April 26, 2015
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” This is possibly the best known phrase in the whole Bible. Even non-church goers can often quote sections of the 23rd psalm. And among the faithful, it is certainly a favorite. When I visit people in the hospital or other stressful situations and ask if they would like to hear something from the Bible, they often suggest I read this psalm, though they sometimes can recite it by heart. It is requested at most funerals I do. I am not sure exactly what the attraction is, but somehow people really resonate to the images of security and safety it conjures up.
Now, I don’t know much about sheep or shepherds, and I do know and appreciate a good dinner party. That is why, for me, the more powerful part of this psalm is this line, “He sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This week at our Wed. Bible study we talked about how completely we would have to trust our shepherd to be on guard and in control in order to be relaxed enough to pause for a meal in the presence of our enemies.
Many years ago, when I was really struggling with depression, my spiritual director asked me to close my eyes and see this part of the psalm in my own life. She asked what I saw. I described a formal dining room with white linen table cloths and silver candlesticks. She asked what was being served at the banquet. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember all of it, but I know there was a nice gooey baked brie, and some chocolate, and a good cabernet in fine crystal.
Knowing that the psalm says this meal would be eaten in the company of my enemies, she asked who I saw sitting around the table with me. It was clear to me that at that time, Self-doubt, hopelessness, and my most severe Inner critic were sitting with me, threatening my peace, my wellbeing, my life. I described them to her. And she reminded me that they were not the only guests at this meal. Jesus was also present, and Jesus would shelter me from the power of these demons. As we sang in Marty Haugen’s version of Psalm 23 a short while ago, “He has set me a banquet of love in the face of hatred.”
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, provides for every need the sheep might have, even at the cost of his own life. I know that the picture many of us conjure up when we hear the title Good Shepherd for Jesus is the Sunday school picture we remember from childhood—an anemic-looking Jesus with perfect wavy hair in a very clean white robe holding a very clear, very white lamb in a valley of lush green grass. And if that is all there is to our Good Shepherd, it’s no wonder people look elsewhere for strength and courage. We don’t see any wolves in that picture, nor are there jagged rocks on which the sheep could be injured.
That is not our real lives. Our real lives have sharp corners and deep holes around the bend. There are tricky relationships and difficult medical procedures. There are financial struggles and loneliness. Sometimes there are dramatic calamities, like the havoc wreaked on the people of Nepal in this weekend’s earthquake, or the horrors of war or other extreme violence. These things are real, and a pretty Jesus in a white robe seems no match for such threats.
Maybe that’s why my favorite depiction of the 23rd Psalm is not in a green valley and does not include a shepherd or any sheep. It is a postcard I bought in WY over 20 years ago. It is brown and white, like an old-time photo, and the scene is a blizzard. In the center of the photograph is a cowboy on a horse. The horse is up to its knees in snow. You can’t see the cowboy’s face, because he’s riding uphill against the blowing snow, so his hat is pulled low over his face. But in the center of the picture, looking straight out at us, is a young calf draped over the cowboy’s shoulders.
It is clear to me what is happening in this scene. It is obvious that the cowboy is risking his own life in order to rescue this little calf who must have gotten stranded, and would not have survived the storm. This is a very strong image of the Good Shepherd—this photo of the Good Cowboy—and it is speaks to me clearly about how Jesus partners with us in the deepest darkest valleys of life. When we are stranded and afraid, helpless and weak, Jesus comes to us and picks us up and carries us home. No matter who or what else is around us or seems to have abandoned us, no matter how hard the snow is blowing or the enemies glare across the banquet table at us, God will hold us close.
Our Good Shepherd is not meek and mild, but wields a rod and a staff. A rod for beating away the predators and a staff for pulling us back from dangerous ledges or out of thorny brambles. Our Good Shepherd is not only gracious but also tough. I think the church word for that is “almighty.” And that might is used not against us, but for us. We are God’s own, and God will defend us against anything that makes us forget or doubt that identity.
The more we are able to rest in that truth for ourselves, the more we are able to share it with one another, and with “other sheep who are not yet in this fold,” as Jesus puts it. In our epistle reading for today, we are encouraged to love each other not only in word and speech but in truth and action. Jesus has named and claimed us as part of his flock, so we can hold our heads up high, and look out for the others, knowing to whom we belong.
How can we call ourselves Christian if we do not care for the poor and needy? the writer of 1 John asks. If we are following Jesus, we will live as he did—not safely but well. Not a life of luxury and ease, but one full of the meaning that comes from self-sacrifice, generosity, caring, forgiving, loving. This is what it means lay down our lives for one another—being willing to give up our own comfort in order to ensure that those who are suffering see the face of God.
I am so grateful to belong to a faith community that takes this message to heart. Even now, Lutheran Disaster Relief is on the ground in Nepal, helping with the relief efforts, because congregations like this one give our tithes and offerings. The ELCA’s Malaria Campaign is sending mosquito nets by the barrel full to places where the deadly disease can be prevented. This synod has thriving food pantries for hungry people, actively seeks to welcome refugees from places of conflict, and partners with local government to provide assistance to people who are homeless. And on a smaller scale, but no less significantly to those involved, 3 generous donations to our Needy Fund in the past week enabled this congregation to help 15 families keep their electricity on and a roof over their heads. Love in truth and action.
We loved because God first loved us. We can shepherd others because we have been shepherded. We rejoice because no matter what dark valleys we encounter, we know that God goes through them with us, carrying us when necessary.
Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider