Easter 4A; Good Shepherd Sunday
Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Just like every Second Sunday of Easter we hear the gospel story from John about Thomas wanting proof of Jesus' resurrection, every year on this Sunday we hear a reading from the 10th Chapter of John and Psalm 23 – two places where sheep and shepherds are prevalent. While there's a lot of good stuff about Jesus and sheep and gates in the gospel, I want to focus on Psalm 23.
This is one of the most popular and beloved of all the psalms. Among other things, it's relatively short and therefore easily memorized. It has an easy cadence to it. It offers comfort in difficult times and gives us images of safety, security, and protection. Because of this it is often read at funerals and printed on those little service cards funeral homes hand out.
The Lord is my shepherd.
This is a statement of faith. Shepherds lead their flock and the flock follows, trusting that the shepherd will not lead them astray. The same is true for us, both individually and corporately. The Lord is my shepherd – I am willing to lay my desires and ambitions before the Lord and let him lead me and call me to a place where he would have me be, trusting that he will not lead me astray. Corporately, if we proclaim the Lord is our shepherd, then we need to remember where our priorities lie and always work to discern where God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to serve.
I shall not be in want.
This can be hard for us at times, especially in times of physical, mental, spiritual, or financial crises. But we need to look at our life's totality and not just a quick glimpse of where we are. There have been times in our lives where Joelene and I struggled, but we had what we needed. Sure, we wanted certain things, but we were not IN WANT. If we can see our lives from a positive perspective, I am sure that we will most often see that we have our needs met and we are not in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
The Good Shepherd is leading us on a journey. As with every journey, rest is required. We need to remember to take our rest, to be nourished and restored. This is the reason why the Lord commanded his people to rest on the Sabbath day, doing no work and keeping it holy – because God knew we wouldn't do such a thing on our own. God makes us lie down in green pastures. Remember to take time to rest and refresh.
In that rest our souls are revived. We are revived by both word and sacrament. As we follow the Good Shepherd we are guided along right pathways. We learn what it means to walk along the narrow path. We learn that constantly walking that path can be tiring and wear us down. Therefore we need to take our rest and have our souls revived.
This reminds me of the old joke of the pastor who never took a day off because Satan never takes a day off. Someone said, “They need a better role model.” Take rest. Get yourself revived.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
For us Christians, this verse has a decidedly resurrection feel to it. Through Jesus' death and resurrection he has destroyed death and made creation new. Death no longer has a hold on us and, although death is all around us, we have nothing to fear. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall no longer fear the evil effects of death and decay.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
This verse has a two-fold meaning. In a gospel reading we'll hear next year, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” So often in Christianity one group pits themselves against another group. They proclaim that they are the one, true faith standing against those troublesome heretics. But the table that is spread before us is in the very midst of those troublesome heretics, and it just may be that God invites them to the table as well.
In our own lives, God spreads this table before us that is overflowing with the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a table where we are fed and nourished with the food of the heavenly banquet. And yet, that table is spread before us in the presence of those who trouble us. We don't always get along with each other. I have had my share of disagreements with some of you, and you have had disagreements with each other. Yet we still manage to come to the table, sometimes side-by-side with those who trouble us and receive this most blessed and holy food.
No matter who is troubling us, may we always remember that this table is prepared for all who follow the Good Shepherd.
You have anointed my head with oil.
We have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have been adopted into the household of God. We have also been anointed with oil and marked as Christ's own for ever. The oil we use to do that has a particular scent. When I anoint the head of the newly baptized, not only are they marked as Christ's own for ever, but the scent of that holy oil remains with them and becomes yet another reminder of God's presence.
I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
This is the culmination of the psalm. We proclaim that the Lord is our shepherd. Living by faith we know that our needs will be met and we will not be in want. We know that, if left to our own devices, we probably won't care for ourselves as we should, but God will. If we follow our Good Shepherd we will be brought to places of rest and refreshment. By following the example of our Good Shepherd, we will learn to walk the narrow path of righteousness, caring for ourselves and others. Knowing our Good Shepherd died and rose again, we can follow in his footsteps, walking in the shadow of death but fearing no evil because life has been changed, not ended. The example of our faith is that God's table is open to all who choose to follow him, even if they trouble us; and in that we just might learn to welcome those who are not like us or are bothersome. We have been anointed with oil and marked as Christ's own for ever.
This is where we dwell, in the house of the Lord. By our faith, by our baptism, by our participation in word and sacrament, we are able to dwell in this house of the Lord for ever, and nobody can take that away from us. This is part of the good news: that whether we live or die, we are the Lord's possession.
May we live our lives with the confidence, faith, and comfort of this beloved psalm. And may this psalm which we have heard countless times provide us with a new way of living life – following the Good Shepherd, taking rest when needed, fearing no evil, and dwelling in the house of the Lord for ever.