Reflections from Sunday, May 7/17
May 7, 2017
As I was preparing for this morning and thinking about that special relationship between sheep and their shepherd, I couldn’t help but think of all those pictures I had seen over the years, of the shepherd and the sheep. You know the pictures I mean, some are more pastoral than others, some have a very tame looking, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, some are more rustic and ruffled looking. But this idea of Jesus as our shepherd, and of God’s role in our lives as a guiding and directing force, has been around, well, around for a very long time. And, I suspect this sheep-shepherd idea has been so central in our understanding of God as it speaks to something very deep within us, to some need, in what can be a lot of chaos that life can throw before us, to if not totally grasp all that is unfolding in our lives, to at least believe that we do not face life on our own.
While decidedly not an expert on the topic of sheep, we do all hold certain understandings of what we could say are the characteristics of sheep.
We might first think of them as sweet, innocent, simple kind of creatures in need of some gentle guidance and direction from time to time, and while that is certainly true they are so much more. I am told, sheep are of a gregarious nature…that is they love to be with the herd.
They must have a leader (shepherd) and must be told what to do and where to go, otherwise they’ll wander off and get lost. They are also timid, fearful, easily panicked, gullible, and vulnerable to fear; they stampede easily and are given to mob psychology.
They possess little or no means of self-defense, other than running away, and are easy prey for their enemies. Did you know they can also be quite competitive for dominance, very undiscriminating about their food or water, sometimes even eating poisonous plants or drinking from unclean water sources?
They can be stubborn, insistent on their own way, easily flipped over (cast), especially when loaded down by the weight of their own wool, unable to right themselves on their own, yet hating to be sheared and cleaned. They need their shepherd to calm them, to guide them, to feed them and to lead them. And for all that we might say about a sheep that could be considered uncomplimentary, what they do have going in their favour, without a doubt, is that they recognize that the essence of their relationship with their shepherd is based on familiarity, familiarity and trust.
They know who is theirs and they know who to follow, because he has never let them down in the past, and they can only assume he will go on caring for them.
The fact that sheep recognize their shepherd and will not follow a stranger is echoed in our Gospel reading this morning. Of course, during the day the different shepherds guide and direct their flocks to various fields and streams so that they can get the grass that they need, going through a certain coordinated rotation, but at the end of the day, shepherds lead their sheep from all of these different pastures to a common gated area called a sheepfold. There, one shepherd protects all of the sheep until the next day when each shepherd returns to collect their own sheep. The Shepherds do this, by entering the sheepfold in the morning, via the gate; they then move among the sheep, and it is at that point that the sheep recognize and follow only their shepherd.
They may not be terribly bright, but they know to whom they belong and that just has to be a gift. They know who has fed, and led and guided them, and simple creatures that they are, they are confident that this person will continue to do this for them.
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 23, is also a classic, well known to us, and likely one we may even know by heart. It is a Psalm all about God’s care for us, through both provision and protection. But what is it about this Psalm that has such an impact upon us, and indeed has had upon so many for more than 3000 years?
It seems to me that the Psalms are striving to speak to us on more of an emotional than a logical level, taking something of a direct, straightforward approach to life.
No mincing of words, love, hate, revenge, its all there, laid out before us, sometimes rather violently, spread before us, the full pallet of human emotion with universal appeal.
While true in many of the psalms, this psalm in particular invites to recognize a key point in life, and that is that our immediate circumstances are not all there is, and certain, not the end of the story. The psalm reminds us that no matter what is going on, there is more to this life than the now. It is a reminder that it is ultimately God who provides, nourishes, and comforts us in our times of trouble, and that this provision goes beyond just the immediate but pursues us “all the days of our lives.
Rabbi Kushner, who has written all about how we deal with pain and suffering in our lives, tells us in his writings that the twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question,”How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?”
He goes on to say that he was inspired to write all of my books, starting with WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, by the death of his son, who was 14 years old and was born with an incurable illness. He recalled asking himself, how did he and his wife get through that? You would think that this difficult, heart wrenching situation shatter the faith of the average person. Where did they find the strength and the ability to raise their son, to comfort him when he was sick and scared, and ultimately to lose him? And he concluded that the only answer is, that when they had used up all of their own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenished their love and their strength and their faith. God gave them more, so that they could give more.
So when we read Psalm 23 often at a funeral or in any other season of distress and anguish, in many ways we are moving from our unspoken laments to our confession of trust. “I’m not certain about what is going on in my life, but the Lord is my shepherd.”
“I may be struggling to make ends meet, but I will not lack.” “I might have trouble sleeping because of everything going on, but God causes me to lay down in good pastures.” “Storms and tsunamis and hurricanes may bring damage to life and limb, but God will lead me to still waters.” “I might be beaten down and hurt and broken right now, but my very being will be restored.”
So if you ever feel you need a nice green pasture to relax in beside a clear, clean spring, or perhaps your soul needs reviving, or you are stuck in “the valley of the shadow,” and all the exit signs are obscured, be expectant … there is a rod and staff not far away about to give you a yank, wait for it … as God steps in to those shadows, not with lots explanations, or justifications, but rather with comfort, coming along side of us as we consider which way to go, taking and pointing us to the sunlight again
So, let’s keep this truth close shall we, firmly in our hearts and in our minds, remembering that even though we may just be one of these simple sheep, staying close to the Shepherd is just the smartest thing we will ever do.