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We Belong to the Shepherd

Sunday, May 12, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching
Scripture Readings: Psalm 23; John 10:11-18

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Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

If you were to ask Christians and Jews for a list of their favorite Scripture passages, it seems likely that Psalm 23 would be a good bet for one of the top 3 spots. Psalm 23 is deeply beloved, in both church and synagogue. This is striking to me, for two reasons. First, in the metaphorical imagery of the psalm, we who pray the psalm are in the position of being compared to sheep.  And the stereotype of sheep is that they are stupid and stubborn. This past week I was reading that sheep are actually a whole lot smarter than we give them credit for, so – as so often happens – the stereotype is off base. But the metaphor still does not quite feel like a compliment.

But more than that, what is striking to me about Psalm 23 is how much darkness and threat is spoken of in this psalm. One might have expected a beloved psalm to be all brightness and light.  But Psalm 23 speaks of dark valleys of the shadow of death, evil, enemies.  Psalm 23 is clear-eyed, honest, and frank about the hard realities of life in this world.  But Psalm 23 is not discouraged or depressed or defeated by the hard realities of life in this world; in the midst of darkness, evil, and enemy, the psalmist knows of cups that run over with blessing, of green pastures where sheep rest after being fed, and of paths of righteousness that walk all the way through.

Those whose lives are shaped by Psalm 23, whose lives are shaped and formed by the Good Shepherd, will manifest these two primary qualities.  They will face the hard realities of life head-on, and they will do so with buoyant joy.

They will face the hard realities of life head-on, and they will do so with buoyant joy. Just in case we might miss it, we may notice that these two qualities, found in the psalm, correspond closely to the hard realities of Good Friday and to the buoyant joy and wonder of Easter Sunday.  This is truly an Easter psalm.

We belong to the Good Shepherd, and in turn, we become shepherds for others. Last week, in John 21, Jesus instructed Peter to be a shepherd and feed his sheep. Jesus instructs us to do the same.  This past week, the global church lost two great shepherds.  Rachel Held Evans, an author, columnist, and blogger died at the age of 37.  She faced head-on the challenges of racism and sexism and abuse, in the church and in the larger culture.  But she did it with a joy and a vigor that invited others to stay in the conversation with her.  We also lost the gentle giant of Jean Vanier, 90 years old, who founded the global movement known as L’Arche, a network of homes where persons with and without intellectual disabilities live together in community, sharing their vulnerabilities and their gifts with each other.  Rachel Held Evans and Jean Vanier were, each in their own way, shepherds, intimately acquainted with the hard realities of life in our world, but both were also radiant beacons of light and joy, who shepherded others along their way. They manifested both qualities.

Friends, we belong to the Shepherd. There are hard realities we must face, head-on.  Whether we are talking about the deep personal difficulties in our own individual lives and relationships, or about the polarization in our politics whereby we scorn those whose views are different from our own, the racism that continues to infect our society, the cruelty directed at immigrants, the environmental crisis we face where, according to an intergovernmental report this week from the U.N., more than 1 million species of plants and animals are predicted to be pushed into extinction, with alarming implications for human well-being. There are hard realities. Psalm 23 could have told us that. Those shaped by Psalm 23, who belong to the Good Shepherd, will not shrink from these hard realities, but will face into them.

But those who belong to the Shepherd will also manifest the second quality. They will face hard realities – but not with depressed hearts or with resentful discouragement – with a peculiar, buoyant joy.  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil.”

Psalm 23 lifts us, supports us, strengthens us, gives us heart by reminding us that we belong to God.  Nothing can change that.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  You can say these words in the face of death.  You can say these words in the face of the political upheavals we are living through.  You can say these words in the face of a cancer diagnosis.  You can say these words in the face of a bully at school.  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.  Why?  For you are with me, God.

The buoyant joy of the psalm does not expect God to magically make troubles go away, because that’s not how God works. Psalm 23, and those whose lives are shaped by it, expects to experience God’s living presence in the midst of hard realities.  We offer God our small acts of courage and faithfulness, and trust that God can weave those into a redemptive future.  The world would think that you’ve got to get away from troubles in order to experience God, in order to experience peace, in order to experience joy. The world would think that joy and trouble are incompatible with each other.  But Psalm 23, and those of us whose lives are shaped by it, believes that God’s living presence, and the joy that flows from it, is available in every situation. To the Good Shepherd be all the glory, honor, and praise.  Amen.