Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 13, 2008

2008.04.13 “Welcome, Old Friend”

Central United Methodist Church

The 4th Sunday of Easter

“Welcome, Old Friend”

Psalm 23

April 27th, 2008

 

How pleasant to come to church on a spring Sunday to be greeted by an old friend, Psalm 23.  Some Sundays can be a jarring experience, when we settle into our pews to be hit over the head by an unfamiliar idea, poked in the ribs by a pushy preacher peddling an even pushier Biblical text.

But not today. The Fourth Sunday after Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Biblical texts have to do with familiar Biblical imagery:  sheep and shepherds.   The Psalm is — what else? — Psalm 23:  “The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”  

For many of us, Psalm 23 may not only be our favorite Psalm, it may be our most familiar Psalm.  When I was a kid, my uncle had a black Royal typewriter (for those of you who not only remember what typewriters are, but “early” typewriters.)  I got him to let me use it, by typing (guess what?), yep, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.  Ever since, the familiar tones of Psalm 23, in King James English, have been part of my spiritual essentials.

And yet, no matter how long we have known it, no matter how many times we quote it, it speaks to us anew.

The reason for this, I think, is that due to the storms and seasons of life, throughout life we have a constantly changing needs. There are times where we feel like sitting by the side of a gentle stream, comforting and soothing. There are other times where we feel like we’re in a boat being carried down stream, taken where we may not want to go, faster than we want to get there. There are times in life when we are in need of navigational aids, a paddle, maybe an anchor in a storm. There are other times when we feel like we are going “down river” not only without a paddle, but without a boat, and at those times we may feel like we are sinking, going under for the last time.

What makes Psalm 23 so beloved, is that it speaks to us in all of those situations.

In a mere fifty-seven words of Hebrew and about twice that number in English, the author of the Twenty-third Psalm gives us an entire theology, more than we can find in many books.

Judging by the references, the author of Psalm Twenty-three has enemies. He has known failure. He has lost people he loved. In the process, he has learned that life is not easy. But, with God’s help, as he met the challenges of life, he has grown to be a better person, a wiser, stronger person than he would have been had life not challenged him to grow. As a result of his experience, through Psalm 23 he teaches us to look at the world as he has come to see it, as God would have us see it.

–          If we are obsessed with what we lack,

it teaches us gratitude for what we have.

–          If the world threatens to wear us down,

the psalm guides us to replenish our souls.

–          If we are anxious,

the psalm gives us courage to overcome our fears.

–          If we are grieving, it offers comfort

to find our way through the valley of the shadow.

–          If our lives are embittered by unpleasant people,

it teaches us how to deal with them.

–          And most of all, if we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the best reassurance of all, that “Thou art with me.”

So whether we are a frightened soldier in combat or a frail resident in a nursing home, whether we are rejoicing in the cup which overflows or walking through the valley of the shadow, Psalm 23 speaks to us.

Four years ago, for example, Rabbi Harold Kushner, best known for his book WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, wrote a book about the 23rd Psalm, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom From The Twenty-Third Psalm.

Rabbi Kushner believes the twenty-third Psalm answers the question, “How do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?”  Because the 23rd Psalm knows what we know:  that in life, much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us, as much as we might wish that we could.  Often we are led down roads we can’t seen the end of, in fact, not even around the next bend in the road.

Rabbi Kushner, for example, was inspired to write all of his books, starting with WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, because his road took him through the valley of the shadow.  His son, Aaron, was born with an incurable illness, and died at the age of 14.   Says Rabbi Kushner:

I asked myself, how did my wife and I get through that? You would think that would shatter the faith of the average person. Where did we find the strength and the ability to raise him, to comfort him when he was sick and scared, and ultimately to lose him? And the only answer is, when we used up all of our own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenishes your love and your strength and your faith.

Right after 9/11 — when everybody was asking me, “Where was God that Tuesday? How could God have let such a thing happen?” — the answer I found myself giving was, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side. He will give you the strength you need to find your way through.”  

I was paraphrasing the twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” The psalmist is not saying, “I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.” He’s saying, “This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side, not on the side of the hijacker. God is on my side, not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.”

“How do we live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?”  Psalm 23’s answer is that when we wonder what will happen to us, when we wonder how we will get through, when we wonder if God will be there for us, Psalm 23 put its arms around us and reassures us of a God who makes, leads, restores, comforts, prepares and anoints, so that in darkness or light, life or death, we dwell with God.

Even when we come to the end of life’s road, how comforting to find this old friend waiting for us, giving us confidence that God will take care of us.  It is a rare funeral where the 23rd Psalm is not invited to speak a word.  Indeed, says Rabbi Kushner, echoing what I have also experienced, “No matter how grievous a funeral was, no matter how tragic a memorial service was, if I just started to recite the familiar words of the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures…” it tranquilized the congregation.  It just made people feel calm.”

The last time I preached about Psalm 23, my son — with a war on — had signed up in the Marines, and was — that weekend — headed off to boot camp.  So on a weekend when I was gulping for air, Psalm 23 was something I needed to hear. Maybe today, with whatever is happening in your life, you do too.   If not today, the day will come. It’s a Psalm we all ought to memorize, not just for hard times, but for all times.

        Let’s say it together again (Page 137 in the Hymnal):

The LORD is my shepherd;

I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil:

for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me

in the presence of mine enemies:

thou anointest my head with oil;

my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life:

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Amen.

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