On this 4th Sunday of Easter we always read Psalm 23 and depending on the year, we hear readings from John’s gospel in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.
Good Shepherd Sunday is about our relationship with God. Its theme is that of God’s unfailing and unending care for us.
Psalm 23 would probably be voted “Most Beloved” psalm in the Bible if there were such a survey. Although we also tend to associate it with funerals, where it is almost always read, most of us probably most associate it with its message of comfort: the Shepherd God is with me always, taking care of my every need.
The psalmist’s God who “restores my soul” is surely a close relation to the Jesus who promises
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)
The psalm is also particularly appropriate as we are celebrating Earth Week, reminding us that it is in and through the natural world – the green pastures and the still waters (may we learn how much we need to honor and protect them) – that we meet God and find restoration.
In today’s gospel, Jesus identifying himself as “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” is obvious in its connection.
This gospel passage includes one of seven “I AM” statements that the evangelist John reports Jesus having spoken. Each offers a metaphor for understanding Jesus as the spiritual leader and guide who commits to care for the Children of God:
I am the bread of life
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the light of the world
I am the door
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life
I am the true vine
In stating that “I am the good shepherd”, Jesus was not offering a NEW image through which his followers could understand who he was, but rather, connecting himself to an image that was deeply familiar to his listeners through their knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures.
So. Shepherds. Most of us don’t know and appreciate the nuances of sheep and shepherds as did most of Jesus’ listeners.
My best connection – apart from watching demonstrations of the herding skills of sheep dogs at the various wool festivals that I love to frequent – is that of a small flock of sheep that lived across the street from my aunt and uncle’s home in rural Connecticut where I frequently visited as a child.
When my Aunt Peggy married Roger, she moved into his home in the midst of what had been an extensive family farm, which was now broken into parcels for Roger and his six siblings. The land across road belonged to Roger’s brother Edwin, and he used it for used for raising sheep.
Near the road and visible from Peggy and Roger’s house was an open-faced shelter behind a gate that gave access, and behind that, acres of pasture. I loved to cross the road to visit the sheep as a child, especially in spring when there was a new crop of lambs. I even had good luck to see one born, one year. I remember two things about that – that the lamb was up and nursing in about five minutes, and that as soon as it’s mother had licked it clean, it went down in mud and was filthy again.
The emphasis in the Psalm is the psalmist’s reliance and dependence on God, as sheep depend on the shepherd. I distinctly remember clear relationship between Edwin and his sheep: while they came trotting from the pasture back to the shelter when he showed up with food, they wouldn’t let others get anywhere near. They were in fact capable of being somewhat aggressive when protecting the lambs, and it was a firm rule that this was not a petting zoo and I was not allowed to enter the gate. (Jesus echoed the familiarity and trust of shepherd and flock: “I know my own, and my own know me”.)
Psalm 23 is not, I think, a statement about God viewing us as sheep-like, but rather, an expression of the human need for a trustworthy shepherd. The psalmist gives voice to something that is in all of us – what we might imagine that it feels like to be a sheep:
The Psalmist trusts that God does provide for all that we need, and provides in abundance. Jesus offers himself as the expression of God’s love:
For all of these images of comfort and protection, Psalm 23 is full of words of movement, describing a journey, and it acknowledges that having a caring shepherd does not eliminate the difficulties of the journey.
Faith does not claim that God will eliminate the sorrows of life, but rather, will accompany us through them.
Finally, the Psalm promises that the Good Shepherd enfolds us in loving care not only now, but beyond the bounds of our living and of our imagination: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord FOREVER”.
We are accustomed to hearing Psalm 23 in times of trial and sorrow, as I observed earlier, but isn’t it also perfect for times such as these when we can celebrate and give thanks for the guidance and abundance that brings us safe to this day?
We have been reminded of our vulnerabilities in the last year and more; we have certainly been traveling “through the valley of shadow”; our having to sit six feet apart and not yet receive the sacraments doesn’t quite feel like “still waters” or “a cup running over”, but we will get there.
God reaches out – in the Word, in the Eucharist, in the fellowship of the Church, in giving us the joy and privilege of serving the Gospel – to offer us what we need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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