brought back to life. “You’ll get worn out, you’ll get worn down, you’ll have nothing left” but then God will bring you back, will restore your soul. “Think about seeing an old friend after a long absence and realizing they’re the person above all who makes you laugh” the truest and deepest of laughs. “In the laughter [you recognize] ‘life is good when I’m with you.’ God is that person. God whispers, ‘I want to restore your soul.’”
“It's also clear God’s joys are not about a fantasy land of make-believe.” Whether you’ve internalized the line about walking through the darkest valley, or – from the King James version – the valley of the shadow of death, the key to that line is really in the second half: even when it gets that bad, Lord, “you are with me.” Facing our limitations and our fears, we hear God whispering to us in this psalm what is perhaps “the most important word in the whole Bible, [this little preposition] with…God created us out of a desire to be with. God called Israel out of a desire to be with. God came among us in Jesus out of a desire to be with.” In fact, that’s what the word Immanuel means. It’s Hebrew for God-with-us. So that “you are with me” line? “It’s at the center of this psalm, it’s at the center of God’s joy, it’s at the center of the Bible, it’s at the center of our faith.” The joy of God’s presence with us no matter what.
Samuel Wells shares more joys too, from this psalm. And then he ends on that wonderful line about goodness and mercy following us all the days of our life. Again, it’s not a question of our needing to hunt for God’s goodness and mercy – they’ll pursue us, chase us – and not just once, but all the days of our life. “God’s goodness and mercy are on a perpetual mission to find you,” says Wells. “You can’t … escape God’s relentless tenderness, try as you might.” So in addition to those other joys, we have the joy of being pursued by God.
Too often the version of religion that gets the most press these days is one of guilt, of shame, of exclusion. A sort of ‘follow God this particular way or else’ mentality. Shane Claiborne writes, “the more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades … Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.”
But here’s the thing. People flocked to see and hear Jesus because they were fascinated by the love, grace, and joy that he radiated. The world needs that joy.
We need it too, especially in trying times like these. Which is why I’m delighted to be able to share a lovely gift with you as I conclude the sermon today. I asked last week if any of our children wanted to illustrate a favorite line from the 23rd Psalm and a number of them did. We’re going to try a screen share here so you can see what they created for us.
Thank you all! We have some talented artists among us, don’t we? It warms my heart and brings me joy to see these lines you picked and what they mean to you, and I’m sure it does the same for the rest of our congregation too.
Friends, the world needs so much right now: Justice, Peace, Healing, Courage, Strength, Resilience, Hope…
And Joy. As each of you recalls the 23rd Psalm in the weeks and months ahead, I pray it will offer you the joy of an abundant life. The joy of being brought back to life when you’re feeling weary. The joy of God’s presence in that powerful little word “with.” The joy of being pursued by God all the days of your life.
What response does God ask from us in return? Simply to share that joy as best we can, as our children have done for us today.
 Samuel Wells, “The Ten Joys: Psalm 23” in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2020, pp. 18-21.
 Wells, “The Ten Joys,” p. 18.
 Wells, p. 19.
 Wells, p. 19.
 Wells, p. 21.
 Shane Claiborne, "What if Jesus Meant All That Stuff?" in Esquire (November 2009).