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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

All I Need to Know!

Psalm 23
Grace, mercy and peace be yours and mine through our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

Back when I was a lay Sunday School teacher I decided to have my young class memorize one of the most quoted passages in the Bible - Psalm 23.
I gave my young charges a month to learn the psalm. I figured it would be a good exercise for these little ones not only to learn this beloved psalm for themselves, but to study and maybe even discuss with their parents, which I encouraged. Because who doesn’t love Psalm 23, right?
Well, little Jason was excited about the task - but he just couldn't remember the Psalm. After much practice, he could barely get past the first line.
On the day that the children were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Jason was so nervous; so I encouraged him, and prompted him, and developed a back-up plan, in case he should just not be able to come through. But when it was his turn, surprisingly, he stepped up to the lectern with great confidence. I was thrilled to see his self-assurance. When he spoke into the microphone, it was with conviction; in a loud, clear voice, he recited, 'The Lord is my Shepherd, and that's all I need to know.' And he promptly sat down.
That could have been, and perhaps should have been, the sermon for the day. For what else is there that we need to say? What else is there to know, with true conviction and blessed assurance, than the truth that the Lord truly is our shepherd. There is nothing more that we could possibly want. Right?
Trusting that God will shepherd us, that Jesus cares for us, that the Lord provides for our every need is so vital to our understanding of who God is and how God works, that although our lectionary system mixes things up so that lessons are rotated and we hear different lessons on parallel Sundays from year to year, in each year this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is always celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday.
And, no matter what our other shepherd-themed readings for this day might be in any given year, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, we always read Psalm 23.
Most of us love the imagery this psalm offers us – cooling, trickling streams of water, verdant pastures and hillsides, a feast, an over-running cup, and accompaniment and care during the deepest, darkest times of our lives.
God’s promise of comfort, provision, security, goodness and mercy are important to hear and to acknowledge. They are vital words of consolation and solace during the struggles and losses of life. It’s why in most circumstances this psalm is read or recited at funerals – at times of great grief and uncertainty we need to hear about this good shepherd who provides living water and life in the midst of death and decay.
But is that all this psalm provides for us? Is that all that the Lord is saying to us through these traditional words of reassurance and blessing? I think not.
I think that while this psalm is meaningful to us and holds great value, appropriately so, in its traditional uses, it has much more to say to us than is typically ascribed to it. Because really, while the imagery used is beautiful, is it relevant to most of us today?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t see many sheep running our neighborhood here, or in my neighborhood on the other side of Easton, Maryland. I don’t see many shepherds roaming my neighborhood looking for lost sheep though I am sure that metaphorically, there are many of us to be found.
Except for the few who actually do live in the rural parts of our country and even fewer who do raise sheep, most of us have little contact or true experience with sheep.
What we do “know” of them comes from what we have heard about them – that they aren’t very intelligent creatures, that they wander off rather regularly, that they are easily led astray. I don’t know how much of that is even accurate – perhaps there is a kernel of truth in those characterizations, but I’m not so sure.
However, when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd who looks after his sheep, we think of ourselves as possessing many of the same characteristics as the sheep of our understanding – while we may be intelligent, we are often unwise – we are sometimes easily led astray – as just as often, on our own we are likely to stray from the path the God desires for our good and the good of God’s mission and kingdom.
But the image of the Good Shepherd, is one that prevails and comforts – it is a sweet image of loving protection and gentle guidance for all those times we find ourselves in danger.
I was reminded recently, however, that the shepherd’s crook is used in two ways; it has two useful ends. On one end there is a crook, useful for drawing the wandering, unwise sheep away from danger; the other end makes a good poker – it is good for prodding sheep in the way that they should go.
Jesus, the good shepherd, does both these things as well. While Jesus is constantly and consistently working through the Holy Spirit to draw us to himself, to draw us into lives of discipleship, and into ministry in his name, Jesus is also constantly and consistently poking us, often agitating, sending us out to graze in new pastures, to take on new ministries, to embrace the new life that is all around us, life that is present and ongoing through Jesus himself.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who is eternally drawing us in to hold us, while at the same time, is unfailingly challenging us to go where perhaps we really don’t want to go. The same God who created us, who fashioned us in God’s own image, who has known us since even before we were being knit in our mothers’ womb, knows thoroughly our potential and urges us toward God’s own vision and plan for our lives, our being, and our future.
There is a tension in that reality. 

We like the image of the Good Shepherd who looks after us, who guides us toward living streams of water and keeps us safe. We like the idea of a God who will be with us through every dark valley, fear, and dangerwe confront. We embrace the saving aspect of this shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
But, the other aspect of the shepherd? The one who pokes, prods, pushes and agitates? Not so much. If God wants to pursue me to call me back when I have strayed, well, that might be okay.
If God wants to grab me with the hook part of the staff to draw me away from danger, well, that’s alright too, although admittedly I may at times come kicking and screaming, because I don’t necessarily see the danger or understand the risk.
But God’s relentless pursuit, which inspired John Calvin to characterize God as “the hound of heaven?” I’m not sure I like that side of God so much. That God is a demanding God, a persistent God who doesn’t take “no” as a “final answer.”
The truth and beauty found in this psalm lie in this parallel – evil and sin truly do exist in our world today, and in our lives, and they do surround us. In this post-modern culture in which we live, speaking in such terms has gone out of vogue.
But the reality of our lives, is that we are constantly tempted through media, through consistent focus on materialism, through cultural insistence on what holds value in life and what does not.
The things of value are typically described as power, wealth, beauty, instant gratification, status, and belonging. We are bombarded by rhetoric that insists that lives in religious community hold no value and to “belong” to such a community is just folly, that the belonging we seek should be our place in the world as defined by those qualities I just mentioned.
Into this wilderness of confusion, the psalmist makes the startling claim that God restores the soul – the troubled, struggling, lost and wandering soul. Did you know that nefesh -  the word usually translated as “soul” here, in Hebrew actually refers to “life breath,” or life? It is the very breath breathed into us by God’s Spirit, the very essence of being.
“The image is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life” writes biblical scholar Robert Alter.
God brings us back to life. Not only in the sense of the eternal life after death that we ascribe to the meaning of these promises, but true, living, breathing, life. Life that is evident through action, here. Now.
This psalm has become our standard - we fear no evil because we trust in God. Trust trumps fear. In the deepest darkest times of our lives, through the confusion and turmoil of competing claims about God and about life itself, despite all that seeks to draw us away from God and therefore closer to death, we are assured through the words and imagery of this psalm and through the image of the Good Shepherd that God preserves and protects us from harm not only for our sake, but more importantly for God’s sake.
This promise is made for the here and now. God’s stake is claimed for our living. God’s crook and staff draw us in as God’s own, and then poke us and prod us to truly live as God’s people, fearing no evil, for the crook is poised to claim us should we falter. Because God is a true and just God, God’s shepherding acts testify to the Lord’s inordinate, steadfast love.
In the gospel today as Jesus follows up his response to the Jews about his identity, he states, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; …..My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
Let us truly follow this Shepherd then, sent by God. Let us trust that this Shepherd leads us to true life – that is, leads us into the way of living as disciples, trusting and knowing that the Good Shepherd leads us into the way of streams of living water and lives of bountiful service in the name of Christ.
Then may we, like Jason, with full confidence and blessed assurance, proclaim, “the Lord is my Shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”

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