3 May 2009
St Stephen’s in Bryndwr
John 10:11-21 & Psalm 23 Goodness and mercy follow me
Sermon by Mart the Rev (building on many ideas from Will Willimon)
Psalm 23 is such an old friend to all of us that he is more like family, we struggle to remember life without him – indeed he is so much a part of the family that we might as well just call him ‘Granddad’. I remember singing part of Granddad as a child in the Baptist Sunday School: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days, all the days of my life…” Can you remember Granddad from your early days? (If these are your early days then it might be that you are hearing Granddad for the first time, listen up, he is a wise old gem!) Which tune did you sing Granddad to? Do you remember the little bookmarks that had Jesus with a shepherds crook and the psalm written on them? How many of your churches had a stained glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd with an image from Granddad?
Granddad… Granddad fits onto our feet like a warm pair of slippers… Granddad holds us closely when we are afraid, and tucks us in when we are cold. Granddad is comforter, encourager, and inspirer all at once.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” How many times has Granddad spoken to us? How many funerals over the centuries have had that Psalm as a hymn or reading? “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.” In the shadow of death Granddad has spoken to us, comforted us and reassured us.
Some people react against having Granddad sung at funerals – they’ve heard it too often and it has ceased to have significance. They agree that the psalm is profound, but they struggle to hear it anew because of its overuse. And that is what can happen to Granddads and Grandmas. They are so familiar that what they say and how they say it becomes kind of old hat. It is not that they are of less value to us, of course they are of value, they are treasures, but the young ones want to stretch and grow and discover for themselves – and the wisdom of Grandparents can seem a bit out of date or it has all been heard before. Grandparents don’t seem to approach the world with their eyes wide open anymore – they’ve seen it all. Grandparents are more like anchors; they provide constancy, dependability, and steadiness. Old Granddad has all of those qualities. We love him and we would have a whole dimension of what our God is like missing if we didn’t have him. “For when life made us wonder if God was there for us, if we wondered whether God cared for us, it was… [Granddad] …who put comforting arms around us and reassured us of a God who makes, leads, restored, comforts, prepares, anoints, so that, in darkness or light, life or death, we might dwell with God.” (William Willimon Pulpit Resource 1994 p16)
When I am preparing sermons I wrestle with the fact that most of the Bible readings are familiar to you. Many of you will have heard sermons on some passages twenty or more times… and probably, old Granddad has been the subject of more sermons than anything else. So when I am preparing sermons I look for a different angle on it – a way of opening up the text so that it is as if you are hearing it for the first time. That’s not so easy with old Granddad because many of you know the whole Psalm off by heart. But I have found an angle on the psalm that I think you may not have heard about. It is to do with the phrase “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
What picture comes to your mind in that phrase? I see goodness and mercy kind of following at a safe distance, giving the comfort of their presence as I venture forth in life – an under girding in my life – being there to look back on and maybe even there to mop up after me when I get things wrong. Old Aunty Goodness sees the best in me, she looks at me with those warm eyes and I want to stretch up to her standard. And Old Uncle Mercy, he deals with the messes I make – he is steadfast in love despite the hurts I cause, the unkind things I say and do, and the temptations I so readily succumb to. It is essential that we have these two in the family circle – we know that we are not alone because these old relatives believe in us look out for us, and follow us.
But what if Goodness and Mercy weren’t exactly following us? What if instead of being like an old Aunty and Uncle following in the background they are actually chasing after us and trying to catch up with us. They wouldn’t be old and crusty anything then but quick, shrewd, and crafty. They wouldn’t be an old aunt and uncle, rather, they’d be mischievous cousins. You see, there is something in the language of old Granddad that we miss in the English translation. In the original Hebrew the word we translate as follow can also mean pursue.
Pursue as in Pharaoh’s chariots pursuing the Children of Israel to the Red Sea (Ex 14:8). “I pursued my enemies and overtook them,” sings David in his triumphant Psalm 18:37. “Our pursuers were swifter than vultures… they chased us on the mountains, they lay in wait for us in the wilderness” (Lamentations 4:19). And, ‘Surely Goodness and Mercy pursue me all the days of my life.’
Here we are, plodding along in life, and, oh yes, who’s that behind me? Oh, that’s Goodness and Mercy. They’re following me. Tagging along. Hmm. No, in fact it looks to me as if they may be pursuing me. Follow or pursue? You make the call. (Willimon p17) There is a difference between being followed and being pursued. There is a difference between looking back and seeing Goodness and Mercy following you and looking back and seeing them chasing you.
An old man in his seventies became ill and was taken to the hospice to die. Over the years people had struggled with him, he was rude and mean – bitter and resentful, the only ones who had anything to do with him hardly even knew him, they were simply his neighbours in the block of flats. The story of why he had got like he was had circulated – people could see how he could be that way after his wife died many years before giving birth to their first child and then the child had died a few days later. The bitterness could be justified. But it was impossible to live with. The man had stopped going to church and over the years had become increasingly difficult. No one really liked him, only a few people tolerated him. When he went to the hospice no one came to visit and no cards or flowers were sent. He was there to die alone.
There was a nurse, actually only a student nurse. She was training and no one had told her about what she should or shouldn’t do – like being detached and keeping professional distance and questionable stuff like that. She decided that she would be alongside this old man. It had been so long since he had had any friends that he didn’t know how to handle her interest. He told her to go away and leave him alone.
She would just smile and try to coax him to eat his food. At night she would tuck him in. “I don’t need you to help me,” he would growl.
Soon, he grew so weak that he didn’t have the strength to resist her kindness. Late at night, after her shift ended, 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 if he saw the face of the little one whom he would never get to see as an adult. And a tear formed in his eye when she kissed him goodnight. For the first time in fifty years he said “God bless you.” As she left the room, two others remained, breathless, whispering softly in the old man’s ears the last words he heard before slipping away into the dark valley: “Finally we’ve caught up with you.” “Finally you’ve let us catch up with you!” The word was whispered by the angels Goodness and Mercy.
Jesus tells us about a shepherd who is out with his sheep and notices that one is missing. He doesn’t hesitate, he leaves the other ninety-nine and pursues the lost one and doesn’t rest until he finds it. Then he heads home and celebrates. Goodness and Mercy love it when we tell that story!
Francis Thompson penned a verse where she described God as the Hound of Heaven, likening the seeking pursuing God to a faithful relentlessly following hound sniffing after us, pursuing us “down the nights and down the days”:
I fled him, down the nights and down the days
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from him…
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after…until…
Until he caught up. Goodness and Mercy catch up with us, that is their task. We are pursued because our God wants us to live with cups overflowing. We are not bullied or coerced – God is always gracious, love does not manipulate. But neither are we abandoned, for grace cannot let us go. Goodness and Mercy pursue us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. That is the promise of Psalm 23 – the last word from old Granddad.
The disciples were eating, silently… nobody felt like eating. The horror of the last few days still left its smell. Then there was a knock on the door. “Who’s there?” The door was cracked open, just a little bit. Peter started into the darkness, words were exchanged, then he threw open the door and said to the rest of them, “Break some bread and pour some more wine. Turn up the music. Make two more places at the table. Goodness and Mercy are here and have they got news for us!” Amen.