“We go way back! We’ve been friends as long as I can remember”, I say as I introduce an old friend to someone else. And we stand there in the warm glow of our shared history. We stand there and bask in how good it feels to be in the presence of someone who has known us throughout all the chapters of our lives. “We’ve known each other since we were knee high to a grasshopper”, we say with a smile.
You know how that feels don’t you? We all surely have someone like that in our life. Someone who knows what we are thinking without us having to say it. Someone who can tell funny stories about us from the past and instead of feeling embarrassed by that we feel loved and special in a really deep down way. We all have or have had these people in our lives, whether they be school friends, cousins, siblings or mom or dad – people who in this world who know us better than any of the rest. Someone really special who makes us feel really special.
Ant isn’t that how we feel this morning as we come into the presence of the 23rd Psalm? Isn’t it like meeting up with that old friend? “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t know those words. They come when nothing else will do. They are the words that comfort like a lullaby. They calm the troubled soul. As on preacher wrote:
“When life made us wonder if God was there for us- if God cared – it was Twenty-three who put comforting arms around us and reassured us of a God who makes, leads, restores, comforts, prepared anoints so that in darkness or light, life or death, we might dwell with God.” (William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 22, No. 2, p.16)
And so we are glad when we see this psalm approaching and we reach out for it when life is nearing the end for us for someone we love. As we approach the valley, we like sheep gathering around a Shepherd, gather around these familiar words. “It’s not simply because e know these words by heart. It is because this psalm dares to speak openly about the end, the dark valley, and names it as a place where the Good Shepherd comforts us.” (Ibid)
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Yes this psalm seems to follow us along life’s pathways, like a good Shepherd, showing up when we are most in need. Btu wait there is a nuance to these familiar words. In Hebrew, the original language of this psalm, the word that we translated as follow can also be translated pursue:
“Surely your goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” Has a little bit of a different ring to it doesn’t it? But isn’t it the truth? Don’t we sometimes need to be pursued by God’s goodness and mercy, when like headstrong sheep, we think we know what’s best and so ignore the voice of the Shepherd? I bet if you asked anyone who knows us really well would tell you some stories about headstrong moments from our childhood and even beyond. All we like sheep have from time to time gone astray. And so we do need a Good Shepherd God, pursuing us to the dead ends of our agendas to being us back to the path of life – back to the fold of God – back to the flock to be fed and cared for.
But then, Jesus says, there are also sheep who don’t gather in with us. What of these other sheep – who follow other paths, and may not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the same way we do? They are the sheep of a different fold that Jesus mentions in this morning’s Gospel. What will happen to them? From what Jesus says here he looks forward to drawing those sheep in too, so that there will be one flock, one shepherd. How will that come to be? Consider this story which comes to us from William Willimon who is a Methodist pastor and preacher:
“His name was John. He was a mean old man – resentful, bitter. Someone said that his bitterness was justified. Beloved wife, died giving birth to their one child. The child died shortly thereafter from complications. ‘He had reason to be bitter.’ They said in town.
Never went to church. Never had anything to do with anyone. When in his late seventies they carried him out of his apartment and over to the hospital to die, no one visited, no flowers were sent. He went there to die alone.
There was this nurse. Well, she wasn’t actually a nurse yet, just a student nurse. She was in training and because she was in training she didn’t know everything that they teach you in school about the necessity for detachment, the need for distance with your patients. She befriended the old man. It had been so long since he had friends, he didn’t know how to act with one. He told her ‘Go away! Leave me alone!’ She would smile – try to coax him to eat his Jell-O. At night she would tuck him in. ‘Don’t need nobody to help me’, he would growl.
Soon he grew so weak that he had not the strength to resist her kindness. Late at night after duties were done she would pull up a chair and sit by his bed and sing to him as she held his old gnarled hand. He looked up at her in the dim lamp light and wondered – wondered if he saw the face of the little on whom he never got to see as an adult. And a tear formed in his eye when she kissed him goodnight. For the first time in forty, maybe fifty years he said, ‘God bless you.’
As she left the room, two other remained breathless, whispering softly in the old man’s ear the last word he heard before slipping away into the dark valley: they whispered, ‘Gotcha!’ The word was whispered in unison by Goodness and Mercy.
I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also… So there will be on flock, one shepherd.” (Ibid. p. 18)
“Surely your Goodness and Mercy will pursue me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
In the name of Christ Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Amen+