Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 29, 2012

2012.04.29 “Welcome, Old Friend” – Psalm 23

Central United Methodist Church

Welcome, Old Friend

Psalm 23

Pastor David L Haley

The 4th Sunday of Easter

April 29, 2012

                                    The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

                              He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

                    He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul;

                    He leads 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 You are with me;

                              Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

                              You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

                    You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs 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.

                                                            Psalm 23, The New King James Version

How pleasant to come to church today and encounter an old friend, the Twenty-third Psalm.

Many of us have known the Twenty-third Psalm since our youth. Other than the Lord’s Prayer, it is perhaps the best-known passage of Scripture, and the one we most often turn to in times of need. Perhaps it was our parents who introduced us, or perhaps we first made acquaintance in Sunday School. It is a Psalm we definitely ought to memorize, perhaps even have tattooed on our body, and the sooner the better.

My own earliest memory of the Twenty-third Psalm involves an old Royal typewriter that belonged to my Uncle. (For those under 20, a typewriter was kind of like a keyboard that typed not on a computer screen, but on a piece of paper.) The excuse I would make to use my Uncle’s typewriter was to type Psalm 23. Of course when you made a mistake, it was hard to correct it, so it was often easiest to start over and type it again. That’s how I learned the Twenty Third Psalm. I would love to hear how you learned it.

Even before we learned Psalm 23, it was old, a favorite of Judaism long before we came along. For sure, Jesus named and claimed it, praying it as one who trusted the God of Israel as his shepherd, leader, and guide. But he also prayed it not as a sheep, but as a shepherd, one who knew and cared for his flock. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he says, “who puts the sheep before himself, even sacrifices himself if necessary.”

Knowing our old friend, we have to assume it was there for Jesus, as it is for us. As he bore the cross to Calvary, was it Psalm 23 that walked with him: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” As he lifted the cup at the last supper, saying, “From now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes (Luke 22:18), was he thinking of the Table God spreads before us in the presence of our enemies?

As Psalm 23 comforted Jesus, so it does us, greeting us not only in church, but in other surprising places, never intruding, always welcome.

I was at Old Orchard recently, in the Apple Store. I felt our old friend beside me, reminding me, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” When wanting, worried, or anxious, Psalm 23 gently reminds us, we shall not lack in any way.

Every now and then, when our souls get thirsty and dry, we feel like we need a vacation, need to get away. My favorite, of course, is to get on a plane and faraway. I was reminded of this the other night, watching the movie The Way, about walking the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James, in northern Spain, and as I watched, I remembered what a great trip I had when I went to visit my daughter there, on an exchange program. Guess who else was there? That’s right, Psalm 23: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul.” Even when we can’t afford or take time to physically get away, our old friend brings refreshment and renewal to us, taking us in spirit to green pastures and quiet streams.

Every now and then in life we face difficult decisions, and become perplexed about which path, among others, to take. We may feel like the man who arrived at a fork in the road, and didn’t know which way to take. There was a man there, so he asked him: “Does it matter which of these roads I take?” “Not to me it doesn’t,” the man said. Sometimes we are tempted, to make what might not be the best choice? How would we make it without the assuring guidance of our old friend; “He leads me in the paths of right paths for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23 sits up with us through the challenges of sleepless nights and uncertain days.

Psalm 23 even shows up in the most unsuspected places. Like in the valley of the shadow of death. As mortal human beings, we walk in the valley of the shadow of death. When we walk that lonesome valley, guess who we find walking beside us, getting our back, holding our hand? Psalm 23: “I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Whether we are a frail resident in a nursing home or a frightened soldier in combat, dark nights and deep valleys are not something Psalm 23 flinches from. Even then, it is with us.

Thankfully, life is not only dark nights and deep valleys; it also includes the table of blessing. When life is at its best, and we dine in abundance with family and friends, guess who is there, waiting tables? That’s right, Psalm 23, our gracious host: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” Even when our gracious host is not the only one standing around our table: “O, and by the way, pay no attention to those detractors who sit over there and talk about in the corner, they will always be there, pay no attention to them.” “Take this warm towel to wash your face and hands; will you have a little more wine?”

Whenever life makes us wonder if God is there for us, after we have quoted Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Psalm 23 embraces us and reassures us of a God who makes, leads, restores, comforts, prepares and anoints us.

Even when we come to life’s end, how comforting to find this old friend waiting for us, giving us assurance that even then, God is with us. It is a rare funeral indeed where the Twenty-third Psalm is not invited to say a word. Whether at the funeral of someone we love, or at our own, Psalm 23 wipes our tears, puts its arm around our shoulder, and assures us of the everlasting goodness and mercy of the Lord.

Our old friend is there not only at the beginning of life, and with us every step of the way, in the darkest of valleys and at the table of blessing, but also there at life’s ending, following us, “pursuing us,” with goodness and mercy.

There was a mean old man. He was resentful and bitter. Someone said his bitterness was justified, for his beloved wife had died giving birth to their only child. The child died shortly thereafter. And so he had reason to be bitter, they said.

He never went to church, never had much of anything to do with anyone. When, in his late 60’s, they carried him out of his apartment over to the hospital to die, no one visited, no flowers were sent. He went there to die alone.

But there was this nurse. Well, she wasn’t actually a nurse yet, just a student, a nurse in training. Because of that she didn’t know what they teach you in nursing school about the necessity of detachment, the need for distance with your patients. So she befriended the old man, and cared for him with compassion. It had been so long since he had friends, he didn’t know how to act. So he told her, “Go away! Leave me alone”

She would smile. And coax him to eat his jello. At night, she would tuck him in. “I don’t need anyone to help me,” he would growl.

Soon, he grew so weak he didn’t have the strength to resist her kindness. Late at night, after her duties were done, she would pull up a chair to sit by his bed and sing to him as she held his gnarled hand. He looked up at her in the dim lamplight and wondered if he saw the face of the little one he never got to see as an adult. As she kissed him goodnight, a tear formed in his eye. For the first time in forty, maybe fifty years, he said, “God bless you.”

As she left the room, two others remained, softly whispering in the dark: Goodness and Mercy.

Welcome, old friend.

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