Psalm 23 Acts 4:5-12 I John 3:16-24 John 10:11-18
A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW appeared out of a dust cloud coming towards him. The driver, a young man in a designer suit, Gucci shoes, and Ray Ban sunglasses, leans out the window and asks the shepherd, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?" The shepherd looks at the man, obviously a yuppie, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, "Sure, Why not?" The yuppie parks his car, whips out his Dell notebook computer, connects it to his AT&T cell phone. He surfs to a NASA page on the internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to another NASA satellite that scans the area in an ultra-high-resolution photo. The young man then opens the digital photo and within seconds, he receives an email on his i-phone that the image has been processed and the data stored. He then accesses a database and uploads all of this data by email. After a few minutes, receives a response. "You have exactly 1,586 sheep." "That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep," says the honest shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car. Then the shepherd says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?" The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, "Okay, Why not?" "You're a consultant." says the shepherd. "Wow! That's correct," says the yuppie, "but how did you guess that?" "No guessing required." answered the savvy shepherd, "You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; and you don't know crap about my business.......now give me back my dog."
As you may have guessed from the readings, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Other Sunday readings are a bit more subtle as they connect to a theme. In all three of our church years, the fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday. Our readings are accompanied by an abundance of music, prayers and literature from which we can draw images and stories, enriching our worship experience.
Among Christians, Psalm 23 is perhaps the best known and most beloved of the entire Hebrew Bible. It has been recited at funerals countless times, particularly in the King James Version. Like the words of First Corinthians 13 at a wedding or Romans 8 at a funeral, the words of Psalm 23 are so familiar that we may sometimes gloss over them, presuming we know what they say without taking the opportunity to dig deeper. We also know that these iconic words are iconic for a reason. They touch something deep within the human experience and also say something so very profound about God. The Twenty-Third Psalm offers a special challenge and encouragement to all of us.
We know that people come to church with all kinds of wants, walking through all kinds of valleys. As soon as we begin unpacking the imagery of the psalm, heads nod and faces respond to our connection to someone or some time past. Pay attention to that connection, as we visit these images. The image of the shepherd and the sheep first comes into play. Like sheep, we need guidance and care, whether we want to admit it or not. We need direction to the things that nourish and sustain us.
Sheep are not like cows who can be driven from behind the herd. Sheep follow the leader, the shepherd. If you stand behind a sheep making noise to get them moving, they will run around behind you. They prefer to be led. Cows are pushed and sheep are led.
The key of the psalm is the first phrase: “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Lord is my shepherd. The success of church leaders will not be determined by administrative leadership, preaching style, or any of a hundred different tasks we are to perform in any given week. The key to effective leadership is our relationship, our friendship with the Lord, our shepherd.
In 2002, when I was involved in the discernment process for ordained ministry, I learned the Lord is my shepherd. I was told by the committees that hear the stories and testimonies of those called by God – from them I was told that they just did not see my call. I was rejected to continue in the process. But I found out that the Lord is my shepherd, not the committees made of men and women, not the Bishop, but God. During the months that followed, the shepherd did not change the call on my heart, really it got stronger, clearer, more defined. It turns out that my mother had a stroke during this time and needed me to be near her to help with her care, instead of being away at seminary. Only the Good Shepherd knew that that was coming. Two years later the process happened with smooth sailing and the rest is history. The Lord is my shepherd.
As we navigate the Christian journey, there are a number of opportunities for disaster. The most common may be burn out. It takes a lot of energy to sustain our ministry, our call from God. Burnout is a problem, but it is not confined to us pastors. The pressures of contemporary life take their toll on many of us. Our trouble arises, not just my trouble, but all of our trouble comes when we neglect our friendship with our Lord, the good shepherd. As long as we are growing in our friendship with God, we will find there is nothing we lack and there is nothing we need.
Friendship with the Good Shepherd develops until following God’s leadership becomes second nature. We live in the abundance of spiritual sustenance that God provides. We freely eat the bread of heaven and drink the cup of eternal salvation. We can relax and be ourselves, secure in our friendship with God. Even our peculiarities and blemishes don’t limit the love of the divine Shepherd. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. We are spiritually fed, watered and satisfied.
We sleep well at night and awaken refreshed and ready for further service. When our spiritual energy feels depleted, we know how to tap into God’s power through prayer, study, hymns, the faith community and silence. Difficult choices demand our attention, but we intuitively know what to do and how and when to do it. The Holy Spirit nudges us to contact someone we have not seen in months and we find out that they have been diagnosed with cancer, and they needed some loving support in those moments that shatter our lives. A relational knot that had been tied for years seems to dissolve and unravel before our very eyes. Miracles really do happen when we are following the Good Shepherd along the way. We move in the flow of the Spirit, and God gets all the glory.
Everything changes in verse five. The shepherd-sheep imagery disappears. Those who are familiar with the words can miss the change in address, from talking about God to talking to God. We should not leap too quickly to a table being prepared for us as the table of Eucharist. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. In the Book of Common Prayer, the phrase reads..You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
Everything is fine until we enter the dark valley. We see the shadow of death on the canyon walls, we are drenched in sweat and our knees feel weak. Someone we love has a heart attack, and we stand beside the hospital bed and pray. Maybe we are the one lying in the bed, learning for the first time the feeling of vulnerability and lack of control that comes from being in someone’s care. Maybe we are staring into the bottomless pit of financial ruin or the destruction of a long-term relationship. Even in such desperate circumstances, we fear no evil.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears. It is a powerful image. We cannot help but to compare the table to the image of communion. Though most Eucharistic tables are not knowingly set in the context of conflicts, life happens. We are offered the opportunity to repent of our sins, embrace peace in our hearts, our relationships, our lives before we approach the communion table. If we have conflict with a brother or sister, we are to make peace before receiving. There are a number of potential distracters that may create tension, fear, anxiety at the Lord’s Table. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is the one setting the table, and we, are the ones who are responsible for responding in love.
Hate is not the opposite of love - fear is the opposite of love. Our friendship with God is not based on fear. Many of us must overcome fear of God as we begin our relationship with God. Many of us were raised to fear God and fear the judgment of hell. When we overcome our fear of God and enter into friendship with God, no other fear may conquer us. We become fearless with God at our side. We trust God. We have experienced God’s discipline, God’s love and God’s comfort and God’s support. We know God will defend us from all evil. The Good Shepherd provides courage and comfort in times of need.
Verse 6 provides one final change in imagery. 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. What was once a pasture is now a house, a place of welcome, hospitality, shelter, and rest. This “house of the Lord” is our destination. Though the journey is filled with potholes, detours, faulty directions, dead ends and missed turns, the God we affirmed as shepherd and table setter is also the God who promises directions along the way, a kind of “global positioning system” called “goodness and mercy,” which always follows us. These are the values as well as guideposts, and part of our task is to consider how our values – as an embodiment of the house God provides – reflect the house builder’s mercy and goodness.
Again, though we should not jump too quickly to the New Testament imagery, it’s difficult not to go to John’s image of the good shepherd with intimacy and security. The language both echoes and confirms the real promise of Psalm 23, that we are children of God, resting in God’s loving arms. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives; and we shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever. Amen.