I have been preaching for so long that I have a half-dozen sermons on the 23rd Psalm. Today I am not sure which one to preach.
Number three isn't so bad. The focus was on "green pastures and still waters." It's not a bad image for spring time in the days after Easter. Beyond the fury of life, there is peace. Beneath the concrete and pavement, there is the good earth. God renews us as God renews the good earth.
Sermon number five was pretty good. As we gathered around the communion table on Maundy Thursday, we heard the words, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." Imagine Jesus doing that, as he gathered his friends for a final Passover meal. Outside a storm is forming. He will be betrayed by someone at that table. After dinner, he will be condemned and crucified by the world he loves - yet he prepares a table right there in the middle of it all.
I use sermon number two for the funerals of people we don't know very well. Together we walk "through the valley of the shadow of death." As we make that journey, we shift our perspective from talking about God (and saying, "The Lord is my shepherd.") to talking with God ("You are with me.").
Now, sermon four reflects on the generosity of God. There's an abundant banquet before us, the anointing oil of blessing, and a cup running over and spilling all over the ground! This is good news to those who measure out goodness in teaspoons.
Meanwhile, I'm sure you are waiting for sermon number one. That one affirms the simple words, "The Lord is my Shepherd." Never mind that none of us have ever actually met a shepherd. We need him to lead us. We want him to wave his staff of discipline and chase away the wolves.
And you haven't heard sermon number six: "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." That sermon is pretty long, so I don't preach it very often. People in the pews will give about 59 minutes a week. Obviously, that phrase is a metaphor, a comparison of the life of faith as dwelling in the house, as ongoing fellowship with God. It's a good sermon, but it goes on a good long time.
Who could imagine that a brief psalm of six short verses could generate at least six different sermons? Is there the possibility of a seventh? Certainly. I lit the oil lamp and descended to the catacombs of my pastoral library. Surrounded by ancient manuscripts and learned tomes, I hunkered over the familiar words until I found something new. Suddenly, there it was, in the sixth verse: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." What I found was the Hebrew verb "radaph," which is translated "follow."
It turns out that "follow" is a lazy translation. It is far too passive. The better translation is the word "pursue." God's goodness shall pursue us. God's mercy shall chase after us. With that, sermon number seven is off and running.
A lot of people cannot imagine aggressive grace. Why, the very idea that goodness is not only present, but continually pursuing us - that is a most unusual expression.
Yet, goodness and mercy chase after us. "Chase" is a word that carries overtones of danger. A movie with chase scenes will raise the adrenaline level. The bad guys chase after the good guys. As in the book of Exodus, "The Egyptians chased after the Israelites, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army." (Exodus 14:9) Normally a chase is not a good thing.
But to hear that "mercy pursues us," that "grace chases after us"? Do you think that is true?
When my sister and I were small, we often bumped heads in a fight. Something would happen between us and the fur would fly. Our mother always stepped in to intervene. Not only did she break up the fight, but she created the reconciliation.
Here is what she would do. She pulled out two chairs and aimed them at one another. Then she directed us to each sit in a chair and stare at one another. We were not allowed to smile or laugh. She said, "Glare at one another until I tell you to stop." It was the worst punishment in the world. How long did that last? About ninety seconds.
My sister's smile would crack my frown. I giggled and she chortled. A voice from the kitchen said, "I told you not to laugh!" Well, that did it. The laughter of love released us from our chairs.
I have long since thought this would be a good way to force grownups to get along. Demand mercy! Insist on forgiveness. Say it, in the voice of Jesus, "You must forgive!" (17:4) If we don't show goodness and mercy, as God's goodness and mercy have pursued us, what's the point of being a human being?
This is the way to live the Christian life. A nearby Psalm lays it right out: "Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it." (Psalm 34:14) There's that same verb - pursue.
John Calvin and his followers gave this a lot of thought. Not only did they affirm that God will ultimately rule over all things, they believed that the grace of God is so generous that it is going to win us over. The adjective they used was "irresistible." They taught of God's "irresistible grace," declaring when God decides to rescue you, God is going to get it done. There's no use trying to fight the love of God. Resistance is futile. God is going to win.
Can you remember the Bible stories and how Jesus chose to heal or help people in trouble? Some of them didn't even ask him for help. He simply did it with the graciousness of God.
Like the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof by his friends. He never asked for that. His friends dropped him at the feet of Jesus. Jesus looks at him and says, "Your sins are forgiven," and the man never asked for that. Then Jesus says, "Get up and walk," and that was the next thing that man did.
Or the person born blind, in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John. He never asked to receive his sight, but Jesus gave it to him anyway. That is when the man's troubles begin. The authorities interrogate him, his parents refuse to defend him, the man is thrown out of his congregation simply because Jesus healed him. After that, Jesus chases after him to find him at the end. That's nagging grace.
Francis Thompson, an English poet, wrote a poem called "The Hound of Heaven," somewhere around 1893. It became quite famous, describing Jesus as a fierce hound who pursued a man until he got him. "I fled Him, down the arches and down the days," says the poet. "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..." For a few people, that is their experience of God.
But I think this favorite Psalm offers a gentler perspective, no less persistent, but always benevolent. Like the woman who took in three kittens. She found them at the shelter, three kittens from the same litter. They were a trinity of meows. She named them Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, because everywhere she went, there they were. They were always nipping at her heels. She couldn't get away from them.
The promise here: that no matter how difficult life is, God is gaining on you. God is going to win you over. How about that? Consider the nagging grace, the aggressive mercy of God.
The writer Anne Lamott tells the story of her Christian conversion. Her life was a chaotic mess. She couldn't straighten herself out. Small advances could be made, but it wasn't going well. Sometimes she went to a Sunday morning flea market in her town, and she would hear gospel music coming from a church right across the street.
It was St. Andrew Presbyterian, a ramshackle building with a cross on top. She tried to escape it, but the music was so compelling that she would wander over to stand in the doorway and listen to the songs.
Life continued to take terrible turns. One night she was sobbing in the shadows, and suddenly aware that someone was with her. Beyond any doubt she knew it was Jesus, the risen Lord. That appalled her. What would her brilliant, hilarious, progressive friends think? What would they think if she ever became a Christian? She shrugged it off, yet felt him watching her with patience and love.
The experience spooked her. Everywhere she went, it felt like a little kitten was following her, wanting her to reach down and pick it up. But she resisted. You let a cat in once, give it a little milk, and it will stay forever. No way.
Not long after that, she went to the church. This time she stayed for the sermon, but it did nothing for her. But then the singing started, and it was so deep and raw and pure that she couldn't escape. They were singing between the notes, she said. It was like she was rocked in the bosom of the music, held like a scared child, and it cleansed her.
She started to cry, so she got up to escape. As she headed toward home, it was like that little cat was running along at her heels. She got to the door, stopped for a moment, hung her head and said, "I quit." After a long breath, she said out loud, "All right. You can come in." That was the moment of her conversion.[i]
Goodness follows us. Mercy nips at our heels. Do you know what that's like? It means that God loves each one of us so much that God is going to chase after us with goodness and mercy until we are found, forgiven, welcomed, and won over.
That's what it means to have the Lord as our shepherd.
Let us pray.
Pursue us, O Holy One, until all the lost are found and welcomed home. And set before us your continuing generosity and give us the hearts to thank you. In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.
[i] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999) 48-50.