Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last fall my daughter Alina participated in something called a “Festival of Shorts” at Whitworth University, a series of short scenes performed and directed by theatre students. Normally an audience would watch a single story unfold on stage over the course of an evening, but those who attended the “Festival of Shorts” instead watched a series of stand-alone scenes back to back. Each one with its own setting and cast and director. Each one a snapshot from a different story.
As I began reading through the book of Psalms again this summer, it struck me that something analogous is going on there. In contrast to the gospel of Mark, for instance, or the book of Exodus, where each chapter is part of a single story, when we turn to Psalms we find a series of stand-alone scenes. The Psalter is, in a sense, its own “Festival of Shorts.” Each one a snapshot, a scene from the life of a person of faith long ago.
And the theatre analogy continues, for what we often do when we read or sing or pray the psalms is cast ourselves as the lead actor or primary voice in that story. Let me explain what I mean.
Many of the psalms are written in the form of individual prayers. So when a psalm begins “The Lord is my Shepherd,” as our text did today, it’s only natural to think about the ways the Lord our Shepherd has taken care of us, has met our needs, has restored our souls, has led us through dark valleys and pursued us with goodness and mercy. In other words, even though these are someone else’s words, I cast myself as the first-person voice in this scene. So that it’s me God makes to lie down in green pastures and leads beside still waters. It’s me God leads in right paths. My cup that overflows. I expect many of you have a similar experience. When you pick up this particular script, you take on the lead role and it becomes your prayer too.
The psalms seem to invite this kind of identification, allowing us to draw strength from these particular scenes in a different way than we draw strength from other parts of scripture that are more clearly about them (whether they be Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs or New Testament disciples). Here in Psalms first-person pronouns remind us powerfully that conversations between heaven and earth are about us too. What a gift.
And what comfort we can find in a psalm like this one which we studied together at length earlier this year. In the midst of something as worrisome as a global pandemic, with all of its accompanying disruption and loss, we long for words of comfort. Bring ‘em on! This is why I intentionally prioritized reassuring texts like this one as I designed our weekly services this spring. It's important to remind each other in frightening times that God holds us in the palm of God’s hand, or in this case that the Lord is our Shepherd.
There’s power, too, in remembering that others have cast themselves as the lead or taken on the first-person voice in this same short scene. I think of my parents and grandparents and Sunday School teachers praying the words of Psalm 23. I think of saints from this congregation and saints from other places and other times who’ve prayed them, each of them from their own unique circumstances. When the apostle Paul prayed this psalm, perhaps even in a Roman prison, he’d have cast himself as me-myself-I when he said, “the Lord is my shepherd,” and so would Mother Theresa as she served among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta a couple thousand years later.
But there are actors I’ve neglected to cast as I’ve reflected on this psalm over the years. Whole companies of actors, actually, all of them equally deserving of lead roles. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve been taking up this same script and playing this same part all along; I just haven’t taken a seat in their audience. I’ve been so focused on my own interactions with this particular “short play,” this beautiful scene of divine shepherding through life’s challenges, that I haven’t always noticed who else is lending the weight of personal experience to these words.
So let’s try a little recasting this morning.
Imagine, for instance, that the speaker of Psalm 23 is an anxious mother who’s just watched her son pull away from the house, thrilled at last to have his driver’s license. “The talk” she’s given him over and over, reminding him as a young black man how careful he needs to be if he’s pulled over – will it be enough to bring him safely back home again? Now hear her speak these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me…”
Or cast in that same role a black man on death row. A frightening prospect under any circumstance, and in this particular case he’s decades into an unjust sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Hear him saying to God, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me…”
And what if we were to cast as the first-person voice in Psalm 23 an undocumented farm worker or day laborer in Yakima County, all the more vulnerable now due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus? For someone in that position, what might it mean to say to God: “you make me lie down in green pastures, you lead me beside still waters, you restore my soul?”
I’d never suggest we need to set aside the ways we’ve heard and prayed and sung this beautiful psalm in the past. There’s so much here that we can approach these words again and again and come away with new insights every time. It’s not a case of either-or, but both-and. And it’s a both-and casting move that will – let’s be honest - be accomplished far more effectively when it’s not just me, your comfortably middle-class white pastor, trying to paint scenes I can only imagine. We’ll be far better served by hearing from other storytellers from time to time.
So this is only the most faltering of starts. But it’s a start.
As we conclude, I’m going to repeat the words of Psalm 23 – you’re welcome to say them with me if you wish, or simply to listen. Either way, be sure to recast the lead role this time through, and imagine someone other than you delivering this monologue. Perhaps someone with far fewer resources than you have, or someone of a different race, or someone else who is routinely marginalized or mistreated – imagine that person as the “I” here. Picture that person saying words like “me” and “mine.” We can’t possibly know anyone else’s innermost thoughts. It’s critical we remember that their stories are not really our stories to tell. But surely it’s also important to remind ourselves at least in some small way, as we approach this psalm, that the Shepherd’s flock is far bigger than our own little fold.
If it leaves us feeling a bit unsettled to reimagine a beloved text this way, that’s ok. Unsettled is ok. God might just use that feeling of discomfort to bring us greater empathy or insight, or to call us to action.
So let’s pray together on behalf of brothers and sisters who are not here in our circle today:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.