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The Lord is my Shepherd

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 20, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I lack nothing that I need
The 23rd Psalm is dearly beloved. And with good reason. The imagery of sheep gazing on green pasture under the care of a watchful shepherd offers blessed comfort to a life of frenzy. The promise of God’s presence even in the valley of the the shadow of death has spoken God’s mercy and peace in the midst of grief at many a graveside.

The words are familiar, perhaps the most familiar in the Old Testament. That familiarity, that well-known cadence, is a formative rudder amid the storms of life and a light in the valley of shadows. An anchor of the tradition of an ancient and hard-won faith amid the seas of chaos and change. Little wonder that we have chosen it as one of our twelve foundational passages for Grace Hill.

We hear Psalm 23 most often at funerals, at hospital beds, in waiting rooms. Moments of crisis, grief, pain, and anxiety. And rightly so, for these are beautiful words of comfort. But these are also words from the ancient everyday life of shepherding and hosting and the struggle for survival that are formative for faith for every day. Beneath these familiar and comforting words lies a radical vision for the people of God.

The first line of Psalm 23 is often translated, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In a culture that teaches us to want everything and constantly bombards us with messages specifically designed to prompt us believe that we need the latest, the greatest, the newest, the fastest, to say with the Psalmist “I shall not want” sounds radical.

How often do the messages we receive teach us to confuse what we need with what we want? It’s how consumer-drive society works – by convincing us that we don’t have everything we need. That what we have is insufficient and the upgrade to the latest and greatest is what we will need to succeed in the long run. That we need to accumulate more and more, to keep up, to achieve.

But the shepherd provides food in green pasture. The shepherd provides drink at the still waters. The shepherd provides protection from pitfalls and predators along right paths. The phrase “restores my soul” really has to do with vitality, with life-force, and with a sense of return. The shepherd protects life by leading me back when I stray from the flock.

Food, water, protection, and guidance.

Sheep have few defensive abilities. They are not particularly fast like deer, or large and imposing like cattle. Their main defense is to stick together, as a herd, and their ability to follow a shepherd. The modern sense of the word “want,” doesn’t quite describe what the shepherd provides, as if the shepherd provides luxury upon luxury. The shepherd provides food, water, protection, and guidance. Precisely what the sheep need. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing that I need.

As sheep owe their life to the shepherd, so we owe our lives to our God, who provides what we need “for his name’s sake.” God provides for our life because that is fundamentally who God is. How hard is it in our culture consumption and confusion to hear the simple good news: The Lord is the absolute and only necessity of life.

My academic training is as a computer scientist – the technology field. It’s a field that changes so rapidly that yesterday’s technology is soon obsolete because of today’s advancements, and if you even want to compete, you have to buy the latest. Companies and universities often have entire rooms full of fully functional but obsolete technology.

As the writer Thomas Merton once observed, “Even though there’s a certain freedom in our society, it largely [an illusion]. . . It’s the freedom to choose your product, but not the freedom to do without it.”1 Indeed, how many of us are free to do without cell phones or laptops or cars? A little over a decade ago, then Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan testified before Congress, saying, “our national illness is. . . ‘infectious greed.’”2

If that is in fact true, then Psalm 23 provides just the good news we need to hear, that life isn’t a reward to be achieved or accumulated, but a precious gift to be received from a gracious God. The result is a life, not of greed, but of gratitude. A life freed of lust, greed, and aggressive ambition Indeed, in a culture such as ours, how radically true might it be to say, in the contemporary sense of the word, “I shall not want”? Enough. Trust that what God gives is enough for me. Imagine how the tides of God’s justice and righteousness would be loosed if only we learned to say enough! Imagine the abundance that would wash over God’s children!

The Lord is my King
We live in a culture where it is so hard to find the trust to say that what God gives is enough. We’re taught to assume the worst of others, to be constantly looking over our shoulder to see who is lurking in the shadows. And it’s true, we do live in a world of henchmen and stalkers and drunk drivers and unfaithful marriages and corrupt powers and self-seeking corporate and political and religious leaders.

So we must be wise as serpents as sheep among the wolves. :You can’t trust anyone but yourself.” To trust is to make ourselves vulnerable, open to being taken advantage of.

Perhaps it sounds naïve in this world to claim God is the only necessity of life. Simple-minded, hollow-sounding religious speak that doesn’t have much to do with the real world. Like when Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you , do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” It’s so hard to trust.

In the Ancient Near East, the word “shepherd” was a title for the king. Kings were thought of as shepherds of their people. Ezekiel describes the duty of the shepherds of Israel as being to “feed the sheep” and to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bring back the strayed, and seek the lost (Ezek. 34:4).

When human kings betrayed trust and failed their role as shepherd, choosing to feed themselves and not the sheep and growing fat, God promised:

I myself will shepherd my sheep. .. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the week, but the fat and the strong I will destroy, and I will feed them with justice! (Ezek. 34:11-15).

Perhaps what is truly naïve is to trust in worldly powers and nations where the powerful merely perpetuate their own power, feeding off of the sheep without feeding the sheep themselves, where the chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished grows ever wider. Perhaps what is truly naïve is to trust the system that says it’s all about me, that our lives are our own, a reward to achieve. When apart from the flock and without the shepherd, we are lost, wandering, and vulnerable to a life of greed and emptiness and destruction of self and others.

The Lord is my King and no other! I shall not lack anything I need. Living under the reign of God is the basic necessity of life, to seek first the kingdom of God and his food of justice. In its simple opening line, the Psalm is perfectly clear about the center and purpose, the goal and focus of life. The Lord and no other.

No other loyalty or allegiance or competing claim, not economic or political alliance, not liberal or conservative or any other petty loyalty that may seduce us. One loyalty. One kingdom. One Good Shepherd. One God and king who provides the foods of justice in green pasture. The Lord is my Shepherd, my King.

You are with me
In fact, the Psalmist is not naïve. The Psalmist knows about the valley of the shadow of death. The Psalmist knows that God hasn’t promised that God’s people get only the good from life, while the rest of the world gets slop. The Psalmist knows about dark days, about the lowest valleys of this life, about the shadows of suffering that so readily fall upon this world, about the reality of evil powers with deathly plots.

Psalm 22, the Psalm that comes before this psalm, begins with the heart-rending cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalmist knows this cry. And yet, the psalmist knows that evil is not to be feared. Why? Because at the linguistic and thematic and theological center of the Psalm is the very simple, yet deeply profound claim, “For you are with me.”

You are with me.

When the New Testament tells the story of Jesus, it begins with that basic story. Matthew begins with the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, and ends with the promise, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” And the amazing news is that the one who is with us, the one who enters into the darkness with us, the one who stands with us against all evil and the one who enters death itself with us, is the very one who has himself cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And he knows. He has endured the full brunt of the evil powers of this world. He knows the pain of abandonment and shame. He knows the agony of suffering. He knows the long shadows that hang over human life. And he knows the sting of death.

And it is he. It is he.

It is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who can find us in the dark valley as well, who can cry with us in our dark days, who can sit with us in the shadows. He can reach out his hand and take hold of us and journey with us through the darkness as we seek for the green pastures once more. Because he, the lamb who was slain, has been through the valley of the shadow of death. He identifies with us, and he is our good shepherd, and we know his voice, and we are safe with him.

Anyone who dares to follow a crucified Messiah can expect the road to include a cross. And a resurrection. We do not tarry forever in the valley of shadows, but shall yet rejoice upon the mountaintop. The Psalmist who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is the same who says, “I will tell of your name to my kindred. . . for the Lord did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

The one who cries with us is the one whose life God answered with a resounding yes. Captivity is now held captive, bondage has been bound, death is defeated, for the light yet shines in the darkest valley of shadows, and the darkness did not overcome it, and Christ is arisen and beckons his flock to come and follow as he leads them amid hilltop and valley and into the pastures of God’s just reign.

A Table in God’s House

The Psalm concludes with a banquet scene. God is again providing life in overflowing abundance. Ordinarily the last verse is translated “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” But the verb is more active than following. It is pursuing. Usually in the Psalms it is the enemies who pursue. But here it is God’s goodness and mercy, or as it is often translated, “steadfast love,” words at the very heart of the Bible’s description of God’s character.

The tables are turned. God is in pursuit and provides a table in the presence of enemies. The text does not say whether the psalmist’s enemies are a part of the meal or not – whether they represent a threat, or whether they have come to the table as well, or both. Psalm 22, like Psalm 23, ends with a grand banquet and worship scene, in which “all the families of the nations participate.” A table that big surely includes a few former enemies.

At any rate, the banquet is in the house of the Lord, the place where the whole family, the whole flock of God gathers and worships God. The Psalmist, like the sheep, is safe and secure in the household of God, in the community of faith. We belong with one another in God’s household, providing for one another and sharing God’s light and life with one another, and, indeed, as Psalm 22 puts it, with all the families of the nations.

One day, Jesus looked out over the crowds, and to him they looked like sheep without a shepherd. So he sat them down, the story says, in the green grass. And he took five loaves and two fish, and he gave thanks, and he broke them, and he fed the thousands. At the end of his ministry, shortly before his death, he gathered his disciples, and he again took a loaf of bread. He gave thanks, he broke it, and he fed them with the miraculous gift of his life for a family that gathers in his house around a table that is meant to reconcile all people, even enemies.

We’re invited to that banquet in God’s house, to be nourished by the life of Christ, who alone is worthy of our trust, and to let that life overflow us and be multiplied in us for all the families of the nations. God is the most basic necessity of life, and it is enough – more than enough. Isaac Watts’ beautiful hymn with which the choir welcomed us into worship captures it so well:

The sure provisions of my God
attend me all my days.
O may Your House be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
No more a stranger, or a guest,
but like a child at home (Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need).

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Welcome home.

Notes:
1. Thomas Merton, The Springs of Contemplation, 136-137.
2. Alan Greenspan, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, July 16, 2002.

Following the Good Shepherd

June 8th, 2011 No comments

Following the Good Shepherd” (John 12:1-11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 15, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Good Shepherd
Every year, my parents used to load up us boys in the van, and we’d drive to South Dakota to visit my aunt and uncle. If we got up early enough, we could go out with my uncle to chore the sheep. As we were walking out to the barn, the sheep would completely ignore our chatter until my uncle would start calling, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” And the timid-yet-gentle creatures would start making their way from the “pasture” to the barn, a little nervous to see us strangers. They came because they knew their shepherd’s voice and call. There was a familiarity to them in his step, in his face, and in his voice, and they trusted him

Little wonder that the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep is a favorite image of Jesus and his followers. Walls and picture Bibles and children’s postcards are adorned with pastoral images of Jesus with his gentle flock, and we cannot help but hear echoes of the ancient words of the famous 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Israel’s greatest king and Psalmist, after all, started out as a shepherd (David).

Thieves and Rebels
Jesus begins this famous chapter with a warning, most likely about those powers who are plotting against him. “Anyone who doesn’t enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a rebel.” Now that is sort of an odd pairing: thief and rebel. One is stealthy – a subtle embezzler, a cat burglar. The other is a violent insurrectionist – what the Roman Empire might have called the terrorists of its day. . .

There is only one thief mentioned by name in John’s gospel: Judas Iscariot, who kept the common purse, but stole the money from it instead of giving it to the poor (John 12:4-6). And there is only one rebel mentioned by name in John’s gospel: At the time of Passover, the Jewish authorities would later ask for the release, not of Jesus, but of the insurrectionist and murderer named Barabbas. They had chosen their shepherd, and his path would ultimately lead to destruction.1

Judas and Barabbas, thieves and violent insurrectionists, are always trying to sneak into the sheepfold, it seems. Defrauding and exploitation of the poor on the one hand, and violence and insurrection on the other are always trying to find a home among God’s people, always trying to speak in soft tones to urge a few sheep to follow them off into the night. Surely those crowds gathered around Jesus – especially those Pharisees who were there – knew the prophet Ezekiel’s warning to the Judases and Barabbases of his day, the impostor shepherds of his own time:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with violence and harshness you have ruled them. . . My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (34:2-4, 6, NRSV).

Judas and Barabbas
And Judas and Barabbas have been trying to gain entry to the sheepfold ever since, to steal and kill and destroy. And just think of how good Judas the embezzler and Barabbas the rebel are at what they do. Just think of how Judas’s advertisements for stuff – possessions, consumables – that surround us on TV and on the radio and on the Internet and along the Interstate keep seeping into the sheepfold with such friendly-sounding voices, saying, “It’s OK, come here. Follow me. You should have this. You deserve this. You need this, and you need it now. Boost your ego. It’ll make your life so much easier, happier.”

And of course, Judas’s hidden message is, “You don’t need to worry about the folks who can’t even afford any of this. . . just put them out of your mind.” I once ran into an economics professor who told me that the best thing I could do for our nation’s poor is to go shopping. Thieves speak ever so smoothly.

Or have you ever heard Barabbas the violent insurrectionist speaking to you? You know that rush of satisfaction and approval we all get when someone who willfully did something wrong finally gets what’s coming to them, or when that annoying, arrogant coworker or classmate finally gets the chewing out they deserve? Have you ever heard Barabbas telling you to respond to insult in kind? To shove back? To hit back because that’s the only think that’ll teach them a lesson?

Maybe you’ve heard Barabbas telling you that justice means an eye for an eye or a life for a life, perhaps whispering so convincingly in your ear that loving your enemies like God loves them has its limits, such as when your life, or your friends’ lives, or the well-being of your nation is threatened, and that you only have one option that will actually work, that you’ve gotta put down your cross and take up your sword if you wanna get anything done in this world.

Following the Good Shepherd’s Voice
But the Good shepherd’s sheep, Jesus says, they will not follow these smooth-talking, sinister strangers. They don’t know the voice of these strangers, and they scatter at the sight and sound of them. These sheep Jesus is talking about, you see, are to be smarter than what sheep are often maligned for being. They know whom to follow. They sense truth even amid all other voices and eagerly follow after it. The Good Shepherd enters by the gate, taking no shortcuts for the sake of expediency, and the sheep follow after him.

And do you notice how this Good Shepherd goes about his job? He doesn’t drive the sheep ahead of him. He doesn’t threaten them with loud shouts and furious gestures until they go where he wants them to. No, this shepherd calls his sheep by name. He leads them out of the safety of their fold and goes ahead of them into a dangerous world. And they follow because they’re his. They are never forced, but always have a choice. They must continually decide to follow, yet it’s almost like once they’re his sheep, their instincts are rewired in such a way (think work of the Holy Spirit) that they can hardly do anything but follow him (discipleship as rewired instincts!).

So when Jesus goes about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, we follow him as a part of that proclamation, because we’re his flock. When Jesus invites other sheep into his fold, we welcome them as our own and seek to welcome others. We follow Jesus as he sets about healing God’s children, freeing them from the grip of pain, despair, and the possessive spirits of the world. We follow Jesus as he heads up the mount of transfiguration and find ourselves transformed as well. We join him in his temple demonstration in revealing injustice. We follow him on his path of tremendous and costly love for the least lovable.

We follow him as he forgives those who come to him, and we even follow him through the valley of the shadow of death, because he is the Good Shepherd, and we are his flock. We freely yield to his call to follow him even as we bear our crosses to the hill of Golgotha, being conformed to a death like his, that we might also share in a resurrection like his. For he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And as the lamb who was slain and rose again, he has gone ahead, left us a trail through the thorns and brambles to the hope of his kingdom and the safety of his fold.

The Gate for the Sheep
And this brings us to Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Again, we hear echoes from Ezekiel. In response to these impostor shepherds, God declares through the prophet:

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and . . . will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture. . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. . . I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. . . I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken. I will make with them a covenant of peace (from 34:11-25, NRSV).

God responds to impostor shepherds by taking over the shepherd role to gather the sheep who are in exile back into the fold and passing that role on to the Messiah, that the sheep might be saved from such thieves and rebels and all the robbery, killing, and destruction they entail, and for something much greater.

Ancient sheepfolds were stone structures a few feet tall, with an opening for going in and coming out. The shepherd would lead the sheep into the fold for night for protection and lie down across the opening, becoming the door or gate, who keeps out all who would do harm to his flock.

Abundant Life!
Those who are the Good Shepherd’s sheep – those who respond to his call in faith – those who listen to his voice and come to him, enter into the safety and salvation of his fold. The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep, is the one who is able to take it up again and lead them out of death as well.

This is how the sheep are saved into the sheepfold and into the flock. They don’t earn their way in by cashing in some sort of paycheck. They don’t try and sneak in over the wall. They hear their Shepherd’s gracious voice, and they trust him, and turning (aka repenting) from all the other sweet voices calling to them, they follow the Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death and into their pastures of eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his listeners, “Which shepherd will you follow? Whose voice will you hear, and whose will you flee? Those impostor shepherds, those Judases and Barabbases, those short-cut thieves and exploiters, those violent rebels and murderers? Or will you follow the Good Shepherd, who will lead you beside the still water, restore your soul, take you through the valley of the shadow of death, and raise you to walk in newness of life by the power of the resurrection?

The Good Shepherd promises his flock abundant life of freedom and good pasture, both in the age to come, and now already. We heard from the Acts reading about the abundance of life the early church enjoyed by following the call of the Good Shepherd, even in times of persecution – even in this overlapping of the ages, with the world still dominated by violence and fear. The Shepherd’s Way has that ring of abundant truth that goes “with the grain of the universe.” We too may have that same sort of abundance of life that Jesus had as we hear him call our name and follow, with the hope that we may also one day enjoy the same abundance of life that the Good Shepherd now has in glory.

May we also know the Good shepherd’s step, recognize his face, rejoice at his voice, and gladly follow when he calls, “Come, sheep! Come, sheep!” Amen.

Notes:
1 The Judeans mounted an insurrection against Rome in AD 66-70. It was brutally crushed. In several important manuscripts, Matthew draws out the contrast by calling Barabbas “Jesus Barabbas.” The choice is then between Jesus Messiah and Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:17). The crowd chooses the insurrectionist Jesus. May we guide our minds and actions against following this false “Jesus” of violence and insurrection.