Friday, August 18, 2017

"The Good Shepherd" - August 20, 2017

Text: Psalm 23

If you have not yet been to the Iowa State Fair, today is your last chance.  You can even get tickets to see Kid Rock perform at 8 pm tonight, if that’s your thing.

But for a lot of people, the fair is about deep fried foods, preferably on sticks, and the Butter Cow.  It is about prize vegetables and free entertainment.  It is about products and displays in the Varied Industries Building, crafts and artwork at the Cultural Center, and exhibits in the 4-H Building.  The fair is about people watching and riding the skylift.  And it is about the animals.  The Horse Barn and the Swine Barn and the Cattle Barn, the Pigeon and Rabbits and Poultry building.  And of course, there is the Sheep Barn.

Some of you grew up on farms, but I am among those who did not.  Even if you grew up on a farm, if it was in Iowa there is only a small chance that you raised sheep.  So for a lot of people, if you want to be around sheep, your best bet might be to head down to the Sheep Barn at the State Fair.

We live in a society in which most folks have only a passing familiarity, if that, with sheep, and yet the image of sheep and shepherding is a very common image in scripture.  The 23rd Psalm is maybe the best-loved passage in the Bible, a familiar and comforting scripture.  We have looked at several Psalms this summer, and it only seemed right that we spend a week considering the 23rd Psalm.

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…

For a lot of folks, Psalm 23 is like an old friend.  A lot of people who don’t know a thing about the Bible have at least some familiarity with the 23rd Psalm.  But as familiar as the words are, they were written in a different world.  We can recite the words: “The Lord is my shepherd,” but when you get right down to it, who really wants to be a sheep?

You will find a lot of Psalm 23 re-writes using different metaphors, getting away from the shepherd and sheep image.  “The Lord is my coach…, or “the Lord is my agent…”, or “the Lord is my major professor” or “the Lord is my Internet Service Provider.  He giveth me wide bandwidth and protecteth me from spam and viruses.”  The psalm is rewritten in a way that people can better identify with it.  But part of the popularity if these paraphrases is the fact that we would rather think of ourselves as an athlete, or a student, or a vacationer, or a computer user, than a sheep.  

The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures, but we generally don’t want to lie down because, well, we don’t want to stop.  We are on the go; we have things to do and people to see.  We don’t want to slow down; we don’t want to rest.  But the thing is, we will eventually slow down and come to a stop, whether we want to or not, and it may not be in a place as pleasant as the green pastures the shepherd has led us to. 

The shepherd cares for us and knows our needs.  Whether we know it or not, we need a Good Shepherd.  

The Lord is my shepherd… He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…

Sheep are often characterized as stupid and foolish.  That characterization may not be entirely accurate; some have argued that cattle ranchers are responsible for that ugly rumor, all because sheep do not behave like cows.  Cows are herded from behind, with cowboys hooting and cracking whips, but that will not work at all with sheep.  Stand behind sheep making loud noises and they will just run around behind you, because sheep want to be led.  You can push cows, but you lead sheep.

Sheep will not go anywhere that someone does not go first – and that someone would be the shepherd, who goes ahead to show them that everything is all right.

As it turns out, sheep grow fond of their shepherds.  One sheep herder said that it never amazed him that he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing even one of them, but if a stranger set foot among the flock it would cause pandemonium. 

Now, to throw another animal into the mix: when Susan and I were first married, we had a cat named Mary Ralph.  She was named after a no-nonsense nun, and the name fit perfectly.  She was quirky, even for a cat, and while she was just a little black cat, people were scared of her.  With good reason.

When we lived in a small town in Illinois, Mary Ralph started following us when we would go for a walk.  We would have to go back and put her in the house, but finally we decided “what the heck,” and we let her follow us.  So we went for a family walk around the block: Susan and I walking, Zoe in a stroller, our dog Conway on a leash, and Mary Ralph bringing up the rear.  We walked to the end of the street and turned at the Methodist Church, and she was still with us.  We got to the next corner, at the bed and breakfast, and she was lagging behind.  She would eventually make the turn, but then she always had a hard time making it to the next corner.  She would see a leaf blowing in the wind, or a sound would startle her, or there would be a rabbit, or she would have a stare-off with a cat looking out somebody’s window.

I would have to go back and get her to re-focus on the walk, and sometimes I would just have to carry her home.   I was about the only one who could do that – if a stranger tried to picker her up, we might have to pay their medical bills.  The experiment did not last very long; she was soon banned from family walks again.

We can all be a little like Mary Ralph in that we have a hard time following the shepherd.  And at times it probably appears that Jesus is trying to herd cats more than lead sheep.  We don’t necessarily like being led – we might like the idea of setting off on our own, charting our own course.  We can feel like the grass is greener in other pastures.  But we are at our best when we follow the Good Shepherd.  Jesus came to show us how to live, that we might follow.  And Jesus does not ask to go anywhere that he has not already gone.  The Good Shepherd restores our souls and leads us in the right paths.

The Lord is my shepherd.. yea, tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy road and thy staff, they comfort me…

Sheep can scare pretty easily.  And they have a real knack for getting lost.  We might think that the image of sheep is a terrible picture of what we are like.  But here’s the thing: we may be more lost than we think.  We can be lost in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, in a job that leaves us depleted and spent.  We can be lost in the guilt of not being good enough or good-looking enough or smart enough for someone whose judgment cuts deep.

Some of us have gotten lost in battles against declining health.  We can be lost searching for meaning and direction.  We can get so lost that we lose sight of who we are and who we were created to be.

And we can surely get lost in grief.  Many of us have passed through the valley of the shadow of death.  We have experienced hurt and sadness and disillusionment.  We have lost loved ones.  We have glimpsed our own mortality.  We have been in that deep valley; some of you may be there right now.

It is great to have the students back in town.  There is an excitement and energy around town that we don’t feel in the summer.  (There is a lot more traffic, too.)  In these first weeks of school I think about students and especially new students.  There can be a lot of challenges, and it can be a big transition.  Even if you have been here awhile, there are those times when life can feel overwhelming.  In those times, we need to know that God is always there with us.

The Lord is my shepherd… Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup overflows.

A ten year old boy named Brian was in trouble with his parents.  He was banned from electronic devices and was not a happy camper.  He was sulking and not much fun to be around.  That same evening there were guests visiting for dinner, and the group was big enough that a separate kids’ table was set up. 

It had not been smooth sailing with Brian, so in a nod to their son and effort to include him, even though he was over at the kids’ table, Brian was asked to give the blessing for the meal.  Everyone bowed their heads, and Brian prayed: “'God, I thank you for this table which you have prepared before me in the presence of my enemies.  Amen.”

I read that somewhere but I’m not sure it really happened like that.  But for sheep, it is pretty obvious what it means to have a table prepared in the presence of enemies.  The enemies may be wolves, coyotes, mountain lions.  Assorted predators.  Sheep can be very vulnerable.

For us, it may not be so obvious, but we surely face enemies.  The enemy might be illness or poverty or addictions or anxiety for the future.  The enemy might be bigotry, racism, injustice.  And sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy.  

Like many of you, I have been just aghast at what took place in Charlottesville and the continuing racial strife in this country.  It feels shocking to me, but I know that for many people of color who have to face subtle and sometimes not so subtle discrimination all the time, it is not shocking at all.

I read a couple of accounts of what took place in Charlottesville written by people who were there.  Brian McClaren is a pastor and author.  He wrote,

The courage of the clergy [and faith community] present inspired me.  In public gatherings and in private conversations before Saturday, participating clergy were warned that there was a high possibility of suffering bodily harm.  A group of clergy walked arm-in-arm into the very center of the storm, so to speak, and kneeled.  This symbolic act took a great deal of courage, and many who did so were spat on, subjected to slurs and insults, and exposed to tear gas.  I hold them in the highest regard…

There were other groups protesting the message of white supremacy and Naziism. I was deeply impressed with the Black Lives Matter participants. They went into the middle of the fray and stood strong and resilient against vicious attacks, insults, spitting, pepper spray, tear gas, and hurled objects.

I was also deeply impressed by UVA students I met.  The group of young men and women that stood up to the torch-carrying marchers on Friday night had amazing courage.  Their fellow students, their parents, and all of us, should be proud of these young leaders.
Whatever else it means, for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies means that in those frightening and troubled times that we face, God goes before us and God stands beside us, giving us courage and strength. 

The Good Shepherd loves all of the sheep.  And here is the thing – here is the really hard thing: that includes our enemies.  That includes those whose lives stand against what Jesus stands for.  That includes racists and haters.  It includes all those who are lost.  Like that one lost lamb, God’s desire is to bring them back into the fold.  God’s desire is for love to win.  We are called not to hate our enemies but love our enemies and pray for the power of God’s love to transform our enemies – even as God’s love transforms us.

The Lord is my shepherd …surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The notion that goodness and mercy are following us is a nice sentiment, a hopeful thought, but if they are always following us, like maybe at a safe distance, what good does that really do us?  Well, digging a little deeper may help to understand the meaning here.  Instead of just “follow,” the sense of the word is really closer to “pursue.”  Imagine God coming after us, pursuing us with goodness and mercy.  We cannot get away from God’s goodness and mercy.

No matter how far we may feel from God, God is pursuing us with goodness and mercy.

When we face trials and tribulations, we are pursued by goodness and mercy.

When we are worried, when we are filled with anxiety, when we feel inadequate, when we feel that we are not up to the task, there they are: goodness and mercy.

Charles Laughton was a famous stage and screen actor of many years ago.  He was known as a great dramatic reader. One night he attended a dinner party, and after dinner Laughton was called upon to recite the 23rd Psalm.  His timing and intonation were perfect.  And of course Americans love anything with a British accent.  Everybody loved it – it was a big hit.

After this, others were invited to offer something.  There was an older woman sitting in the corner – she was the aunt of the host.  She was asked if she might recite something.

She was nearly deaf so she hadn’t heard what had gone before.  She stood up and started to recite the 23rd Psalm. People were embarrassed.  It was an awkward situation to have her recite the same psalm as this great actor.  But before she finished, people were caught up in her recitation.  Some even began to weep.  It was powerfully moving.

Later somebody asked Mr. Laughton why her reading was so moving when she didn’t have any of the skills that he had as an actor.  He said, “I know the psalm.  She knows the shepherd.”

We have a Good Shepherd.  Amen.

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