“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.” 
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.