The Lord is my shepherd?
April 26, Fourth Sunday of Easter:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
The Lord is my shepherd…
So familiar…so comforting…like a warm fuzzy blanket…
Unless I really stop to think about it.
The Lord is my shepherd…means I’m a sheep.
I don’t want to be a sheep.
Sheep are smelly…and dirty…and easily frightened.
They’re not very bright…just following along with the rest of the flock…
I’m not like that…or…I don’t want to be like that.
I want to be in control of my life.
Make my own decisions…
Having a shepherd means someone else is responsible for you.
It means being dependent.
Which means admitting that I can’t quite take care of myself.
I don’t like that either.
I want to be independent.
Stand on my own two feet.
Not a sheep.
I have to confess…I’ve had trouble with Psalm 23.
Ever since I was young.
I wonder if our culture doesn’t have trouble with this psalm…
Being sheep-like is not something we readily embrace…
Being dependent is not something we like to admit about ourselves…
That first line…The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.
When I was a kid I didn’t understand this line.
I didn’t hear it as the Lord is my shepherd: Therefore I have everything I need.
I heard it like, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want (him to be that).
Like I was bound to resist this shepherd/sheep relationship.
I shall not want…not now…not in the future.
It was confusing, but I wonder how many of us still struggle with the idea of God being our shepherd?
Of there being someone whom we are completely dependent upon.
Someone we are supposed to turn our lives completely over to.
I bet most of us don’t like that idea much.
Being dependent is not a value we lift up in this world.
We prefer being independent.
We like having others depend on us…it’s good to feel needed.
I know that when I hear this gospel passage about the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep…
I very often leap to: Oh that’s what I’m supposed to do to…
I’m supposed to be willing to lay down my life for all those I’m responsible for…
all those who depend on me…
all of MY sheep…
And that’s a good and laudable thing, to lay down your life for someone else…most of us would want to be able to do that if required.
But did you notice what happened there?
Suddenly I’m the shepherd…willing to lay down my life…and feels better to me…stronger…because like I said, I don’t want to be a sheep.
And since I don’t want to be a sheep, I don’t need a shepherd.
I don’t want a shepherd…I want to BE a shepherd.
But what if my refusal to be a sheep—my insistence that I’m not a sheep…not dependent…not vulnerable…
What if my refusal to see the value in being vulnerable means that I’m also unable to see the God-given value in everyone…whether they are part of my flock or not?
Other parts of the psalm unsettle me, too…
He makes me lie down in green pastures
Makes me? Why don’t I want to lie down in green pastures? OK, on most days I probably don’t.
For one thing, I’ve got too many things to do. I don’t have time to laze around…eating delicious wholesome food and getting plenty of rest.
We live in a culture that doesn’t just demand but actually glorifies working 70 80 or more hours a week.
How many of us only slow down when we get sick?
And how many of us keep working even when we’re sick?
How many of us only stop working when we’re finally so sick we can’t physically drag ourselves into work?
I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Ever hear that?
Ever said it?
I wonder if that’s why we use Psalm 23 at funerals so often.
How many of us take a Sabbath?
A day of rest…a day when we put down our busyness and live in God’s graciousness…a day when we can lie down in green pastures…sit beside still waters…just be… with our families and friends…just be with God…no demands…no schedule…and allow ourselves to become aware of just how completely dependent we are on God?
A space where we can remember how vulnerable & blessed we all are?
Another phrase that rankles:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, or in some translations: let goodness and kindness pursue me…
Why am I constantly running ahead of goodness and kindness and mercy?
Why can’t I slow down, and walk with goodness…let kindness be my constant companion…move at the pace of mercy?
Is it because the rest of the flock is surging ahead…trying to get to the next new thing…trying to get there ahead of everyone else…
Are we moving so fast that we forget those who can’t move as quickly, don’t get along as well, those who require more care…are we so consumed with filling up with the world’s goods that we can’t fill our own souls?
Are we racing ahead in an attempt to escape our vulnerability?
Am I a sheep?
Of course, I am.
I go along with the herd…
I’m not always so bright…
I get frightened.
I react out of habit.
I don’t want to…
I don’t want to be a sheep…
but I know that sometimes I am…
Jesus must have recited this psalm.
Many, many times in his life…
I wonder if he found it comforting?
I wonder if he ever struggled with it?
In John’s account Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd…but when he was off by himself all those times…praying…maybe praying this psalm…
I wonder if praying this psalm helped Jesus fully and completely accept the Lord—God—as his shepherd. Helped him turn his life completely over to God’s will.
Because Jesus is completely transparent to God’s will…
He opens himself to vulnerability…the vulnerability of those who come to him…and he consistently reminds them that it is…their story…their openness to being vulnerable…their recognition of their dependence…their bold sheepishness…their faith…that makes them well.
Jesus turned his entire life over to God.
He was a sheep.
Led to slaughter.
And God brought back his life.
Just as God can and will bring all of us back to life.
No matter what dark valley we find ourselves in.
Jesus must have prayed “The Lord is my shepherd…”
Jesus is both sheep and shepherd.
And if we are to follow him, I don’t think we can be one without also being the other.
We can’t be a shepherd, unless we’re also sheep.
We can’t tend the frightened and vulnerable unless we can somehow touch the fear and vulnerability in ourselves.
And today as we welcome a new sheep into the fold through baptism, it’s worth asking what kind of world do we want her to grow up in? One where we are consuming and consumed, or one where we a tended and tending?
I don’t want to be a sheep…but if I’m honest I have to admit that I am…I don’t always recognize those green pastures…but I want to…I want to take time for them…
I know that out of fear and anxiety I get too far ahead of goodness and kindness…but I want to slow down and walk with them…I want to learn the rhythm of mercy…
I know that I resist those pathways of justice…but I want to walk them…I want to become a shepherd…a good shepherd…and so I need to be a sheep.
Lord, teach me how to be a sheep, and help me to let you be my shepherd.