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Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy

Lent 4, Common Lectionary Year A

Psalm 23

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture
Today, the Lectionary gifts us with the most familiar and the most perfect Psalm for dark valley times like these; Psalm 23.
Some of you learned it in the high and holy tones of the King James, others of us can’t do the psalm without singing it to the tune Crimond.
And for the younger crowd, it may be all new!
Because it is our preaching/ reflection text for today, we’ll turn it a number of ways, so that it will tickle our curiosity, and please God, will feed and comfort our souls. Perhaps a new word will take flight for us today as we share this favourite and familiar psalm.

Psalm 23 King James Version (KJV)
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

See after the sermon text for some ways to listen to the 23rd Psalm

Sermon Text ~ Shirley, Goodness and Mercy

Sermon audio

Prayer.
Holy One,
let the words of your Psalmist,
and these words we share by way of reflection,
make melody for our soul’s salving, we pray,
Amen.

I am of that generation that learned Psalm 23 by singing it to Crimond,
singing the alto line in the parish choir of St. Christopher’s RC parish in England.
My memory may be playing tricks with me, but I think it was one of the priests of that parish who used to laugh at his own joke
about God being a shepherd who had three faithful sheep,
“Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy,
who followed God around all the days of their life.”
(Apologies to my mother-in-law, and all whose names are Shirley, you have heard that joke, or one like it, more times than you can count!)

However it is that you learned or know this psalm,
the likelihood is high that you do, at least bits of it.
It is arguably the most well-known of Scriptures.

Why is that?
It’s not merely because of bucolic green pastures
with cute little sheep, Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy,
it is because of the darker verses
that weight the centre of the psalm,
that pull it deep into the reality of the human condition:
those things we all experience,
never more so than now,
of fear, enemies and evil (visible and invisible),
and of death’s dark valleys.
This psalm doesn’t deny or diminish the certainty
that life, while abundant, blessed and good,
is also intrinsically difficult, blighted, hard. [1]

We don’t know what the crisis was
that caused this psalmist to compose,
and that’s a good thing;
it remains oblique, metaphorical enough
that we, in every generation,
have been able to insert the personal or global troubles of our own day;
cancer, aging, poverty, displacement,
exile, war, famine, fire, flood, pandemic.

If nothing else, the psalm serves to remind us
that while, for our children this may be their first
experience of global calamity,
it’s certainly not God’s,
nor is it the first time for God’s people.
What is striking about this song,
and what makes it so powerful in days like these,
is the clarity with which it expresses
a quiet, confident trust in the
the comforting presence of God
precisely in the thick of crisis.

Now, before we worry that we don’t share
that confidence or trust,
listen to what Old Testament scholar-pastor Rolf Jacobson writes,
we don’t sing this song “because it says what we mean
we [sing it] because by so doing, we come to mean what it says.[2]

It’s a breath of calm in the midst of chaos.
It’s a sigh of stillness at the height of the storm.
It’s the song we draw out from within and beyond us
when an invisible, insidious viral enemy threatens our family,
our fold, our flock,
it’s the low lament we sing when the dark valley of death seems too close.

Have you noticed, when you sing or read this psalm,
what happens when the going gets tough
for the singer?
She quits talking about God, abstractly and theologically in the third person,
starts to talk to God!
“I walk into this darkness, where death stalks,
and there seems no way out,
and You, You are with me! [3]

It’s the literal and spiritual pivot point of the psalm!
Precisely when we are in the middle of the mess,
at the bottom of the pit of despair,
when all we have left to say is “O God, where are you?”
……
Oh! How true that has been this week….
in the flurry of fear;
is everyone included in a care cluster?
Who will be the first to be sickened by this?
Are we ready, what if they… what happens if…?
When my brain blanks, and I worry about my kids,
and my mom,
and I weep at the numbers and the news,
and there is nothing else to do
but fall to my weakened knees,
and pull from the spiritual memory bank
something…anything…
“The Lord is my shepherd..?”
right there…and right on cue,
“You are with me.
You are with me!
Your rod and staff,
they goad, guard, guide me!”

Seriously! A rod, a staff?!
People of Cedar Park, I hope the lightbulbs are going right now!
Remember the Shepherd’s rod, from was it only last week?!
The shepherd’s staff with which Moses strikes the Nile to part the sea,
with which he strikes the rock so the people can drink in the wilderness,
and with which he will defend the desert wanderers from disease.
A shepherd’s staff. The ultimate biblical symbol
of God’s provident protective help in time of trouble!

God is with us, with a Shepherd’s rod and staff
to protect, to guard, to prod, to equip, to guide us,
and lead us back to the well-worn track
marked by the generations who have lived
this battered and bruised life of blessing before us,
trusting that God is indeed with them, with us.
The Shepherding God who leads us, each of us,
even while physically distanced,
to a table set with enough to sustain us
in the presence of this pandemic enemy,
and where we are anointed with the oil of cherished blessing
and belonging.

Forgive me for lightening this just a little….
Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, God’s three sheep.
In the KJV the verb used to describe their presence
in our life is that they follow us all the days of our life.
The Hebrew is stronger,
the verb is more like “pursue doggedly.”
Goodness and Mercy will pursue us as surely as…
as an unweaned pup will follow its mother!
Surely God’s goodness and mercy
will become the constant companion,
of every inch of our life, in every circumstance,
including, especially during this pandemic,
so that we will know in our bones and in our soul,
that we dwell, that we live, “like a child at home” [4]
in the company, in the household,
in the sheepfold, of God.

When you are feeling the valley darken, sing this psalm,
let it lead you and yours
back to still waters and the Shepherding love of God.

Amen.

Postscript
This is a psalm, a song; it’s been said that when we sing, we pray twice. I know that to be true for me.

I’ve included a list below of various recordings of different versions of this Psalm,
from classic and choral, right up to Coolio’s Gansta Paradise! Find the one that sings the psalm in your key, and let it pursue you, until you mean what it says!

Footnotes

[1] “Life is pain, highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” (The Princess Bride)

[2] Psalm 23, in Roger E. Van Harn & Brant A Strawn, eds, Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, (Eerdmans 2009)

[3] Listen to Howard Goodall’s version of the Psalm, you’ll here this crescendo when the whole choir sings ‘You are with me, you are with me, you will comfort me!”

[4] Isaac Watts’ metrical version (1719) of the last verse, “Oh may your house be my abode/… Here would I find a settled rest /…/no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.”

Some ways to listen to the 23rd Psalm

Classic and Choral

Crimond

Isaac Watts’s version, to the tune “Resignation”

This beautiful version by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

And in Hebrew, to the tune, Resignation (above)

Howard Goodall  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLxdb3ov-zE

Bobby McFerrin  (see what happens when you listen to God as “She” – for me, after the first shock, it expands my imagination of God’s care)

Contemporary

Shane and Shane https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoojA0cLPWY

Psalm 23 ( I Am Not Alone)

Coolio: Gangsta Paradise.

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