“Resting, Leading, Guiding” Colchester Federated Church, April 25, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Easter (Psalm 23)

Psalm 23 is one of the most famous texts in the Bible with the prevailing image of God being our Shepherd.  Christians often have images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd hanging around in our churches.  One can find Jesus depicted walking through a field with a sheep around his shoulders or a lamb in his arms.  It’s a comforting image that can sustain us in trying times.  Though we need to remember that this image begins in the Hebrew scriptures.  Jesus will go on to say that he is the good shepherd in the Gospel according to John.  Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[1]  But this all begins in the Psalms with the Psalmist declaring, “The Lord is my shepherd.”[2] 

Now thinking of God as shepherd may not be that appealing because sheep are known for being not very smart.  Sheep have a herd mentality and wander off and get into trouble.  There was a video that went viral just this week of a boy freeing a sheep from a narrow ditch only to have the sheep scamper off, fling itself triumphantly in the air, and land right back in the same ditch where it was just trapped.  Who wants to be called a sheep?  That is often hurled as an insult, “you’re all just a bunch of sheep!”

This all led me years ago to study up on sheep (from articles in The Guardian and from the University of Illinois) to contemplate God as our shepherd.  There are some redeeming qualities about this whole sheep/shepherd metaphor.  It ends up that sheep are not that dumb.  Researchers in the U.K. have discovered that sheep have a good sense of individuality.  Sheep can recognize the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years!   That’s better than some of us can do, let’s be honest.  Further, sheep react to facial expressions.  Like humans, they prefer a smile to a frown.  Sheep even mourn individuals—they know when part of the flock is missing.  These findings from scientists challenge the stereotype of dumb animals that have no sense of self.[3]  Because sheep rank just below pigs and on par with cattle in intelligence among farm animals. 

Sheep have good instincts that have developed over centuries.  Sheep are grazers and instinctively run from what scares them.  Their only means of survival is to band together in large numbers to protect the flock.  Border Collies and other herding dogs are good at their jobs because sheep see the dogs as predators.  The sheep come together for protection and move away from danger.  If a shepherd can control the dog, the shepherd controls the whole flock.

Sheep follow each other.  If you get one to move, they should all come along eventually.  Their instinct is to move toward other sheep or even people they perceive as friends.  But it’s not just about a mindless herding mentality, sheep band together for protection and it’s a survival instinct.  Though sheep also maintain a sense of individuality and prefer some distance or safe zone when it comes to their personal space.  It’s not as if sheep are one big clump all the time moving around grazing.[4]  It ends up that there are redeeming qualities about sheep which is helpful for us to know when we hear the Psalmist declare that God is our shepherd (since we are therefore the sheep in this metaphor.) 

The Psalmist begins: “The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.  He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.”[5]  This is all about the relationship between sheep and shepherd giving us insight into the very nature of God.  A sheep resting in grassy meadows, being led to restful waters, and guided on proper paths is all about the shepherd taking care of their sheep.  This is about having food and water, avoiding danger, and then attaining good shelter.  The best translation may be that God keeps me alive.  The sheep doesn’t lack anything because the shepherd is providing the basic necessities for life—food, drink, and shelter/protection.  What we have is someone saying that their life depends solely on God and that God keeps them alive.  Though we don’t know if this is a firm conviction or more of a plea.  As in: God keeps me alive, or God (please) keep me alive.

It’s fascinating that we often hear the 23rd Psalm at funerals or when someone is dying.  Now that’s a perfectly good time to hear these comforting words, particularly “Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.”[6]  Though this Psalm is also about living now because it puts daily activities that we all experience—eating, drinking, and seeking shelter and security—into the very arms of God.  The Psalmist says that God cares about the seemingly mundane aspects of our existence.  Think about that for a moment.  Psalm 23 challenges how we think about how we are living every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year!  Do we give God credit that our lives depend on God?[7]

This is so counter-cultural to our consumer-based increasingly secular society.  Psalm 23 is radical in declaring that God is a necessity of life.  This idea forces us to contemplate what we see as basics for survival.  Because the Psalmist would say—God, food, drink, and shelter/protection.  All that other stuff pales in comparison.  Perhaps one of the hopefully lasting lessons of this pandemic has been people understanding what truly matters in our lives.  We are still living through a crisis, and it has been traumatic.  The Psalmist asks us in the 23rd Psalm—what do you need all that extra stuff for if you have God and the basics for survival? 

These days it seems like we’re encouraged to trust ourselves first, to rely on ourselves.  The attitude becomes that we got to where we are today through hard work, sacrifice, and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  The Christian response might be to ask—and where was God in all of that?  Not to discredit how far people come, how hard people work, how difficult one’s circumstances might have been and the strength it takes to persevere.  But do we really think that we did all of that alone?  The Psalmist would say not on your life.  “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. God lets me rest in grassy meadows; God leads me to restful waters; God keeps me alive.”

In the end, we hear that God’s goodness and faithful love will follow us all the days of our lives.  The Hebrew actually means pursue.  God pursues us all the days of our lives.  Even if we think that we go through this life alone and it’s all up to us—God knows better.  God is in active pursuit of us, inspiring us to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  God seeks for us to focus on the stuff that actually matters.  And yes, to reach out in love to our neighbors, especially if they don’t have the basic necessities of life.  Because it ends up that it’s what sheep are called to do.

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley,

    I fear no danger because you are with me.

Your rod and your staff—

    they protect me.

You set a table for me

    right in front of my enemies.

You bathe my head in oil;

    my cup is so full it spills over!

Yes, goodness and faithful love

    will pursue me all the days of my life,

    and I will live in the Lord’s house

    as long as I live.”[8]  Amen.

[1] John 10:11, Common English Bible.
[2] Psalm 23:1.
[3] Mark Townsend, “Sheep might be dumb. . . but they’re not stupid,” The Guardian, 6 March, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/mar/06/science.animalwelfare
[4] Richard Cobb, “An Introduction to Sheep Behavior,” Illinois Livestock Trail, University of Illinois Extension, January 22, 1999, http://livestocktrail.illinois.edu/sheepnet/paperDisplay.cfm?ContentID=1
[5] Psalm 23:1-3.
[6] Psalm 23:6.
[7] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IV, 767-771.
[8] Psalm 23:4-6.

Photo by Millie Olsen on Unsplash