Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 22, 2018

2018.04.22 “Welcome, Old Friend” – Psalm 23

Central United Methodist Church
Welcome, Old Friend
The 4th Sunday of Easter
Psalm 23
April 22nd, 2018

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

Lhasa Municipality, Tibet, China — Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road — Image by © Rob Howard/CORBIS

 

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.
– the New King James Version

How pleasant to come to church on a spring Sunday to be greeted by an old friend, Psalm 23. Some Sundays can be jarring, 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, or worse yet, news ripped from the latest headline (tweet).

But not today. The Fourth Sunday after Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Biblical texts feature familiar and beloved Biblical imagery, that of shepherds and sheep. And the Psalm is — what else? — our old friend, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”

For many of us, Psalm 23 is not only our most familiar psalm, but also our favorite. For example, when I was growing up, my uncle Charles – the only person in the family who went to college – had one of those old black Royal typewriters (who remembers those?). This was the 1950s; so for those of you who are young a typewriter was a machine which mechanically typed letters – with a clack, clack, clack – so you didn’t have to write them). I got him to let me use it, by typing (guess what?), Psalm 23. Every time I made a mistake I had to start all over, and that was how I learned it. However you learned it, ever since, the familiar tones of Psalm 23, in King James English, have been part of our spiritual essentials.

And yet, isn’t it fair to say that no matter how long we have known Psalm 23, or how many times we have recited it, it speaks to us anew.

The reason for this, I think, is that due to the seasons and storms of life, throughout life our needs are constantly changing. There are times where we feel like sitting by the side of green pastures and gentle streams, comforting and soothing. There are times when we feel we are in need of direction, or an anchor in a storm. There are times where we feel like we’re being carried down stream in a boat without a paddle, getting there faster than we want to. There are other times when we feel like we are in rapids without a boat, and about to go under. What makes Psalm 23 so beloved, is that it speaks to us in all these 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, and more useful than most at that.

Judging by the references, the author of Psalm 23 has enemies. They have known failure. They have lost people they loved. In the process, they have learned life is not easy. But, with God’s help, they have met the challenges of life, and have grown to be better, stronger, and wiser than they would have been had life not challenged them to grow. As a result of this experience, through Psalm 23 the author teaches us to look at the world as they have come to see it, as they believe God would have us see it. For example:

– 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.

– Most of all, when we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the best reassurance of all, that: “You are with me.”

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

Rabbi Harold Kushner, now 83, is best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But he also wrote a book about the 23rd Psalm, entitled, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom From The Twenty-Third Psalm. Rabbi Kushner believes the 23rd Psalm answers the question, “How do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?” It does so because Psalm 23 knows what we know: that in life, much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us, as much as we might wish hat we could. Not only are we led down roads of which we can’t see the end, in fact, sometimes we can’t even see around the next bend in the road

Rabbi Kushner himself was inspired to write his books, starting with, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, because his own 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, who leads, who restores, who comforts, who prepares and anoints, so that in darkness or light, life or death, we dwell with God.

Such that, however and when we come to life’s end, how comforting to find this old friend waiting for us, giving us an 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.

So our old friend is there with us not only at the beginning of life, but every step of the way; not only at the table of blessing, but in the darkest of valleys; and finally, also there at life’s ending, following us, “pursuing us” through life into death, 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. 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. She wasn’t actually a nurse yet, just a student, a nurse in training. Because of this 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, 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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