Rev. Estelle Margarones
Psalm 23 John 10:11-18
It's been a joy to serve this community. During this time, I've gotten to know you and you've gotten to know me. You've met some of my family and closest friends. There is a special soul in my life that you haven't met. It's my 16 year old. He hasn't been here on a Sunday morning because he likes to sleep in and he doesn't drive. He means the world to me, though, and I want to tell you about... my cat.
Over the past 16 years, we've lived in 6 different cities and traveled by car from Maine to California. My little guy has seen me through the breakup of an engagement, the death of my best friend, my Master's degree, job loss, the founding of my web ministry All Things Are Possible.org, and the loss of a parent. He is my constant companion.
Last June, he began to face a serious health challenge. I care so much about him that I've taken him to the vet several. He doesn't know why I make him get in the cat carrier, but I do. He doesn't know where we're going when I buckle him into the front seat, but I do. He doesn't know why I give him three different medicines, but I do. It's all for his well being.
In ten months, his meds and prescription food have cost just over twenty-five hundred dollars. He has no way of obtaining that money, but I do. I provide for him and I keep him well.
In the liturgical calendar, or church year, this is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is “the good shepherd”. A shepherd would provide for his sheep and he would keep them well. In those days, sheep were valued. People depended on them for milk, wool, cheese, meat, and even sacrifices.
A sheep herder, or shepherd would have cared for the flock. He would have been powerful, yet sure to use gentle guidance. Had the shepherd used force, sheep would simply have scattered--remember, this was a time before fences. Christ is both a personal shepherd, guiding us each through our lives, and collective shepherd as the head of the Christian church.
Jesus said, “I will lay down my life for my flock.” And he did. He cared so much for us that he was willing to endure the crucifixion. The promise of the Resurrection is that we will now share in the glory of eternal life with Christ. Jesus, the good shepherd, lives and continues to lead us today.
The pastoral imagery of sheep and shepherds is possibly best known through 23rd Psalm. We take comfort in the familiar words when we're faced with a time of loss. Indeed, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is a precious source of solace. Today, I want to illustrate why this is not only a psalm for dying, but also a psalm for living.
Psalm 23 is richly steeped in metaphor, some of which is lost on us since we live in a technological society, rather than an agrarian one. Over the next few minutes, I'll unpack the symbolism. I'd like you to note that throughout the psalm, there is relationship, trust, and movement.
“The Lord is my shepherd.. I shall not want.” This speaks to the relationship of a caring sovereign and his trusting subjects. In the Israel of Biblical times the word shepherd implied one who herded sheep, but also a ruling figure. One biblical commentary says that the shepherd was regarded as one who, “actively intervenes to protect and secure the poor and needy who lack resources to guard their own lives. Thus, the term is at once pastoral (bespeaking caring attentiveness) and political (bespeaking power).” (1) When we have Christ, the good shepherd, in our lives, we have the assurance that we shall not want. Our needs will be met.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” The green pastures would have provided nourishment. To graze, sheep must keep their heads down, making them susceptible to predators. However, they can chew their cud lying down, with their heads up. While we may think that after a day of grazing, they would want to lie down to rest, there are many reasons they might not do so.
Phillip Keller, a pastor who worked as a shepherd for almost a decade says that, they "refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear . . . Sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with other (sheep within the flock). If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down . . . Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food".(2) By removing the obstacles, the shepherd could encourage the sheep to lie down. The knowledge that we walk with Christ helps to remove fear, irritation, and aggravation. We can safely rest in his presence.
“He leads me beside still waters” If you've ever washed a wool sweater, you can imagine why it would be important to be led by still water. Wool gets very heavy when wet. If I sheep fell into turbulent water, it would sink and be carried off quickly. For the sheep, their coat was both an asset (for the wool) and a liability (as it could literally sink them). Christ knows our limitations and leads us in places where we'll be safe.
“He restores my soul” By providing food, water, and safe conditions for the sheep; the shepherd would allow the sheep to be comfortable and content. When the world drains us; Jesus will refresh, renew, and restore us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake” Sheep have a wide field of vision but very poor depth perception. The shepherd would have led the sheep, walking with them to keep them healthy and safe. Christ came in God's name and we can count on him to lead us on right paths for our own well being and the well being of the wider world.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” This may refer to an actual place or a dangerous route—rocky and steep, possibly dark since the mountains would have blocked out sunlight. In an effort not to tire the sheep, the shepherd would have led the sheep through the most direct route to get where they were going. Rather than going around the mountain, they went through the valley. Sheep have difficulty seeing details and they tend to avoid shadows, but they would walk through the shadows with the comforting presence of their leader.
We may try to avoid dangerous situations, but sometimes we find ourselves in that valley anyway. The valley of the shadow of death may address fear, insecurity, addiction, shame, or anything which casts darkness into our lives.
On this 4th Sunday of Easter, I will remind you that Christ's Resurrection has taken away the power of death. Christ lives now. The knowledge that he walks with us always, allows us to conquer fear and things that take away our vitality.
If we understand this passage to be about physical death, we can truly take comfort because we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, with Christ at our side, and into eternal life with God.
“I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” These were the tools of the trade for a shepherd. The rod would have been club-like and used to beat away anything that attempted to prey on the sheep. The staff, similar to a walking stick, had a crook at the end to rescue any sheep that lost their footing and fell. The rod and staff speak to power and authority. Kings and emperors in antiquity would have held scepters. We have the the power of Christ protecting us and saving us when we fall.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” A shepherd sustains his flock. The world 'enemies' could reference predators. Remember, the sheep graze with their heads down, but the shepherd would have kept watch. 'Enemies' may have meant poison plants, thorny weeds, or stones that the shepherd would have removed. Christianity doesn't guarantee us a life without dangers or possible harm, but it does assure us of Christ's personal attentiveness.
“You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” Oil mixed with herbs could act as a natural insect repellent. Oil has long been associated with healing properties. A shepherd would have put oil on a sheep's head to help seal and heal scratches. Christ was a healer when we walked with humankind, and those that put their faith in him today may be healed physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The overflowing cup speaks to God's generosity. Christ said, I have come so that you might have life and have it abundantly. (God gives abundantly. He isn't stingy.).
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” These are powerful words. Surely. Absolutely. Positively. Goodness will follow me. All the days of my life. But, wait, the shepherd leads, doesn't he...why does it say 'follow'?
Shepherds would have been constant companions to the sheep; aware of where the sheep were at all times. If you've taken a small child to a store, you can understand the idea that the shepherd not only leads but also follows. Kids fancy themselves independent and they often run about, oblivious to any possible dangers. You can lead with direction, but sometimes you must circle back to keep a watchful eye to ensure the child's safety.
I'll also share that it is possible that goodness and mercy follow you in a different way: through the impact you have on others. As with saw with the children's commission this morning, the words and work of one are passed along through others, to many. When you follow the Good Shepherd and model good Christian behavior, others can become inspired.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I will lay down my life for my sheep.” And he did. Yet he lives still. Through the crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus removed the obstacle of death, ensuring us our place in the house of the lord, forever.
In summary, the metaphor of a shepherd with sheep implies relationship, trust, and movement. Shepherds would have kept the flock on the move so as not to destroy the very land they would need for nourishment. They would have been moving away from one area and toward another. Just as the sheep would receive sustenance as they walked through green pastures and beside still waters, so do we have our needs met through Christ. We take comfort in our savior's concern for us and his powerful protection as we walk through darker places and darker times. We are nourished emotionally as our good shepherd heals our scrapes and generously provides shelter. Finally, we are assured that our good shepherd leads us through--and beyond--this life to our final destination which is none other than the house of the Lord. Forever. The five words that can change your life are these: “The Lord is my shepherd” and you need only follow. Blessed be and amen.
1.Brueggemann, Walter. Texts for Preaching, (Loiusville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p 300.
2. http://www.precioustestimonies.com/Hope_Encouragement/LivingWaters/greenpastures.htmKeller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 35
Allen, Charles L. God's Psychiatry,(Old Tappan, New Jersey: Spire Books, 1982)