Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shepherd of the Sheep

Shepherd of the Sheep

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 17, 2008

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want...

This psalm is probably more well-known than any other passage from the Old Testament, and possibly at least as well-known and well-loved as any passage in either the Old or New Testaments. Familiarity is a great thing, but it can have its downside too. Phrases we know as well as we know our own names can take on a host of misunderstandings and misplacements which are hard to dislodge from our brains.

“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want...” for instance. Read without the comma, the Lord becomes the one shepherd which a sheep doesn’t want.

I remember a wonderful woman in one of my Texas congregations, Judy Murphy, and the fact that when I listened to one of the 3rd grade youngsters reciting the 23rd Psalm, I heard him saying, “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life...”

There are dozens of these, made possible by solipsisms, missing punctuation, and plain old misunderstanding:

“He makes me lie ..... down in green pastures he restores my soul.”
“Shirley Goodness ... and Mercy [the Goodness sisters] shall follow me...”

On the other hand this psalm has inspired deep and lovely reflections on its meaning. Years ago, I ran across an affirmation about Psalm 23 whose author is unknown, at least to me. I thought it was so lovely that I have read this as an introduction to the psalm at dozens of funerals and memorial services since then:

“This psalm has flown like a bird up and down the earth singing the sweetest song ever heard. It has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It will go on singing to your children, and to their children, ’til the end of time. And when its work is done, it will fly back to the bosom of God, fold its wings, and sing on forever in the happy chorus of those it helped to bring there.”

A pastor I know, a college chaplain,1 bumped into one of his students who was to graduate in a week, and absent-mindedly he said, “Good luck.” He pondered that simple farewell and wondered why he’d said it, since, as he reflected later, “I didn’t believe a word of it.” It wasn’t because his student was so bright and blessed that he’d never need any help outside himself to make it in the world. It was just that the help that student, that any of us needs outside ourselves, has nothing to do with luck.

At the end of the book of Genesis, we find the concluding stories about Joseph son of Jacob, who had been his father’s favorite, and therefor his brothers’ least favorite, to the degree that they had determined one day to kill him but instead simply sold him off into slavery (and you think your family was dysfunctional!). Once he landed in Egypt, though, this bright youngster caught the eye of Pharaoh, who promoted him to chief of all things related to food in the kingdom. Meantime, his brothers had suffered a famine in their homeland and had come begging to Egypt, hoping for a handout. When they realized that the one they had come to ask for help was the very same brother they had treated so hatefully all those years ago, they were terrified at what he might do to them. But Joseph had grown far beyond thoughts of revenge, and told them not to be afraid: “You meant it for evil,” he said, “but God meant it for good.”

So there.

During the time that his brothers thought they were initiating evil, it so happens they weren’t the only characters doing things. God, it turns out, has the capacity to turn even evil works into good, and is at work behind what is behind the scenes. Ironically, their barbaric, murderous act turned out to be the very thing that saved the family from starvation.

“He leads me to water, he brings me to green pastures, he restores me...”

Any time I read the 23rd Psalm, so many images come to my mind, but one which comes back to me again and again is this one...

In his beautiful book, This House of Sky,2 Ivan Doig wrote about his experiences growing up as the only child of a widowed Montana sheep ranch foreman. In one portion of his story he recalled a time when an unseasonably cold July rainstorm threatened to wipe out his father’s entire flock of newly shorn sheep out on the summer range. In frantic desperation, Ivan, his father, the sheep dogs, even Ivan’s grandmother, alternately beat, cajoled, frightened, forced, and intimidated the sheep into the relative safety of a coulee by the river. Here is how he described it:

“As soon as the crew finished shearing the sheep the first few days of July ... the weather had an unaccountable chill ... and with our shorn ewes we had on our hands a double thousand of the world’s most undressed creatures ... these first days they stood naked, helpless to a storm ...

... The nightmare prospect was that the band could panic in the corral and crush onto one another in suicidal piles. For certain, in a cold, driving rain hundreds of trapped ewes would destroy themselves and their lambs that way. But the second worst threat was for a storm to maul into sheep loose for stampede on this unsheltered range...

... The first blast of wind swayed the trailer. We piled out the doorway into the longest day of our lives.

... Before we could reach the corral, a sharp rain began to sting down ... a wind steadily sharpening the storm’s attack ... The gate bowed, snapped apart against the tonnage of the hundreds of struggling bodies.

The pale shapes of the ewes rivered past us ... I ran the first sprint of endless running, crying Hyaw! Hyaw! as I tried to head the leaders. I heard the jeep gunning as Dad set out after another runaway group.

What we faced, if we could not bring the band under control, was a rapid steady push toward the steady devastation of our sheep ... they were aimed like an avalanche to the cliffs ... One way alone offered any chance ... try to funnel them along the bottom of the single big coulee ... to do it we would have to fight the sheep ... sideways along the punishing storm.

And so we fought, running, raging, hurling the dogs and ourselves at the waves of sheep, flogging with the gunny sacks, shaking the wire rings of cans ... we were like skirmishers against a running army.”

Psalm 23 has an inevitably pastoral sense to it, and for the most part we probably think of it as having to do mostly with still water by which the Lord, the Shepherd, is said to lead us. Yet when we leave it at that, we forget about another side of this psalm, the side which declares God’s presence when we go through the “valley of the shadow of death.” What is it that comforts us in such a time? Well for the psalmist, it was a rod and a staff, perhaps akin to a waving gunny sack and wire rings of cans. Perhaps there are times when God’s will for us can only be brought out in us as he skirmishes against the running army of our intransigent willfulness. Imagining us as a runaway band of senseless sheep — “the world’s most undressed creatures ... helpless to a storm” aren’t bad ways to think of it. Then imagine God as the One who, though we can’t understand it, can’t perceive it, knows what is best for us. Imagine God running alongside us, yelling “Hyaw!” and trying to move us to a safety we haven’t begun to comprehend.

It’s not just God’s amazing provision for our safety and well-being that we contemplate in the psalm. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me...” One of the features of the Ark of the Covenant that accompanied Israel as it wandered in the wilderness was the “mercy seat,” a plate of refined gold that sat atop the Ark. If the Ark was the traveling luggage of the God who journeyed with the people, the mercy seat was the most sacred part of it. In Exodus 25, God promises, “I will meet you there.” One preacher3 wondered, “Why mercy seat? Why not judgment seat? Or anger seat? Or jealousy seat? Or power seat? Why mercy — when so many often say mercy, compassion, and kindness were not attributes [associated with the God of the Old Testament]?”

What was going on is what we celebrate most about the 23rd Psalm, the reason we love it so much. Humanity was beginning to recognize that the God who created the heavens and the earth, was characterized, more than by any other quality, by mercy. Above and beyond anything else we believe or people tell us to believe about God is this elegant truth: God is merciful.

And God’s mercy was made manifest in human form in Jesus Christ, so that we may ever after have an example of the possibility that we, too, may live lives characterized by mercy.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,
all the days of my life.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 William Willimon, who shared this story in his sermon, “Good Luck?” preached at Duke University, April 25, 1999.
2 This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, by Ivan Doig, 1978: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, p. 217 ff.
3 John M. Buchanan, in his sermon “And Mercy Shall Follow Me” in Sermons for the City, 1996: Providence House Publishers, p. 89.