Finding Easter: Shepherd and Sheep
Last week, we heard Jesus tell Peter the task he had set for him: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Today, we’re taking a deeper look at this biblical imagery of shepherds and sheep as we look at a most beloved passage of scripture. We’re not very good at memorizing scripture anymore. Not us at Apple Valley in particular, but rather in the larger church. Most mainline Protestant churches don’t emphasize memorizing scripture the way that we might have experienced even a few decades ago. When I was a child, we’d get a nickel in my Sunday School class for every verse we could memorize, and that was pretty much enough motivation for me!
Do you know any verse of the Bible by heart? If you do, among them, one that many people still know by heart, and many people know at least in part, even if they can’t remember where it is from or why they know it, is the 23rd Psalm. Most people know it, in fact, in the Kings James Version, even if they have rarely used the King James translation for anything else. Let’s share it together in the King James Version:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Of all the parts of scripture, there are not many passages that have been set to music as frequently, or used in movies and TV shows as frequently, or adapted and paraphrased as frequently as this 23rd Psalm. And of course, most funerals that I’ve presided over in my years of ministry – the vast majority have included the 23rd Psalm. For some reason, in the face of death, these words are so very comforting to us. What exactly makes them so comforting? Well, I suppose that is up to each person’s interpretation, but I’m guessing first of all that the psalm paints a peaceful, beautiful image for us. Green pastures and still waters – this sounds like an Eden, a paradise to relax in. Plus, there is the constant presence of God, the shepherd in the psalm. Wherever we go, even through the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd is there, not only with us, but leading us and guiding us. We all know that we must walk in that dark valley – but we don’t do it alone, the psalm tells us. And of course, the ending: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I think we picture ourselves eternally home with God, in God’s heart. Again, both when we think about our own death, and when we think about the death of a loved one, these images are comforting.
Still, I wonder about a couple of things. First, I worry anytime we so closely associate a certain text with a certain ritual that we’re losing out on the powerful meaning of the passage. 1 Corinthians 13 is a great example. It is chosen for many weddings, which isn’t surprising, with its focus on love. But the apostle Paul was writing to a community, a new church, telling them how to treat each other. He didn’t have married couples in mind at all. And while it certainly works well for couples about to commit their lives in marriage, I wonder if we remember what else it means when we tie it so closely to weddings. I wonder this about the 23rd Psalm too. How often do we study these words outside of a funeral? How often do we examine them in the same way we study other passages, and pull them apart to seek their meaning? That’s what I want us to do today, so that we can truly know more fully the words that we know by rote already.
The other thing I wonder about is: why is it that we find this pastoral image of a shepherd guiding us so compelling? If God is our shepherd in this text, then that makes us the sheep. Why is that such a powerful image for us? Undoubtedly, the scriptures are full of imagery of shepherds and sheep, and Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd in some of the most beloved passage of the gospels. He teaches a parable about a shepherd seeking out the one sheep, separated from the other ninety-nine, the one who is lost. He talks about how we know his voice like the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. We call Jesus himself the Lamb of God, connecting Jesus’ offering of his life with the animals once sacrificed as offerings to God. We think of the shepherds that play such a significant role in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth – they’re visited by heavenly host, and they’re the first visitors to the Christ child.
And yet, for all their presence in the scriptures, how much experience do you have with real-life sheep or a real shepherd? I’ve seen some sheep at a petting zoo. But I have never met a person whose life’s work was as a shepherd. From a quick search online I learned that a shepherd might carry two weapons for protection against predators and enemies - a sling shot, like David used against Goliath, (David, who started out as a shepherd), and the crook, like you would envision, as described by the synonyms rod and staff in the Psalm. One end would have the big hook for sheep that were wandering away, the other would have a hard round knob, to be used like a club against attacking animals. The shepherd would lead them to a place good to eat, with water to drink, sometimes going in front, sometime prodding and guiding from behind. At the end of the day, the shepherd would lead them back to a safe place. It was not a glamorous life - shepherds were definitely in the lower class. But still, many of the figures in our formational stories, from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and his sons – they all made their living at least in part as shepherds.
So, what does this psalm say to us? Can we read beyond our visions of puffy white sheep and pretty green fields? After all, the very first line packs a bit of a punch. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I shall not want. I love the hymn we sang just before the sermon, and I love how it phrases this line. “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants.” A shepherd provides everything that a sheep needs, not by feeding them, but by guiding them to places of abundance where they can get everything they require. And the sheep depend on this. Do we let God lead us beyond our wants? More than saying “God is my shepherd, I shouldn’t want anything,” I see the psalmist saying that when God is truly the one leading us, we won’t want. Not when we have put our lives entirely in the hands of the shepherd. Try to make note this week of every time you think, “I really want ______,” while you’re in the store, or watching commercials, or noticing ads everywhere you look online. How much does wanting consume your life? I like to consider myself pretty non-materialistic. But a couple of times, as a spiritual practice, I’ve limited my spending entirely to gas and groceries (and paying bills, of course.) And I was shocked to find how many times I day I was thinking about buying something. And that’s just thinking about the material stuff we want. Can we let God lead us beyond our wants? Calling God our shepherd is actually an act of deep trust and faith. Certainly, God is up to it. Are we?
The psalmist also talks about what kind of journey we take when God is the shepherd. We read that God “leads [us] in the paths of righteousness” and that “surely goodness and mercy will follow [us] all the days of [our] life.” When we see that word “paths,” what it actually means is something like “deep ruts.” They’re like the grooves that a wagon would make as it traveled the same path in mud over and over. This is a path that is well-worn from frequent use. And righteousness – that’s a synonym for justice, for God’s vision of our right relationships with God and others. The psalm tells us the when God is our shepherd, justice is such a way of life for us, right relationships, seeking wholeness in the world – that’s such a way of life that our path is well-used and making deep tracks in the ground. And when we read of goodness and mercy following us, a more literal translation is “only goodness and mercy shall pursue us” our whole life long. If God is our shepherd, and our wants are already cared for, then the focus of our life is seeking God’s path of justice, and goodness and mercy pursue us, follow behind us. Are goodness and mercy pursuing us? Can we see the marks of goodness, the impact of mercy behind us, each place we’ve been?
The psalmist describes a life of seeking justice, following God the shepherd, even knowing that sometimes we’ll be led into the very darkest valleys. The dark valley of this psalm isn’t death, or at least, not only death. Our darkest valleys are part of life, aren’t they? The challenges, the struggles, the pains we experience physically, emotionally, spiritually? The shepherd leads the sheep into the darkest valleys. But the shepherd stays with them, and the sheep, trusting the shepherd, ever in the company of the shepherd – they are not afraid. If God is leading us, we will sometimes head straight for the darkest places – in the world, in our lives. But as we grow as disciples – as we grow into our sheep-hood – we follow with such trust in God that there is no room for fear. Imagine what we might do that we hold back from because we let fear be our shepherd instead of God?
Finally, the psalm ends: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We can read this as: I will return to the house of the Lord all the days of my life. In other words, we keep coming back to God. We keep grounding ourselves in God’s ways. Again and again, we choose God and God’s path.
This is a powerful psalm, if we let it be more than pretty words. Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. Lead me in the well-trod path of justice. Even though you lead me into the darkest places, you never leave my side, God. Instead, you guide me on, with me always. My cup is overflowing with the abundant life you have given me. My prayer is that I can leave goodness and mercy wherever I’ve been, so that justice is before me and goodness and mercy are coming up behind me. And God, I’ll keep returning to you, returning to you, returning to you, every day in this life, and in the life to come. Amen.
* Translation comments from Chris Haslam, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments, and Joel LeMon, Working Preacher,