It was a Sunday morning on the Fourth Sunday in Easter and it was a beautiful spring day in Eastern Connecticut. I was greeting folks as they arrived at a church I served and while shaking the hand of an elderly member I suddenly heard the gentle melody of Howard Goodall’s, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” wafting out of the sanctuary as our organist played a prelude.
Now, for those unfamiliar with it, Goodall’s piece is a lovely and flowing setting of the twenty-third Psalm, evocative of gently rolling hills filled with sheep and lambs gently resting in the verdant grass. It is also the theme song for The Vicar of Dibley.
Set in a small English country village, The Vicar of Dibley is a wonderful British comedy from the 90’s filled with the adventures of the small parish priest, played by Dawn French, who is the first woman to serve the little community. The show pokes gentle fun at small town and small parish practices while also reflecting and highlighting the challenges faced by the first women to serve in the Church of England when they finally began ordaining women in 1992.
Just as I began serving that parish, I brought Matt by for a visit to see the building, the town, and to meet some of the people. As we drove away, the gentle rolling hills of the rural town passing by our windows, he turned and said to me, “You do know that you are the Vicar of Dibley now.”
His prescient statement withstood the test of time. With mirth, I recalled it at various points in my ministry there: the time we had a goat in the playground during coffee hour (for the life of me, I cannot remember why we had a goat at church), the episode of the great clash of duelling baby showers, and of course, the time I had to take the town historian out for coffee and apologize for expressing doubt about the beloved tale that my church’s bell was the oldest in the western hemisphere.
Hearing Goodall’s tune on the organ, I looked over and saw the ushers peeking through the window as they tried to time the ringing of the bell in order to startle one of our approaching members. It took all my self-control to not break out in laughter. Indeed, I was the Vicar of Dibley.
Scripture is not stagnant. It does not have just one meaning. Rather, what it has to offer changes with the context in which we read it. Scripture speaks to the moment. Perhaps there is no better example of this thank Psalm 23, a beloved piece of scripture laden with meanings. For me, I cannot help but hear Goodall’s setting as I read this text and it will always speak, at least to a part of me, of goodness, humour, and memories of beloved community. But that is just one context for one person. There are many other times and occasions.
Perhaps the most familiar setting in which we read this Psalm is at funerals. In my experience, it is the most frequently requested scripture reading for these times of grief and loss. In these moments, the words of the Psalm speak to us of God’s tender love, reminding us that in even in the darkest valleys of our lives, we are not alone. Even then, God is with us. Even then, God is guiding and caring for us. It is a source of comfort and reassurance in a time when we need it the most.
Perhaps ironically, this Psalm is also commonly used at weddings. Unsurprisingly, in these moments of great joy, it speaks something very different from what we find in it at funerals. In the context of marriage celebrations, the Psalm offers joyful words of blessing. Just as God, the Good Shepherd, has led two people together to this moment of covenant, so too will God lead them into green and lush pastures where they will find peace, tranquility, and bliss in their union.
It is not just weddings and funerals, we also read this Psalm every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter. Every year as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, we stop and read this Psalm again, and in this season, it speaks of something new and different. For in the resurrection, we see the words of the Psalm manifested in Jesus himself, who is at one with God in the embodiment of the Good Shepherd. In this season of Easter, to an Easter people, this Psalm speaks of God’s promise to us. More than that, it speaks assurance that God’s promise has been and is being fulfilled in our midst.
But our lives are not just governed by the cycles of the church year, we also live in the world today, shaped and buffeted by current events. I wonder what this Psalm is speaking into this moment. Because this is quite the moment.
We’ve passed the two-year mark on the global pandemic, and it has been a long and exhausting two years. We’ve experienced the ups and downs of fear and relief with each passing wave of infection, the political unrest of the anti-vax movement, and the grief over the loss of so many in our communities to this disease. And while we at last seem to be starting to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, we know that it isn’t over yet. We know that it is still sweeping through our communities and cities, we know that it is still touching lives right here in our congregation.
The pandemic has also exposed concerning lines across our society, lines increasingly being drawn along populist and even fascist divisions. They are not new lines; the pandemic has simply brought them to light. It has shone light upon it so that we can no longer deny that they are there. They are divisions that threaten to undermine and erode the progress we have made as a society, the trust that we have worked to build, and the equality and justice that was hard fought over the last half-century. And there are no quick or easy solutions to make these deep divisions go away. It will take hard work. It will take long thinking.
Add to all this the realities of war raged at the people of Ukraine. We watch, feeling somewhat helpless, as a despotic leader, seemingly out of touch with reality, heaping violence upon violence on a peaceful country. In these drumbeats of war, we hear the ominous tones of nuclear war, a threat not seen since the end of the Cold War, a threat that most of thought we would never see again in our lifetimes.
Into this moment, what does this Psalm speak to us? Into this moment, so far removed from bucolic pastures and still waters where sheep can rest without fear or want, what does this Psalm have to offer us?
I wonder what it is speaking to you. Where is it stirring your heart and soul?
I’ll tell you what it is doing for me. It stirs within me the hope of God’s goodness and mercy.
Now, you might point out that right now, this moment seems far away from God’s goodness and mercy. After all that I just said, it feels pretty far indeed. But into this moment, this moment that feels so far from goodness, the Psalm speaks of the promise that God’s goodness and mercy follows us.
But you know what, that is a bad translation. The Psalm doesn’t say that God’s goodness and mercy will follow us. The word translated as “follow” is the same word used to describe how Pharaoh’s army chased the Israelites through the dessert. God’s goodness does not follow us, it chases us the way an army chases down its foe. God’s mercy does not follow us, it pursues us with the intensity that a hunter pursues its quarry.
When we run through the darkest valleys, as we roam down paths that lead far away from where God calls us to be, this Psalm speaks to us a promise, a reminder, a caution that God’s goodness and God’s mercy is relentlessly, unshakeably on our heels.
When we feel most lost, when we find ourselves at our wits end and unable to go on, when we at last stop running down this path, when we hold still, then God’s goodness and mercy will crash into us. It will wash over us, like cool water on a sunbaked day.
On that day, our souls will be revived. On that day, we will know the paths that we must follow, for God will guide us down them. And we will return again and again to dwell with God for ever and ever.
Preached by Adam Yates