The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
“This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.
God With Us
Graduation weekends invite us to look back on our own campus days and
the teachers who opened our minds and hearts to new ways of seeing the
world. Near the top of my gratitude list is a Hebrew scholar by the name of
Phyllis Trible. When I was in seminary at Princeton, Dr. Trible was teaching at
Union in New York, but during one uncanny term, she left that urban post each
week on Friday, took the train down to Princeton, and offered a late afternoon
class on Narrative in the Old Testament. It changed forever the way I read the
Bible—and the way it seems to read me.
Dr. Trible took pains to demonstrate how carefully the texts are
constructed, and how much meaning is revealed when we pay careful attention
to the form in which we receive God’s promises.
Here’s an example of something not always apparent in English
translations: authors of ancient texts, instead of accumulating arguments, which
build to a certain crescendo, frequently put what matters most to them in the
exact center of their piece of writing—like a bullseye—and build out from
there. Dr. Trible’s mentor, James Limburg, noticed that in the original Hebrew
of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before, and twenty-six words
after, the phrase that lies at its core. The phrase that lives at the heart of this
psalm is “You are with me.”
You are with me. The epicenter from which this psalm emerges is an
experience of the presence of God—an experience so powerful that it requires
the psalmist to shift from third-person descriptions about God, (The Lord is my
shepherd); to first person address to God: (Your rod and your staff, they comfort
I daresay most of us come to church not because we want to talk about
God, but because we want to be encountered by God. We cherish this psalm in
part because it names our deepest longings and our most hallowed experiences.
But as I said to you once before, talking about a psalm or prayer is a bit like
trying to describe the act of swimming without actually getting in the water.
Psalm 23 celebrates a living relationship—and where it finds traction and
comes to life is in our relationships.
The whole Bible argues that God creates us for relationship and then
pursues us as long as we live, urging us all the time into community with God
and neighbor. From Genesis’ primeval stories of walking in the garden with our
Maker; to New Testament accounts of the one who is named Emmanuel, God
with us; to Revelation’s promise that the home of God is among mortals—from
beginning to end we are assured that we never have been and never will be on
our own. In psalm 23, we hear the witness of one who has staked his life on that
It’s not by accident that Psalm 23 follows psalm 22, the psalm quoted by
Jesus as he hung on the cross: saying “My God, My God, why have your forsaken
me?” The two psalms belong together, for the most powerful expressions of
trust emerge from crisis and despair; and so we repeat these words in hospital
rooms, and police stations, when the night is long, when our plans fall apart. But
we hear this psalm most frequently at funeral services…which brings me to this
As I move into the final two months I will share with you, I am mindful of
commitments I still need to honor. One of those is to John Poteat. Weeks ago
John asked me to help him put on paper some early thoughts about the
memorial service that someday will be held in this room, with his name on the
John wants whoever leads that service to do so with an awareness of
what matters most to him. By making that request, John is staking his own
claim on the promises of God. He is lending his flesh to this psalm, and affirming
his trust in the God who shepherds him even through the valley of the shadow
Most of you know John. For years he and Janet have been fixtures at the
11:00 service. He says that just coming into this room and seeing all of you
brings him such peace and wholeness. that he has gone to great lengths to be
here on Sunday mornings, even though such a trip now requires multiple
canisters of oxygen. John wants to be in the house of the Lord.
But this is not the only place John wants to be on Sunday. He and Janet
have been just as regular at the K&W as they have been at UPC, for they have a
long tradition of gathering with friends who are affectionately known as the
lunch bunch. As John’s energy has waned, his doctors have suggested he choose
between the two commitments, but John has never wanted to make that choice.
John is sure that a table is still being prepared for him in the presence of this
Some teachers we meet in classrooms; others just seem to arrive when
we need them. John is one of those teachers for me.
He has lived longer with metastatic cancer than his doctors ever expected
that he would, facing his illness with remarkable honesty, and a clear sense of
what gives his life meaning. His friend, Bill McLendon, says that John is teaching
us all how to live fully and die wisely.
John and Bill spend time together almost every Tuesday afternoon.
They’ve given me permission to tell you something about their friendship. It
began when they were colleagues at the hospital, but it deepened immensely
when they trained as Stephen Ministers. That ministry taught them the value of
intentional presence and active listening, and that learning has born fruit in
each of their lives.
Having spent his career in hospitals and laboratories, Bill commented the
other day that it is easy for clinicians to be fascinated by patients as diagnostic
challenges, without seeing those same individuals as whole persons. Stephen
Ministry helped him to pause and marvel at the slow work of grace in the lives
The relationship that Bill and John now share has become completely
mutual—a bearing of each other’s burdens and a source of encouragement
when the way is hard.
Bill is struck by the fact that John’s illness has led him to engage the world
more intensely and deliberately, rather than leading him to withdraw. Bill
shared a story told by another colleague who happened to encounter John one
morning at the farmer’s market, some months ago. When John left the vegetable
stand after making his purchases, the seller turned to this colleague and said,
“Who is that man? I think that’s the friendliest person I’ve ever met.”
John is convinced that goodness and mercy are pursuing him even as his
illness progresses. He is determined to let the God who made him, light the path
before him, so he continues to form new friendships and to delight in the loved
ones who surrounds him. And when the road seems dark, John claims the
promise that he does not go alone.
Friends, there is no surer way to draw close to the heart of God, to sense
God’s nearness, than to keep watch with each other when the night is long. The
God who drew near to us in Immanuel still promises, “I am with you always,
even to the end of the age.”