As people came into the service, they were handed a small piece of cardstock with the 23rd Psalm printed on it. Also, I have no idea why the spacing is so weird, but oh well I guess....
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
To be honest, I don’t know anything about sheep. But I do know a thing or two about cows. When I was a kid, I would love to help my dad let the cows out. Cows are definitely creatures of habit. They know when it’s time to go outside into the cow yard, and they know when it’s time to come back inside to eat – they are always waiting in a big crowd by the door to be let in, especially on a cold or rainy day.
Believe it or not, cows also know where to go once they are inside the barn. Every cow has its own spot and usually they go right to it, no problem. Unless of course there is a new cow that doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go. The cow will often stare at the newcomer in its spot like it doesn’t know what to do. So my dad has to come and poke the new one a bit to guide it into the correct spot. And after a few weeks the new one will remember it’s place. But my dad is always there to give some “persuasion” in the form of poke here and shove here, so that everyone can find the right place and get the food that they need.
Of what little I know about sheep, I think that they act the same way. They tend to follow whoever is in leading, putting a kind of blind trust whoever is at the front. If that person is kind and cares for the flock, he or she will lead the sheep to good pasture, clean water, and shelter. If that person does not care about the sheep, he or she could lead them into danger, or worse, abandon them all together at the first sign of trouble.
We are not unfamiliar with the second kind of shepherd - we hear about them all too often on the news or in newspapers. Just open up any newspaper or online news blog on any day of the week, and you’ll see nothing but this CEO embezzled from his company or that senator made a secret deal or the president of some foundation lied about something that was going on. And on and on.
We like to think that our leaders know what they are doing and have our best interests in mind when they make decisions that affect us. But that is our cow-nature talking.
Everybody is going to let you down at some point. Everyone you put your trust in is going to betray you. Maybe not today. And maybe not even on purpose. But it will happen, sooner or later.
I hate to say it, but even I will let you down sometimes. Four years of seminary doesn’t purge us of all our flaws. They don’t insert a “perfection chip” at our graduations. I am trying my best to love and serve this community as one of its shepherds, but I’m not going to “get it right” every time. Church leaders can make mistakes, just like everyone else. And often those times can feel even worse than when other kinds of leaders let us down.
There is one shepherd who will never lead us astray. He is the Good Shepherd; a shepherd so good that he would give everything, even lay down his own life for those who belong to him.
If we follow THIS shepherd, he will not steer us wrong. Even when you go through the darkest valley, you do not have to be afraid. Even when you are surrounded by enemies, you will be sheltered, and not want for anything.
But how can we sort out reality from campaign promises? What about when things go really wrong – how is God our Good Shepherd then?
The day after Easter, on April 9th, was the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor and a prophet during the time of Nazi Germany. It was easy to overlook in the festivities, but not long ago I read the most recent of his biographies. Bonhoeffer was a writer and pastor, and spent his life following Jesus and no one else. When the Nazi government began using churches to promote their own interests, Bonhoeffer opposed them in every way in his power. In his preaching and his teaching, he tirelessly worked to counter the Nazi message of racial superiority. Pretty soon, the government was putting pressure on him to stop.Just before the start of the Second World War, Bonhoeffer had an opportunity to come to the United States, to live here, until the danger to his life had passed. But, almost as soon as he arrived, he regretted his decision. Here he was in the US while his own “flock” back home was faced with ever increasing danger. How could he stay, safe and sound, while they suffered for the sake of the gospel? The answer was no, he could not. So he returned to his beloved homeland and later was hanged for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler. He was killed just weeks before the area was liberated by Allied soldiers.
Did the good shepherd let Bohoeffer down? From one angle, you could say that his devotion to Jesus lead Bonhoeffer straight to his death. You could say that the good shepherd lead a member of his flock away from safety and then abandoned him. Did the good shepherd lead him astray?
I think we might find the answer in Bonhoeffer’s own last words, which are reputed to be: “This is the end---but for me the beginning of life.”
Long ago, a writer of the psalms once wrote: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Most of the time, we hear the 23rd Psalm read at funerals. It is a beautiful psalm, a favorite for good reason. But this psalm is intended, not as a metaphor for death, but as a snapshot of life – of what life is like under the care of our Good Shepherd. Yes, death is a dark valley through which we all must pass. Before that, however, there are plenty of other dark valleys, plenty of enemies to face during this lifetime.
When we go through the dark valleys, evil will still be there. Bad things will still happen. There are still terrible injustices happening in the world. But we shall have no fear in the face of such evil. Why? Because we are in the fold of the Good Shepherd. Our enemies will still be present, sometimes surrounding us. But we will not be anxious. Why? Because our beloved shepherd-turned-gracious-host prepares a celebration banquet in our honor, and our cup of life is never to be found empty.Our Good Shepherd DID lay down his life for his sheep on Good Friday, and he picked it right back up again on Easter Sunday.
And when we follow such a shepherd, when we hear his voice and obey it, we may find ourselves laying down our lives for the sake of others. Not necessarily physically dying, but instead dying to our egos and our desire to follow more glamorous shepherds.
At this time, please take out the paper with the 23rd Psalm on it that your received as you walked in. As you receive it, take a look at it. It’s such a small, short looking psalm, but there is so much tucked into it. It’s not just about a dream that we have of what we think heaven might be like. It’s so much more than that. Instead, think of it as a blueprint for what life is like in God’s flock, with Jesus as our shepherd. When you get home, I encourage you to post it somewhere where you will see it and read it, at least once a day or more. And when you do see it and read it, reflect on what it means for you that Jesus has claimed you as one of his own. Ponder how your life has been shaped by your shepherd Jesus. Especially if you are currently in a dark valley or surrounded by enemies are longing for the green pastures and still waters. Or if you know a neighbor or friend who is going through one of these valleys themselves, maybe you are being shepherded to walk with them.
Let’s read this psalm out loud together as a statement of our faith, as our testimony to the world that our shepherd is indeed a good one.
“The Lord is my shepherd; he Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 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.” AMEN.