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Surely Goodness


Series: Easter

Category: 2018 Sermons

Passage: Psalm 23

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

That story of Badger just doing what he was created to do, I don’t have to tell you, is a story about us.

Only in light of this morning’s scripture we’re not Border Collie’s, we’re sheep. Thanks to a lot of outdated sermons and other misconceptions, people have come think of sheep as dimwitted or dumb. But Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon The Voice of Shepherd,  says this isn’t so, according to an acquaintance of hers who had actually grown up on a sheep ranch and could dispel the myth that sheep are dumb. It was actually cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from cowboys, but that doesn’t work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else-their trusted shepherd has not gone first, to show them that everything is all right.[1]

“Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two in quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”

And in John's gospel Jesus, who calls himself the Good Shepherd, makes that clear….”I know my own and my own know me.

You, we, are known by God by Christ…. Can you take that in? One of the reasons this image of Jesus and God as shepherds resonate so deeply is because it's a personal relationship….And it resonates so deeply for so many, the church came up with an entire Sunday dedicated to this image of the Good Shepherd.

That personnel relationship begins with the language in the 23rd Psalm…when the psalmist makes a shift form talking about God in the third person…he makes me, he leads me, he restores me…to the first person…I fear no evil…You are with me, your rod and staff comfort me...You prepare a table, you anoint my head…

That’s as personal as it gets….that’s a psalm Jesus himself would have prayed…about his father… his father…..The God of the Hebrew Bible is our God….With Goodness and Mercy following us all the days of our life….

Abraham Heschel, one the 20th centuries most thoughtful theologians, once said that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures was not about our search for God, but rather God in search of Man.[2]

And it’s this one verse i the Psalm that brings that point home…Surely Goodness and mercy shall follow me….The literal translation for shall follow me is “pursues me, chases me down.” Gary Simpson, in Feasting on the Word, reflects on the question, Why would God need to do that with us?

He suggests we look at this from a different angle by going back to the beginning, to the creation story, before we ever even enter the scene…Light created, it was good, the earth formed, it was good….and creatures created… good…there were 5 whole days of goodness before we human beings were created…and all of it was good….Goodness was there long before we were…

HE writes; The goodness of God is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place. The good things that happen to us, don’t happen because we arrive…God’s goodness has already been where we’re planning to go. The goodness of God is so present that every direction that we turn to look, wherever we are, we bump into good again. The goodness of God, goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to a new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut.[3]

The architect Gaudi once said, Man does not create, man discovers….Gaudi, the man responsible for the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, gave all credit to God. That’s how the creative process works…and it’s how the creative process of who we, who we are created to be… unfolds….We are already good….created in God’s image….As sheep we are, like Badger….supposed to be doing what we’re created to do…which simply put is to follow…follow love…. by following the one who leads us into every corner of discovery….our shepherd, our God, our Christ….leads us into discovering who we are.

Mary Oliver’s in her best-known poems, Wild Geese…writes….

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

 The soft animal of your body… sheep of Gods…you only have to let your body love what it loves….as sheep of God’s to love what it loves, begins with loving God, loving Jesus Christ…

 The poem continues….

 Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

 The darkest valley, the shadow of the valley of death….the Hebrew word for this shows up eight times in the book of Job….despair….darkness, futility, hardship….It is our human experience….loving doesn't exclude us from that experience and either does being good….but it’s a shared experience…it’s shared with Christ, and it’s shared among all of creation.

 Oliver’s poem continues…

 Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The Geese are doing what geese do…heading home….the word goes on…creation in all it’s goodness, despite the darkest valleys continue on….and the wild geese head home just as we head home….into God’s home…which for the psalmist is not the eternal home of heaven, but right here in this life….where God prepares a table and anoints our head with oil, which was a custom of the times…a host would anoint his guests with oil to refresh them after a long journey, like that of geese, being who they were created to be, or us, journeying through valleys, only to find ourselves home again….not as sheep on a pasture, but as human beings, belonging to God and Christ. A table prepared for us…a table…the Hebrew word Shulchan is not just any table, it’s a feast, a kingly extravagant banquet….And Palestinian shepherds were known to travel ahead of their sheep to prepare a resting place…Surely goodness goes ahead of us… for us to be led into….

and then this… this verse…in the presence of enemies…because this goodness is surely so good, that even enemies can’t touch us…even the worst among us, those we can’t stand to sit with, to think about, at Christ’s table we feast together. And if you’re thinking, I’m pretty sure I don’t think I have any enemies, may I suggest we also have the enemies we create in our heads…ones of worry and anxiety, enemies of fear that ruminate and paralyze us, keeping us from trusting….am I good enough?? kind enough…loving enough? did I offend…? Did I do it right? will they no longer love me, will they fire me, did I screw it all up?

You don’t have to be good….you are already good….all we have to do is follow our shepherd into discovering all that is good…

Oliver poems end this way….

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

We are the family of things….we are not one lone sheep, but part of a flock…of a community….That word, community came up more often than any other word in our St Luke Vision discussions, around what we value most… Community…But this isn’t our community to create…we just discover it. Christ has already created it. 

Christ's community is open to those who are marginalized and sick.  Christ’s community is open to tax collectors and sinners, women, and Samaritans… Christ’s community welcomes the “other” not because we are trying to be good, but because HE is good, and we follow the Good Shepherd….by example, we follow by keeping the doors open, the doors to the church, but also the doors to our hearts…which were born good…Surely goodness…..and mercy….mercy is that gift of forgiveness because we don’t always get it right. And thank God for that….that’s just part of who we are; we fall down, we admit it and God gets us up again…We are good and we mess up.

Goodness before us, Goodness and mercy after us…You are exactly who you were created to be….you, me, we are good…you don’t have to be good….you just have to follow and be led into discovering exactly you were created be….A sheep belonging to the good shepherd….

God gave me a lot this week, excellent readings, radio moments, and also the Friday mornings women’s group, which is a huge weekly gift for those who attend, and the doors are open. Almost every Friday, 4 or 5 women get together to be led. To be led by a reading, to be led into to silence, to be led into prayer by God. To share in a community where God is leading us.

This week, Babette shared this reading-

John O'Donohue's, To Bless The Space Between Us, Chapter 3-Thresholds:

"Though we know one another names and recognize one another's faces, we never know what destiny shapes each life. The script of individual destiny is secret; it is hidden behind and beneath the sequence of happenings that is continually unfolding for us. Each life is a mystery that is never finally available to the mind's light or questions. That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be. To sense and trust this primeval acceptance can open a vast spring of trust within the heart. It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion. No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.”

The Lord is my shepherd….Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life….

We merely need to trust.


[1] Feasting On the Word; Nancy R Blakely

[2] Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man; A philosophy of Judaism. 1955

[3] Feasting on the Word, Gary V Simpson