Mar 26 :: Psalm 23 :: Of Sheep and Shepherds

 Preacher: Lincoln Anderson, aspirant

I have a special place in my heart for Psalm 23, as it was the first of the Psalms I was taught.  It is the best encapsulation of what it means to be a faithful follower after God’s own heart.  When I felt anxious or worried growing up, at some level David’s words in the Psalm let me know that my Shepherd would lead me in the way that would be best for me and keep me from real harm.  I would fear no evil, and goodness and mercy would follow me all the days of my life.  I was an anxious child, and though I still battle anxiety and worry in some form, it is Psalm 23 that I remember most in the knowledge of my assurance that God is faithful to his children.
    Today, I want to talk about the Psalm considering the Gospel reading we just heard, and then to look at what it means to be a sheep as David imagines.  Finally, I will talk about how I see the Psalm after living in this congregation for the past few years.
    The Gospel reading today – the healing of the man born blind – is immediately before Jesus’ homily on being the Good Shepherd.  It sets the stage for one of Jesus’ most iconic teachings, but it is so often taught and studied as being separate and apart from it.  I won’t recap the whole passage, but I will point out that the testimony of the man Jesus heals to the religious rulers neatly foreshadows what our Lord himself will say in response to those same leaders asking about their spiritual blindness:
    “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could not do anything.”
    In over a month and a half from now, we will hear Jesus tell the religious leaders that “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”  Today, in this Gospel lesson, we see this at work – this man who wasn’t one of the original disciples, who had an almost tangential interaction with Jesus, this man declares his faith in a way that took Simon Peter a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry on Earth to realize.  This man, born blind, in as bad a way at that time as it was possible to be and still live in the barest measure of freedom, held to the Lord as his shepherd, and because of it he was healed.
    We are told throughout Scripture that this is what is expected of us, to be sheep.  This is what it means to be sheep – that when we hear the Lord, we listen to Him, and trust in Him.  We don’t over-complicate what we are hearing; that was the folly of the Jewish leaders, who took the Law of Moses and codified every nook and cranny of daily life so that they could easily say who was and was not favored by God.  When the Messiah healed on the Sabbath, they could not see past the offense to their understanding of the Law and so they mistook the voice of the Shepherd for the howl of a wolf and sought to turn the rest of the flock against Him.
    To be sheep also means that we know that our plans and our will are not our own, but they belong to the Shepherd.  We graze and lie down in the fields where the Shepherd leads us, we follow His paths, and in doing so we are protected and made eternally safe.  Harm comes when we seek to be our own shepherds, and instead of recognizing the fast-moving water for what it is, we drink at the bank of a river and are swept downstream by the unexpected torrent.  When you look on the times in your life when you were most frustrated, most unsure of what God was doing, most prone to grumbling, do you notice that it seemed like your plans were being foiled, and that was why you were frustrated?  I know that’s how it has been for me.  When I elevate my plans above the will of God, that is when I am most likely to be frustrated and, eventually, humbled.
    This is not to say don’t plan at all – planning is good and right to be effective and to avoid pitfalls.  God created us with minds that see our surroundings and seek the best way to use them for our benefit.  Planning is part of that overall strategy for survival, and now God seeks to use it to His glory.  But that is the key – the planning is for us to effect the parts of His Will He gifts us to work within, not for our own advancement or our own boasting.  When the failure of a plan becomes a threat to our faith, that is when we have gone beyond the bounds and are in the wilds away from the herd.
    It is also not to say that only good things will come in this life when we surrender our primacy in our lives to God.  Sheep have an idyllic life, but they too are killed by predators or die of disease, just as humans are killed by violent men or succumb to the failures of the body.  Sheep are sheared of their wool, just as humans can lose their prosperity in the blink of an eye.  Sheep go hungry in times of famine, the same as people.  Finally, sheep sometimes are slaughtered for the will of the one who owns the flock, just as God allows the martyrs to die so that the Kingdom of God may spread by the testimony of their blood.  
You might be wondering now what is so comforting about this Psalm, if in the end the sheep are destroyed just as we are.  The answer is in the change of imagery in verses 5-6.  Sheep do not eat at tables, and I have never heard of a shepherd who has anointed the head of his sheep with oil.  No, these verses describe the life that a child of God will have because the Lord is their Shepherd – mercy and goodness unceasing, eternity dwelling in the House of the Lord, with a table that is untroubled by the enemy within our flesh and the enemy outside the walls, and the cup of salvation never emptying.
In other words, we are led as sheep on Earth so that we can dwell with God as His children in eternity.
In light of this, let us now consider the psalm as members of a congregation that has explicitly acknowledged the Lord as our Good Shepherd.
Something you might not know about Claire and I, we are TV junkies.  I typically have three or four current TV shows that I am watching throughout the year, and I have my favorites to turn on when I’m not really paying attention and just want some background noise.  One aspect of TV shows that I found that I really enjoy is when the theme song perfectly matches the tenor of the show.  Some shows get it exactly right, and others… not so much.
    When Father Ben first asked me to preach today and I saw that Psalm 23 was the selection, I was excited, because I believe that we have a “theme psalm” for this congregation – and it is this very one.  Doesn’t our history as a church in the Opelika-Auburn area affirm this?  Think about everything that we have been through together, our humble flock, and consider whether or not these things reveal the Shepherd’s rod and staff.  Take a minute now, to think through that history…    
Here is a brief look at the examples that stand out to me:
    The story of this congregation has been one that witnesses to the Providence of God, which is like the care a Shepherd has for his flock.  When there was a need for a permanent priest after Fr John-Michael announced his retirement, the Lord sent Fr Timothy to provide the base, the foundation, for our community as an individual entity, apart yet in communion with our mother parish.  When there was a need for us to step out more visibly and tangibly into the local community, our arrangement with Covenant Presbyterian came to an end.  Because that arrangement came to an end, we needed a more permanent worship space, and God provided this location.  The story of how we came to be here, after months of promising locations were identified, negotiated and then abruptly taken off the table, is a clear testimony to God’s care for His sheep.  
    When it was time for us to grow again, God sent Fr Timothy elsewhere.  In the intervening months between Fr Timothy’s last Sunday with us and our calling Fr Ben, the Lord reinforced our love for one another, grew our sense of community, and knit us together in a way that can only happen in the face of long term trial.  During that time, He was making sure that the right leader for this congregation was in the right place at the right time to come to us.  We talked to several candidates, called one other who turned us down because they didn’t feel ready to be what we needed, and the rest accepted job offers shortly before their scheduled trips to see us.  In some ways, during that time it felt like the field was being narrowed down, because our Shepherd was making sure that the right person was available to tend his flock.
    “The Lord is [our] Shepherd, [we] shall not be in want.”  When we surrender our will for what we would have God’s Church be in the world, then He provides exactly what we need for us to be what He would have us to be in the world.  When we look for where the Shepherd’s rod and staff are leading us, we find that we avoid the swift, dangerous waters, and the paths that were fraught with hazards have been made passable (though perhaps not safe).  When we live like sheep (usually after many abortive attempts at being our own shepherds), we come to a heavy yet liberating realization: We are sheep in this world, because the job of Shepherd is too big for us.
Remember who our Shepherd is, and that we are all members of the same flock. Amen.