“The True Shepherd is Among Us”
Jeremiah 23.1-6 – Psalm 23 – Mark 6.30-34, 53-56 – Ephesians 2.11-22
July 22, 2012
Psalm 23 is an old prayer. It is prayed, for the most part, from the point-of-view [ewe? sorry] of an individual sheep as it journeys with the rest of its flock, led by its shepherd. Together, the sheep is led by the shepherd through the landscapes of life: green pastures and still waters, as well as dark valleys of death. I think it’s pretty awesome that humans have to rely on the witness of a different animal than ourselves to get at certain aspects of who God is.
I also appreciate it for another reason: Psalm 23’s vision of life with the shepherd is – like other psalms – incredibly tactile, tangible, material in its vision of life with the shepherd. It’s imagery completely set within a geography. It describes the goodness of material life – of a prepared table and full cup, drinkable water, ample food, restoration, a home. It exudes a childlike, even sheepish(?) contentment at such abundance, guidance, and protection. It’s a holistic vision of salvation. This vision is good, very good.
Like most of us, I do not regularly cross paths with sheep, so – you guessed it – I went to talk to CHMF’s resident shepherds, Dirk and Judy. I was eager to learn from them all about the characteristics of sheep – why they are the bible’s preferred stand-in for human beings, what they suggest about human nature, etc. I did learn a lot about sheep sitting at Dirk and Judy’s table and walking around their pasture, but perhaps I should have known that in the process of listening to them talk about their care for their animals, I would learn even more about good shepherds.
This is as it should be, since these passages more truthfully seem more about the ways of God, using the metaphor of the shepherd, than a point-by-point comparison with sheep. This too is a false distinction, however, because the life of the shepherd is given to sustaining the life and health and joy of the sheep. The shepherd has freely chosen to be for the sheep, to bind his life to the lives of the sheep.
I still come to the text, though, and ‘wonder as I wander’ through it: what does it say about God that God is likened to a shepherd?
One of many things I learned about shepherding from Judy and Dirk is that there are basically two models of shepherding in the U.S. today. The first approach, common in the east, is more of a contained, production model, using paddocks and small herds and careful breeding methods to make sure every sheep is useful for harvest. The sheep are kept safe and managed through the whole process. In the Western United States, however, the climate and geography mean there is a lot of space for wandering, free-ranging, adapting to the vastness and dryness of the land. Sheep are allowed to graze and are rounded up at certain times of the year. There are not corrals, or paddocks, or fences, where the sheep cannot be threatened by predators or go exploring or foraging for new grass. Rather, there is death in the desert, and sheep are creatures prone to wander, and the ranchers account for both.
It seems that this second method is more like what is described here, but it still doesn’t quite get at the shepherding practices of Psalm 23. Because neither of these methods uses shepherds who actually roam with the sheep. By way of contrast, the Lord in Psalm 23 is described as the shepherd who goes into the vast, unforgiving lands with the sheep and brings them through to abundant life.
By describing God as a shepherd, the psalmist, David, seems to be calling up a lot of scriptural images, inviting the people of Israel to remember all of the ways God has faithfully, strangely led them and guided them and fed them throughout their history – especially through their many years of wandering the wilderness. Even though he is writing from a palace, he is reminding them of God’s presence in the wilderness: not only in the promised lush green pastures, but in the craggy, harsh wilds of Sinai. As Martha reminded us in a sermon earlier this year, God inhabits the wild. And so it is here.
The image of sheep and shepherds are at play in the gospel passage as well. Mark says that Jesus tells the disciples to ‘come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’ In his ministry, Jesus does not have a home base, or a home. Apparently that is why they are retreating, looking for somewhere to rest up and regroup.
Jesus meets the crowds in “a deserted place” – a wilderness. Or, more accurately, they meet him. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” It seems like the people ambush Jesus. He looks upon the crowd and has compassion on them, “because they [are] harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Usually, sheep want to flee and the shepherd, or the shepherd’s dog, has to cut the sheep off at the pass before they scatter. But what happens here? Here, the sheep flock to the shepherd, cutting off his passage, pressing around him.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of this ambush. But I think it, too, illustrates something about shepherding: they do not respond well to being forced (as I learned the hard way one muddy day in Kenya). You can’t drag sheep or drive them, or they scatter: but, develop a relationship with them through providing for them, however, and they will trust you and follow you. It seems like the sheep In Mark 6 have recognized their shepherd.
It seems like Mark is connecting Jesus with the image of the Lord as the shepherd. He is pointing at the true shepherd of Israel. Here is a shepherd who does not control the sheep from afar, but one who is pressed upon by harassed and helpless sheep. Jesus the shepherd is not distant, ruling from somewhere up high, but is down in the nitty-gritty of the flock. The shepherd is not out of sight and deaf to their bleating, but there in the middle of the crowds, crowds filled with people like us – hungry, ill, in need of healing, in need of help. He is there, in the deserted place, in the wilderness, with them. Jesus meets them there and teaches them and heals them. His is a ministry of compassion and solidarity with those harassed and helpless. A false shepherd cannot do this, is not willing to do this. Unlike the false shepherds in Jeremiah, Jesus does not drive the remnant of his flock out of the barren and desolate and deserted lands but gathers them out of such places.
For an Israelite, Mark’s description would recall God leading them in the wilderness, in the desert, through Moses a true leader, a true shepherd. Here God’s relating to us takes is likened to that of a shepherd tending sheep by walking among them. This nomad shepherd God, like the Lord of the psalmist, meets us where we are and stands among us.
On the note of God meeting us in the wilderness, I want to come back to what say that this is an individual psalm – the writer is speaking of his own experience of God. It is one of the psalms that directly takes up our individual concerns within the larger salvation history. I think it might signal that this good shepherd, far from being annoyed or bottom line, takes our particular needs seriously. The psalmist speaks of his needs of food, water, and protection. Jesus concretely offer the people teaching, and heals their particular diseases. But these passages also talk about the emotional realm of life. “Harassed, helpless, fear, restores my soul – these all have to do with feelings.
The psalms give room for the emotions of the worshipper – whether jubilation and gratitude, as in this psalm, or the anger and sadness that happens in the wilderness – such as at a funeral. There are not only material wildernesses, but emotional ones. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced them. For me, they are times when I feel helpless, like I’m lost, or stuck, or going in circles. A wise man I know calls this experience the “bewilderness.” This psalm suggests to me that if God meets us in the pasture and the wilderness, God can also meet us in the jubilation and the bewilderness. Psalm 23 captures both disparagement and joy in its emotional topography.
The psalms allow wandering all over the emotional topography, within them even the most unattractive, stigmatized emotions are aired, as well as the most contented, grateful ones. I find it comforting to know that the psalms don’t ask us to bracket our emotions from our lives from our discipleship, but take us to the very heights and depths of our human experience. The psalms can be where we reach when we don’t know what to say but something must be said. So, this is a funeral text for good reason – and I want to acknowledge that it might still be fresh for some of us – it acknowledges that there is actually a valley of death, and it offers comfort to those mourning in its shadow.
It does not say that we will never be in the valley; it says, the Lord is with us even there in it.
It does not say that there are no enemies; it says that even though our enemies are near, the Lord invites us to dine.
It does not say that we will never feel uncertain about where we are heading, it says that the Lord leads us in right paths.
It does not guarantee that we will never be ill, it says, Jesus comes among us as a healer.
It does not tell you that we will never feel harassed or helpless, it says, the shepherd has come and is in our midst.
It does not say that we will never ask yourselves, “how did I end up here, anyways? Where did things go wrong?”; it invites us to turn to the shepherd who has already found us.
God allows us to be in different places, to move through the landscape following our shepherd freely. The sheep are not kept safe in a pen or a shed; there is not a fold, a paddock, a corral. They are not kept safe by their location, but by the shepherd’s presence.
I find it comforting that instead, God is a shepherd, walking in our midst, leading us firmly but gently not around, but through the landscape of our lives – our joys, our fears, our valleys, our days of flourishing. God meets us where we are and wanders with us, we who are sheep in the wilderness.
When we are in the green pastures, this is the territory of the shepherd. And when we are in the wilderness, this too is the territory of the shepherd. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, God invites us to trust – that God will faithfully lead us the sheep through the wilderness – whether we are there because of our own foolish wanderings, or because of enemies chasing us there, or because of false shepherds who we trusted letting us down and leaving us there. Wherever each one of us is, I believe that Jesus, the good shepherd, is the way God says to us, “I will not leave you abandoned to wander alone, but I will be with you. I will bring you back to the flock, and lead you to goodness and rest. Will you trust me?”
I find myself grateful, for in thinking about the good shepherd while working on this sermon, I have not been able to avoid the fact that sheep are flock animals, and I’ve thought about you all. I’ve thought about how the type of God we believe in is reflected in how we do church. I’ve thought about how we are wandering people who seek, by sidetrails and detours and diversions, to follow the true shepherd, to let the true shepherd come among us and gently lead us and guide us towards goodness and mercy. It makes me thankful to read the psalms with this community, this little wandering flock, and to share our prayer requests and lives with one another, week in and week out.
Let me end where the passage ends: “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Goodness and mercy are personified: the shepherd is goodness and mercy, and will never leave nor forsake the sheep. And at last we enter the house of the Lord, part of the mixed, integrated, odd, flock that was once far off, but has been brought near (Eph. 2).
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, §59., p. 159. In this section he talks about how Jesus’ Lordship is unique in that he is the one Lord who also takes the position of a servant: false Lords are not willing to condescend like this.
 Credit for this phrase goes to Kate Roberts.
 For more on language and emotion in the psalms, see an accessible and compellingly written little book by Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit (2nd ed., 2007).