WK_Meister_des_Galla_Placidia_002-mediumSermon for the 4th Sunday in Easter, April 26, 2015. Preached at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church, my internship congregation in Dubuque, Iowa.

This week’s lectionary texts are John 10:11-18, Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, and Psalm 23, and for obvious reasons, this is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This was the first time I’ve ever tried preaching on the Psalm. We read Psalm 23 in unison as a congregation during the readings. As I preached through the Psalm, I also displayed each line of the Psalm on the screens so the congregation could follow along.

The Lord is my shepherd.

What image does that phrase conjure up in your mind? We’ve all heard this Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Or, Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.”

What do you picture?

I think of a beautiful meadow, perhaps some nice green rolling hills, and a person, the shepherd, standing around gazing fondly at a few cute, cuddly sheep. There’s a whole genre of painting dedicated to this idea, called pastorals.

Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854.jpg
“Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854” by Alvan Fisher – The White House Historical Association. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I think for lots of people, this Psalm is something like that, a peaceful, serene image.

The challenge with saying the Lord is my shepherd isn’t the idea of the shepherd, but what it says about us. Like I just talked about with the children, if you have a shepherd, well, that means you’re a sheep.

Sheep aren’t really that widely respected. They might be cuddly, fluffy, and even useful, but they’re also not that bright. And they’re vulnerable. They need a protector. They’re not in control. Sheep don’t defend themselves very well.

That great church camp song that I just taught the children goes, “I just wanna be a sheep, baa, baa, baa, baa.” But the reality is, most of the time, I don’t especially want to be a sheep. I like to be in control. I like to know what’s going on, to make my own decisions.

But at one of its most fundamental levels, Christianity is about giving up control. Following Christ means admitting that I can’t do it on my own. To say the Lord is my shepherd means that I don’t know the way, that I can’t take care of myself.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.

Except…sometimes I do want. There’s lots of stuff I want! Who doesn’t want some new toys to play with? Maybe it’s a new phone, a new car, a vacation, or a fully funded retirement. But do we need that?

This Psalm says all of it is temporary, especially compared to knowing God. To believe “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” is to believe that God is sufficient. Everything material that we could want, even ourselves, pales next to God. The only thing that can satisfy us enough to allow us to say “I shall not want” is God.

Maybe you want something more important, like healing for a family member, or peace for someone who’s suffering. Saying I shall not want because the Lord is my shepherd is admitting our own helplessness, to admit that sometimes, no matter how much we might desire something, it’s out of our hands. I shall not want, because it’s up to God, and God is sufficient.

I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;

When I realize I’m not the one in charge, I can be at peace. We didn’t read the Psalm in worship last week, but if we had, it would have been Psalm 4. In that Psalm, David cries to God for salvation in a time of distress. He asks God to answer him when he calls, and wonders how long God’s people will suffer. After getting out all these concerns, he ends with this. Psalms 4:8: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”

We trust that we can rest in safety, because God does not slumber or sleep. God is faithful.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.

When I think of times of being overwhelmed by nature, I think of two kinds of experiences. First, I think of awe at a storm, how powerful God’s creation can be. I’ve never been in a ship at sea during a storm, but I think of movies where a mighty wind and waves toss ships around.

But there’s another way I feel awe and wonder at nature. Have you ever been outside, maybe on a mountain, or deep in a quiet forest, and just stopped to be still?

What about the still waters of a quiet lake?

Have you ever felt a sense of awe at God in the stillness? For many people, I think that’s one of the most convincing proofs that God exists. Retreating away from the busyness of our daily lives, from all the stuff that we want, from our need to keep ourselves entertained, just getting away from that can be a way God restores our souls.

But there’s more to this Psalm than just the beautiful stillness of the green pastures and the still waters.

He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

If sheep stayed in a pasture, I suspect the shepherd’s job would be pretty easy! But the shepherd doesn’t just leave the sheep where they are. God doesn’t leave us where we are. The shepherd leads the sheep on a journey, beside the waters, along the paths.

Trusting God as our shepherd means trusting God to lead, even when we don’t know where we’re going. The sheep may have some familiarity with the path, especially if they travel it often, but only the shepherd really knows the path.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;

At the end of this Psalm, at the end of our journey, we’ll end up in the house of the Lord. But this Psalm is honest. The writer doesn’t pretend the journey is all in the green pasture. The path from the pasture to the Lord’s house isn’t direct. It includes the deepest, darkest valleys, or as the King James Version puts it, even the valley the shadow of death.

In the reading from Acts, we heard about Peter and John on trial, arrested, and held as prisoners. But in that valley, they fear no evil.

As he’s on trial, Peter gives a powerful witness to what God has done in healing the crippled beggar. But it’s not just that Peter’s an especially brave person, it’s that God is with him. The text describes Peter as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” God’s presence enables him to speak, to testify… to “witness,” as we heard about last week.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
For you are with me.

This promise is the heart of the Psalm. No matter what you are going through, God is with you. The Holy Spirit is filling you. You are not alone.

Being a shepherd isn’t a good part-time job. A shepherd in Israel didn’t work an eight hour shift, then knock off for dinner and come back the next day. Remember from the Christmas story the shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night? Shepherds came and lived among their sheep.

I said earlier that Christianity is about giving up control. It’s also about living life believing this is actually true, that God is with us.

It’s about believing that Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, is with us through the darkest valleys, never abandoning us. As Jesus himself puts it, he is the good shepherd who lays down his very life for the sheep. Where someone else might abandon us like a hired hand abandons the sheep when they’re threatened, in their hour of need, the good shepherd values the sheep more than his own life.

 You are with me.
Your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

Our comfort is what God has done for us. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The Holy Spirit is with us.

Notice the shift in the language here, from talking about God to talking to God. Now it’s a prayer. You, the Lord are my comfort, because you are with us.

Knowing that the shepherd is with us, being comforted by God’s presence, we can follow the shepherd’s example.

The 23rd Psalm is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. The only verse in the Bible I think is more popular is John 3:16, which tells us God loved the world enough to give his only Son so we could have life. That’s John 3:16.

Today we read from 1 John 3:16, a different letter, which says again what God’s love for us looks like. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What does laying down our lives for one another mean? What does it look like to sacrifice of ourselves for the sake of others?

Maybe it looks like a story from 4 years ago during Hurricane Irene, when the mayor of New York issued an evacuation order for hospitals in the path of the storm, but in one hospital, there were six ICU patients too sick to evacuate, so nurses and staff volunteered to stay, putting themselves at risk to care others.

Or maybe it doesn’t need to involve dramatically risking death. Maybe laying down our lives for one another looks like serving as a Stephen Minister, committing to spending time with another person who needs someone to listen.

Maybe it looks like giving some of our hard earned money to the food resource bank project so people we’ll never meet can have a sustainable food source. Maybe, as we celebrate the 5th grade milestone of serving the Lord today,  it looks like serving the Lord by helping as an acolyte, giving up time when you might rather be sleeping to come to church and help lead worship.

Maybe it looks like committing to be here today, to be the church with each other, for each other, to be Christ to each other.

Your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

I hear this line and I picture a victory feast after a battle, eating with enemies jealously watching. But I wonder if it has to be that? Could it instead be taking our feast into the presence of our enemies and loving them? Sharing with them? Could it be eating with people we wouldn’t normally be around? And I don’t mean the Guess Who dinner tonight, but associating with people we wouldn’t normally encounter. Can we see our Shepherd preparing a table for them too?

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

God provides abundantly for us. Our cups overflow from God’s generosity, both spiritually and physically. God has entrusted us with sharing the overflowing love we are given. Again from 1 John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

And it’s not something we do out of guilt, or as if we’re forced to. As Jesus said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay [my life] down of my own accord.”

My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Another, less traditional way to translate the word “dwell” in verse 6 is to “turn” or “return.” That turning to God, dwelling in the Lord’s house, is a lifelong process of encountering God’s goodness and mercy and being changed by it.

I can’t wrap up a sermon on sheep without commenting on another place Jesus talked about them. After the resurrection, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and when Peter said yes, he gave him a simple command, “Feed my sheep.” It’s written on the wall behind me. “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

That command is for us too. Be a shepherd. Feed the sheep.

But while you’re being a shepherd, take comfort in being a sheep too, for you are loved by the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for you.


Sermon: The Lord is My Shepherd
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