April 29, 2007
3rd Sunday after Easter
"FOLLOWING THE SHEPHERD"
"That's All I Want"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
This morning I want to start off by reading what some say is the most beloved Psalm of all, the 23rd Psalm. And while some of the other translations may be closer to the actual literal meaning of the words, the version we know best is the King James Version.
 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Psalm 23 is probably the Psalm that is most memorized. It is also the one that is read the most at funerals. But there is so much more to the 23rd Psalm than just the passage which talks about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil. This Psalm is about a unique relationship that we have with the Good Shepherd and the relationship which the Shepherd offers and desires for us.
The problem is that it's one of those passage we know so well, we can recite by rote without ever thinking about the meaning. Because we know it so well, we don't listen to it any more. It's right up there with the two great commandments to "love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves" and John 3:16. These are some of the core beliefs of our faith but because they are so familiar, we've let them lose their meaning in our lives.
It's sort of like when you move to a new community. The first thing you do is start learning street names and addresses. You get confused when you ask someone for directions and they say something like, "Well, you take the Godley highway past Sandy Hammon's place and on out past where you'd turn off to the Cruze's. You go on past Louis & Erma Caldwell's, and just before you get to where Jay & Debra Moore used to live you take a left. It's down that road."
After awhile though, we begin to forget the street names and we start talking like everybody else. At first the street names are important because we're new to the community. But then we start getting to know everybody and we get used to direction like, "Let's see, take 917 to Old Betsy and take a right. Keep going past Dr. Lehman's place. . ."
This Psalm has become so familiar that we miss some of the depth and richness that is there. And we miss some of the relationship which God offers to us. Over the next few weeks we're going to revisit this familiar Psalm and look into some of the deeper meaning we could be missing, simply because of our familiarity with the Psalm and the mild case of "been there, done that" which we all seem to suffer from nowadays.
A. Like I said earlier, this Psalm is about a singular relationship. And this first verse not only lays the foundation for understanding the rest of the Psalm but also sets that relationship in motion by making a bold statement: "The LORD is my shepherd."
In the time when this was first written, shepherding was an honorable profession. And people understood the symbolism of the shepherd who cared for and took care of his/her flock.
Not too many of us are shepherds are even have sheep, today. Most people don't even like mutton. Shearing, carding and combing the wool is almost a lost art and too much work when we can go to the local department store and get whatever we're looking for. So, why would we raise sheep?
With that mindset and attitude we have to ask, how do we get to the heart of this passage? Well, we have take the time to revisit the passage. We have to take time to dig into it. And we have to take time to listen to the Shepherd through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
B. Back in the time of both David and the Disciples, they had a clear understanding of the role of the shepherd. They could see the shepherds tending their flocks almost every day. They saw the care given and the response of the sheep. And if you think about it, it's a perfect parallel to our relationship with God through Christ. That's why the Biblical writers depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Martin Marty points out that a shepherd is needed only when there aren't any fences. The shepherd is someone who stays with his sheep at all cost, guiding, and protecting. The Shepherd is someone who walks with them through the fields checking what they are eating and making sure it is the good stuff.
A shepherd is also the one who makes sure that the sheep don't get distracted and wander off because there aren't any fences.
A parallel for us might be grace versus the law. The law is basically a fenced in pasture. The shepherd doesn't have to be there for the sheep to be safe. The sheep don't have to have much of a relationship. As long as they obey when the shepherd comes, they are fine. The problem with this approach is there are holes in the fence and sheep are notorious for finding the holes and wandering off. And if the shepherd is gone, trusting the fence too much, those sheep that wander off could be lost forever.
But contrast that to the idea of Grace; the grace we experience through our relationship with Christ. Grace is free a range pasture where sheep graze in the company of the shepherd. We are not fenced in. We're set free but we're not alone. The Good Shepherd goes with us. The Good Shepherd watches over us in the midst of the fence-less fields of life. The Good Shepherd is faithful.
The faithfulness of the Good Shepherd, the love that is lavished on us and the care we are given is what allows us to say: "The Lord is my shepherd."
A. And saying "The Lord is my shepherd" allows us and empowers us to say the second part of this verse: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
During a Sunday School lesson, the teacher asked if anyone in the class could recite the twenty-third Psalm. One little girl enthusiastically raised her hand, stood up and began to recite: "The Lord is my Shepherd. That's all I want!" Then she sat down. (3)
It's funny but I really like that. And the reason is it really gets to the heart of what the Psalmist is saying. In modern language, we might say ,"Because the Lord is my shepherd I don't need anything else." Or "Because the Lord is my Shepherd I know I will lack for nothing."
Scripture reminds us that God has promised to take care of all of our physical and spiritual needs. God through Christ has promised to walk with us even through the most difficult times. Through the Church, God has even provided the extra care and companionship we need in this life. The example and teachings of Jesus give us guidance for our daily lives. And we don't even have to fear death, because Jesus has overcome it and we are promised eternal life.
Knowing and believing all of this, we should be able to say with the little girl "The Lord is my Shepherd. That's all I want!" Unfortunately we live in consumeristic culture that at least every 14 minutes tells us we need something new or different to be better people. Or fit the norm
B. The animated film Robots gives a perfect example of what I mean. The main character heads out to Bigweld Industries to become an inventor like Mr. Bigweld. In the process, discovers a plot to take over the company and do away with antiquated Mr. Bigweld.
In the board room of Bigweld industries, the voice of Mr. Bigweld tells his audience, "So, remember, whether a bot is made of new parts, old parts, or spare parts -- you can shine no matter what you're made of."
Ratchet, a shiny new robot, steps up and, with his voice dripping with sarcasm, remarks about Bigweld's "remarkable legacy" of his concern for everyday robots. "You don't come across old-fashioned values like that anymore, friend," he tells the employees, "and for good reason. THERE'S NO MONEY IN IT! Hello? Memo to Bigweld. We're not a charity!"
Ratchet says that this is why Bigweld no longer sits in the big chair, "he's a relic!" Ratchet makes fun of the people who keep crying for the good old days, and when an employee stands up for Bigweld, Ratchet presses a button and has him ejected from the room.
"Now, let's get down to the business of sucking every loose penny out of Mr. and Mrs. average knucklehead." Ratchet presses a button and asks where the money comes from, "Upgrades, people, upgrades. That's how we make dough. Now if we're telling robots that no matter what they're made of they're groovy, how can we expect them to feel crummy enough about themselves to buy our upgrades and make themselves look better?" Ratchet says he has invented a new slogan for the company, "Why be you when you can be new!"
Ratchet says he finds the new idea "brilliant" then asks the remaining "employees" what they think. Frightened of being ejected, they all laud the idea.
C. We live in a consumer driven economy and if we're not careful, we can get consumed by that consumerism. There's nothing wrong with things, per se. God created all those things. God gave us the creative ability to create all these things. But as the abnormal people, the people of God, if we get consumed by things, then we've missed the main thing, which is our relationship with God. I've got a little framed poster that a friend of mine gave years ago. It's very simple it says:
"The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing."
If we're consumed with getting more things and newer and better things rather being about the main thing, our relationship with God and sharing the Good News that God offers that relationship to the whole world, then we're going to lose the main thing. And the Main Thing that keeps us going and gives us the strength to face the world faithfully is our faith.
And because we live in a consumeristic society, we can get so distracted by the things of life and getting more of the things of life that we can actually be consumed by those things and lose our life.
This Psalm reminds us that the only thing we really need is God and our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. It challenges us to stay focused on that relationship and to trust in the care and provision of God.
I want to close with a true story I read about a prisoner named Neivelle Tan. He was imprisoned in a jail cell in Singapore. One day as the tray was slipped through the slot in the door it looked different. The bowl was the same, the scruffy brown tray was the same. The food was the same. The only real difference was a tiny wad of paper half hidden beside the bowl.
Eagerly, Neivelle Tan reached for the paper, spread it out on the tray, and began to read the tiny page torn from a book, the Bible. It was the 23rd Psalm.
With little else to think about, with nothing else to read, he thought of these words from the ancient psalm-, words he'd learned as a child. At the time he learned them he had no idea that one day he would actually be in "the valley of the shadow of death."
"How did I get here?" he asked himself. "Certainly not by asking the Lord to lead me. Like the other young people of my time, I thought I was intelligent enough to make my own way, to make a pleasurable, maybe even a good life. But here in this slimy cell, I admit I have failed."
Miraculously, one day he was taken from his death cell and allowed to mingle with the other prisoners. But Neivelle Tan was not content merely to mingle with them. He began to listen to them, talk with them, eventually to pray with them. Pretty soon, he was able to share the hope that he'd found with other hopeless men.
Surprisingly, he was pardoned. Set free. In the first pardon ever given by the governor of Singapore, the convict Neivelle Tan was set free. Prison walls had given way to the power of this marvelous writing. He trusted God and God did provide.
Today, this man, Rev. Neivelle Tan, is the pastor of a church in Singapore. All this happened because someone gave him a copy of the 23rd Psalm. (3)
He was able to get beyond the rote understanding of this Psalm. He was able to dig deeper. He was able to listen to what God was saying to him through the words of this Psalm let the Word of God dig deeper into the psyche of his heart and soul.
"The Lord is my Shepherd. That's all I want!"
1. Martin E. Marty in Context (Sept. 15, 1995). Christianity Today, Vol. 39, no. 13.
2. Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), May 1994
3. Maurice Berquist, DAVID'S SONG (Warner Press, Inc., 1988), pp. 8-9.
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