Rev Harry Currie
Jan 28, 2024
Psalm 23, 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, John 10:11-16
When I moved to Canada in 1967, the television was different than in England.
I was introduced to Mr. Dressup and to the Friendly Giant and to Hockey Night in Canada.
I was also introduced to a whole new genre of tv for me. The Western.
Cowboy movies and shows about the old American West were quite common. Some of you who are my age or so, may remember Bonanza, Gunsmoke, the Rifleman, Rawhide… I can still hear some of the words of the Rawhide theme song
rollin', rollin', rollin'Though the streams are swollenKeep them dawwgies rollin', Rawhide
So, I am going to refer to the series “Gunsmoke”,
On an old episode of the series, an outlaw was traveling on a train disguised as a minister. Doc Adams from Dodge city was on the same train, caring for a dying man. When death seemed imminent, the conductor sought out the black-suited, clerical-collared outlaw to provide comfort for the man’s final moments.
Doc suspected the minister’s true identity, but went along with the charade for the sake of the dying man.
When the fake cleric reached the bedside, the dying man whispered “The. Twenty-Third.” The outlaw didn’t understand, so Doc Adams prompted him, “He wants you to read the Twenty-third Psalm.”
The imposter fumbled through the bible he carried as part of the disguise until he at last located the psalm. He read the words awkwardly, as though he had never read them before.
Yet, somehow, even though an unfaithful voice offered the reading, the dying man was calmed.
His favourite scripture calmed him and gave him peace as he passed into the shadow of death’s dark valley.
And while this may be only a story from television it illustrates a reality which many have found true.
There is power in the scriptures - the power to move...the power to comfort, the power to touch the human heart in the extreme circumstances of life.
And maybe this story illustrated something else. Psalm 23 may be the most recognized, most recited, most memorized passage of the bible.
Psalm 23 might be the most influential, even powerful passage of scripture to convey the presence and reality of God.
I pretty much read this scripture at every funeral service I officiate.
And I suppose one of the very interesting things about this scripture is how it has become so associated with funerals and dying, for the word death occurs only once in the phrase “valley of the shadow of death” which the Today’s English version translates “deepest darkness.”
Why is this image of the Shepherd, the Lord is your Shepherd, so appealing, so comforting, so universally accepted? And why has it become so attached to funerals.
The Lord is my shepherd. First it is a metaphor. God is compared to a shepherd. Good is like a shepherd.
We don’t see many shepherds these days, but would have been very common in biblical days. The shepherd’s job was to care and look after sheep and to lead them to food and water and to protect them from danger.
And I think the power of this image really lies in the fact that God cares. God loves.
And while that may be a pretty obvious thing to state, I am not sure that is how the ancients used to think about God, the gods, or leaders in general.
In fact, I presume that in the time of the ancient world where many people believed in many gods, the truth was that most of these gods did not really care for people.
The people were there for the amusement of the gods. The gods would sometimes, just for sport, make your life more difficult or easier. You always had to appease the gods with a sacrifice or something like that, because the gods were fickle, sometimes moody. There were interested mostly in what they were interested in, or in other words they were pretty selfish. They demanded obedience or else.
What could a poor mortal do, but try to please them.
It wasn’t much different for Kings, Queens, Lords, Emperors, Pharaohs or other leaders and powerful people.
It was assumed that they were they by some kind of divine right and they could Lord it over anybody. The people were there to serve them, do their bidding, follow with unquestioned obedience.
The people were not that important.
But the Lord is My Shepherd is a whole different way to speak about a deity. This God cares. This God isn’t way up there beyond everybody else. This God is a shepherd.
This God sacrifices, suffers, risks one life even to care for one of the lowly sheep
What a difference it makes to us, if we think somebody cares. I will vote for a politician if I really believe that he cares for people, that he isn’t in there for himself or the party, but he cares.
What made my mother so special is the depth of her caring, the depth of her love. And it is true that as a teenager and young man, I did not understand how great her love was, and how much she sacrificed for her boys, and how much she served us. I had to really grow up and become a parent to really understood the depth of her love. Sometimes that is the way it is for us. We haven’t grown up fully into our spiritual self, and we often don’t understand the infinite depth of God’s love.
The other thing I believe that makes Psalm 23 special is this. The use of the pronouns.
The Lord is MY shepherd it starts and then it changes to the second person.
In the King James it is “Thou” Now the translators of the King James Authorized Version published in 1611, didn’t use the word “thou” for God, because “thou” was a holy special word. They used “thou” because four hundred years ago, it was the common word for the second-person singular pronoun in English.
Today we used the word “you” for both the second-person singular pronoun and the second person plural pronoun.
French uses “tu” for the singular and “vous” for the plural, although in French when it is formal singular they use “vous”
How are you? formally is “Comment allez-vous?” but to a friend you would say “Comment vas-tu?
In English today you is both singular and plural.
So, the twenty-third psalm today would read in common English
You are with me; your rod and thy staff they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies: you anoint my head with oil;
And note: This is the language of intimacy. Not the language one addresses to a Lord or a King or maybe even a God. The Lord is my shepherd, means that the psalmist is on intimate terms with God. I do not believe there is any other scripture that quite conveys the closeness of the relationship.
God, you are with me. You protect me. You care for me, you feed me, you welcome me. You comfort me. You are prepared for me.
This is like speech that best friends have....
This is like speech of lovers.
This is like the speech of parent and child
God isn’t way up there. He is my friend. My helper. My buddy. My lover. My family.
And I can talk to him and tell him anything.
God, you are my best friend.
And if anything ever were to happen to me, I would want you there.
If I were sad, I would tell you about it.
If I were really angry about something, I would share it with you.
If I was in pain, I know you would be there to comfort me.
If I was going to die, I know you’d be there holding my hand. What are best friends for?
Many years ago, friends of ours, their daughter died in a tragic accident.
Our friends entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And it was a very long valley and a very dark valley.
We walked with them as best we could, but you will know it is a very hard thing to walk in that valley when it is not your loss.
I would like to say that they had a marvelous faith experience in that valley, but it was so dark at times they could hardly see each other, let alone God.
The only one who could see in that darkness was Jesus.
The only one who could really understand that pain was Jesus.
And even when they were angry at him and each other Jesus understood.
It was a long walk in that valley, but I think they know now, Jesus walked with them.
At the funeral I read the 23rd psalm.
I reiterated that God loved their little girl, I’ll call her Jo. That Jesus died for Jo, and that she was safe in the arms of Jesus.
You know there was a little creek where this family lived and Dad would take Jo there fishing with a little net and they would catch fish and put them in a little pail. We have a beautiful picture of Jo in her boots in the crick with her fishing net and a great big smile on her face.
The first time they went fishing and it was getting time to go home, Dad was not sure how to explain to Jo that she would have to let the fish go, because they would die if they took them home. He knew that children don’t like to let things go. “Jo,” Dad called, “you know that if we keep the fish, they will die, so maybe we should let them go.”
Jo, looked up. “I all ready let them go daddy.”
So, my words to the Mom and Dad that day during the funeral service were these: “Let her go. Let Jo go into God’s hands.”
Because the reality we all face in life, even more real than taxes is this: We have to learn to let loved ones go into the shadow of death.
All of us will lose loved ones to death. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, Friends… sometimes even children to death.
It is a reality of life, and the hardest thing we will ever face.
In fact, one of greatest struggles in life, and some psychologists say it is the struggle that governs life, is the struggle to come to terms with death, and even with our own death.
And our faith faces death head on and says: The Good Shepherd gave his life, that we will have life. That nothing can separate us from his love, not even death.
And that our Good Shepherd has prepared a banquet for us in the presence of that enemy death.
Jesus welcomes us home and fills our cup to overflowing.
I know people who have faced death, and dealt with death and God was there, and eventually they were able to say: “My cup runneth over.”
A lady named Mary tells this story:
My grown daughter, Sara, and I were very good friends. She lived in a nearby town and that made it possible for us to see each other quite often. In between visits we would write or talk on the phone.
When Sara would call me, she always said, “Hi, mom, it’s me,” and I’d say, “Hi, Me, how are you today?” She often signed her letters simply, “Me”
Sometimes I’d call her “Me” just to tease her.
Then one day Sara died suddenly with a brain hemorrhage. Needless to say, I was devastated. There can be no greater pain for a parent than to lose a beloved child. It took all my considerable faith to keep going.
We decided to donate her organs so that at least some good could come from this otherwise tragic situation.
In due time, I heard from the Organ Retrieval Group to tell us what organs had been used and given to others. No names were mentioned. That was standard procedure.
About one year later, I received a beautiful letter from the young man who received her pancreas and kidney. What a difference it made in his life!
“Praise God!” I thought.
And here was the best part. Since he could not use his own name, guess how he signed the letter: “Me!”
My cup runneth over.
My cup runneth over. That’s what Mary said.
Here’s a paraphrase of the 23rd psalm by Jim Taylor, well-known Canadian religious author.
God has walked with me: I could ask nothing more.
God has given me green meadows to laugh in,
clear streams to think beside,
untrodden paths to explore.
When I thought the world rested on my shoulders,
God put things into perspective.
When I lashed out at an unfair world, God calmed me down.
When I drifted into harmful ways, God straightened me out.
God was with me all the way.
I do not know what lies ahead, but I am not afraid.
I know you will be with me.
Even in death, I will not despair.
You will comfort and support me.
Though my eye dims and my mind dulls,
you will continue to care about me.
Your touch will soothe the tension in my temples;
my tears will fade away.
I am content.
“In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with me.”
All through life, I have found goodness in people.
When life ends, I expect to be gathered into the ultimate goodness of God.
John Todd was born in Rutledge, Vermont, into a family of several children. They later moved to the village of Killingsworth back in the early 1880's. There at a very early age, both of John’s parents died.
One caring, loving aunt said that she would take little John. The aunt sent a horse and a servant named Caesar, to get John who was only six at the time.
On the way back this conversation took place:
Will she be there?
Oh yes, she’ll be waiting up for you.
Will I like living with her?
My son, you have fallen into good hands.
Will she love me?
Ah, she has a very big heart.
Will I have my own room? Will she let me have a puppy?
She’s got everything all set. I think she has some nice surprises for you.
Do you think she will go to bed before we get there?
Oh no! She’ll be sure to wait up for you. You’ll see when we get out of these woods. You’ll see her candle in the window.
Sure enough, as they neared the house, John saw a candle in the window and his aunt standing in the doorway. As he shyly approached the porch, she reached down, kissed him, and said, “Welcome home!”
John Todd grew up in hi aunt’s home and later became an ordained minister. His aunt was always a mother to him.
Years later his aunt wrote to John to tell of her own impending death. Her health was failing. She wondered what would become of her.
This is what John Todd wrote in reply:
My Dear Aunt,
Years ago, I left a house of death, not knowing where I was to go, whether anyone cared, whether it was the end of me. The ride was long, but the servant encouraged me. Finally, I arrived to your safe embrace and a new home. I was expected; I felt safe. You did it all for me.
Now it’s your turn to go. I’m writing to let you know someone is waiting up, your room is all ready, the light is on, the door is open, and you’re expected. I know. I once saw God standing in your doorway...long ago!
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives: and we will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Amen