Preached July 21, 2013
Texts: Psalm 23:6, Luke 12:22-34
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.
Have you ever been followed? Every once in awhile, living in center city Chicago, I would get the sense that someone was following a little too closely behind me as I walked. What an uncomfortable feeling! But the time I remember most, when I think of being followed, was on a trip from my parents’ house in Erie, PA to my home in Lexington, Kentucky. Driving down highway 71 between Columbus and Cincinnati, I became aware of the red car behind me. It was riding a bit too close, it seemed. I came up to a truck and moved into the left lane to pass. The red car moved over too. Nothing too out of the ordinary about that, when passing a truck. But when I moved back into the right lane, the red car still followed. And again around the next truck, and the next.
Intuition told me it was more than coincidence that this car stuck with me around truck after truck, so the next time I passed a truck, I stepped on the gas and really picked up speed. That red car stayed right on my tail. Then I pulled back into the right lane and dropped my speed down under the speed limit – and he followed suit.
By now, I was feeling pretty uncomfortable. When I saw two tractor trailer trucks in a row ahead of me, I decided what I would do. I pulled into the left lane long enough to get beside them, then flipped on my turn signal and squeezed myself into a bit-too-tight spot between those two trucks in the right lane. There was no possible way that red car could follow me.
I expected him to sail on by, and I figured I could ride it out for a couple of miles between the trucks and then get up to speed again, with the suspicious red car well up the road. It worked – sort of. The red car did pass me by – he hardly had a choice. But he honked as he went by, and then when I glanced his way, gave me a wink and a grin. I pretended not to see, and kept my eyes squarely on the truck in front of me.
Not sure what else to do, I stayed tucked carefully between those trucks for quite awhile. Slowly I began to relax again. Surely, by now, I had lost him. Surely he would have given up and gone on down the highway, following the flow of traffic.
That’s what I assumed, at least. And then the two trucks simultaneously exited to the right into a required weigh station, and I found myself staring at the taillights of that same red car! I saw the driver glance in the rear view mirror and give a half wave.
I slowed down again, but this time WAY down, trying to put as much distance between me and that red car as I could. As the next exit approached, I stayed carefully in my lane until the very last second, and then swerved into the exit lane. I saw the red car jerk right a bit, but he was far enough past the exit that he had to keep going. I pulled into the most crowded restaurant parking lot I saw, watched carefully as cars came and went, and then finally bolted inside to the safety of a crowd.
Being followed can be a frightening experience!
Sometimes, though, being followed is a great comfort. There is another night that I remember, just a couple years ago, when I was attending a church meeting in Cranberry Township. It snowed hard during the meeting, and by the time we were leaving, the roads were slick and snow covered. Plows weren’t keeping up with the snow, and news reports told people to stay off the roads. But I had to get home – the kids were there with a babysitter. So I bundled up and started to my car, with my stomach in knots because of the snow-covered roads.
A clergy colleague saw me hesitate as I walked toward the door, and asked me where I was headed. He was also driving south on I-79, and he was driving a 4-wheel-drive truck. He offered to follow me home, and I began to breathe easier. The frightening trip was much more bearable knowing he was behind me, watching out for me.
Being followed can be a frightening experience, but it can also be a most comforting experience! It all depends on who is doing the following.
At the close of Psalm 23, the Psalmist declares with confidence,
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life.
There is a confidence, an ease, even a joy, to this statement that closes the 23rd Psalm, because the author knows that it is the Good Shepherd who follows him. There is nothing to fear, when God’s goodness and mercy are following you. Whatever may come, God’s got your back! All will be well.
All will be well, yes. The Psalm doesn’t say, though, that all will be easy. It doesn’t say that leisure and ease will follow us, or even happiness or comfort. There is no promise here that the path will be easy from here on out; no assurance that the valley of the shadow is only behind us and will not come again around the next bend. The Psalm doesn’t say that.
What is says is that, come what may, God’s goodness and mercy will yet stick with us all the days of our lives. When we are disappointed at the evil in our world; when bad things happen to good people – yet goodness will follow us, bringing comfort for sorrow and hope in the face of despair. When we fail to live up to expectations, when our own carelessness or selfishness hurts those we love – yet mercy will follow us, bringing forgiveness, bringing grace to begin anew. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And because God’s goodness and mercy follow us, because they hold us secure and safe even in the difficult times, we can say with assurance, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
Traditionally, this final phrase of the Psalm is understood as a statement about life after death. The familiar King James Version makes that seem more likely: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
But the NRSV translation takes on a different tone: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” This is more than a belief in life after death; it is also a statement of trust in God for all that comes in this life. It is a statement of faith that come what may, we are and always will be part of God’s household, God’s flock. We live – in life, in death, and in life after death – in God’s presence and care.
Such a statement of trust is possible because the Psalmist has already received the provision of God, felt God’s comfort in the valley of the shadow of death, and received God’s protection in the presence of enemies. The Psalmist can look ahead with faith because he has looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness in green pastures, dark valleys, and all the places in between.
When we learn to live with such trust in God’s provision, we find that goodness and mercy follow us in two ways. They stick with us and watch out for us, as my friend following me home on icy roads. But goodness and mercy also follow us in the sense of trailing behind us. When we trust God fully and completely for what we need, then we leave a trail of goodness and mercy behind us wherever we go.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15, Paul says that we ought to be the “fragrance of Christ” and the “aroma of life” that draw people to God. When we learn to trust God fully and completely – in the good times and in the bad – then our lives will blossom with “the fragrance of Christ.” We will pass on the goodness and mercy God offers to us, as a wake trailing out behind us. People will want to know how we live with such confidence, with such quiet assurance. They will want to follow our shepherd, too.
The best example I can think of of this sort of complete, utter trust in God is from Robert Higginbotham, another pastor in our Annual Conference. Bob and his wife Ruth have been through more struggles than anyone should ever have to experience. And yet, they are not weighed down by bitterness or anger. They live with a deep, abiding trust that God cares for them always, come what may, and they continue to care for others with gentleness and courage in the midst of their own sorrows.
About a month ago, Bob wrote on Facebook:
We have judged ourselves unworthy of the tremendous outpouring of prayer and expressions of love, support, encouragement and comfort that have been extended us. We know that we have been sustained by your presence in our lives. When I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009 and thought it could not get any worse, you were there. When Ruth was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma in 2012 and we thought it could not get any worse, you were there. When [our son] Rob was killed in a tragic auto accident on 23 May and we thought it could not get any worse, you were there. Yesterday I received news from my oncologist that my melanoma has metastasized and that a “spot” was found on my lung. My last X-ray & ultrasound (4 months ago) had been clear, so this is a relatively new development. And we thought it could not get any worse! Surgery is planned for latter this month…We covet your continued prayers, especially as we face these uncertain days. We know you will be there … undeserving as we are, we are counting on it. Rest assured, we will be going the distance and though battered, we are not beaten. It remains well with my soul!
That is the testimony of a man who knows and believes, with all his being, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the household of the Lord my whole life long.”