As many of you know, Tim and I live in a retirement community in Prince George’s County. Now in our early ’70’s we are among the younger residents of the place.
Tim is a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of Washington, and he and I—separately and together—have occasion to conduct services in the Memory Care unit of the health center. The services are usually short, with prayers, familiar hymns, a reading from Scripture, and a short meditation.
Last Sunday’s use of the 23rd psalm at Emmanuel reminded me that we both usually invite our worshippers to join in saying it together. (We don’t have to say “The King James Version;” that is a given.) Almost to a person, these aged and impaired folks are able to join right in and keep going even if one of the leaders loses his place.
What is it about this particular psalm that causes it to be so firmly implanted in the memory of all sorts and conditions of people? It is certainly a psalm of comfort as it describes God as a shepherd who leads us to safe places, green pastures and still waters; who guides us in the right way to live, the paths of righteousness; who is with us in the most difficult times, through the valley of the shadow of death.
It is often thought of as a psalm which is about what God does for us, for me, but my domestic theologian points out that the last half verse, “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever,” implies a response and commitment on the part of the comforted one. Not ‘oh, by the way, God has me as a tenant forever.’ Any number of churches have inscribed over their entrance doors the words from Genesis: “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” I, we, choose to enter the doors, to be a part of the household of God, which—as we all know—is not all green pastures and still waters. We, at least I, stray from the pathway of righteousness regularly. Goodness and mercy seem at times in short supply.
I believe we stay in the Church because it is a locus of God’s comforting promise to be with us always. The 23rd psalm is a reminder that we can all commit to memory and call upon as we, the Church, and the world need it.