NRSV PSALM 23
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 mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
NRSV JOHN 10:1-10
10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
First, a disclaimer: I cheated.
Well, sort of.
A week ago, before we were on the radio, Sue and I sat down to take in some worship services from other places, listening to people we have grown to appreciate and respect over these last few weeks. It seemed that most of them were getting a jump on “Good Shepherd Sunday” – the fourth Sunday in Easter, this Sunday. They were preaching on the 23rd Psalm, our reading for today. They all did great work on it, but I thought: Hey, isn’t that supposed to be next week?
Now I am glad they did. They got me ready for today.
Not that it is one of the more popular holy days, but the Fourth Sunday in Easter has grown into that title because of the readings for today. Not just the 23rd Psalm, but also the reading from John’s gospel. They are all geared toward Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image we have grown up with, probably due to those paintings we saw hanging in our Sunday School classrooms of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulder while other sheep saunter nearby. It’s a refreshing, comforting image, one that reminds us that we are all like sheep, needing the comforting care of a loving Jesus.
But we also know that, “We all like sheep have gone astray…” That serene, pastoral image got a jolt a while back when a friend of mine who used to raise sheep reminded me that they are incredibly dumb animals. They will go anywhere even if it is dangerous, and they do not have a great sense of anything other than the next good bit of grass to eat. (She also told me that they never named their sheep because that would make it tougher when it was time to make a nice lamb roast, whereas Jesus calls his sheep by name. But that’s for another sermon.) Being compared to a dumb animal who doesn’t know what they are doing is not exactly endearing to us, even though our occasional actions demonstrating a definite lack of intelligence might give us pause.
But even with all of that, I know why those preachers went early for the 23rd Psalm. For one thing, it is familiar. How many of us had to memorize it for Sunday School years ago? Even if we didn’t, it is arguably the most familiar Psalm in that long song book. We hear it at funeral services. We remember its verses when a crisis hits. And heaven knows, that is where we are now. These old, familiar words have a heightened sense of poignancy these days.
Even with the restrictions starting to be relaxed in some places, we have entered what is called “liminal time”; those places and moments when our worlds have changed. We don’t know what they are going to look like on the other end, but we know something is different, and we will be different. It fills us with no small amount of angst.
So when we hear the opening words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…,” it generates comfort and solace. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need. Everything else is icing on the cake. The Lord is the one I go to, the One I lean on, the One on whom I depend, the One I listen to more than anyone else.
But like so many other verses in the Bible, this one can comfort us and challenge us at the same time. Catholic hymn writer Marty Haugen has written so many beautiful hymns, some of which grace our hymn book. One of my favorites, the refrain of which runs through my head often, is based on these words. But Haugen puts it differently:
“Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants, beyond my fears,
from death into life.”
Shepherd me, O God; use your hook, your rod, your staff, to keep away my fears, those things that rise up and threaten me. But also, shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants; those things I want, those things I desire, those things which I think are so wonderful; but those things which may be keeping me from listening to you, those things that keep me from following you, from trusting you. Those things that I lean on and inadvertently make into an idol, a false god. Those things which are so good, but can be detriments to paying attention to the lessons I need to grow. Lessons that are only ours when we have gone through great love or great suffering.
Over the last week I have read several articles that have drawn attention to one of my big wants: corporate worship. Our gathering as the people of God together, in one building, shoulder to shoulder, to listen, to pay attention to, reflect upon, be energized by the Word of God. But one of my colleagues, the Rev. Donna Frischknecht Jackson reflected on this and came to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to go back to ‘normal.’ She mentioned that as she entered the world of Zoom meetings people still want to talk about pre-pandemic issues, things that seem rather trivial compared to all of the life or death concerns around us. She noted, “…yes, we need a furnace, the parking lot needs to be repaved, the church still needs repair. These are important items, but I don’t want them to take over our discussions, our time, our energy, our resources as they have in the past. I want the space to breathe in the Spirit of newness…the truth is, I don’t want to go back to normal, because that normal was killing me. It was zapping my creativity. It was trying to measure success by how much I took on and got done. It affirmed my worth by the accolades I received. Normal was not normal. It was a half-life. It was shallow. It was wearing me down. Yet we seem to be rushing back to all that is not life-giving.”
One of the things that I think Rev. Jackson is telling us is that this is a good time to unpack our emotional and spiritual suitcases and decide what we are going to take with us on the rest of this journey of life and faith. What is life-giving? What is life-denying? What do we really need? What is a want, that we have made into a ‘should’? What is a want that we have made into a god, that only steals and kills and destroys by draining us, rather than listening to the God revealed by Jesus, the One who gives us life, and life in abundance?
I want to meet in corporate worship. I want to sing songs of praise to God with others who share the faith I do. But there are lessons to be learned in what we are going through. We are learning what it means to shelter in place not out of fear but out of love for others, in a desire not to make someone else sick. We are learning that our wants of what is normal may not be the best thing for us. Maybe what this and any suffering gives us is not an answer to the question, “Where is God when things go wrong?” Maybe we need to reflect upon something else, like: “What is God teaching us in this moment?” What is God teaching us when we don’t get our wants met? What is God teaching us when we are sick? What is God teaching us when we are deprived of life’s greatest moments, like graduations and weddings and reunions?
Perhaps those questions go together – like they do in that verse, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” I have always appreciated the Hebrew word which begins this verse – the word “Ki”. This is one of those words that have a multitude of meanings, depending on the context of the rest of the verse. Here the word means, “When;” not “If,” or anything conditional. No doubt about it, we are going to go through the dark valleys, the valleys of death, many times in our lives. It’s a part of being alive. But we have this assurance: God is with us, God will always be with us. So we don’t have to fear. Yes, we will be afraid, there will always be moments of nervousness. We need those to remind us that we are not in control. But ultimately God’s Presence will be so strong that we will be able to handle anything. We can let the fear go. Even if the worst happens to us, if we get Covid-19 and wind up on a ventilator, God’s Presence will never leave us alone. As Jesus reminds us in John, others may come and seek to take something away from us. But God in Christ comes to give us life, life in all of its abundance, in all of its amazing wonder.
We need that in these days of wondering what is coming next. Nathan Kirkpatrick, who works at the Duke Divinity School, wrote about that this past week and noted some things to keep in mind. He mentioned the importance of grieving, of mourning those things that have been lost to us. Like all those worship service and opportunities to celebrate together. He also mentioned that there are multiple visions for the future – is this virus a blizzard, a storm that will come and go; will it be a season of longer length; or is it a new epoch, one which will change completely how we go about our lives from now on? We don’t know. But he also pointed out the importance for churches and people to hold onto the agility and adaptability we have found in recent weeks.
It may be a stretch to call this a wandering through the valley of death, but it has to be admitted that we are mourning some losses here. As I come to the end of my ministry with you all, the grief about that is very present and real. As a church that is tightly wrapped around the traditional ways of being church, all of these new things like Zoom meetings and the minister putting videos on Facebook or other social media can seem like a death. Not being able to come together and be with each other is a kind of death. We don’t like it. We much prefer being together and seeing each other face to face.
But that is a want that is not ours right now. And while it may seem like a journey down death’s valley, it might also be an opportunity for us to sense what it really means to “…dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” To enter into God’s house, God’s presence means that we have to let go of what we want, of our desire to be in control. To be in God’s house means luxuriating in the Holy Presence that surrounds and dwells within us giving us a peace beyond words; a Presence no building can hold.
For now we hold onto each other as much as we can. But we also hold onto the God who comes to us in all of our fearful valleys and gives us the resources we need to navigate through this time and into the new life God gives us. We also have the faith that whatever the future holds for us, God in Christ will supply the energy, intelligence, imagination and love we will need to be a faithful witness of God’s love. Amen.