On Sheep and Shepherds ( a sermon delivered to Ephiphany UCC in St. Louis)
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen — in person, not on TV or in movies — sheep grazing on a hillside.
And another question, Did you see a shepherd?
How many of you have ever seen a real shepherd? That is, someone who herds sheep, not a kid in a bathrobe with a scarf around his or her head and talking with someone wearing angel wings.
About as close as I’ve ever come to a real sheep is wearing wool clothing, or eating lamb chops. So while I have some bodily intimacy with parts of some sheep, I know next to nothing about the animal or the people who raise them.
In fact, I mainly know about sheep and shepherds from Sunday School. Which brings me to the next question in the hand-raising poll I’m conducting. Raise your hand if, at some time in your life you memorized the 23rd Psalm. It was probably the King James Version, wasn’t it? “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He restoreth my soul.”
It’s many people’s favorite Psalm. In fact, in the half dozen hymn books I have, it is the Psalm that has the most hymn references, going back, as you may have noted, to the Scottish Psalter in the 17th Century. My original plans were to load up this worship service with versions of this Psalm set to a half dozen tunes. If that sounds like too much of a good thing, thank Pastor Mary for negotiating fewer musical renditions of the same text.
Contemporary songbooks, however, don’t have many updates of Psalm 23. That could be because there are so many favorites already, or it could be because sheep and shepherds no longer resonate in our daily lives the way they did in bible times.
Take our gospel reading today. From all that we know, Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. But he calls himself “the good shepherd,” and says that his sheep know his voice. I have to use my imagination and read commentaries explaining sheep behavior in order to understand this reference, which I assume the people listening to Jesus on the temple porch caught right away.
A seminary classmate replied to my Facebook poll about knowledge of sheep and shepherds that she “once got told by a farmer after preaching in a country church: ‘MY sheep know the sound of my truck engine.’ ” I like that image of a guy pulling into a pasture in his pickup and sheep running to meet him.
To be sure, even the urban-dwellers like the temple priests would have understood Jesus’ claim. Sheep and shepherds have a special place in scripture as a metaphor of the relationship between God and humanity. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a catalog of all the places where sheep and shepherds are mentioned. At least not now.
Where I’m going with this is — to ask, What is it about this psalm that makes it such a favorite, despite the lack of a contemporary understanding of the sheep and shepherd metaphors?
One answer is that I think we can identify with the sheep — who need guidance, green pastures, quiet pools of fresh water. We’ve all been through deepest darkness — or if we haven’t yet, we can anticipate that we will not get out of this world without our share of troubles. The description of Psalm 23 shows sympathy for the downtrodden.
Another of my classmates said she has helped a friend care for sheep. I guess that makes her a shepherd. She had this to say about sheep:
“Except for the occasional sheep that tried to go their own way, these sheep were very content to be fed, sheltered, and even loved. They did not question who took care of them. They would follow you anywhere. I think that from them, I could see Jesus as a nurturing and loving shepherd to those that accepted him. Sometimes there is freedom in just accepting this unconditional love and have trust that we are being led on a safe path.”
Trust. Psalm 23 is known as a “trust Psalm.” It is sometimes difficult to trust people, even when they offer help, even — or maybe especially — when we desperately need help. Deep in our psyche, we need to know that we don’t walk through darkness alone, and that our loved ones, when they are facing the ultimate unknown, that they, too, are not alone. When you find a person or power who merits that kind of trust, you flock toward them. That’s what Jesus is talking about in the discussion on the Temple porch when he said, “They know my voice.”
When you’re going through a rough period — whether it’s physical, emotional or financial — you long for a moment of calm and peace, when you don’t have to struggle, just to breathe or just to pay your bills. When I had pneumonia, I longed for just one night when I could breathe well enough to sleep.
When my ex-husband got laid off the first time, I longed for some assurance that we could survive on my salary and that he would get another job soon.
When I sat by my stepfather Don’s bedside as he made the difficult decision to stop dialysis treatments to, in his words, “speed things up,” I longed for the words to strengthen and comfort him for the journey ahead, words that would strengthen my mother as well, as we sat in the hospital room discussing the implications of his — and her — decision.
“Yea, tho’ I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.” That’s why I memorized that psalm. But the other translations work too: “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.” What it says to me is that while we are confronted by these dark places, we can make it through to the other side. Having God with us on the journey helps us complete that walk.
And you know what? I recovered from pneumonia — not once but twice. And I’m constantly learning ways to live a healthier life. My ex-husband got another job, and several more after several more layoffs. And he retired with a pretty good pension. My current husband also survived a layoff and forced retirement. I’m not afraid of layoffs or lost jobs anymore.
And two years ago my mother gently departed this life to join Don and my father, having made that walk through the dark valley for the last time. And God is still with her.
That verse is probably the reason Psalm 23 is so often read at funerals and at bedsides of the sick and dying. But the psalm doesn’t stop there.
“You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me.” When I was a kid — probably 11 or 12 — when I first memorized this verse, I was puzzled. I interpreted enemies as bullies and who would want to eat when your enemies were watching you? What’s so great about that? I think one of my older brothers explained it to me. It’s the “nyah, nyah” factor, he said. I’m getting served and you aren’t. Nyah, nyah, nah, nah, Nah, nah.
But I see it in a different light now. Living as I have in a mostly peaceful country and neighborhood, where I don’t worry about enemies coming into my home to kill me or beat me up, my personal struggles with foes have been more about honor or shame than about physical violence.
And in a personal world where one can count on being reasonably safe physically, sometimes the worst enemies are the ones inside us, the voices that tell us we’re no good. The guilt within or the shame without that tells us we don’t measure up, we’re not a good person, we won’t ever amount to much.
Those enemies can be defeated by a good shepherd, a personal mentor or a higher power, who demonstrates otherwise. One who serves us a banquet and honors us with an overflowing cup and an anointment of oil right out in public, in front of those nay-sayers, those enemies of our well-being and our self-esteem. See, enemies? I’m somebody. God says so.
God doesn’t just provide us with rest and good water. God doesn’t just walk with us in the dark places. God honors us with a banquet right in front of those enemies who discount us as worthy human beings.
The translation that Hannah read today changes the last sentence about goodness and mercy. Hebrew scholars say “pursue” is the best translation for the word we probably memorized as “follow.” “I know that your goodness and love will pursue me all my life…”
If you think back to some of the other references to sheep and shepherds in scripture, you might recall the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 — safe in a sheepfold I assume — and goes out to find the wayward wanderer. That’s the way I read that line about God’s goodness and love pursuing us. If we stray from the path our shepherd has laid out for us — along the green pastures and through the dark places — God’s goodness and love will nonetheless pursue us and bring us back to God’s house. Calling again on Hebrew translation — the same Hebrew word refers to house or family. So we could interpret this as acknowledging that we are in God’s family forever.
I will draw on a Jewish traditional phrase from Passover. Dayenu. It would have been sufficient.
If God had just provided green pastures for us to rest in, Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;
if God had simply provided cool, quiet pools for us to drink from, Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;
if God had simply been present in our darkest moments, Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;
if God had shown our internal and external enemies that we are worthy, valuable people; Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;
Those each would have been sufficient. But God doesn’t wait for us to ask for this bountiful loving care. God’s goodness and love pursue us to try to ensure we get the message, that we are part of God’s family. Always.
And that would have been sufficient, for me to express what this psalm means for us each as individuals. But we are here in this congregation, about to say farewell to Pastor Mary, our earthly shepherd — God’s representative. We know God will walk with her; we’ve already had a taste of the table prepared for her, at the dinner last night, with the exception that I don’t think any enemies were there. We know she will be pursued by God’s goodness and love.
And so will we. God walks with us as a congregation. We listen to Jesus’ voice. He knows us and we will follow him. While we’re doing that, we can let the realization settle on us. No one will snatch us away from Jesus. We are members of God’s family, with a banquet prepared for us in the presence of our enemies, self-doubt, financial distress, feelings of abandonment. Our cup is filled, our heads are anointed.
And listen. Someone, somewhere, is hearing Jesus’ voice, the same one that said to Peter: Do you love me? Feed my sheep. That person is hearing Jesus say that about us. Feed my sheep at Epiphany.
Don’t look now, but I see goodness and love breathing down our necks. We’re being pursued.
So lie down in the green grass, see the banquet prepared before you, your cup filled to the brim, and enjoy. Dayenu. We belong to God and it is sufficient.
Praise God. Amen.