Fourth Sunday of Easter
Preacher: John Kiess
Readings: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? The twenty-third Psalm is for many of us the Psalm, the one whose inviting imagery of still waters and cups overflowing has nurtured our faith and whose elegant consolations have provided a healing balm in times of adversity, loss, and grief. Henry Ward Beecher called it the “nightingale of the psalms,” a “moment’s opening of [the] soul” that has “filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive.” Indeed, as important as Psalm 23 is for the church, it has come to assume a broader cultural importance throughout American life. Surveying its ubiquitous presence in literature, music, and memoir, William Holladay calls it America’s “secular icon,” arguing that its various changing uses and meanings provide a revealing glimpse into America’s fluctuating moods and preoccupations.
Holladay finds it striking, for example, that although the Psalm today has a popular association with funeral services, helped along by movies that often include the scene with the priest reciting the words at graveside, it did not become a part of most funeral services until the early 20th century. It was only in 1916 that Methodists added the Psalm to their service for the burial of the dead, and only in 1928 that the Episcopal Church added it to theirs. Holladay challenges us to find a work of literature written before the Civil War that depicts a deathbed scene that includes it. Yet by 1880, he says, “the psalm had triumphed.” One factor that Holladay cites is “the enormous burden of grief left by the Civil War: hardly a household was left untouched by death.” As an example, he cites Stuart Phelps’ forgotten novel The Gates Ajar (1868), which illustrated the growing trend of conceiving heaven “no longer [as] the place to meet God (or Jesus) but the place for reunion with family members who have died.” Leave it to Mark Twain to mock the new trend in his wryly-titled novel, Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909). Holladay goes on to describe how, against the backdrop of financial crises of 1873 and 1893, the Psalm’s consolations came to be claimed by those who “craved security against economic disaster, as well as other threats.” He then documents Psalm 23’s eventual sentimentalization in the wave of self-help literature that soon followed. We are, he thinks, still living in that sentimental wake, as most Americans today understand the Psalm’s consolations in largely individualized terms, either as spiritual succor or a supernatural reward that awaits us in heaven.
Of course, if Holladay had continued his survey into the 1990s and 2000s, he would have found that there is at least one sector of popular culture that strongly resists these sentimentalizing tendencies, a kind of art for which Psalm 23 represents less a set of supernatural promises than a window into a particular social condition. I’m thinking of American hip-hop, and artists such as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. The twenty-third Psalm appears with stunning regularity throughout this music, and what these artists specifically identify with is not its various consolations, but verse 4, “the valley of the shadow of death.” For them, this verse refers not to the death that awaits all of us at the end of life, but the specific shadow of a premature death. The Psalm’s significance for them is that it renders this fact legible; it allows them to bring a reality that is often hidden out into the open. Listen to the opening lines of Coolio’s 1995 song, “Gangsta’s Paradise”:
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left
‘Cause I’ve been blasting and laughing so long,
That even my mama thinks that my mind is gone
But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it
Me be treated like a punk you know that’s unheard of
You better watch how you’re talking and where you’re walking
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk
The famous chorus, “Been spending most our lives, living in the gangsta’s paradise,” is introduced, and then Coolio returns to the theme in the second verse:
Death ain’t nothing but a heartbeat away,
I’m living life do or die, what can I say
I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24
The way things is goin’ I don’t know
We then hear the haunting bridge, “Tell me why are we so blind to see/ That the ones we hurt are you and me?”
That Coolio poses the bridge in the form of a question suggests his invocation of the psalms is more than ornamental. It suggests he has a profound grasp of the mood that pervades them. We know that the psalmists were themselves young and exposed to danger, constantly surrounded by enemies. The presence of these enemies is palpably felt on nearly ever line they wrote. In Psalm 18, we read: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me” (18:4). In Psalm 116, the psalmist declares, “The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish” (116:3). The psalmist’s first impulse is not to reach for easy consolation, but to give voice to the danger that surrounds him. “How long must I bear pain in my soil, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (13:2). What the psalms do is open space for this kind of lament. They are not written in the third-person, such that when we read them we can stand at a distance and observe the author’s pain. They do not allow us to be spectators. Rather, we can only read the psalms in the first-person. They are participatory. They demand that we inhabit their world, their fears, their valleys and relate them to our own life. And this is what Coolio grasps so well. He knows he cannot just quote Psalm 23 and leave it. The Psalm demands he relate its valley to his own, that he pick up where the Psalm leaves off and continue in his own voice, adding his fears and his cries. The gift of the first-person voice of the Psalms is that they give us a medium through which to articulate our pain, to render audible those dimensions of life that have not been spoken aloud.
But they not only give us an opportunity to speak them aloud; they allow us to address these cries to God. The psalms are the Bible’s protest songs. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1). “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (13:1). The psalms are the textual space in which we contend with God, and they invite us into this contending ourselves. This is the point powerfully grasped by Tupac Shakur in his 1995 song “So Many Tears.” Like Coolio, he begins the song by invoking verse 4 of Psalm 23, and then uses it as a point of departure for reflecting on the valley in his own life:
Back in elementary, I thrived on misery
Left me alone I grew up amongst a dyin’ breed
Inside my mind couldn’t find a place to rest
Until I got that Thug Life tatted on my chest
Tell me can you feel me? I’m not livin’ in the past, you wanna last
Be the first to blast, remember Kato
No longer with us he’s deceased
Call on the sirens, seen him murdered in the streets
Now rest in peace
Is there heaven for a G? Remember me
So many homies in the cemetery, shed so many tears.
Yet as the song continues, Tupac increasingly addresses his cries to God:
Lord, I suffered through the years, and shed so many tears
Lord, I lost so many peers, and shed so many tears
And this seems to open the possibility of a deeper searching, one more raw and intimate:
Now I’m lost and I’m weary, so many tears
I’m suicidal, so don’t stand near me
My every move is a calculated step, to bring me closer
to embrace an early death, now there’s nothing left
There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest
I’m barely standin’, bout to go to pieces, screamin’ peace
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it…
I’m falling to the floor; beggin’ for the Lord to let me in
to Heaven’s door – shed so many tears
What the song captures is the wrenching searching that the participatory nature of the psalms opens up. If we are willing to speak them, if we are daring enough to allow the psalmist’s voice to become our own, to speak the psalms in our own voice, they allow us reach inside ourselves and articulate our unformed questions, our longings, our desires. That is what contending with God is all about.
That it is verse 4 of Psalm 23 that resonates most powerfully with artists such as Coolio and Tupac should give us pause. Indeed, the conspicuous absence of references to other parts of the Psalm speaks loudly. Neither artist invokes the God who acts as a shepherd who helps them lie down in green pastures (23:1), or the God who leads them beside still waters (23:2); or the God who restores their soul (23:3). A table has not been prepared for them in the presence of their enemies (23:5). That there are some who cannot speak these verses in their own voice reveals the distance that often separates the world of the psalms from our world. It reveals the work that must still be done in order for us to make this Psalm truly our psalm, a song whose consolations are known to us all, a hymn that we can sing together. So the psalms not only allow us to lodge our protests to God, but they also give us a mission, demanding that we ask what would have to change for us to know Psalm 23’s consolations as our own. They make us ask what would have to be done for those marginalized in our communities to identify with its green pastures, its cups overflowing, and its tables spread before us.
I wonder if something like this is going on in a final appropriation of Psalm 23 from this period. The last track on the final album of the Notorious B.I.G is a play upon Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You;” the title is hauntingly replaced with the far more foreboding, “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” Biggie himself was killed two weeks before the release of the album, which only adds to the prescience of the song. As with the other tracks mentioned earlier, it begins with Psalm 23, but unlike them, it quotes the Psalm in its near entirety: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me/ You prepare a table for me, in the presence of my enemies/ You anoint my head with oil/ Surely goodness and love will follow me, all the days of my life/ And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The person reciting the words is not Biggie, but his friend Puff Daddy, and given the song’s dark title, one suspects that the point is to evoke the Psalm’s popular association with funerals. We are, as listeners, being asked to listen to the song as mourners, presumably at the funeral of Biggie himself. How then should we understand the Psalm’s consolations? As a reward awaiting us in heaven? Perhaps. But there is a telling refrain throughout the song, one that is also spoken by Puff Daddy: “I don’t wanna die, God tell me why.” In its rawness, we get the deepest cry of all: I don’t want the consolation of heaven only, I want to live. I want life now. And this suggests that Psalm 23’s splendid promises of still waters, of restoration, of a rod and staff that comfort us, the promise that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, are promises for this life, even if the only way we know how to claim them is through protest, through lament.
In this last use of the Psalm, we find ourselves in that strange in-between space that we as Christians often find ourselves, the space that is already and not yet. In our New Testament lesson from Revelation, we read of a future promise, where it is said, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:14-17).
That is our future promise, that the Shepherd shall gather us to himself and guide us into life. But our Gospel passage from John reminds us that this is a promise to be claimed now, for this life as well. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (10: 27-28). No one will snatch them out of my hand. Those are the key words. Not just for the future, but now. If the Lord is our shepherd, then the Lord we worship calls us to make the consolations of Psalm 23 our mission, so that they might become the song of all, and that each one of us might be able to say of our life, as well as the lives of those around us, “surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.” Amen.
 Henry Ward Beecher, Life Thoughts (Boston: Phillips Sampson, 1858), 8-9.
 William Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 359.
 Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 366.
 Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 366.
 Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 367.
 Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Gangsta’s Paradise. Tommy Boy, 1995.
 Tupac Shakur, “So Many Tears.” Me Against the World. Interscope, 1995.
 The Notorious B.I.G. “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” Life After Death. Bad Boy, 1997.