The Lord is my Good Shepherd

April 17, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
4th Sunday of Easter  
Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30; Psalm 23

Last Sunday we heard the story of the resurrected Jesus sharing some grilled fish on the sandy shore with his disciples. The interaction with Peter provides the ultimate commissioning of what Jesus’ followers are meant to do. They are to follow Jesus’ example. He has washed their feet, he has commanded them to love others as he has loved them, and in this story he concludes by three times asking Peter “Do you love me?” After the first reply of Yes!, Jesus then says: Feed my lambs. After the second reply, Jesus says: Tend my sheep. And, just for good measure, to the third Yes, Jesus replies: Feed my sheep.

In ancient times the role of the shepherd would have been understood by the hearers. For us, not so much. The closest experience I’ve had to tending sheep happened a couple of summers ago in Iona, Scotland on our J2A Pilgrimage.

sheep combinedIt was our first full day on the small island of Iona. After lunch our group of ten headed out to explore the island, toward the beach and unkempt “golf-course”. As we walked down the rugged road that ran between pastures and homes, we noticed a family in their yard up ahead. They, along with their border collie, were trying to herd their sheep into a corral. When they saw us approaching, they noticed our interest and asked if anyone would like to help. Piper and Shelby were all in and made haste into the yard. Sam Lyles, one of the leaders, stepped through the gate with camera in hand hoping to get some good shots, but quickly learned he, too, had been commissioned to help with the sheep. There was lots of running around, back and forth, flapping arms, yelling “Hah, hah!” and trying to get the sheep to go in a common direction – and I’ve got the video to prove it! It took a few tries, but they finally got it done! Success!

Now, I must admit that this isn’t exactly the image of the Good Shepherd we see in scripture. The anxiety those sheep experienced that day, not to mention the freelance shepherds, is not really what we’re going for. In scripture, the shepherds are more the meandering-through-open-pastures type. What’s more, they’re in it for the long haul. They are committed to the sheep.

John’s gospel talks about the Good Shepherd that lays down his life for his sheep. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

There’s an assurance in that message that’s echoed in the reading from Revelation:

“… the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

A comforting image indeed.

But I venture to say that the most poignant image of the shepherd provided in scripture comes from today’s Psalm, the familiar Psalm 23. This is often the go-to psalm in times of trouble. It carries in it a message of protection and care.

It’s a poem, and as such, it has layers of meaning. There are reams of scholastic and theological interpretations and speculation as to each verses particular purpose or intent. Yet, at its core, it’s a poem that conveys a God that is with us, that protects and cares for us. It begins:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

This introduction claims God as the one who leads, and also the one who provides for our needs.

He makes me lie down in green pastures  

IMG_4221While green pastures would be a good source of food, sheep wouldn’t lie down to eat. So this “he makes me lie down in green pastures” is saying something more. In the evening, shepherds find a sheepfold, a protected enclosed area for the sheep to sleep in. But, in mid-day, when they need rest, green pastures are open and unprotected from predators. For sheep to lie down in an open field is an act of trust.[i] They know the shepherd has their back.

Similarly, “and [he] leads me beside still waters” isn’t as simple as finding a place to get a drink of water. Sheep can’t swim. When they get wet, the heaviness of their wool will take them down. So, rushing water, as you could imagine, can make the sheep pretty anxious. So, the good shepherd finds the safe place to go for sustenance – to water that is quiet, that is still.[ii] The shepherd helps reduce those sources of anxiety in our lives.

He revives my soul

Other translations say “he refreshes my soul” (NIV) or “he restores my inner person” (CJB).

Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for revive or restore also means to turn back, to return. When we wander away, the shepherd helps us return. Restoring us to wholeness and connection with God.

And [he] guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake

 

When we listen to the Shepherd’s voice, we are guided along the path of least resistance. But to be clear, it doesn’t say an easy path, it says a right path, or a path of righteousness. So, listening for guidance is an important part of allowing God to be our shepherd. Seeking God’s direction as we make important decisions in our life.

Perhaps the most familiar verse is this one:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Dark valleys are part of our life. We will all experience them from time to time. God is with us in the midst of them. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a personal illness, addiction, depression, estrangement, apathy, or a stuck-ness you just can’t seem to find your way out of, God is with you. God will help you move through that time.

Thy-rod-and-thy-staff2The rod and staff are tools the shepherd uses. The rod is a type of clubbed-weapon for protection, to fend off predators and things that can harm. The staff can be used to prod the sheep, to help them get up a steep hill they didn’t think they could manage. It also helps rein in sheep that are wandering off or getting out of line. So, these tools allow the shepherd to protect the sheep from external enemies and from internal disorder.[iii]

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

This verse seems to move away from the sheep image, though one scholar makes the argument that preparing the table could be synonymous with preparing the ground for night-time rest of the sheep, and applying oil to the cuts and rough places on sheep legs and hooves.[iv] For those animal lovers in our midst, this is a touching image.

Abraham-Welcomes-Strangers-in-14th-Century-illuminated-manuscriptBut, if we allow the sheep to step aside, this image of God preparing a table in the presence of those who trouble us is an example of God’s great hospitality. To show hospitality wasn’t just an act for friends, but for travelers, strangers. We see examples of this in scripture, like when Abram welcomes the three strangers, and it turns out that they are messengers of God. This type of hospitality isn’t limited to providing food, but also provides protection from those who might cause them harm.[v] So, even though the enemies or those who trouble us don’t disappear, God provides shelter and protection. In God’s presence, we also receive God’s generosity – copious amounts of oil to sooth us and water to refresh us.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Love_by_darunia_artPerhaps better than “shall follow me” is the phrase “shall pursue me.” Goodness and lovingkindness pursues those who allow God into their lives. Grace and mercy can’t be escaped when we trust in God. They too, are overflowing and will be with us all the days of our lives.

Amid the comfort of this familiar song, there is an underlying truth.

It doesn’t say there are no dark valleys. It doesn’t propose that all those people and things that trouble us will evaporate. It doesn’t even say that fear is unrealistic. It says God is there with us, every step of the way. Not walking for us, but walking with us.

The Lord is my Good Shepherd. Jesus’ voice is the one that I hear. In response to that voice, I follow him. Though I have experienced dark valleys, and encountered turbulent waters, have faced people and circumstances that trouble me, I have learned to overcome my fear. By trusting in God’s lovingkindness for me, it has helped me make it to the other side. Allowing God’s staff to prod me along when I’m stuck or unsure, has helped me see that I can accomplish far more than my imagining; far more with God’s help than on my own.

The Lord is my Good Shepherd. And God is your Good Shepherd, too.

 

Now for a little fun…

 

[i] Henley, Hosia Lee Sr, and Garnett Lee Henely. 2006. “The 23rd Psalm: an exposition on its meaning and prophecies.” The Journal Of Religious Thought 59-60, no. 1-1: 181-189. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2016), 182.

[ii] Ibid, 183.

[iii] Power, Edmond. 1928. “The shepherd’s two rods in modern Palestine and in some passages of the Old Testament.”Biblica 9, no. 4: 434-442. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2016), 439.

[iv] Sauer, Alfred von Rohr. 1971. “Fact and image in the shepherd psalm.” Concordia Theological Monthly 42, no. 8: 488-492. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2016), 489-490.

[v] Bellinger, William H Jr, and Andrew E Arterbury. 2005. “‘Returning’ to the hospitality of the Lord: a reconsideration of Psalm 23,5-6.” Biblica 86, no. 3: 387-395. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2016), 391-393.

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