Taking the Shepherd's Lead
| Psalms 23
|Sun, April 25, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Not long ago I found myself about to lead the 23rd Psalm at a funeral service when I discovered that it had been inadvertently left out of the worship bulletin. Seeing that most of those present were the children of an earlier generation I invited them to join me: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul ...". Without missing a beat the whole gathering joined in one voice ... reciting this psalm learned ‘by heart’ decades ago. When I ask folk to name the biblical passage that speaks most powerfully to them ... their ‘favourite’ text. Psalm 23 is always at the top of the list. So, you would think that this psalm is a preacher’s delight. Well-loved. Well-known. None of the God of judgment. A God of loving care ... a shepherd who leads and a host who makes room at the table and in the household. To use basketball terminology, this should be a ‘slam dunk’ for any self-respecting preacher.
Think again. Last Tuesday evening our youngest was heading to bed when she joined her siblings as they watched the news from Littleton, Colorado. Later, unable to fall asleep, she wanted to know if such violence could ever occur here ... in our high school. How is a parent to respond? You find yourself tempted to say: "Don’t worry, dear. Canada is a much safer country. It won’t happen here". But you know that you cannot give such guarantees. Littleton is not different from Crescent Beach or University Hill. Who knows when or where evil may break out in the most unsuspecting of communities or families or even children? Our children understand this ... even if we claim otherwise. Witness those already planning to camp outside theatres all over North America next month, waiting to view the long awaited new installment of Star Wars. The movie portrays the origins of Darth Vader as a young boy named Anakin Skywalker. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars series says that the six movies together are about "how young Anakin Skywalker became evil and then was redeemed by his son". In the midst of a galaxy of great beauty and wonder, evil emerges in the most innocent of children. One wonders what it means to recite and to preach and to teach our children: "Yea, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil".
Fear no evil? In this world ... or the world of Star Wars? Beyond the sentimental Sunday School pictures of the ‘Good Shepherd’ lies the real world of evil that comes masked in so many different forms: greed, addiction, violence and more. Mike Chiasson sends a note reporting that he and Frances will be singing the ‘Chichester Psalms’ with the Jubilate! Chamber Choir this afternoon at Temple Shalom. He points to the second Chichester Psalm which begins with the women singing (in Hebrew) Psalm 23. But then, in the midst of this lovely pastoral psalm, the men barge in singing Psalm 2. Remember how Psalm 2 opens? "Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves ... against the Lord". There is something right about the dissonance of these two psalms sung ‘in competition’. The 23rd Psalm’s image of green pastures and still waters must always live in tension with the pictures from the nightly news ... images of refugees fleeing their burning homes and scenes of children fleeing from the battle zone that is their high school. It is not a simple melody but a strangely dissonant song that we sing to God.
And the dissonance is not restricted to a single verse. It emerges throughout even the most beloved refrains. "The Lord is my shepherd". So simple. So straightforward. Or is it? Think again. My shepherd. My protector. My caregiver. The one who watches out for me. We like this aspect of the metaphor. But being like sheep in need of a shepherd? Sheep are not well known for their high intelligence! They get lost. They do not function well on their own. They are led astray with ease. Hence their need of a leader ... a shepherd ... who will take responsibility for guiding and directing and protecting them. Do you hear how out of step this sounds in a culture which treats the right of individual choice as paramount? Listen to how many parents say: "I want my child to decide for themselves what they will believe". Yet those who recite the 23rd Psalm foster another way of seeing themselves and the world. They imagine that we do not know enough to able to choose for ourselves. They believe that humans are more like sheep than we care to admit. They see nations going astray in their foreign policy and families getting lost without any one to guide them in right paths. Singing this ancient wisdom in the modern world sets such people apart.
It sets them apart because their shepherd is the Lord. The Lord is not a generic ‘God’ ... not some mysterious ‘Force’. In Hebrew the Psalm begins "Yahweh is my shepherd". To sing this psalm is to commit oneself to following Yahweh’s lead in the world. It is to give up on making one’s own way in the world. And it is to reject the leadership of all other shepherds who would claim to show us the way to greener pastures. It is as if the psalm is the response to a question ... namely "Which shepherd do you follow?". To which the answer is: "The Lord ... Yahweh ... is my shepherd". It leaves an unspoken, implied question: "And who is your shepherd?". In the ancient world such metaphors were commonplace. In those days nations from Assyria to Greece referred to their rulers and kings as "the shepherds" of the people. We hear the 23rd Psalm and are tempted to imagine an individual speaking of their personal relationship with their shepherd Lord. But they heard this Psalm and first imagined an entire nation speaking of its reliance on its shepherd leader. This is precisely how early Christians understood these verses. There in the ancient catacombs of Rome one can see this favourite symbol of the Good Shepherd painted and carved on tomb after tomb. When they said "The Lord is my shepherd" they remembered that Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). They retold the parable of the shepherd who sought out the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-6). And they heard Jesus say to them: "Do not be afraid, little flock" (Luke 12:32) ... "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:1-10). To say "The Lord is my shepherd" is to say that I will follow where the God revealed in Christ leads ... not only when he leads to green pastures and still waters but even when he leads through righteous paths that take us through the valley of the shadow of suffering and despair. Just when reciting "the Lord is my shepherd" begins to comfort and set us at ease it challenges us to follow the Lord where he will lead us ... even to the foot of a cross.
Because the valley that is shadowed by a cross is also the Lord’s green pasture. Even here, in a grief stricken world, the Good Shepherd sets the table and hosts a lost, hungry people. Notice how the metaphor shifts ... from shepherd to host, from pasture to table. The pasture of the Good Shepherd is, at the same time, the Household of God. No wonder each local unit of the United Church of Canada is called a ‘pastoral charge’. We might just as well call them a ‘flock of the Good Shepherd’. Luke describes how the first disciples embodied the pastoral care of Christ’s pasture: "All who believed were in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need ... they broke bread at home with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:42-47). Feel the dissonance once more. We recite "The Lord is my shepherd" and too easily forget that the shepherd’s care is to be take flesh in our life together. This means more than a pastoral visit here there. It means building a community of care in which no member of the flock is lost or forgotten. It means preparing the table for all who hunger. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies". In the presence of enemies? More dissonance. Enemies? During the blitz of the second World War this text became a favourite passage in London churches at communion. The table set in the presence of enemies. To strengthen us in the face of evil, perhaps ... or maybe to welcome my enemies to break bread with us at the table of the Lord. If you had wandered into St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church at lunchtime this past week you would have been witness to a remarkable sight. There you would have found a curious gathering made up of native men, visiting Vancouver to attend the trial in which they are suing the United Church, eating with United Church members and leaders. Enemies in court, each day has found the two groups building community at the table over lunch. One of the men said "I never would have imagined entering a United Church of my own free will to eat a meal with you ... this must be a part of our healing journey." Suddenly the table ‘set in the presence of enemies’ takes on a whole new meaning. It is no longer a table of resistance ... it has become a table of reconciliation.
Perhaps you have noticed. Singing or saying or preaching the 23rd Psalm is not as simple as it appears at first glance. Just when we begin to sing "The Lord is my shepherd" the world barges in with "Why do the nations rage". The sweet song of faith is rudely interrupted by the ‘real world’. But then the world’s raging voice is somehow soothed ... assuaged ... by the song of faith. That is how the Chichester Psalms tell the story. And Star Wars says it, too. In the end, the good side of the ‘Force’ overcomes the darkness. And this cosmic battle is played out in this simple Psalm. Notice how it occurs whenever you recite the 23rd Psalm. It begins as a description: "The Lord is my shepherd ... he maketh me ... he leadeth me". But then it changes and becomes something else. No longer are we describing God ... now we are in a living conversation with the Good Shepherd: "for thou art with me ... thou preparest a table ... thou anointest my head". Thou. To sing this song is to enter into a new world ... a ‘real world’ in which there is a trusted ‘Thou’ to address. In reciting the 23rd Psalm we are drawn into addressing the Shepherd and Host it describes. Saying the words makes this pastoral, hospitable world a reality. We know this intuitively. A pastor tells a familiar story. He describes Beth, a woman severely crippled by a stroke, able only to communicate with nods and moans. When she wants to communicate with him, he points to letters on a child’s slate. Is it in this line? She shakes her head "No". Is it in this one? She nods "Yes". "Is it M? Is it N? Is it O? Is it P?". The letter is ‘P’. And then ‘S’. And ‘2'. And ‘3'. Usually her message is "PS 23". She wants him to recite the 23rd Psalm. Because to do so is to enter into a world in which paralysis and pain, in which loss and evil do not have the final word ... a world in which the Lord is our shepherd ... a world in which we no longer live in fear. The world of the 23rd Psalm is an Easter world of life beyond the shadow of death. It is an Easter world in which we are no longer dogged by fate but are pursued, instead, by goodness and mercy. Imagine looking back over your shoulder expecting that trouble with a capital ‘T’ is gaining on you only to discover that you are, instead, being chased by a posse made up of the goodness and mercy of God. Imagine that no matter how far you stray from the flock, you are sought after by the Good Shepherd until you are found, saved, brought home. Imagine that, once found, we belong in the flock who follow wherever the shepherd leads. Then imagine that this is what it means to be saved from death and despair by the good news of the gospel. Yes, imagine that.