Monday, April 27, 2015

April 26 Sermon:The Lord is My Shepherd

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside the still waters
He restoreth my soul
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For thou art with me, thy rod and they staff they comfort me,
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Isn’t it wonderful. I mean, it’s just wonderful on its own, and you don’t really need a complicated sermon on the topic. It’s funny—every time I hear the 23rd Psalm I hear it in the old King James, just because the poetry is so beautiful, it almost moves me to tears. But the thing is, so few of these images are actually modern, you know. I mean, I know what it is like to like down in green pastures, I guess, or at least I can imagine it. But I don’t walk through many actual valleys. I don’t know what it means to be comforted by a rod or a staff, or to be anointed with oil. Or rather, I know in my head what it means, but I don’t experience it regularly. That’s not what my life looks like, is what I mean to say.
And yet, it comforts me. This passage comforts me. It brings me peace. I can’t read it aloud without offering a big exhale at the end of it. Sometimes we just need that, you know? Life gets so crazy, work is nuts and home’s not much better, if you’re not driving between ballet and soccer practice, you’re pulling the dog out of the dishwasher or trying to catch up on emails at 2 in the morning or my God, just trying to get some sleep, and then Sunday morning comes around and good grief, maybe we ought to just read this 23rd Psalm every week and dispense with the rest of it.
I mean, there’s something about this psalm that really is calming. There’s a reason we call this scene, a lush pasture, something out of a painting, we call it “pastoral,” which the dictionary defines as having the simplicity, the serenity generally attributed to rural areas. And the root word, “pastor,” comes from the Latin word for Shepherd. This is where we get that name, and you read this psalm, and you get it. The Lord is my shepherd.
And yet for as calming as this is, I do think it is important to look at it realistically and note that the actual business of being a shepherd was anything but pastoral, at least in the sense of the idyllic. Being a shepherd, in the context of this psalm, was really pretty gross. I mean, you were out in the cold for weeks at a time, without showering of course, and your job was simply this: to protect a bunch of sheep who smelled even worse than you did, from getting stolen or eaten by wolves. We have this lovely picture of a guy dressed in white with a well-carved shepherd’s crook and a well-manicured beard, but that’s not it at all. Being a shepherd was difficult work.
And I admit to liking that a little bit as I think about God being a shepherd. I like the idea that God’s a little dirty, that God has dirty hands and nails and is less concerned with maintaining a perfect image and more concerned about taking care of me, taking care of all of us. God isn’t some idealized version of a deity that we can never approach. God gets dirty. God stays out in the woods with us at night. God leads us from where we are, rather than calling from some faraway, unreachable hill. In fact, the Gospel of John tells us, that God is so much right there with us that we will not be left alone. The good shepherd, it says, lays his life down for his sheep. That’s the very opposite of the kind of God I think we think of sometimes, the kind of God, who, like the hired hand in John’s Gospel, stands so far away that the sheep are left to fend for themselves. God is with us, right here with us, in the midst of the dangers, and the snares, in the midst of the dirt and the mess of life.
Why, when you think of it that way, this is a revolutionary idea, the idea of Jesus as shepherd. As a pastor, as someone whose very title comes from the latin word for shepherd, I am very moved by this idea, that to truly love people you must be among them, not some high priest, the height of the pulpit here at North Decatur notwithstanding, but down in the dirt. That is where I need God, not when things are great, but when my life is in danger, or when I feel like I’m wandering like a sheep without direction. That’s where God lives, among us, here, in this life, in this crazy life, with its soccer practices and midnight email. That is good news, unquestionable good news.
I will admit, however, that when I am stuck in the weeds, when I find myself in the wilderness, while it is good to know that God is with me, I do crave a way out. I do wish for any way out, someone to make sense of my crazy life and give me a sense of peace. In other words, Psalm 23 is nice, but it doesn’t do much to help me when I am on hour three of sitting on the phone with Todd from Dekalb County trying to get my water bill straightened out.
Do you know what I mean? Yes, this classic passage helps us catch our breath, but if Psalm 23 is just a rest stop on a crooked highway, what good is it? What good does it to do take a temporary side trip from your crazy life only to have that craziness bedevil you, hang over your head the whole time? You might as well not take the vacation.
I mean, seriously, this kind of thing makes me think of what had to be the most miserable vacation of my whole life. I had some big project hanging over my head at church, I don’t even remember what it was, but there we were on the beach, on the blessed beach, and I couldn’t seem to do anything but keep checking my phone to make sure everything back at the church was going like it needed to. There were a lot of moving parts, and somehow I decided it was my job to make sure they were all still moving, from my beach chair, on the beach, on vacation, which was supposed to be from work.
I am ashamed to admit that it took me about halfway through vacation to realize I wasn’t on vacation at all, in fact, I was still at work; I was just telecommuting from a very expensive office. I might as well have just stayed home. In the interest of trying to stay on top of things, I’d both made myself miserable and made my life harder than it would have been if I hadn’t even been on vacation.
And one day, as we sat on the beach and I wiped sunscreen off the screen of my phone so that I could check it one more time, Stacey finally said, you know, you aren’t the most important person in the world. The church is going to be there when you get back.
She was right, of course. She was right. The psalm doesn’t say, I am my own shepherd, I shall not want; I leadeth myself beside the still waters. The Gospel doesn’t say, the sheep really don’t need the shepherd to lay his life down for them because they can fight enemies off on their own. It says, the Lord is my shepherd. Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down from his sheep.
I guess what I mean to say is that when I am stuck in that mess, when I feel like Psalm 23 is just a rest stop on the road to more insanity, maybe I ought to spend less time trying to get myself out of the mess and more time trusting in the One who promises to lead me beside the still waters, who pledges to lead me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Maybe I ought to spend less time trying to be my own shepherd, and more time letting the good shepherd do what he’s good at.
You’d think I would know this. You’d think we all would know it. I mean, after all, Jesus is the guy we have professed to model our lives after, and yet, for some reason, rather than putting all of our trust in him, all of my trust in his grace, we seem to want to save a little for ourselves. You know, just sort of dip a little bit out, like it won’t hurt anything, a little bit more here, a little bit more there, until the trust I have left for Jesus pales in comparison to the effort I put into trying to figure things out on my own, and it’s no surprise I’m in this mess.
It seems obvious, but we have trouble trusting the shepherd, trusting Jesus, which is funny because it’s that it’s not like this is his first rodeo. We’ve been doing this for two thousand years, and when you include the Old Testament, more thousands than that. In fact, I don’t usually get bogged down in talking about what this or that word meant in the original language, but in the 23rd psalm, when we talk about God leading us along the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, it is the case that the Hebrew word that is translated as “path of righteousness” is used elsewhere in the Bible to mean “track” or “entrenchment,” as in the kind of rut that is carved into the ground by decades and centuries and millennia of ox-carts. If you have had the chance to go to some of the great ancient European cities, you know what I am talking about. When I visited Pompeii a number of years ago, I was struck by how deep those grooves were. Here we were walking on stone, and you had to watch your step because if you didn’t, you’d trip on grooves in the rode several inches deep! They weren’t carved in the road. They were worn in the road. When we talk about the paths of righteousness, we’re not talking about something somebody clear cut yesterday. We’re talking about centuries of people taking the same road.
In fact, the scholar Joel LeMon, who is up the road at the great Candler School of Theology and who also happens to be a jazz musician says that “walking with Yahweh is finding your groove, and a righteous groove at that! To get into the righteous groove is to live in a way that promotes and sustains right relationships all around you, with the community and with God.”
I don’t know about you, but I am intrigued by this idea, that when you are in the weeds, when you are out in the wilderness like sheep in the night, you’d be better served to spend less of your time trying to find your way out of the wilderness and more of your time trying to find your righteous groove. You ought to worry less about the fact that life is messy and worry more about your relationships with your neighbors, and your God. You ought to be less concerned with the mess and more concerned with love, for love is the most well-traveled path there is.
Maybe, if you’ve brought some of the wilderness with you this morning, that isn’t completely encouraging, and I acknowledge that it takes a good deal of trust. But if I learn anything from this business of God being shepherd, it is that while walking that path of righteousness isn’t easy, there are hundreds, thousands of years-worth of footsteps to follow, and between the shepherd and those billions and billions of footsteps following him, they’ve worn that rocky ground awfully smooth.
For yea, though I walk the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Thou art with me, thy rod and they staff they comfort me,
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


No comments:

Post a Comment