I don’t know much of sheep and shepherds, it’s true.
A long time ago when I preached on a Good Shepherd Sunday, I confessed this truth. As he shook his hands with me after worship that morning, John Spangler offered to educate me. John was a hard man of few words and to be honest, until then he had always scared me a little. Still, I took him up on his invitation and a few days later I drove out to their farm in rural Northern Illinois. John climbed into the driver’s side of his battered up pick-up truck and as he pushed the passenger side door open from the inside he nodded for me to get in so we could get to the back part of their property. As he pulled the truck up next to a falling down barn he told me to watch my step and follow him.
I did. And as he stepped forward suddenly he was surrounded by sheep of all sizes… as he called out to them they bleated and pushed against him. I was struck, however, that while he called them "by name," those sheep only had two names, “Blacky” and “Whitey.” Still, they knew their shepherd’s voice, who spoke to me then of his efforts to protect them from being prey to wild animals. Even there in Northern Illinois. I wasn’t afraid of John after that. For I had seen the shepherd in him.
In spite of that one encounter, I know little of sheep and shepherds, to be sure. I expect that’s true of many who hear these words this week-end. Although some of us have lived in these words for so long perhaps they have become a part of us anyway. At hospital bedsides and in cemeteries we’ve spoken and heard them and in the dark of our darkest nights we’ve whispered them until they have somehow become part of us.
I knew this to be true some time ago when I was called upon to lead worship at a local nursing home.
Several times a year my turn came around and the scene was always the same: the residents would remain after lunch on Sunday afternoon in their dining room. Tables would be pushed aside and wheelchairs gathered in a large circle.
Only the kitchen was right next to the dining room and the din of dishes being done would often drown out the sound of my voice. And of course, there was no sound system to assist my being heard over the noise. Even without the distraction, no doubt many would have struggled to hear anyway.
Perhaps it was that and maybe it was that whatever I had shared with my congregation that morning wasn’t all that interesting to those who weren’t blessed with other Sunday afternoon visitors, but I often felt as if I was just talking to myself those Sunday afternoons. Until I finally took to simply reading the 23rd Psalm every time.
And I do mean every time.
It wasn’t terribly innovative, of course, but it seemed to get through like nothing else I had to say would.
Indeed, maybe those dishes weren't quite as loud as I had thought and perhaps their senses were sharper than I had believed, for eyes would suddenly brighten as God's people in that place would mouth the words as I spoke them.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
I wondered why.
For even twenty years ago in that somewhat rural place most of those gathered had probably never encountered sheep and shepherds. These were factory workers and laborers who were spending their last days here. Most of them would have had no real idea of what shepherds actually do.
It could only have been their upbringing in the faith that made these words so dear to them.
Perhaps it was the image of Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb over his shoulders. Or the memory of shepherds in a field hearing the good news of God’s love born for them in Bethlehem. Or the Sunday School story of a shepherd boy becoming king. Whatever it was, it was clear that by their last years, these words and images had become theirs. Even if they’d never met a shepherd. Even if they had only encountered sheep from a distance.
I don’t know if that’s as true anymore. A while back, for instance, I sat down with a family to plan a funeral. I didn’t know the children and grandchildren crowded around my table for they had long since moved away. I asked them then if they had any preferences on lessons to be shared when we gathered the next day. “Anything but the 23rd Psalm!” one among them exclaimed. It had been too long associated with sadness and death, she offered in explanation. Clearly, she had never heard it in other times as a source of comfort and promise. It no longer lived for her.
I want to believe these words still speak though. Even so, perhaps we may have to work a little harder to make them come alive for those who not only know little of sheep and shepherds, but also haven’t known the history of God’s people to be their own. What do you think? Do these images still speak?
- What do you know of sheep and shepherds? What experience do you have that bring these images alive?
- When has hearing or reading the 23rd Psalm been especially meaningful in your walk of faith?
- Think through this familiar Psalm slowly. Read the Gospel lesson carefully. What gifts of the Good Shepherd are you especially grateful for right now?
- Do you believe these images still speak? If not, what others might you offer which would offer similar meaning?