Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

The Lord is My Shepherd, Dude

Sunday, May 10, 2009

 

 

Psalm 23

 
Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Haddon Robinson quotes someone as saying that every major portion of Scripture was written by someone having a hard time, written to men and women having a hard time or about to have a hard time. This is not entirely true, he says, but it is true that the passages of Scripture we tend to know the best and love the most are the ones we turn to during times of difficulty.[i]

 

Psalm 23 is a Psalm for tough times. It is a psalm. It is the lyrics of a hymn. It is poetry.

 

But it is very specific and concrete poetry, composed by people who knew shepherding and sheep in a very personal and real way. It is poetry but it is not sentimental, which is why I entitled this introductory sermon: “The Lord is My Shepherd, Dude.”

 

This hymn, which sounds ethereal and heavenly to us, was as real and daily as Dolly Parton singing “Workin’ 9 to 5/ What a way to make a livin’” or Billy Joel singing  “We're living here in Allentown/ And they're closing all the factories down.”

 

The 23rd Psalm is about real life in the real world being lived by real people in tough times.

 

I love the old classic pietistic devotional book by W. Phillip Keller, written almost 40 years ago, entitled A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, not because I agree with all of Keller’s theology or his theological assumptions, but because Keller spent part of his life as a sheep rancher. Originally, when he wrote the book he had to ask people to keep an open mind because the psalm was viewed so sentimentally by so many people that his explanation of the imagery based on his experience as, what he called, a “down-to-earth, hard-handed sheepman” upset people.[ii] Shepherding is not romantic work. The 23rd Psalm is more down to earth and tough minded than we might suppose.

 

Those who knew shepherding first-hand would have known that the metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd suggested three things, and it is these three things I want to begin this series by outlining today:

 

The first is that the metaphor of sheep and shepherd acknowledges that the world is a dangerous place. A sheep’s life was precarious, especially in the ancient Middle East. Green pastures were the exception, not the rule. Most of the Middle East is desert. If you have ever visited the Middle East you might well find yourself wondering why people are fighting so fiercely over this land. Desert and rock, steep hills and shadowy valleys. Desert and rock.

 

In the midst of the desert there are occasional oases but the desert is the rule and the oasis is the exception and, if you don’t know where the oasis was, it is easy enough to lose your way.

 

The 23rd Psalm does not image a world of security and safety but a world of danger and risk: a world of dark valleys, shadows, enemies.

 

I don’t think I need to talk a lot about the worries of life right now. The economic worries, the worries about our jobs (someone told me there are 6,000 unemployed lawyers in Washington DC right now), the worries about our pensions, the worries we have about the results of the test the doctor wants us to take, the worries about our children and our nieces and nephews and grandchildren.

 

The 23rd Psalm is not saying that the world is a safe and secure place. It is saying the exact opposite. It is saying that the world is a perilous place.

 

So the metaphor of shepherd and sheep says something about the kind of world we live in.

 

The metaphor also says something about who we are. Who are we in the psalm? The sheep. And it is not a flattering image.

 

Anybody know a sports team named sheep? Washington has some really interesting names for sports teams. The Hoyas. What is a hoya? It was apparently the name of Georgetown University’s school newspaper before it was the name of its teams, so Georgetown has named its teams after a newspaper, which I think is refreshing. I wonder if anyone thought about naming our new baseball team after a newspaper – the Washington Posts?

 

The terrapins. Cool. What panache! Much cooler than the AU Eagles or the George Mason Patriots, I think.

 

But I have never heard of a school that named its team “the sheep.”

 

Craig Barnes says he doesn’t mind calling the Lord his shepherd but he has never been very happy about being called one of the sheep. He had hoped to be an eagle, but the metaphor for us in the psalm is sheep.

 

Sheep aren’t particularly smart. They scare easily, and have a knack for getting themselves lost.

 

Jane and I just spent two weeks in Wales and Ireland. I didn’t realize when we planned to go there that I would be doing research for this sermon series. We were in western Wales because I wanted to see the countryside that R. S. Thomas wrote about in his poems.

 

In western Wales there are sheep everywhere. I mean everywhere. There are many more sheep than people.

 

We rented a cottage on a farm because we wanted to see rural Wales. We’d take our rental car out in the morning and, when we came back in the late afternoon, more often than not, one of the sheep would have gotten out through the fence onto the road, which was very narrow.

 

So we would drive the last mile back to our cottage very slowly, giving the panicked sheep time to run ahead of us. We didn’t want to scare the sheep, but there seemed no other way to handle it.

 

One afternoon was very poignant. The sheep was outside the fence on the road running ahead of our car. The sheep’s little lamb was inside the fence trying to keep up with his mother. It made your heart break to watch the little lamb separated from his mother by a fence trying to keep up with her.

 

Later that evening I went out to get some exercise and went down the road, and the lamb had figured out how to get through the fence so the sheep and the lamb were both outside the fence, on the road, and at risk. It wasn’t enough for the sheep to escape her pasture, now she was teaching a new generation how to do it.

 

And it was a great pasture. Plenty of good grass. Plenty of fresh water to drink. The road was a dangerous place. But the sheep persistently chose what was not good for them. That’s the metaphor of the 23rd Psalm.

 

One day we got lost in Ireland. Actually, I should say we got lost in Ireland just about everyday. This is the way Irish people give directions: go that way for a while and then turn left. This is as specific as the Irish will get about directions. And the Irish don’t believe in street signs.

 

So we were lost in a small town one day when suddenly a young man steps out and motions for our car to stop. We did. They were trying to move a small herd of sheep from one pasture, 100 feet down the road to another pasture. It was a big deal. They had assembled eight men to try to move 30 or 40 sheep 100 feet. That’s, like, one shepherd to every four or five sheep. And they had a hard time doing it.

 

The sheep were very anxious. Apparently change makes sheep very anxious and irrational. Some of them insisted on going the wrong way. They just insisted. They were adamant. And for every one of them going the wrong way, three or four others would follow.

 

Lambs are very, very cute. They prance around. They jump up sometimes on all four feet just for the sheer joy of it. Lambs are adorable. But then they grow up into sheep, who are not adorable. They are sluggish, sort of dirty, not very smart, and intractable.

 

That’s part of the metaphor of the 23rd psalm. That’s our part.  

 

A dangerous world. Not so smart sheep. The third part of the metaphor is the shepherd, and this is what the psalm is really mostly about: the shepherd.

 

By the way, I should point this out on Mother’s Day. Rabbi Michael Samuel says that the term shepherd is gender inclusive in the Bible. Women were shepherds as well as men. (Genesis 29:6 and Exodus 2:16) He adds, that even for men, shepherding was one of the first occupations that enabled us to get in touch with our maternal nurturing side.[iii]

 

Much of the rest of Psalm 23 will be about what a shepherd does. The liberation theologian Leonardo Boff says a shepherd is a guide, a companion, and a protector.[iv] Jesus says good shepherds give their lives for their sheep.

 

This is what we will explore as we read this psalm together over the next few weeks. What are we saying about God when we call God a shepherd.

 

The Lord is my shepherd. Perhaps the hardest word in that sentence for some of us is the word “my.” The Lord is my shepherd.  It makes the psalm very personal. Some of us will find this difficult intellectually.

 

We might understand the metaphor of the Lord as humanity’s shepherd or the earth’s shepherd or shepherd of the universe. We might understand an image of divinity as a being or force that guides and shapes the evolution of human history. “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Dr. King said. We may understand that kind of shepherding force within the universe. Matter of fact, I think it takes real determination to believe that there is not some kind of sense of overriding direction within creation, evolution and history.

 

But the 23rd psalm isn’t talking about some kind of meta-shepherd. The imagery of the 23rd psalm is an intimate and personal shepherd: a tough shepherd sometimes; not a non-directive permissive shepherd, a hard-handed shepherd when she needs to be, but still an intimate and personal shepherd.

 

The Lord is my shepherd.  

 

I think this is, in many ways, the spiritual struggle of our time and generation. Can we believe in a God who guides me? Who is my companion? Who watches over me?

 

This is a question we want to ask again and again as we read this psalm together. In a dangerous world, am I on my own, really? Or can I trust that God is guiding me, walking with me, and protecting me? Not just the universe, not just history, not just humanity, but me?

 

Leonardo Boff begins his little book on the 23rd Psalm with a list of the ways fear abounds in his world in Brazil.[v] It is a long list: Fear of kidnappings and attacks in the street and in people’s homes. Fear of sudden death by violence. Fear of war and terrorism. Fear of natural disaster. Fear of disease, epidemics, bacteria. Fear of losing a job or a home. His list goes on.

 

“Fear,” he says, “nullifies the joy of life, hinders freedom, and clouds the future. Who or what will free us from this nightmare [of fear]?”

 

He says that relaxation exercises and anti-depressants will help us only so much.

 

Our hope, he says, is that we will be able “to trust in a Greater One who is infinitely good, who knows us by name, who knows the secrets of our hearts, and who is the true master of our life’s fate.” The way generations who faced hardship and dangers before us trusted.

 

There is no life without fear, but the 23rd Psalm is a psalm of not naïve but mature trust. I wonder if in tough times we, too, can learn from it to trust?   

 

 

 

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[i] Haddon W. Robinson, Trusting the Shepherd: Insights from Psalm 23 (Discovery House Publishers, 2002), 17.

[ii] W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm (Zondervan, 1970), 10-11.

[iii] Michael Samuel, The Lord is My shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God (Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996), 106.

[iv] Leonardo Boff, The Lord is My Shepherd: Divine Consolation in Times of Abandonment (Orbis Books, 2006), 34-6.

[v] Boff, 9-11.