Tuesday, August 31, 2021

"The Good Shepherd" - August 15, 2021

Text: Psalm 23

Like many of you, I watched the baseball game played Thursday night at the Field of Dreams.  I had watched the movie, I had visited the movie sight, and I was pumped about the game.  It did not disappoint – it could not have been more perfect.  Just like in the movie, before the game, the players emerged from the cornfield into center field.

It was interesting that as they interviewed some of the players before the game, they felt like tourists.  One said that they were all glued to the windows on the bus from Dubuque to the ballpark – many of them had never seen so much corn.

Well, Iowa is known for corn.  Corn and soybeans and hogs.  What we are not known for is sheep.  I did not grow up on a farm.  And even for those who did, if you grew up on a farm in Iowa there is only a small chance that you raised sheep.  

Most of us have only a passing familiarity, if that, with sheep, and yet the image of sheep and shepherding is a very common image in scripture.  Jesus is described in the gospel of John as the Good Shepherd.  And the 23rd Psalm is maybe the best-loved passage in the Bible, a familiar and comforting scripture.  We are looking 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.  And a lot of people who really don’t know a thing about the Bible are familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  But let’s face it: these words 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 travel 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 of these paraphrases is the fact that we would rather think of ourselves as an athlete, or a vacationer, or a student, 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 in green pastures 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 it is our choice 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, 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.

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 this little black cat, people were scared of her - with good reason.  I’ve told some Mary Ralph stories before.

Before moving to Ames, we lived in Arthur, Illinois, a small town.  And 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 pick her up, we might have to pay their medical bills.  This going for a walk with Mary Ralph experiment did not last very long; she was soon banned from family walks.

We can all be a little like Mary Ralph in that we have a hard time following.  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 is the Good Shepherd who came to show us how to live.  And Jesus does not ask us 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 the fact is, 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 smart enough or successful 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.  For me, that has been very recent.  We have all traveled through that deep valley.  In such times, we need to know that like a Good Shepherd, God is 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.  As it happened, that same evening there were guests over 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 actually 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.   

We live in a time in which enemies seem to be glorified – in other words, we want to make people into enemies.  Simply because they have a different opinion, simply because they see things differently, we think of them as enemies.

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 those whom we think of as enemies.  That includes those whose lives seem to stand against what Jesus stands for.  That 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, maybe 100 yards away or so, 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 goodness and mercy pursuing us with dogged determination.  We cannot get away from God’s goodness and mercy.

No matter how far we may feel from God, goodness and mercy are there.  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.

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of confidence.  It reminds us through rich images what it is like to live a life of trust in God.

And it tells us that God’s presence, God’s companionship, can transform every situation.  There will still be dangers.  There will still be deathly valleys, there will still be enemies and challenges.  But we do not need to fear.  God is always there.  And trust and confidence in God leads to a life of peace and joy.  

We have a Good Shepherd.  Amen.

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