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?" He parks his car, whips out his Dell computer, connects it to his AT&T cell phone. He surfs to a NASA page, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to another satellite that scans the area. The young man receives a digital photo and within seconds uploads the data. 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, 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."
What is the 23rd Psalm teaching us? There is hardly a place where the scriptures are read where this beautiful psalm hasn’t been heard, repeated, learned and cherished. Taken from pastoral scenes, there is a profound comparison with the love of God. The imagery holds together tenderness with strength and power depicts prominent leaders of God’s people – such as Moses and David. Reliance and dependence mark the sheep’s demeanor. Passionate care for the sheep coupled with strength to protect them, is the mark of the shepherd. As the psalm puts it, the shepherd carries them to waters that will not frighten them, heals them when they are afflicted, and retrieves them when they are lost. Death could be lurking in the shadows. Yet the shepherd defends them when they would be victimized by predators, even if it means the shepherd would die.
As you may have guessed from the readings, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. 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 other familiar passages, 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.
I often wondered when David might have written the 23rd psalm. Lord knows he had some times of darkness and challenges we can relate to. Experts say, he wrote it later in life and that is why it has the feeling of looking back on his life and seeing God’s hand at work. He is thinking about the lessons he has learned. The tone is calm and meditative, as David remembers his days as a shepherd with nostalgia and love. He recalls how God has always guided and protected him and how God has cared for all his needs, just as David himself used to care for his sheep.
One of the most precious visits I make are with folks who are near death and to pray with them. When I begin the Lord’s Prayer, I see their lips moving to the words. The same is true with the 23rd Psalm. They know that “the Lord is my shepherd” even when they are in the state of grace between heaven and earth. It is holy ground.
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. We all must acknowledge that we need to be lead, even those of us who lead others. We all must continually work on 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 that 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.
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.
God prepares 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. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is the one setting the table, and we, are the ones who are responsible for responding in love.
We move to the 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, providing us “goodness and mercy.” How do we reflect these values in our lives – how do we 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.