Surely Goodness and Mercy

“Surely Goodness and Mercy”

Psalm 23 (23:6) – May 8, 2022

            Words matter. The words you and I choose to use really do matter. How do you speak about God? Do you – do I – speak of God as being a strict, even punitive taskmaster? Perhaps we speak of God as distant, and really far away, not to be bothered with our petty little affairs here on earth. Do the words you and I use about God show others God’s marvelous love and care? Or do those words show how scary and intimidating God is, instead?

            Our Scripture reading today comes from the book of Psalms, and is one of the most familiar and beloved readings in the whole Bible, in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament. Countless people have turned to Psalm 23 for peace, for reassurance, in times of anxiety or struggle, and even in times of great joy. This psalm is a psalm for the ages, and has been read for centuries by believers, skeptics and atheists alike.

            What words does King David have to say about the Lord? We can see those words of trust and encouragement throughout this psalm. For, this is indeed a song of praise to God and comfort to one another!

            Except, what if David’s trusting expressions for the Lord are not what you and I might say to God? Or, about God? What if we think of the Lord as something other than a loving Shepherd? What other words do you and I have to describe our Shepherd? Strict? Angry? Distant? What about disapproving? Even, unforgiving? This is not the way that I came to know the Lord Jesus, as a child in Sunday school. I came to know Him as a loving Shepherd!

            One of my favorite commentators Carolyn Brown reminds us that “it is important to recognize that the Good Shepherd is a metaphor and children have a hard time with metaphors.  Studies show that most children do not develop the brain skill of transference that is necessary to understand metaphors until they are into adolescence.  But, the Bible and our worship is filled with metaphors.  I suspect that we help the children claim them when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later.  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors. 

“Dr. Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the [shepherd] figure and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.” [1]

That is all very well, to talk about the Shepherd psalm as literature and as a metaphor. But, can I personalize this scripture reading, and get some meaning out of it for me? Where am I in this psalm? Where are you? Can we see ourselves in this scripture passage?

            Yes, I certainly can, and I hope you can, too. I can recognize myself throughout. David compares himself to a sheep, here, and the Lord God is the Good Shepherd. So, when I look at this psalm, I find I have no problem seeing myself as a sheep, too. If you imagine with me here, we can all identify as sheep in the flock that Jesus our Good Shepherd herds.

I want us to focus on one particular idea from verse 4 of this very personal psalm. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley . . . “  King David had some scary experiences, and downright dangerous ones, as well. Even though he had already been anointed as king by the prophet Samuel, there was a problem . . . in the person of King Saul. King Saul was still claiming to be king, and he sent his soldiers after David for a whole bunch of years. So, David was seriously on the run for his life, for a long time. He got into some really tight situations after being acknowledged as king by the people of Israel, too. He lost friends and family to illness and death. And I am sure he was scared over the years, much more than once or twice.

In the same way, it does not matter how strong of a believer you or I happen to be, it can be terrifying to walk in the darkest valley, whatever that dark valley of our life may be. Believers, whatever their personal or inner strength may be, cannot help but be frightened.

It is scary to walk through the dark valleys of life. I see people who are walking through some of life’s darkest valleys on a weekly basis, even on a daily basis. In my chaplain’s work at Unity Hospice, I meet with patients and their loved ones who at times are in denial, fearful, or angry. Sometimes, they even may be serene and accepting of that valley of shadow.

            Phillip Keller, a pastor who had also been a sheep farmer, or shepherd, for about eight years, wrote a book called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Rev. Keller was brought up in East Africa, surrounded by native herders. Their manner of herding sheep was very similar to the way their counterparts in the Middle East herded sheep.

            In talking about this verse from the psalm, Rev. Keller mentions that a good shepherd knows every step of the rough terrain his sheep are likely to tread upon. The good shepherd knows the difficulties and the dangers of the land, as well as the easy places, the pleasant, sheltered places. That’s true, in our case, too. God knows where each of us has been, and where each of us is going. God knows our every step, and our every misstep, too. God goes ahead of us, to look over the terrain, and check out any adverse conditions. There are no surprises to God.

            So, is it any wonder that this psalm ends with the marvelous words “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” God knows where we have been, and God knows where each of us is going. And, God is right by our sides all the way. God will lead us home, no matter what. That is good news for all of us! Alleluia, amen.


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

All Things New

“All Things New” – November 4, 2018

Revelation 21:1-6a

Rev 21 making new creation

  “ . . . and they all lived happily ever after.” The end.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that the way that fairy tales are supposed to end?

Thinking of the scripture reading we just read, the new heaven and new earth haven’t shown up yet. News flash! We are still living in the same old heaven, same old earth.

Life here on this earth is okay, I guess, but it is sure no fairy tale. Fairy tale endings are few and far between. Once in a while it happens that someone inherits a huge amount of money, or wins the lottery, or signs a big sports contract, but that isn’t the way it works for the vast majority of people here.

What happened? Doesn’t somewhere it say that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good?” As the book of Genesis, chapter one, tells us, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and God created everything good.

God gave humanity the world and everything in it for us to enjoy. It is all a gift, everything, for us to enjoy together with God. God wants to be in relationship with us. Can you imagine, daily strolls through beautiful gardens, in the cool of the evening? That’s just the picture that is painted for us by Genesis chapter 3.

You all know the plot line. God did have a close relationship with Adam. Then, one day, God came looking for Adam, but what happened? Sin happened. That relationship was fractured. Humanity was separated from God by sin. Now, today too, I am separated from God by my sin.

Another word for sin is separation. I know I sin. I displease God. And when I sin, I am separated from God. I feel it. I know I am alienated from God.

How many people here have seen a mime? I bet you are familiar with the wordless actors, who use gestures and movements to communicate. Can you see a mime coming up against a wall, trying to get through?   ((pantomime a wall))   Sin is like that wall. So high. So wide. Impenetrable. We are separated from God! That’s what sin does. Sin builds walls in our lives between us and God. And what’s more, sin builds walls between each of us, as well. Between me and you. Shutting us out, shutting us apart from each other.

The picture I’ve painted is pretty grim. If we were left in this horrible situation with no way out, the outlook would be pretty hopeless. I know that I am helpless to get myself out of this mess. I cannot overcome this separation from God, no matter how hard I try in my own strength.

I’m reminded of my children. When they were small, I can remember taking them to the playground, where I’d push them in the big swings. Then when they got a little older, they would always want to pump higher and higher themselves, so high that they would touch the sky. I remember my daughter Rachel (she’s in graduate school now, so this was some years ago) asked me if she could get as high as God. I laughed, and then told her that was a good question. But I said that she couldn’t reach God like that on a swing, no matter how hard she pumped.

But isn’t that just like us? To want to get to God on our own, on our own terms, in our own way? I want to do things my way! But, wait! I can’t get to God! There’s something in the way! ((pantomime a wall))  A wall, a barrier, a separation . . . I can’t get through!

But . . . thanks be to God. God has provided a way. God sent His Son, His only begotten Son, as a gift God sent His Son into this world, to reconcile this world to Himself, to bring us back into that relationship God wanted to have with us at the beginning. Remember God, walking in the garden? Giving humanity all of creation to enjoy? God has broken down the walls of separation and reconciled us to Himself. Praise God! We can now have that relationship with Him!

Let’s read again from Revelation 21, verses 3 and 4. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be His peoples, and God Himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Did you hear that? What did these verses say? The home of God will be with us!

The One Who is Faithful and True has written this. Sure, we’re living right now in an imperfect world. Sure, there are many problems here and now. Sure, we all can think of things that ought to be changed. And, we can strive to make it the very best world that we can. I’m wondering . . . how can you make a difference in this world, here and now? In big ways, little ways, any way you can? How can I make a difference, right where I am? This is not only a God-given challenge to us, to you, to me. This is a God-given opportunity!

But . . . there’s more! We can also look forward to the new heaven and the new earth. Right here in Revelation 21, the One seated on the Throne has promised to wipe away every tear from every eye. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

No matter what, we can look forward to a close relationship with God! No more separation, no more alienation. No more walls or barriers. Instead, the home of God will be with us! We will dwell with God forever and ever, no matter what.

What a great expectation to have. What a future. What a promise. What a celebration. Remember, the One seated on the Throne is trustworthy and true. The Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End has promised these things. And our God is One Who keeps His promises.

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!