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Pursued by Grace , May 3 2020

 Pursued by Grace 

I have preached quite a few sermons on Psalm 23. It’s a good psalm for a time like this, so I looked back over my files. 

Number 3 isn’t so bad. It focussed on “green pastures and still waters”, an image for the peace which God brings in life. Beyond pain and sorrow, there is peace. Beneath the concrete and pavement, there is the good earth. God renews us as God renews the good earth. 

Sermon number 5 was also pretty good. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Imagine Jesus gathering us around a table as he did for a final Passover meal in the gospels. A storm is brewing in his life, for he’s about to 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 2 for funerals. We walk together “through the valley of the shadow of death”. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, but at this point in the psalm, we shift from talking about God (“The Lord is my shepherd”) to talking with God (“You are with me”). At the moment of the valley of the shadow of death, it’s no longer enough to talk theology. We must start talking in terms of relationship. 

And we know that God doesn’t wipe away the pain of life, but walks with us, holding us, loving us. We have an intimate relationship with the one whom we name as our shepherd. That’s a good word for this time. 

I really like sermon 4, which reflects on God’s generosity. God prepares an abundant banquet before us, blessing us with a cup that overflows. We know that when God is our shepherd, we shall not be in want, for we lack nothing. God doesn’t measure out goodness in teaspoons. 

I also like sermon 4, because it ties in with the gospel reading. Jesus promises, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is not about the stuff we have. Abundance has to do with our intimate relationship with God. Abundant life is life lived to the full, a life brimming with vitality and hope, with peace and joy, with purpose and meaning and love. 

This is the gift which God longs to give to us all, that we might live with that kind of fullness and exuberance, that kind of life in which God’s love brims over to embrace us all. 

And then there’s sermon number 6: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” It’s not bad … but it goes on for quite a while. The sermon itself almost seems like a lifetime. 

I was reflecting on all this and wondering if any of these themes might work for this time in which we find ourselves. Of course, the notion of God walking with us through this “valley of the shadow of death” seems obvious. I could make some homiletical hay with that. 

And the notion that God showers us with the abundant life which Jesus promises is fruitful as well. We need a word of hope and promise in this time. 

But then my attention was drawn to verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” 

The word “follow” is a translation of the Hebrew word “radaph”. And it turns out that “follow” is a lazy translation. It is far too passive. A better translation is the word “pursue.” God’s goodness shall pursue us. God’s mercy shall chase after us. 

Imagine that. Imagine a God who is so in love with us that God will pursue us. It’s an unusual image. 

Usually, we think of being pursued or chased as something dangerous. In the movies, the bad guys chase after the good guys. Being chased raises our adrenaline level. Normally a chase is not a good thing, as we find in Exodus 14:9 where the same word (radaph) is used, “The Egyptians pursued the Israelites, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army.” (Exodus 14:9) It’s not a good thing to be chased like that. 

Yet the Psalmist sings that God’s goodness and mercy chase after us. 

Do you think that is true? Do you see God’s compassion chasing us during this time of pandemic? 

When I was much younger, a friend and I would spend days playing together. Of course, every once in a while we would butt heads when we disagreed about one thing or another. 

His mother always stepped in. She would break up the fight in a way that created a way for us to be reconciled. She pulled out two chairs so that they faced each other. She directed each one of us to sit in a chair, and stare at one another. We were not allowed to smile or laugh. “Glare at each other until I tell you to stop.” 

It seemed like it might be the worst punishment in the world, but it only lasted about ninety seconds. My friend’s smile would crack my frown. I giggled and he 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. 

It was a good way to help us get along. Demand mercy! Insist on forgiveness. Require people to live with goodness and mercy. If we don’t show goodness and mercy, what’s the point of being a human being? 

This is how we live the Christian life. 

Psalm 34:14 invites us to “Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” There’s that same verb — radaph. 

The Psalmist knows that God loves us with a passionate love which will not let us go. As Jim Cruickshank used to say it, it’s as if God is saying to us, “Nothing you can do will make me love you any more. Nothing you can do will make me love you any less.” 

God’s love is such a powerful force in our lives and our world that we cannot outrun it. God’s goodness will pursue us until it captures our hearts, until we are healed by the power of love, until we are made whole in grace. 

God is a persistent lover, chasing us with grace, pursuing us with love. No matter how difficult life may be, God holds us in love. No matter how painful our circumstances, God will not let us go. 

One of my favourite spiritual writers, 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 small ramshackle church across the street. She tried to escape it, but the music was so compelling that she would wander over to stand in the doorway and listen. 

One night, she found herself 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. But she couldn’t escape the feeling that he was 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. (Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith). 

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. 

Thanks be to God. 

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt 

May 3, 2020 (4th Sunday of Easter) 

Psalm 23 

John 10: 1–10 

Acts 2: 42–47 

1 Peter 2: 19–25