Sunday, May 11, 2014

goodness and mercy shall chase me

Easter 4, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me…” (Psalm 23:4). Amen.

Psalm 23 is the most recognizable psalm—and I would venture to say piece of scripture—in the Bible. People have found comfort in these words for centuries, which is why I think the psalm is so often used with patients in hospitals and at funerals (but it might also be because it’s short and easy to memorize). 

The Psaltery is a collection of musical poetry written over a span of 600 years, from the time of King Solomon around 950 B.C. to the years following the Exile in 350 B.C. Martin Luther called the Psalms a “little Bible” because they contain theology, history, drama…a little bit of everything! The psalms come in five forms, the most common of which is the lament. Some of the psalms are attributed to King David, but most of them, like Psalm 23, were written during the time of Exile. 

The Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians around 600 B.C. Most of them were sent away from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon, where they were forced to assimilate into Babylonian culture. Kept in exile away from their homeland for about 60 years, it was difficult for the Israelites to maintain their faith and their cultural identity as God’s chosen people. Many of them felt that the Exile was God’s way of punishing them for the sins they had committed. 

While most of the psalms, especially ones from the time of Exile, are laments, mourning loss, feeling betrayed and hurt, and wondering where the heck God is in all of it, today’s psalm is different. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust. The author is saying that even though our life may take us through places of pain and suffering, that we do not journey on this path alone; “I shall fear no evil; for you are with me” the psalmist asserts (v. 4). God is with us, guiding us “along right pathways” (v. 3). When we become weary of our suffering, God “leads [us] beside still waters” and “revives [our] soul[s],” keeping us nourished for the journey (v. 2, 3).

And when the day comes for us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will finally realize that death is just that; a shadow. Death only has the appearance of a place; it is not our final destination. God will lead us through that valley and to a great banquet hall, where we will be treated like royalty.

There’s a story I once heard about a man who dreams that he dies and finds himself in a long hallway. He comes to a door marked hell and is about to pass it by when he hears noises behind it. Unable to stop his curiosity, he opens the door and peeks in. Inside the room is a long table filled with the most scrumptious food: fresh fruit and vegetables, dishes just out of the oven with steam rising from them, all the best desserts…the smell is tantalizing and his stomach begins to rumble. He begins to wonder why exactly the door is marked hell but then he notices that there are people sitting around the table, and all of them are starving. The food is right in front of them, just waiting to be eaten, but they can’t eat because they have long spoons connected to their arms; they are unable to feed themselves because they can’t bring the spoons up to their mouths. 

Disturbed, the man closes the door and continues to walk down the hallway. He approaches another door and sees that it is marked heaven. Excited about what lies beyond the door, he opens it. The man is surprised to find that the room looks exactly like the other one. A scrumptious feast spread on a long table, with people all around. The people in this room also have long spoons connected to their arms, but this time none of them are starving. What is the difference?

In the room marked hell, everyone is thinking only of themselves, trying futilely to bring food into their own mouths. But in the room marked heaven, the people realize that they can use the long spoons to feed each other, which means that everyone gets as much as they need. 

You might be wondering why I decided to bring up this story. Did you notice in the psalm that God spreads a table before the psalmist “in the presence of those who trouble [him]” (v. 5)? I used to always think that this passage meant that all the people who had ever hurt the psalmist in one way or another would be standing on the floor below, watching the psalmist gorge himself on all that delicious food. “'My cup is running over' but you don’t even have a cup, nah nah nah nah nah nah (v. 5). 

A few years ago I was reading Psalm 23 slowly as part of a retreat exercise, and I realized that the people who troubled the psalmist aren’t standing in front of the table, they are seated at it! There is a place for everyone at the table, including the people who have hurt us, who we would consider to be our enemies. There is a place for them to sit—I can’t attest to whether or not there will be long spoons, but we will have the opportunity to feed them and be fed by their presence. The amazing thing about the kingdom of heaven is that all of our troubles—all of our fights and conflicts and pain and suffering—will be over. We will come to know the fullness of God’s love. 

We are all one in God’s eyes, each one of us a beloved child of God, loved despite our faults and doubts. In the final verse, the psalmist writes, “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (v. 6). “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me” (v. 6). The word we translate as follow here doesn’t mean follow in the sense of tagging along behind like a puppy or a little sister. It means to chase, to pursue, like police pursue criminals or like our enemies chase after us. God is actively seeking each one of us out, pursuing us, desperately attempting to make us aware of God’s goodness and mercy.  

As we leave here today to go out into the amazing, beautiful, and sometimes terrifying world, remember that God is seeking us out. We do not walk this path alone; God is right there with us. And when our day comes, we know that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6). Alleluia!

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