(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The traditional name for today is actually Good Shepherd Sunday, and considering the passages we’ve read, you understand why. It is instructive, I think, to read these two passages together, not just the Gospel. I’m asked to read this psalm more than anything else when I do funerals, and it’s no surprise, considering how comforting it is to those of us who feel pain, which is everybody. And I am all for accuracy, you know, using the most correct translation, but not for this one. Not for Psalm 23. I am pretty sure Jesus said that if you don’t read Psalm 23 in the King James, you don’t belong in church. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, I mean, you just can’t translate that into anything better. Maaaakeeetttthhhh. Ahhhhhh. And for those of us who sometimes feel run ragged by the responsibilities of life, is there anything you need God to maketh you do any more than lie down in green pastures so that God may restoreth your soul?
This is why we call this Sunday Good Shepherd Sunday, because today is the day on which we think about the ways Jesus is shepherd of our lives, and thank goodness, because my life—even outside the church—seems so busy I need a shepherd to keep things straight. Like sheep without a shepherd, I feel like the parts of my life go in so many different directions, I need somebody to show me the way. I mean, I am a pastor, but also a parent, and a son, and a spouse, and a friend, and sibling, and citizen, I mean I could go on for hours. In modern times we wear so many different hats that the sheep of our inner selves end up so confused that they don’t have any idea which way to go. It’s no surprise that we feel pulled in so many different directions, what with the many voices that shout at us from every direction. Put all your energy into raising your kids, says one voice, which sounds nice, until you realize that what you’ve done is worship your children. Raising your kids is incredibly important, but you can’t miss out on your own spiritual development because you’ve got to take the kids to soccer, or whatever. And then another voice says, religion is not worthwhile—we have science now—which is true, except that while I am a big fan of science and have no trouble believing in evolution, I’ve never seen a science book give anybody hope after losing a husband, a wife, a child. I’ve never read in a science book about what it feels like to lie down in green pastures. And there’s the voice of money, of course, that says you need to make as much as you possibly can, and I have to say that the church has not been immune to this voice, saying that as long as you give, we want you to make as much as possible, but then what good does it do if you fund half the ministries of the church but lose your soul?
The point is that there are hundreds of voices calling you in hundreds of different directions, and it is no surprise that we can feel lost in all of this. That’s the good news here, that even when you feel pulled so far you might break, God is there to restore your soul, to make you rest, to have you lie down and listen to the trickling stream, to breathe out and . . . breathe in the breath of God. For the mothers among us, I know this is especially important—because nobody seems to feel as stretched as mothers. I don’t know if you have seen the television show the Middle, but it is one of our favorites as it is a pretty good description of the difficulties of raising a family in this day and age, and Frankie, the mom to three children, finally gets to the point in one episode where she literally can’t remember anything anymore because she’s so busy tending to the needs of her kids. She forgets song lyrics, where she parked her car, everything, because so much of her brain bandwidth is going to running the family. So she institutes office hours and tells her kids they are only allowed to talk to her at five o clock or whatever it is, because that’s the only way she can keep the myriad of voices calling her in all different directions from drowning out her own.
And it doesn’t work, of course, because life isn’t that simple, even in a thirty minute sitcom. It is hard enough to keep the kids fed and the car gassed, and to figure out who put the dog in the dishwasher again, and even those of us without small children know that it can be enough of a victory to get out of bed in the morning in these complicated modern times that you feel like your reward ought be the permission to get right back in.
It is hard enough, and my God, do we have voices screaming at us from all sides: talk radio, 24 hour cable news, politicians, op-ed writers, spiritual gurus, musicians, teachers, and my God, preachers. It is enough to render you unable to move, like a sheep with no idea where to go, and so it is no surprise that we find ourselves needing a guide, needing somebody to help us discern which of the voices that seem to scream at us nonstop.
And, let me just say this, I wish the church were wise enough to be able to always be that voice, but let’s be honest, y’all. The church screams at you just as much as anybody else. You turn the television on, and you’ve got all sorts of people telling you all sorts of things. Name it and claim it. God wants you to be happy. God wants you to prosper. Give some money to our fledgling little religious television empire and we’ll send you this prayer pack so that you can be blessed by God. Some of the most ridiculous things that have ever been spoken have been spoken in the name of religion, and when you start to think of it that way, you understand why so few people come to church. It’s not that they don’t care about doing the right thing. It’s that they aren’t so sure that the church is the best guide, and of course, it isn’t.
God is the best guide. Jesus Christ is the best guide. You know, I hope the church has it together more often than that, like, you know, this one especially, but we sometimes get totally caught up in our own stuff, and I’ll own that. The church carries the worries of life in the real world just like you do. The church worries about paying the light bill, and whether anybody’s listening, about how to engage the community, about how to reach people outside the doors of the church. Just like everybody else, the church worries so much that pastors wish our brains had office hours, and all you have to do is walk into the religious section of the bookstore, or better yet, my office, to see the voices shouting at us with words like renewal and relevance and missional and incarnational. I hope we are all these things, but it can be enough to keep you up at night, to make you need to . . . count . . . sheep.
And so while it’s great that God promises to lead us to green pastures, to restore my soul, it can be the case that I can end up a little panicked after reading the twenty-third psalm, because I want my soul restored more than I want almost anything, but I can’t find time to get up and walk the ten steps it takes me to get outside, let alone lie down in green pastures. Taking time to smell the roses is a dream, let alone getting away long enough to appreciate the still waters. I read Psalm 23 and panic a little bit because I want to feel that kind of feeling so badly and yet, if I am honest, my calendar is so full that I just don’t know when to pencil it in.
This is why I like that we read both today, that we don’t just leave it with the rolling hills of Psalm 23, because it’s nice, and I need to hear it when I’m in the thick of things, but I also need to remember that while the Lord is my shepherd, Jesus also calls himself the gate, the way that people come in and go out and find pasture. My savior goes with me and gives me life. I may be surrounded by things that steal and kill and destroy, but those things are not of God, for whoever enters through Jesus Christ will be saved, will find pasture.
Now, this is all well and good, and I am grateful that Jesus stands at the gate, but I am left with this question: of all the voices out there calling me to something, how do I know which one to follow? When there are competing voices coming even from the church, how do I know where to go? The Gospel of John says that the sheep won’t follow a stranger’s voice—only the voice of the shepherd—but what happens when you can’t tell the difference?
I have mentioned this before, but I remember a seminary classmate who said once that his personal litmus test for right teaching was the sh’ma, Jesus’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. On this love, Jesus says, hangs all the law and the prophets. So that’s how you know. If it hangs on that hook, it is of God.
And the deal about the sheep following the shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice? You can’t recognize something you’re not familiar with. It takes time to learn that voice. It takes going out and coming back in. It takes work, and we do well to remember that the life of the shepherd was not easy. They’d be out in the night guarding for wolves, subject to the elements, for days and weeks and months. And lest you feel the need to barricade the pen, to retreat to Psalm 23 and never come back, let me remind you that it is in the going out and coming in that the shepherd speaks! It is in the going out and coming in that you pass through the gate which, Jesus says, is the way we find salvation, the way through which in our comings and our goings we find pasture.
We all want God to be in the rainbows and the sunsets and the gentle breaking waves, but the truth is that while God is in these places, it is in doing the work of love, the work of going out and coming in that you’re most likely to encounter God. It’s in the work, the struggle, the business of being the church, together, that we meet God.
And so if this whole business is less about finding respite from the rat race and more about following Jesus, maybe it’s the case that we should spend less time trying to find the mythical rolling hills of Psalm 23 and more time trying to follow the voice of the shepherd.
I will end with this. I don’t know about you, but most days, I feel totally inadequate for this work. I know all I have to do is open the gate, that all I have to do is offer what I have and that Jesus will do the rest, but who am I to lead people to Jesus Christ? Who am I to teach kids, to lead others, to be the one to hold the gate open so that others may come in? Believe me, I understand that struggle. Some days, I wonder why God chose me.
But here’s the thing. God didn’t just choose me. God doesn’t just call ministers. God calls everybody to something, if you will just do the work of figuring out which voice is God and which isn’t. And unless you are holding the gate open so that the voice of the shepherd may come through, don’t be surprised when whole generations of people look at the church and say, “no, I don’t think there’s anything for me there.” Don’t be surprised if they find the gate to not be worth opening. If you aren’t willing to stand at the gate, inadequacy and all, don’t be surprised when the voice of the shepherd fades to the background with the rest of the noise that fills our day.
But if you will. If you’ll give it a try, I think you’ll find that the business of being the church—with all its responsibilities and frustrations—the business of welcoming others, of teaching them about Jesus, of serving them in the way God calls us to, that stuff will not lead you away from the hills of Psalm 23, away from the green pastures and the still waters. I think that kind of thing—that being the church, with all its warts—that kind of thing is the most direct ticket to green pastures you’ll find, and thanks be to God. Amen.