Psalm 23; John 10:11-18
New Hope Fellowship, Fort Worth, Texas
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 12, 2019
I wasn’t so sure this week about preaching on the 23rd Psalm. I had my doubts that it would be a good choice. In a way it’s a good one for Mother’s Day. Mother’s can relate to the good shepherd. I think many of you who are mothers probably see yourselves as
caring for your flock,
protecting your flock,
care-givers not care-receivers.
And so in some ways this is a good scripture for Mother’s Day. We honor and celebrate our mothers for all the ways they have
cared for us,
On the other hand, the point of Psalm 23 is not that I am the shepherd or that our moms are the shepherd—good, bad, or
that I am one of God’s sheep, part of the
flock, in need of a good shepherd.
Even our mothers are in need of a shepherd.
I don’t know if Psalm 23 is a good choice for today. It is so familiar to us, and sometimes we have a hard time hearing or seeing the things that are so close and familiar.
Jamie and I were just talking about how we are glad that when we first moved into our house last fall we worked pretty hard to get everything set up, pictures on the wall, and all of that. Because once you’ve lived there for awhile, you almost stop seeing everything. You don’t even see the blank wall anymore when you live with it everyday.
Psalm 23 is so close and familiar it’s hard for us to even hear it.
On the other hand, the 23rd Psalm is so far away from us.
Most of us sitting here today are not shepherds. Most of us here today don’t know a whole lot about sheep.
It might surprise you to know that I actually do have some experience with working with sheep.
When I was in seminary, we had to do a semester of mentoring in some kind of ministry setting. I did my mentoring with David Currie, who at the time was the head of Texas Baptists Committed in San Angelo. On the side, David has always had a ranch where he has sheep. As he says, he works really hard each year on his ranch so that he can afford to do it again the next year. His ranch is in Paint Rock.
So that spring when I was interning there, one of my tasks was to go out and help him mark lambs. It was about this time of year. I didn’t think that sounded too bad—marking lambs. I wasn’t sure whether they used Sharpies or what. I figured maybe one of those laundry markers would work well on wool.
Elmer was the ranch foreman, I guess you would say. He was 82 years old at the time. I’m not sure that he had any teeth. He kept track of the sheep by writing his count with a marker on the side of his white pickup.
The first thing Elmer had us do is get all the sheep in the right pen. I learned right off that that’s not easy. Herding sheep is kind of like herding cats. They just scatter all over the place. So we’re all walking around trying to scare them in the direction we want them to go. They’re running around scared to death; they just huddle in a corner whenever they can.
It took us forever, but we finally got them in the right pen. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it didn’t help that Elmer was the one giving us the directions, and I could only understand about every fifth word he said.
Workers were there to shear the sheep. All the sheep would huddle in the corner, and one of the shearers would
grab one by his back leg,
drag him over to the clippers, and
throw him on his back, and
tie his legs together.
Then they’d cut all the wool off. Sometimes they’d accidentally cut one of the sheep, and they’d pull out a needle and some nylon line and sew up the cut right there so the sheep wouldn’t bleed to death.
While they were doing that, we were supposed to be marking the little lambs. They had me go grab a lamb and hold him in my arms on his back, kind of like a baby. It was kind of nice, sweet.
Then they told me to hold on to his back legs and keep them apart. So I did that.
This is where Elmer came in. He pulled out what looked like old rusty wire cutters, and
he castrated the lamb and
threw what he cut off on the ground.
Then he cut off its tail and threw it on the ground,
then cut a chunk out of its ear. And I thought…Good grief! What is this?
I thought about that hymn Are You Washed in the Blood?:
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?
I was covered in the blood of the lamb, but my garments weren’t spotless. I had the blood of the lamb on my jeans and my boots.
Then they told me to just put it down and go get another one. The one we had just marked ran off— blood dripping from where his tail used to be. Cutting off body parts was not what I had in mind when I agreed to help mark lambs.
Now I know—and I’m passing this on to you— when someone asks you to help mark lambs, the answer is No, thank you.
Most of you here today don’t know a whole lot about sheep and shepherds. You’re not as experienced with these things as I am.
Instead of herding sheep, we commute to offices.
Instead of looking for pastures we look for places to have lunch.
Instead of guiding our flock down a dusty road, we take our children to the Petting Zoo, so they can get close enough to touch some sheep, to see what they really feel like.
We don’t know much about shepherding. Not only that, we don’t really like to be referred to as sheep. That’s an insult.
To follow the crowd without question?
To have no mind of your own?
To expect someone else to take care of you?
Nobody likes to be called “sheep.” This whole sheep and shepherding metaphor is so far removed from our 21st century lives.
So, I don’t know about preaching on the 23rd psalm. To take the message of this psalm from its original cultural context into ours is no small task. Psalm 23 is so far away.
And yet, somehow, even from such a great distance, this psalm does seem to speak to people today. I’ve seen it happen time after time.
Imagine this scene:
A man or a woman is sitting there, in the second row. It’s not where they usually sit when they come to church. But this is a funeral service.
And as the scriptures for the service are read, when we come to the 23rd Psalm, I notice something, the man’s mouth, the woman’s lips, they’re moving. You can see her take a deep breath, her shoulder relax and lower a little.
And at that moment, despite all of the cultural and chronological distance between David’s day and ours, you know the spirit of the 23rd Psalm is speaking personally and powerfully. Somehow, the meaning and the message are getting through.
This psalm does still speak to us today even though its images are so long ago and foreign to us.
But even if it still speaks to us, what is it saying? I mean, the message is not very realistic. It doesn’t seem to reflect the real world that you and I live in. According to the psalm,
the Lord’s sheep have everything they need;
they don’t want anything.
They spend their days lying in green pastures.
They stroll along quiet, placid lakes and
walk along straight paths—paths of righteousness. The rod and staff of the shepherd protect the sheep from all danger.
A pleasant table awaits them when they’re hungry.
A nice life if you can get it. But that doesn’t seem very realistic. I don’t know about preaching on that psalm. The world I live in isn’t nearly so bucolic, pleasant, peaceful. That’s not the world we live in, is it?
But then I looked a little closer at the psalm.
I noticed that the straight paths of righteousness can also mean the paths of justice.
I noticed that this poem also talks about walking through the darkest valleys, the valley of death, filled with deep shadows.
I noticed that that wonderful table spread with a bountiful feast happens to be surrounded by enemies.
I noticed that this psalm takes on a darker cast, a more real-world perspective.
The sheep become a little more complicated. They believe in the shepherd’s care and providence, but that belief doesn’t blind them to the dangers and terrors that await along the path of justice. It begins to look more like radical trust than blind obedience.
[Mary Schertz, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, April 20, 2004]
So, I decided maybe I will preach on Psalm 23. Maybe I will. Maybe somehow it spans across time and culture and distance to speak to us with power.
Maybe this psalm does offer us a picture, not of unrealistic peace and tranquility, but a picture of comforting security and trust in a world of shadowy valleys and dangerous enemies.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercyf shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
The Lord is my shepherd, and we are his sheep. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says this: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The psalm, Psalm 23, and this passage out of John’s gospel promise security. They promise that we will have what we need. Where do we find that? How do we get that? Isn’t that what we all want to know?
Barbara Brown Taylor tells about taking part in the blessing of a friend’s home. It was a small, yellow brick bungalow. She moved her stuff in and invited her friends over for supper.
Everyone brought a dish or a fistful of flowers or a small housewarming gift, and after they had all eaten well they gathered in the living room to begin the blessing of the house. The prayer book they used suggested several scripture readings for the blessing of a home, and out of those they chose two.
First, they read the story from Genesis about Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers who stopped by his tent under the oaks at Mamre. After that came the reading from the sixth chapter of the Matthew’s gospel.
She writes that that reading was somewhat shocking under the circumstances. They had just gotten their friend settled in her new home. They had just
put the books on the shelves and
hung the curtains on the windows and
lined up the cans in the cupboards.
They had just prepared a home for this person, and it would have been nice to hear a scripture reading that said something like: You are safe now. You have a place to live, you have what you need, and everything will be all right now. That’s not what it said.
You know what it said from Matthew 6: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
She wrote that those words fell like stones in deep water. No one coughed or cleared a throat as Jesus preached to them.
Sometimes when we hear those words from Jesus we want to argue: Yes, but. . . . Yes, that is a lovely passage and I really do believe it on some level, but
birds do not have bills to pay and
lilies do not get arrested for sleeping in the town
the grass does not have children to feed.
Yes, God will provide, but meanwhile I’ve got to provide for my family. And this world is not a lovely green meadow with placid lakes. It has danger and shadowy valleys.
But what Jesus was telling the woman at the house blessing is that she is safe, but not because she has a roof over her head and a key to the front door. Security is just not going to be found that way. Adding an alarm system won’t do it either. So Jesus told the woman that yes, she is safe. But not because of her new house. Not at all.
[Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, 154-5]
You are safe, Jesus told her, because the Lord is your shepherd. The God who made you will not abandon you. The Lord has given you a pasture that nothing and no one can take away from you.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I think the reason why hearing those words makes me relax a little bit—when I hear those words I can almost feel some of the tension leave my shoulders— is that those words mean it’s not all on me. It’s not all dependent on me. I don’t have to have everything all figured out.
I don’t even have to know which direction to go or where I belong. Because the Lord is my shepherd. And he goes before me to show me where to go. And he goes before me to show me that it’s safe. And he goes before me so that he’s there when I get there.
Listen to Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of Psalm 23.
God, my shepherd,
I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows.
You find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word
You let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.