‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 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.
When I was in elementary school, I did not go to church regularly. My sisters and I occasionally went to Sunday worship with my grandfather. We nearly always went for Vacation Bible School in the summer. And, sometimes we'd make it to Easter, primarily because there was an egg hunt after church. But, that's really it. I spent most Sunday mornings watching reruns of Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow or reading Hardy Boys books. That being said, I still grew up pretty saturated by Christian ideas and Christian scripture. I am from the South, a region that continues to be one of the most consistently religious areas of the country. Nearly all of my extended family and neighbors were active Christians. My great-grandmother was deeply religious and wanted to make sure that I had a good foundation in Christianity, regardless of whether or not I attended worship regularly. She sang hymns while she pushed me in the swing in her front yard. She made sure that a children's Bible was among the books I could read at her house. She also taught me some Bible verses. While Psalm 23 wasn't the very first passage she taught me, it was one of the ones that she made sure I knew.
My great grandmother wasn't the only reason I knew this passage. I felt like Psalm 23 was all over the place. It seemed like this scripture was on the back of every funeral bulletin. It was printed on little cards that sat next to the cash register in bookstores. It was occasionally printed on the back windshield of pick up trucks that roared passed us on jacked up tires. As far as I could tell, most people, even people like me who didn't attend church regularly, knew this passage. And, many of them claimed that it was their favorite passage in the whole Bible. I must admit if you don't know much else in the Bible, this passage does seem like a good one to know.
In seminary, one of the authors I read argued that most people attend church to find comfort and relief from their life outside of church. If that is true, it makes sense that people would find a passage like this one to be very important to them. That's why this passage makes it's way into funeral services and memorials on pick-up truck windows. Many people read it and remember times when they were in need of support. When they read Psalm 23, they learn about a God who is there, even in the worst times, to bring comfort and support. People who need help may see that even though they may feel as though they are in the shadow of death, in the end, goodness and mercy will follow them and they will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This Psalm seems to have a happy ending, and Lord knows that we need a happy ending, especially in weeks like this. As we remember acts of terrorism in Oklahoma City, see images of natural disasters all across the country of Nepal, and as we hear songs of protest roll across the streets of Baltimore, the valley of the shadow of death seems very real. We need the comfort and protection of God's rod and staff.
The thing is, this scripture may be so familiar to us, even those of us who don't really know any other Bible verses, that we can stop paying attention to what it says. When we read it, we can primarily remember what it has meant to us in the past, and can forget that these words may have a new or different meaning for us today. While researching my sermon this week, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon. He encourages us to remember a few things that might help bring new life into a scripture that many of us know so well. He points out that this passage is a passage about a journey, not a passage about one stop. While the narrator speaks of being able to lie down in green pastures, that is only a sign of respite, not a sign that the narrator lives there. The shepherd who watches over the sheep does so on the move.
As I have noted in other sermons, sheep are necessarily the habit of walking in orderly lines towards a destination. They tend to roam all over the place. They can be hard to keep track of. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you need someone to guide them. This shepherd guides the sheep by leading them to paths of righteousness. LeMon notes that these paths don't seem to be hacked out of the wilderness. The words in Hebrew indicate that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before you. To move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and make the most of this groove to make your own journey easier. There is something communal about the tracks. Your community clears the path for you and you clear the path for those who will follow you.You would do well to help keep them clear.
One of the things that is difficult about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When Jesus talked about being a shepherd, he spoke of sheep being attacked by wolves. When the Psalmist spoke of being a sheep as a metaphor for life, the psalmist also noted that the journey is often dangerous. Death often seems close. But, God, the shepherd, offers protection and safety. The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, even as the enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. The narrator is blessed by God, and given abundant drink. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God, is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It may have a more powerful meaning. The word that is translated follow is more often translated as pursue. Follow sounds passive. Pursue sounds active, dangerous even, like something enemies do. But, in these verses, the enemies don't do the pursuing. God does. You will no longer be chased by ones who will devour you. Instead, only goodness and mercy shall chase you down. You will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by good.
As I said earlier, many of us read the last verse as a happy ending: I will live in God's house forever. We read the story as though we are working through a journey with a definite end. We are simply working our way from point A, our lives, to point B, God's house, where we can stop. LeMon suggests another reading of that last verse. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't leave us with the house of the Lord as an endpoint where you stop, but, instead, maintains the idea of movement and journey. This word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return." He suggests the translation, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our return to the places where we most closely feel the presence of God. We can seek God down deep in the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God is present in the journey, not simply as the destination.
The shepherd watches over the sheep during the whole journey, in the valley and in the green pastures. Goodness and mercy will pursue you in place of the wolves who would once devour you. The shepherd will lead you in paths that have been cleared long before you got there, and you will help keep them clear for the people who follow. As a sheep, your life journey will take you through many high and low places, but you will continually return to God's presence through your whole life. Now, that is quite a different interpretation than what I have usually heard of this scripture. It is a much more active, engaging view of God than I usually think of when I remember these words. When I hear this interpretation, I can more clearly understand why Jesus would find the image of the shepherd compelling enough to use it to describe his own ministry. This sheep and shepherd's journey through the ups and downs of life, ever seeking God's presence, sounds much more like my own life than does the one-way trip to God's table that I usually hear about. It sounds more like Jesus' life, too.
Jesus adds some things to the description of a good shepherd that we would do well to remember. Scholar Karoline Lewis compiled this list of things a good shepherd does in the book of John. A good shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name. In the book of John, Jesus did this when he called out the names of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, first when he healed Lazarus, and second, when he showed Mary that he had risen. A good shepherd makes sure the sheep are safe, as Jesus did in John when he left his disciples safe in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. A good shepherd finds his sheep when they are lost, as Jesus found the blind man whom he healed in the scripture just before our reading today and as he found each one of his disciples as they began their ministry together. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. And, a good shepherd will return to the sheep, to bring new ones in the fold, and to show them how to return to God's presence, just as Jesus did through his Resurrection and ministry. He showed his followers the possibility of abundant, new life and invited them on the journey to find return the world to God's presence. We, too, are continually invited to travel on this journey, through the ruts and grooves of our forbears, under the shadow of death, alongside water and pastures that will sustain us. We, too, are invited to continually return to God's presence our whole lives long, and invite some new friends to join us.
In her commentary this week, Karoline Lewis asks "What is good about a shepherd?" Both Jesus and the Psalmist give us some rich answers to that question. I think most of these responses boil down to one simple idea: The shepherd never leaves the sheep alone. All through the journey, in dark valleys, with wolves bearing down, the shepherd never leaves. When the sheep get lost, the shepherd travels to find them. When the sheep need a path, the shepherd is present to show the way. When the sheep are hungry, the shepherd provides abundant sustenance. The sheep are never alone. The shepherd is always present. May we all continue to seek God's presence in all our days, and may we all feel Christ's presence through the Holy Spirit, as we go along our sheeply way.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Joel LeMon's commentary on Psalm 23: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
Karoline Lewis, "What's so Good about a Shepherd?":
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.