Scriptures for this Sunday are Here.
I learned the 23rd Psalm by heart as a child, and maybe you did too – and like the Lord’s Prayer, the words never fully leave you. If you’ve ever been with someone in a time of crisis, you may have seen how deeply Psalm 23 enters their hearts. God leads us into green pastures and beside still waters, God restores our soul, God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death so that we don’t need to fear any evil, God promises we will dwell in house of Lord forever. People who are very ill often seem to recover briefly when they hear those words, they sometimes speak them along with you if you begin to pray this psalm – and people who are not ill, but in a crisis, often find them immensely comforting.
And even for those who don’t know the words by heart –when we live our lives in awareness of God’s presence with us in valley of the shadow of death as well as the green pastures and still waters, we are changed and comforted. So often I have spoken with people in that valley who are overwhelmed, yet even so, their cups run over with gratitude at God’s blessings even in times of crisis and sorrow. They know that God is with them to care for them, even when life is difficult and the path we are walking is stony and dangerous and dark. They find gratitude, and joy even in sorrow, in their relationship with God, who is their good shepherd.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, which happens every year the 4th Sunday of Easter – the Sunday when we get to read the beloved 23rd Psalm. And when we read it, we often think of its images as soft pastoral things, in pastel colors with sweet lambs frolicking in green fields. But the truth is that the 23rd psalm is utterly realistic about the dangers of our lives – about the valley of the shadow of death that we all travel through at times, that we need a shepherd to help us face. Many people believe that this psalm was written by David himself, the shepherd boy who grew up to be the great king – and of course he knew about herding sheep, its dangers, its discomforts, the fact that the shepherd must be prepared to face wild beasts and dangerous rock ledges and all kinds of perils for the sake of his sheep. But the striking thing about this psalm is that King David does not claim to be the shepherd of Israel – he knows God is their shepherd. He knows that human leaders fail, but God can be utterly trusted. And so he puts his trust in God to lead him through the many valleys of the shadow of death of his own life, his own mistakes, his own heartbreaks. And when God does lead him through those valleys, David’s cup runs over with gratitude, and he knows that he will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever – God will never abandon him.
The image of sheep and shepherds became an important part of Israel’s history – the Jews knew that while King David was a shepherd, he had many failings, and later kings of Israel would be called wicked shepherds by prophets. But no matter who their earthly shepherds were, Israel’s tradition continued to emphasize that the ultimate good shepherd of the 23rd psalm and of Israel’s story as a people was God. And their job was to listen and obey the voice of their divine shepherd.
In John Chapter 10, Jesus is continuing this image of shepherd as the leader of Israel. Again, we tend to think of this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd as a soft, warm, pastoral, feel-good kind of image. But like the Old Testament, Jesus is using it here to criticize the people in power in his day, and contrast human leaders with the ultimate shepherd. Facing human leaders who are taking advantage of the people and plotting to kill him, Jesus calls them thieves and bandits, and points to a different kind of leader – himself. He says that he is the good shepherd who will protect his flock – he will lead them into the sheepfold and lay across the gate to keep out the thieves. And he will lead them out of the sheepfold so they can live an abundant life.
Which is really what I think this gospel is all about – abundant living: In contrast to the ways of this world that lead to death, Jesus promises that he has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly, beginning right now and leading to eternity. If we are going to start living that abundant life right now, we need to be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, follow. But how do we hear this voice?
Jesus uses the image of sheep and shepherds because he used everyday images that people would understand and recognize. Unfortunately, it tends to be a bit lost on us, because not many of us here know a whole lot about sheep outside a petting zoo! But I heard a story that helped. A couple of months ago, a group of us traveled in Israel, and you see these little bands – 10 or 20 sheep with a ragged-looking shepherd, often a Bedouin, walking through the hills. The story I heard was that an American was traveling in Israel, out in country, and saw several bands of sheep converging on a water hole. Apparently this was social time for the shepherds, because as their sheep stepped into the water, mixing and mingling with sheep from other flocks. The shepherds stood to one side, talking together, not paying much attention. But after a while, their conversation ended and it was time to go. And first one shepherd, then next, then next, called to their sheep and set off in different directions. And the sheep sorted themselves out magically from the confused mixed-up group mingling in the water, each sheep recognizing its own shepherd’s voice and following the correct shepherd without question.
Which is the everyday experience for people of Jesus’ time that he refers to when he says, “the sheep hear [the Good Shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Like sheep who will not follow the wrong shepherd, we get to know Jesus’ voice by listening, practicing, and hearing that voice in every part of our lives.
And note that Jesus’ voice doesn’t always sound sweet and kind, like the image we tend to have of the Good Shepherd, or Psalm 23. Sometimes Jesus’ voice is unexpectedly challenging, sometimes it takes us in new directions, sometimes asks us to do things we wouldn’t have done on our own. Sometimes it challenges our deeply-held beliefs, as it challenged the beliefs of the temple leaders who believe that Jesus is an ungodly lawbreaker who needs to be put to death – Yet we as Christians believe that this supposedly law-breaking person is the Son of God, THE Good Shepherd of sheep, the one whose voice we must listen to.
So how do we learn to recognize that voice? Beloved 20th century spiritual writer and RC monk Henri Nouwen writes (in Spiritual Direction), “Being formed in God’s likeness involves the struggle to move from absurd living to obedient listening.” “Absurd” comes from a word that means “deaf,” so he says, “Absurd living is a way of life in which we remain deaf to the voice that speaks to us in our silence. The many activities in which we are involved, the many concerns that keep us preoccupied, and the many sounds that surround us make it very hard for us to hear the “sheer silence” through which God’s presence is made known.”
BUT, he says, “The obedient life develops our abilities to hear and sense God’s presence and activities.” The word obedience” comes from a word that means “listening.” He writes, ‘The obedient life is one in which we listen with great attention to God’s Spirit within and among us….To be obedient means to be constantly attentive to this active presence and to allow God, who is only love, to be the source as well as the goal of all we think, say, and do.”
So how to be attentive, and listen? There are three disciplines, he says, that “help us overcome our deafness and resistance, and become free and obedient persons who hear God’s voice even when it calls us to unknown places. These are: First, the discipline of the Heart – introspective and contemplative prayer that helps us pay attention to the God who dwells in the center of our being. Nouwen says that praying is not only listening to, but listening with our heart, that as we set aside times of solitude to pray and listen, share our lives & daily concerns with God, we will learn to recognize our shepherd’s voice.
Second: The discipline of the Book – reading and meditating on scriptures in a way that leads us to prayer. We know that God speaks to us through the Bible – we learn the cadences of God’s voice, Jesus’ voice, as we read those words. As we read and then pray about Bible, God’s voice takes on flesh in our lives and in our actions.
And Third: The discipline of the Church – which requires us to be in relationship to the people of God, witnessing to the active presence of God in community. The rituals of the church through the Christian year remind us of the events of Jesus’ life among us, help us make those events part of our day-to-day life. “The more we let the events of Christ’s life inform and form us, the more we will be able to connect our own daily stories with the great story of God’s presence in our lives,” Nouwen writes.
And the more we let Christ nourish us with his body and blood, the more his life takes on flesh in our life, as we go out from here to live as Christ’s people in the world. That’s how we are led into green pastures, that’s how our soul is restored. That’s how we practice hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. That’s how we follow where he leads.
And that’s how we know that no matter where we are in our lives, in green pastures or beside still waters, or walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t need to fear any evil, for Jesus the Good Shepherd is right there with us.