The Lord is my Shepherd ...
The 23rd psalm is probably one of the most well-known, and beloved, passages of Scripture out there. Families who know nothing else about the Episcopal funeral liturgy request it by name. You see it read on television. You find it on art plaques sold in card stores. When I went to college, my resident advisor had a bookmark with the 23rd psalm taped to her dorm door. It is everywhere.
And I don't get it.
Because, if we worship the Lord as our Shepherd, it means we are sheep.
And, I don't think most of us enjoy thinking of ourselves as sheep. I mean, go ahead, try it. Tonight, call one of your siblings on the phone, and ask, "How's it going, you old sheep?" and see how they respond. Or go to work, and tell your boss, "You have sheep-like skills."
You won't get a good response.
We don't like to be thought of as followers, generally. Or as creatures who stick with the familiar. We also don't like the idea of being penned in, like in a sheep fold. We often characterize ourselves as individualists, independent, explorers. To see what's out there, and to test it ourselves. To get as far beyond the gate as we can.
Making life very difficult for any shepherd.
Can you imagine what it's like to be that sheep? What would he say, if he could talk? I imagine, it might go something like this:
" It’s true what they say, you know.
The grass is greener on the other side.
Tastier, too. Comes from not being trampled by all the other sheep in the flock.
It’s fresh, pristine.
Except for that plant. Ugh, what was that?
Nevertheless, I’m glad I got away from the flock.
They always followed the rules, stayed in the fold. How boring.
I never got to do anything by myself.
I am an individual, you know, even if I do look just like all the other sheep.
So now I am out on my own, in charge of my own destiny.
As it’s getting dark.
And that plant I ate really isn’t sitting well.
I wonder if the flock is still where I left them?
Have they even noticed I’m gone?
Maybe they’re glad – I was a bit of a rebel.
There’s more grass for them, now that I’m gone.
What was that noise?
Oh, wait. It’s the shepherd.
He’s calling me. By name.
He knows who I am, even though I do look like all the other sheep.
And he’s come back for me, even though he knows I’m a bit of a rebel.
He’s bringing me home."
That's why the Good Shepherd is such an enduring, beloved image of Jesus, I think. Because, deep in our hearts, we want to know that we always have a home. A place where we can be safe, and nourished, no matter what is going on outside in the world.
This is what characterized the early Church, as we hear in Acts. That the people devoted themselves to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayers. That they found that coming together, regularly, for worship and study and community, nourished them, and made them feel safe. Safe enough to trust each other with their goods and their money. To build a community together, where everyone was cared for. Where they could remind each other about how they ought to live, and encourage each other to become the people God was calling them to be. No matter what.
Do we get that same nourishment, today? When we gather in this place to break bread together, or gather downstairs for fellowship in the form of coffee and donuts, or for teaching, in adult forum, or some other group - does it give us strength, and courage, to face the week ahead? Or, do we feel hemmed in, restless, wishing we were out there, in the world, exploring greener pastures with more exciting creatures? Or do we feel that we have left the fold, and the Shepherd won't recognize us when we return?
Have we, like the fictional sheep, begun to feel frightened, or ill, from what we have found outside the fold?
Much as I think that the world trivializes the Good Shepherd, He still holds a very special place in my heart. There was a time when he got me through.
At about 9:30 on September 11, 2001, I walked into the office where I worked part-time, and was greeted by a colleague who asked me, "Did you hear what happened?" We were working in Washington, DC, about four blocks from the White House. The next hour we waited for our boss to come in, and we were inundated with news - mostly misinformation - and telephone calls - mostly people checking to see if we were okay. We didn't know what was happening, and we couldn't evacuate without word from our boss. And we couldn't reach our boss because the phone systems were overloaded. Little did we realize that she was driving in with her wife that morning, and literally saw the Pentagon go up in her rear view mirror.
When she finally arrived, she almost immediately told us to leave. I walked back to the Metro, fearing for what might be coming. And yet, in the midst of all of that, I sang. I sang "The Lord is my shepherd, I'll not want" - a version of the 23rd psalm I learned in high school. And it brought me peace.The lectionary had appointed the parable of the Good Shepherd the following Sunday in church, and we sang a different version of the 23rd psalm as our communion hymn. I can tell you now that it took about two years before I could sing any version of the 23rd psalm without crying. But it was okay. Because I was in church. I was in a community, that broke bread together, and prayed together. A group of people, who, like a flock of sheep, stayed with each other through thick and thin. We supported each other, and shone forth God’s love. Once we were ready, as a flock we could move out, and share with others the abundance God had given to all. Because we followed the Good Shepherd, knowing that no matter how bad things got, the Good Shepherd would lead give us life.