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Psalm 23

It feels like I’ve read/heard/recited Psalm 23 more times than I can count. There were rewards in Sunday School for putting it to memory. It’s has been embroidered, engraved, chanted, and rapped. Saints and sinners know it. We hear it at funerals, and we see it on our great aunt’s mantle as a “Precious Moment.”

It is perhaps the most familiar Psalm of all. It has seeped its way into pop culture, as it is referenced in song (As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothing left), film and television (for those who are fans of the series LOST, how can one keep from shivering recalling Mr. Eko recite the King James Version of the Psalm as he lay his brother Yemi to rest?).

What’s remarkable is that it has continued to pervade culture despite few really having a clue what a shepherd does and the rarity of finding one who ever aspires to be a shepherd. If the metaphor were not so strong growing up in church, if the angels had not made that proclamation to those lowly shepherds on that “beautiful, scandalous night” I wouldn’t have the slightest idea about what a shepherd does or how they were perceived in the Ancient Near East. But somehow the strength of the metaphor has been preserved. It has been the church that has preserved it for us and for that we can be thankful.

At the same time, with all the familiarity involved in this Psalm, there are hints of a lost metaphor within the text. It wasn’t until reading this Psalm in preparation for the fourth Sunday of Easter that I noticed something I hadn’t ever before. The Psalmist is led by Yahweh to green pastures, still waters, on right paths (for the sake of Yahweh), through dark valleys, to a plain made safe by God (a mesa, or tableland) and ultimately to the place the Psalmist desires the most: to be at one with Yahweh in the house of the LORD--the temple. This Psalm hints at the ancient practice of Pilgrimage.

For us, our most common expressions of pilgrimage of flimsy. We put on our war colors then walk, get in the car or on the train and enter through the gates of our favorite ball team to yell and cheer them on for two to three hours. Then we go home. Pilgrimage isn’t a life goal or something looked forward to as a pillar of our faith. Stories about the Mayflower are a part of elementary curriculum. Still yet many of our Muslim brothers and sisters make the Hajj journey as an act of piety. But we live in a transient world where we can get a “Wanna Get Away” rate last minute is part of the dominant script that has profaned pilgrimage.

But the holy journey of pilgrimage is at the heart of Psalm 23, because it was at the heart of the poets and prophets of Israel: to live in the land God had promised and worship God with a holy worship in the house of God.