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I’ve had a particular fondness for sheep for as long as I can remember. Walt Disney’s movie, “Peter Pan,” came out when I was one year old, and the Broadway show that was based on it opened a year later. Its song, “Tender Shepherd,” sent me off to sleep on many a night in my childhood: “Tender shepherd, tender shepherd, Let me help you count your sheep. One in the meadow, Two in the garden, Three in the nursery, Fast asleep.” Maybe you grew up with that song, too. I have ever since had an image of sheep as being cute, cuddly, and reliant on a shepherd who was tender with his flock.
Much as we like to domesticate sheep in film and in song, they are animals that are inclined to wander off on their own into the danger of the great outdoors, needing shepherds to protect them and border collies to round them up. But they remain wild animals, in their own way. A friend tells a story that happened here in Akron in August 2017. Karen was attending an event hosted by the Summit County Historical Society at the Simon Perkins Mansion on Mutton Hill on Copley Road, about a mile-and-a-half from here. As happens each summer, a flock of sheep from the Spicy Lamb Farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was grazing the lawn, scattered about in their favorite spots. The occasion for the event was the solar eclipse, and the gathered crowd was milling about outdoors, waiting for the eclipse to begin, though there was not yet any sign of it. Suddenly the sheep began bleating loudly, in unison, then all converged and ran in a feverish stampede to the perimeter of the property, where they lay down in one big clump, huddling together, silently, on high alert. The people witnessing the flock’s behavior stood there, stunned, by what they had seen. Eventually, the humans began to notice the darkening sky of the eclipse, an event whose advent the sheep had sensed much earlier. Some time later, the sheep suddenly began again to bleat loudly in unison, then got up from the ground and scattered to their previous places on the lawn, calmly grazing where they had been, prior to the eclipse. Sheep are not known as the most intelligent of animals, but like all animals, they know things.
In today’s lesson from John’s gospel, Jesus depicts himself as the shepherd of the sheep, and as the gate through which the sheep enter the safety of the pasture. He contrasts himself with the thieves and bandits who threaten the sheep, wanting to steal and kill them. In the chapter just prior to this, John had told the story of a man who was born blind. Jesus had given sight to that blind man, who then was cast out of the temple by the authorities when he confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. What happened to the blind man was, indeed, what was happening to the early Christians to whom John’s gospel was written, at the end of the first century. Having proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, they were rejected and threatened by many in their community. As we see in today’s reading, Jesus promised his followers that he would be the good shepherd that would provide both protection and sustenance.
As the story in John’s gospel depicts, the shepherd can protect and sustain the sheep because he is in a relationship with them, a relationship that is built on trust. What’s more, the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is one of intimacy. These sheep know things. They know that the shepherd calls each of them by name. And they know and recognize his voice. Because of that intimacy, that relationship with the shepherd, that knowledge that this shepherd cares deeply about them and will protect them, they follow him. They know this shepherd can be trusted. Jesus, the shepherd, concludes his teaching by stating why he cares for his flock of sheep and what that intimate relationship will bring: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Those who follow Jesus, then and now, can trust in his promise of guidance, protection, and abundance.
The disciples would have related to Jesus’s metaphor of the shepherd because the Israelites were an agrarian people, and the Hebrew Scriptures had frequent references to God as the shepherd of the flock. They had been raised with these stories! Maybe, as children, they went to sleep hearing them! In the 40th chapter of Isaiah is a verse that Handel used as the basis for an aria in “The Messiah”: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). And, of course, we have Psalm 23, which appears in the lectionary today as a companion piece to the lesson from John’s gospel.
In his book The Message of the Psalms, the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann begins his commentary on Psalm 23 with these words: It is almost pretentious to comment on this psalm. The grip it has on biblical spirituality is deep and genuine. It is such a simple statement that it can bear its own witness without comment. It is, of course, a psalm of confidence. It recounts in detail by means of rich metaphors a life lived in trustful receptivity of God’s gifts. It is God’s companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurt. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy.
People of God, will you join me now, from your homes, in saying Psalm 23 together:
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, 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.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Psalm 23 is often associated with funerals. In my ministry as a chaplain at Akron General and at Akron Children’s Hospital, I would often ask a patient or family if they had a favorite psalm they would like me to read. Often they would say, “Oh, I love Psalm 23, but it’s about death. So why don’t you read me something else.” The association of this psalm with death is understandable, for surely the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” bring, for many of us, memories of funerals. But death is not the central message of the psalm. This is a psalm about life—the abundant life God provides for those who trust in God.
Part of the beauty and depth of the psalms is that literary devices used by their writers are themselves meaningful. In the original Hebrew text of Psalm 23, the exact center of the psalm is found by counting twenty-six words from the beginning and twenty-six words from the end to get to the phrase that contains the psalm’s central message: “for thou art with me.” God is present with us, says the psalmist, not just at our death but throughout our lives, even in those difficult times when God may seem most absent. “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.” This is a statement of profound trust and confidence in God’s faithfulness.
As difficult as this present staying-at-home time has been, and as uncertain as the path through and beyond the coronavirus pandemic may be, this moment in time has given us an opportunity to get back to basics, to turn our attention, in a time of reflection, from doing to being. If we can sit still, calm our minds, and just be, we become aware of how deeply we long for the peaceful presence of the God who loves us, cares for us, and provides us what we need. These themes are present from the first verses of the psalm:
Having said this, the psalmist acknowledges that life will have its difficulties, for in our human vulnerability and mortality we will inevitably encounter suffering in“the valley of the shadow of death.” Valley time is wilderness time, when the green pastures and still waters seem far away. We feel lost in the wilderness, overwhelmed by the uncertainty that lies between our past and our unknown future. The psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.” So, instinctively, we run from the wilderness moments of our lives as fast as we can.
And here we come to what a wise mentor has called “the two most important words in the 23rd Psalm:” “though,” and “through.” Though we are in the valley, though we are in the wilderness, though we are grieving, though we are in the midst of a pandemic, God is with us. That is the meaning of this psalm that we find at its very center: “for thou art with me.” And because God is with us, we can find the strength to walk through the valley, to face our pain and hardship directly because we know that, with God’s help, we will not be overcome by it.
Finally, the psalm presents another image—that of the Lord as our host, carefully preparing a meal, a feast of abundance in which our “cup runneth over.” Though there may be adversaries around us, we savor God’s promise of everlasting protection and hospitality. The King James Version says, we“will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” A direct translation of the Hebrew says that we “shall return to the house of the Lord” for the rest of our days. No matter what the journey has been—no matter its depths or heights, its sorrows or joys– the God who is with us always, promises to bring us home. “The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want.” In God, in Jesus Christ, we have life, and we have it abundantly.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
The Rev. George Ross, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, “The Shepherd in the Shadow,” a sermon preached on June 19, 1988.