“Resting in Grassy Meadows” Colchester Federated Church, May 3, 2020, (Psalm 23) Fourth Sunday of Easter (**Virtual Worship)

There was a news story this week featured on the BBC about a sheep named Prickles who got lost in Australia.  The Gray family in Tasmania (who owns a sheep farm) was having a bbq for their son instead of a big birthday party because of practicing social distancing over there just like we are here.  In the distance of their back field at the bbq they spotted a strange creature.  It ends up that Prickles the sheep had been missing and wandering around their land in Tasmania for seven long years.  She got out after a bushfire in 2013 when all the fences on the farm were burnt.  The Grays didn’t really know Prickles existed, though caught site of a strange creature once when they set up cameras on their property to see if there were deer.  They now know that it was Prickles the lost sheep who peered into that camera lens.

Farmer Alice Gray was interviewed by the BBC, and shared that it took five adults to get Prickles into the back of a truck because she’s so enormous with her thick wool.  Prickles is staying in the family’s retirement paddock for the rest of her life.  Alice Gray plans on putting Prickles’ fleece to good use since she’s become an example of a creature adept at social distancing.  The family is having a guess the weight of her fleece competition and the money raised is going to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.  Alice Gray ended the interview by saying, “If Prickles can be isolated for seven years, I don’t think the rest of us have an excuse for complaining for being stuck at home.”[1]

It was funny to hear this story of Prickles the lost (and eventually found) sheep right before the Sunday that we’re hearing Psalm 23.  It’s a Psalm that we may know by heart.  The King James Version is especially eloquent.  Though it’s always interesting to hear various translations of the Psalm—the Common English Bible is the Bible I’ve been using of late to preach so that’s what you heard this morning.  What’s striking about Psalm 23 in the here and now is the idea that God is our shepherd, letting us rest in grassy meadows and leading us to restful waters, guiding us in proper paths for the sake of God’s good name.  Though we may hear with new insight this morning’s translation of verse 4: “even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.”[2]

In this Psalm and in the Christian faith, we are not promised that the shepherd will steer us from the darkest valley.  We are not promised that the paths that we walk with the Good Shepherd by our side are easy paths without any obstacles, without some wrong turns even.  We’ve been hearing about the Resurrection appearances in Eastertide and what some of the earliest followers of Jesus experienced—followers like Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, Thomas, Cleopas, and some of the other Apostles and disciples.  What we haven’t talked about is that many of the earliest followers of Jesus became martyrs, they died because of their faith.

Through it all we can begin to see that faith in Jesus isn’t just about what we believe to be true about him, it’s about seeing him as the Good Shepherd and trusting him even in the darkest valley.  Trusting that Jesus lets us rest in grassy meadows, leads us to restful waters, guides us in proper paths, sets a table for us right in front of our enemies, bathes our heads in oil so that our cups are so full, they spill over.  Basically that Jesus helps us to lack nothing and to know that goodness and faithful love pursue us all the days of our lives because we’re following in his footsteps and trusting where Jesus leads us.  But it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to walk through the darkest valley, that isn’t promised to us.  What’s promised is that the Good Shepherd is with us as we walk.

One of the most powerful explanations on this topic comes from my theological buddy William Sloane Coffin who was once the Chaplain at Yale, pastored The Riverside Church in New York City, fought for civil rights, and if you regularly hear me preach you have heard me reference him before and you will again.  Though he was a famous minister, his life wasn’t immune to tragedy—Coffin’s son Alex died when he was only twenty-four in an awful car accident.  And he gave the eulogy at his own son’s funeral.  William Sloane Coffin spoke of his disappointment in some peoples’ reactions, of a woman who dropped off quiche and remarked that she just doesn’t understand the will of God.

Coffin questioned that woman’s theology, relating in the eulogy, “God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels . . . My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break . . . Like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support . . . God gives all of us — minimum protection, maximum support.”[3]

It’s long become my contention that having faith is less about believing the exact beliefs that we’re “supposed” to believe as opposed to having trust in God, and allowing that trust to make us more loving people.  Allowing that trust to help us love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves to the best of our ability.  Faith is more about abiding trust than correct beliefs.  Because our beliefs aren’t all the same anyway in the Christian Church, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Having faith never has guaranteed that we won’t suffer or have heartbreaks or face global pandemics and all of the losses and uncertainty we are feeling every single day.  Our faith can’t protect us from every bad thing that happens in our lives.  So why have faith at all?  Because faith allows us to trust and feel that God is beside us and that trust helps us to open our hearts to one another.  Trusting that we don’t walk these paths through life alone, and not only is God walking with us—we can walk with one another.

In the end, and with thanks to Prickles the sheep this week we can contemplate how isolation makes us feel.  Even how life must have been for that sheep wandering alone for seven years—her fleece getting thicker and heavier, the isolation perhaps becoming more bearable over time.  Though when one watches the video of Prickles, she’s running around chasing and being chased by the other sheep and seems so relieved to be back with her friends.  Most of us aren’t cut out for being isolated.  We’re creatures who appreciate walking beside one another.  And we will again—there will come a day.  Until then, remember that the Good Shepherd is beside us in the darkest valley and we need not dwell in fear.  God’s goodness and faithful love pursues us all the days of our lives.  And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

[1] Isabelle Rod, “Prickles the sheep found after seven years of Tasmania self-isolation,” BBC, 24 April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-australia-52393482/prickles-the-sheep-found-after-seven-years-of-tasmania-self-isolation
[2] Psalm 23:4, Common English Bible.
[3] William Sloane Coffin, “Eulogy for Alex,” http://www.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript_eulogy_print.html