Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Shepherd and the Journey

If familiarity breeds contempt, then Psalm 23 must be the most despised Psalm that we have been given.  It is still a favourite reading at weddings and funerals.  It has been adapted into several hymns and modern worship songs.  It was even the theme tune for the Vicar of Dibley. But its popularity is, in fact, a measure of its importance.  It is also a measure of how much it has to offer us as Christians and followers of Jesus.  So for a few moments this morning, I want to explore this most famous of Psalms and offer you the chance to reconnect with the Psalm in a way that speaks of the lives lived in the service of God.

The image of a shepherd is one that is very powerful in the Bible.  Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery into freedom, was a shepherd when God called him into his service.  King David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings, was a shepherd boy, and his shepherding skill with the sling gave him victory over Goliath.  Very early on in the Bible, the shepherd became an image of leadership.  Above all, it is Jesus who we think of as the Good Shepherd of St John’s Gospel.  This is neglected as an image of his role as Messiah, king and leader of his people.  When Mark speaks of Jesus having compassion on the people ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd’, he is both criticising those entrusted with leading the people and offering Jesus as the true Messiah, the Son of David, the shepherd and king of God’s people.  We still use this image today, not least in the way that we speak of clergy and especially bishops, who are given a shepherd’s crook.  But in the Bible, the shepherd was not just an image of religious leadership, but also of political leadership.  Jeremiah’s criticism that we heard in our first reading was of the king and his court, not simply the priests.  Perhaps this is something we need to regain in our political leadership – the sense that they are there to be shepherds to those committed to their charge. 

But it is not my purpose this morning to speak to those in leadership, political or otherwise, but to offer a way through the 23rd Psalm that will speak to us all.  What I propose to do is to work my way through the Psalm, and to ask a series of five questions that may prompt each of us as we seek to deepen our Christian lives through our encounter with this Psalm. 

The Psalm begins with an assertion that ‘The Lord is my shepherd’.  The first calling of every Christian, especially those called to lead, the first calling is to follow.  The Lord is my shepherd, I am to follow where he leads.  So my first question is simply this, how am I following Jesus?  Take a moment to reflect on this question, How am I following Jesus?

The Psalm goes on.  Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He leads me to green pastures and still waters.  Food and water, which recur later in the Psalm, are the basic needs that we have.  But they are not our only needs.  As people we have needs that include food and drink, but go further in terms of our needs for companionship, for company, for fulfilment, and so on.  The poet R.S. Thomas spoke of the way to the Kingdom being to ‘present yourself with your need only and the simple offering of your faith, green as a leaf.’  ‘Present yourself with your need only.’  So the second question for us to consider this morning is this: What do I need from God today?

The Psalm goes on.  “He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.”  God provides for our needs, but the reviving of our soul prompts us to deeper longings.  Psalm 42 tells that “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42.2); and Jesus says that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5.6).  These thirsts are connected.  The evidence of progressing in prayer and contemplation (our thirst for God) is not that prayer gets easier, or somehow ‘better’ (whatever that means).  Rather it is that our compassion increases and we care more for others (our thirst for righteousness).  So the third question that Psalm 23 offers to us this morning is simply this: What do I thirst for?

The Psalm goes on.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil … you spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”  There is no false optimism in Psalm 23, that following Jesus leads only to good things.  The Psalm knows of the fears and troubles of life – the shadow of death and people who seek to do us harm.  And yet, this is not a Psalm of despair.  Rather, the Psalm offers us a picture of God preparing a banquet for us in the midst of our troubles.  Our hardships can be occasions through which God gives us gifts.  Few, if any, of us have learned to care for others without going through hard times ourselves.  God’s gifts can be felt and are given to us in difficult times.  So the fourth question is this: What gift is God giving me through my troubles?

The Psalm goes on.  Running to the end, it returns to its themes of God’s provision for us.  “You have anointed my head … my cup is running over.  Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  Psalm 23 is a Psalm that sings of the abundant and generous love of God. It is a Psalm of thankfulness, and joy.  And the final question is this: What am I thankful for?

I hope that has been a helpful tour through this Psalm, and that for all its familiarity you have been able to find something that spoke to you of God and our need for God.  Let me remind you of the questions and then I’ll read through the Psalm again to close.
·      How am I following Jesus?
·      What do I need from God today?
·      What do I thirst for?
·      What gift is God giving me through my troubles?
·      What am I thankful for?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

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


Originally given at Derby Cathedral 19.7.15

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This psalm is a constant source of sustenance and comfort for me, but it never hurts to think a bit harder about familiar friends.