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An Old Friend
April 24, 1994

Psalm 23

How pleasant to come to church on a spring Sunday and meet an old friend. The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as "Shepherd Sunday". All the lectionary texts have to do with sheep and shepherds. And the psalm today is an old friend, Psalm 23. How often when the life of a Christian draws to a close, he/she reaches out for this old friend, Psalm 23. When I ask the family what Scripture lessons shall I read at the Memorial or Funeral service, usually they request Psalm 23.

I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Whenever in this life we are forced into some dry desert, or tossed and turned in a raging current, it is this old friend who reminds us of the green pastures and still waters, and thereby restores our souls. When we wander, without direction or meaning, there is good old Twenty-three to point out the right paths for his name's sake. When life makes us wonder if God is there for us, if God cares, it is Twenty-three who puts comforting arms around us and reassures us of a God who makes, leads, restores, comforts, prepares, anoints, so that, in darkness or light, life or death, we dwell with God.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I have everything I need. When our oldest son, Jack, was three or four, I took him to a drive-in, and invited him to order. He said, "Green pop and onion rings, that's all I need." Green pop was Seven-Up. The Lord is my shepherd, that's all I need. I shall not want.

There are two images in Psalm 23 that particularly capture my imagination. First, Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. What does a table have to do with sheep and shepherds? Who has enemies? Do you have enemies? The idea of enemies somehow makes many of us uncomfortable. We like to say, "I get along with everyone." Dealing with enemies is a common theme in the Bible which evidently makes many moderns uncomfortable. Study the psalms in the back of the hymnal--the responsive readings--and often, the references to enemies have been deleted, as if enemies are primitive, out of date, and not real in today's world. How wrong can we get! Perhaps a reason for an ineffective faith, a diluted Christianity, is that we don't take enemies seriously.

The reference to enemies in Psalm 23 might seem abrupt and disturbing to the pastoral scene so serenely painted--still waters and green pastures. But, sheep had many enemies. Israel pastures had poisonous plants and deadly snakes--cobras. The good shepherd prepared the table for the sheep by checking the area for snakes and pulling up the poisonous weeds.

The term enemy also had a symbolic meaning in the Bible. Sometimes it refers to national enemies, but often it refers to the forces of evil, the forces of chaos that threaten God's order, God's creation. You and I have enemies along our spiritual journey. This is basically an unfriendly world in which we are aliens. For you to be your best, to be what God created you and called you to be, for you to achieve success in God's will, you must hold off your enemies. What detracts you? What inhibits, prevents you from being what God intends? Shyness? Fear of failure and rejection? Guilt, stifling guilt over something you have done? Alcoholism? Peer pressure? What incapacitates you? Lethargy? Complacency? Some dead hand from the past? Picture the Good Shepherd, Jesus, preparing the way for you; fighting off the enemies, pulling the poisonous weeds.

Psalm 23 also includes the image of the host. The stranger was always welcome at a nomad's tent. The stranger was protected and entertained by the host. Anointing the head with oil was a substitute for soap and water. Anointing the head with oil was a way to refresh the weary, hot, dirty traveler. Filling his cup with wine so that it runs over was an act of hospitality.

Picture yourself, imagine yourself seated at a table. A banquet is spread before you. Your cup is constantly replenished, even running over. Your head is anointed with oil, refreshing, fragrant oil. Relax, eat, enjoy the company of your host, the Good Shepherd, because your enemies cannot touch you. You are protected by the host. Imagine the enemies relegated to the outside. There is fear growling at you from behind the bush. There is jealousy, there is complacency, there is guilt, there is failure. Banished. They can't intrude. They can't touch you. The Host protects you. You are free, free to be you, free to enjoy God's company! Jesus prepares a table for you in the presence of your enemies who cannot touch you.

The second image is derived from the sentence, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The word goodness includes the benefits of God's presence--health, joy, peace. Mercy is often translated in the Old Testament as steadfast love. In the psalms we often read, God's steadfast love endures forever. Mercy is the word for love and kindness. God's goodness and kindness follows us all the days of our lives. But the word translated as follows can also be translated as pursue. Pharoah's chariots pursued the Hebrews all the way to the Red Sea. After David had triumphed in a battle, he sang (Psalm 18:37) I pursued my enemies and overtook them.

Psalm 23 affirms Surely goodness and mercy pursue me all the days of my life. Here we are, plodding through life, and, look who is behind us--goodness and mercy. Not just following us, not just tagging along, but pursuing us. There's a difference between being followed and pursued. There's a difference between looking back over your shoulder and finding dear old, predictable goodness and mercy trudging up the hill behind you, following you. That's different from being pursued by goodness and mercy. Goodness and mercy pursue, relentlessly, tirelessly. They persist. Goodness and mercy will not quit.

Jesus told about the shepherd who was not content when he counted 99 of his 100 sheep. He left the ninety-nine and pursued the one who was lost. Up and down the hills, searching among the bushes, finding the trapped lost one. In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Huck remembers how "the widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names too, but she never meant no harm by it." Jesus loves his little lambs, and searches for them all; carrying them home in his shepherd arms. Jesus also loves his sheep, and his old goats!

He was known as a mean old man. Resentful. Bitter. Someone said that his bitterness was justified. His beloved wife died giving birth to their only child. The child died shortly thereafter from complications. "He has reason to be bitter," they said in town.

He never went to church. Never had anything to do with anyone. When, in his late sixties, 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 a nurse. Well, she wasn't actually a nurse yet, just a student nurse. She was in training and because she was in training, she hadn't yet learned what they teach 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, and try to coax him to eat his Jello. At night, she would tuck him in. "Don't need nobody 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 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 a little one whom he never got to see as an adult. A tear formed in his eye when she kissed him goodnight. For the first time in forty, maybe fifty years, he forgot his bitterness and said, "God bless you."

As she left the room, goodness and mercy whispered softly in the old man's ear the last word he heard before slipping away into the dark valley, "Gotcha!" Surely goodness and mercy pursued him all the days of his life, and he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Picture yourself seated at a table, hosted by the Good Shepherd. There is plenty to eat. The company is entertaining. Around the edge, banished from power, are your enemies; and sitting beside you, having pursued you, now keeping you company, are your old friends, goodness and mercy.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris