Text:Psalm 23

I suspect for many of us Psalm 23 is a piece of scripture,
or a hymn, that we know by heart.
It’s one of those touchstone resources we call upon
when we are in our own dark times.
For countless generations this Psalm has been quietly recited to those who are dying – it’s been a source of strength and courage
for those making that immense transition from this life
to the mystery, the unknown that await each of us.
At many memorial services it’s this piece of scripture,
this Psalm that is read,
for it comforts us in our grief; invites us to trust in the promise …
“even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff
– they comfort me.”

But Psalm 23 is also a psalm for life!
This Psalm shows up in the lectionary every year on this Sunday –
this fourth Sunday in the season of Easter,
the season we celebrate the new life that is ours
through the power of God’s life giving love.
One of the reasons it is a psalm for life is because it is real
about the darkest valleys, the valley of the shadow of death.
It acknowledges that we know what we know –
yes daffodils bloom each spring, but death is real, and just as certain.
And not only the death that comes at the end of our life,
but the deaths we live with and through …
the death of our hopes, our dreams, the death of a relationship,
the pain and suffering that comes to some of us,
the grief, the losses we have known,
the evil realities some of us have experienced …
Psalm 23 does not shy away from any of this,
evil and enemies are real, AND the Psalm proclaims
“you are with me”.
In and through all that life holds, the good shepherd stays with us.

Many of you, but not all of you, know that I arrived here last September, having retired from St. John’s United Church.
And what else would the newly retired minister’s wife take on,
but the Property Team –
let’s just say there were some pretty significant messes to attend to.
In the meantime I’m very grateful to have Ralph join me on this team,
especially when it comes to all things electrical,
including the sump pumps!
A completely unexpected part of taking on the responsibility of the Property Team has been the hiring of two young Syrian men
as our church janitors.
I signed up for the Property Team, and over the last few months
I’ve come to love the 18 and 19 year old janitors –
In many ways it feels like I’ve gained two sons, the kids I never had.

Some of you have had the pleasure of meeting Ahmad and Spring –
Spring was persuaded to join us for a couple of meals
during our Lenten movie series.
They both are delightful, charming, sweet young men,
and each of them have been deeply, deeply wounded.
So on the one hand they are so grateful to be here in the safety
of Canada, in beautiful Victoria,
and they both live with so much grief, so much pain,
so much trauma.
I’ve been making connections with them and their families
several times most weeks, and each time more of their hearts,
more of their agony is revealed.
They evoke such tenderness in me –
my heart is filled with more and more love.

This past week Spring spoke with such gratitude about his job at this church – “God has so blessed me with a job in this church.”
And it is not because of the money he earns –
it is because of the space that opens in his broken heart
whenever he comes into this building.
Standing in the janitor’s room this past Thursday,
and if you’ve looked into that room you know it is not a pretty place,
Spring opened wide his arms and said
“my heart is opening up, right now I can feel space in my chest …
the energy, the fire, the fear goes away when I am in the church”.
And then he confessed,
“every time when I am finished my work, before I go home,
I play the piano; and when I play the piano
the badness, the pain comes out.”
Then he looked at me and said,
“I told my Dad, ‘I am a Muslim, and the church trusts me –
they are Christians, and they give me keys, and I can go into the church to clean when no one from the church is there.
I can go into all the rooms. It is a good place for me.”
And then he said, “My father, he says ‘they are good people’.”

Interesting isn’t it – the places that become green pastures,
places of still waters, for a bone weary,
war tormented young Muslim man.

I have to confess that my heart is rather tender these days,
and spending time with Psalm 23 has been a gift.
The images and the words
they call to something deep within …
a desire for stillness, for tranquility … a need for centeredness,
they help us move down into what’s real and true,
to sing them is to touch wholeness,
it’s to connect with God’s unending companionship.

Perhaps it’s a measure of the growing fragmentation,
and absurdity and violence in our world,
certainly with the death of someone we love,
or any numbers of ways in which we experience loss and grief,
all of these bring to consciousness
our need and our desire for renewal,
for refreshment, for healing, for harmony, for care …
for the restoring of our souls.
Surely the refreshment, the healing, the care are gifts freely given
by God’s gracious provision.

This is what the writer of the 23rd Psalm discovered
and takes pleasure in celebrating.
In this Psalm we have the testimony of one person’s experience
of God’s incredible, utterly sufficient care.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want …
The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.”

Do you hear the wonder of that confession?
The person goes on to flesh out the experience of God’s generous care not for all life in general, but for him or her in particular.
This care that comes not through some ethereal expression,
but through the created order,
through earthy elements like green spaces and still waters …
earthy elements that awaken the senses, that encourage rest,
that offer refreshment, that nourish the life within us,
that remind us of the Life that blesses and enfolds and sustains us … earthy elements that return us to our deepest selves
and reconnect us with what matters most.

Wednesday afternoon I had an experience of that at Uplands Park where the camas is in full bloom – wave after wave of blue
floating over the rock, along the paths, through open meadows.
More than anything, the invitation seemed to me to be
“come and be … come and be met,
come and be nourished by God’s lavish care through the beauty,
the stillness, the simplicity, the companionship of blue camas.
It was an amazing experience of being provided for.
I urge you to go while the blue is still there.

Some of us need solitude,
often in the company of growing things,
some of us need to gather with trusted companions
with whom we can speak and listen to ourselves
in order to get in touch with our souls,
but all of us need to find the time and the way
for our souls to be restored.

So I ask you … how is it with your soul?
What is it that your soul would have you hear?
What if, given the space, the attention, the welcome,
what does your soul need in order to be made whole?
Along what paths would the Spirit guide you? (silence)

The Psalmist knows that this matters, not only to us,
but it also matters to God.
So matters in fact that we have only to open our hearts,
and God will provide, will lead us … God will protect and stay with us.

One last thought … the 6th verse of Psalm 23 proclaims:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
I don’t know about you, but often I’ve heard that phrase
“follow me” in kind of a passive way …
like goodness and mercy is following along behind me
like an old or well trained dog!
But that “follow me” is more accurately translated as pursue me …
Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life…
So we’re given this image of being constantly gathered up and gathered in, so that there is nowhere that we can be
that is outside of the loving, merciful presence of God.

Which brings us back to the beginning …to that wondrous confession
“With the Lord as my shepherd, I shall not want.”
My friends, in the face of all that lies ahead for each of us,
for all of us, may we trust and know that all sufficient grace.