Jeffrey Sartain, March 26, 2017
Scripture Psalm 23
I don’t know a lot about sheep and shepherding—just a little bit. When I was about 4 years old, I had a little runt lamb that I got to tend at my Aunt Margie’s farm. He was a sweet little thing. We were told that he probably wouldn’t have survived, but he had a bed by the woodstove and I fed him from a bottle. My uncle Earl gave him the ironic name “Lambchop.” I didn’t know it then but I know now that’s exactly how he ended up. That was why he was there.
I know we have at least one sheep farmer in the congregation—probably only one sheep farmer in the congregation—but I’m guessing most of you know about as much about shepherding as I do. We might say someone has gone off “seeking greener pastures” or we might refer to a congregation as a “flock,” but that is about where our experience of shepherding comes to an end.
Garrison Keillor once noted that when Jesus was born, it is notable that the first announcement of the birth came to shepherds. That is remarkable, he said, because shepherding was not exactly a high-class profession. He said, “Shepherding is fine as long as you let the sheep do whatever they want to do, but as soon as you try to get a sheep to do what you want it to do, all the high-class people get out of the business at that point.”
While shepherding is a beloved image for Christians, it is also notable that it has not been as definitive for us as the other more strong and regal images. We much more often sing in our hymns, for example, about Lord or Savior or King than we do about shepherd—it doesn’t very often get center stage on a Sunday morning.
There’s a symbol here that I have pointed out before that illustrates this. In our sanctuary we have beautiful stained glass windows; in one of them, there is an image of the shepherd. It is in the back, under the balcony, over the staircase, tucked away, and that is likely where we find the shepherd in general: not the focus of many sermons or at the front and center of our life, but on the margins—until we need it. Someone asked me today what I would be saying in the sermon, and I said I’d be speaking about Psalm 23. He said, “It sounds like a funeral.” That’s often where we hear it. We save this psalm, this image of the shepherd, for hospital bedsides, for ICUs, at deathbeds and funerals.
I wonder about that. If this image is so beloved among us, why do we not embrace her more often? As she has sustained thousands of years of the faithful, why keep her waiting, quietly in the wings, until we are especially burdened by pain, or illness, or grief, or in some other way, or we have to face the reality of our own mortality? Then we turn to her.
Professor Boniface Ramsey of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., looked at the presence of the shepherd in early Christian art. The shepherd was widely present very early in the Christian Church, when we, as a tribe, were persecuted, imprisoned, struggling. Then in the fourth century of the Christian era, the shepherd almost completely disappears, evaporates from Christian art. What happened in the fourth century? The reign of Constantine, who established Christianity as the religion of power in the Holy Roman Empire.
So as we moved from being a persecuted minority to being the seat of power, as soon as we were no longer vulnerable (we thought), we lost sight of the need for a shepherd. Who needs a shepherd when you have the all of the wealth, all of the military might, all of the governing authority? A shepherd is very nice to have around if we run into hard times, but otherwise in the back over the staircase is just fine.
There are reasons even now to keep the shepherd there. A rational look at the world gives us cause to doubt the effectiveness of vulnerable and tender images of God. The shepherd has no tangible power, works no spectacular miracles and crushes no enemies. So what is the power of this image?
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book in response to the 9/11 attacks titled The Lord Is My Shepherd. He delves into the meaning of this image of the shepherd that for Jews, interestingly enough, has held central place through centuries. They have more consistently turned to this image than have Christians. To explain why, Kushner references Albert Einstein, who said that science can tell us a lot about the universe—how old it is, how vast it is, what laws of physics control it—but Einstein went on to say that science is powerless to answer the most important question of all: Is the universe a friendly place, supportive of human hopes and aspirations? That is the question the shepherd answers.
I understand that people want more than that. People want healing. People want an escape hatch from disaster. In light of all we face in the world, people want some sure sign that it is actually love that is making the world go around and not vengeance and not greed and not narcissism and not whatever human folly seems to be in control of us. We’d like to have a stronger God to turn to than a shepherd.
And yet, most of us, when we have walked through our own valley of shadows, look back and see that the miracles that really sustained us were much less grand than the ones we first prayed for. Less grand, but not less profound. Miracles like the true affection of a friend. Miracles like the heartfelt forgiveness someone offers us, even if we have wronged them and don’t deserve it. Miracles like the assurance that we are loved by some greater power than we can imagine. Miracles like the faces of our dearest ones smiling, at ease, having a good time. Miracles like the strength that comes when we realize and believe that we are not alone. Those are shepherding sorts of miracles. Far too often we underestimate their power for our lives.
Rabbi Kushner writes:
“The psalmist does not say that he will fear no evil because there is no such thing as evil. . . . Nor does he say that he will fear no evil because he is a good person and evil befalls only people who deserve it. The writer of the psalm says that there is evil in the world and that he is as vulnerable to it as anyone else, but that doesn’t scare him.”
“God’s promise is that when we have to face the pain and unfairness of the world, as we inevitably will, we will not have to face it alone.”
I realize there may be some for whom the pain of the world is just too great for that promise to mean very much. That promise that we are not alone hardly stands up to the feeling that we are alone sometimes. It can seem to be an empty promise. But I invite you today to hold open the possibility that even when it seems we are alone, even when it seems the world has been left to the terrible devices of our worst inclinations, even when it seems in fact that we are very alone—hold open the possibility that we are protected in ways we are unable to even begin to imagine.
And that leads me to Flora. Flora and I met when I was 28 and she was 84. I was her new minister. She was suffering from dementia—though not if you asked her. She would tell you that she was just perfectly fine.
On the surface of her life, things actually did seem pretty solid, but a glimpse behind the curtain of Flora’s life revealed that in some ways the whole little town was caring for her, and she didn’t realize it. It was the kind of care you can get when you are in a small town like that. Nearly all twelve hundred souls in the village knew and respected her; she and her husband had been important people in the town. She’d been a great presence; she had helped a great many people. And the town wanted to give her the dignity of feeling like she was as independent and capable as she wanted to be.
It started when people were noticing how dangerous she was behind the wheel of her car. That’s something you notice in a small town. A neighbor asked Flora if she would mind going with her twice a week to the grocery store because she liked company. Always wanting to be helpful, Flora agreed, and her friend added, “Why don’t you let me drive?” The cashiers at the drug store and the tellers at the bank were helping her pay her bills and keep her books and her medications in some order. They were kind enough to call her and say, “Flora, could you bring down your checkbook? We think we might have made a little mistake.” And then they would look over her balances and call people she had paid twice and get a little money back and get everything straightened out. At the drug store, they would say to her, “We went ahead and laid out all these pills for you for the next couple weeks. Here’s a little case for you. Call us when you run out.” Another man at church was enabling Flora to keep her beloved and esteemed job as a volunteer on the altar guild. He would come in secretly after she left to rewash all the little communion glasses on the first Sunday of the month, and find where she may have put the communion ware—in the ladies’ room or in the refrigerator, not in the safe where it belonged. Flora remained oblivious to all of this. The list went on. She was content, well-fed and healthy enough, it seemed to her, she was in no particular need—blissfully unaware of that the world was bolstering up her illusion of independence.
This benevolent conspiracy went on until one day it reached its limit. Flora’s world began to unravel and it started to feel to her to be an unsafe place. She called me one morning at three in the morning, crying, begging me to come over to sit with her until it was light. I called her daughter and we made some plans. A few days later, we had a place all set for her at the assisted living center, and we went to Flora’s house to have the intervention. We described everything to her, how everyone was helping her, but now it was too much for us. We explained she couldn’t live alone any longer. She left that day and went to her new room with her suitcase. We hugged her and the staff told us not to come back for a week.
One week later, we went to the center. To our happy surprise, Flora was doing very well. A solid week of good food and good sleep had taken what had become a perpetually worried look off her face, and she was relaxed and happy. She said to us, “I had been wondering where all my friends had gone. I thought they were all dead, but they’re here!”
I think about Flora from time to time and I wonder about all the ways that I am being held, all the ways the universe is watching over me, following me, running around after me, cleaning up my messes, sheltering me, allowing me to believe I’m independent and smiling at that idea that I sometimes have that I am in charge of my own fate.
I have no illusions that God will rescue me from all harm, but I’ve learned to be humble enough though to admit that there may be a real possibility that I am cared for beyond my awareness, beyond my imaginings. In fact I’m pretty confident that’s the case. Under that image of our shepherd in the back, there are the words in glass: “Love never faileth.” And I know in my life love keeps showing up, time after time, rescuing me time and again while I remain blithely unaware.
I have faith that we are blessed in ways that are greater and more mysterious than even our keenest awareness is ever able to discern. To foster a faith that there is a force of love following us along this pathway of life, that is a good comfort, and it is a comfort many of us need.
And so, as you go on your way this day, to face whatever shadows you need to face, to walk through whatever valleys are lying before you, I leave you with this blessing:
May you graze safely. May you be fed with abundant blessings. When your thirst is strong, may you be led to still waters. When you are tired, may you be carried. When you are wandering, may you be gently brought back home. And, when you feel alone, may you hold the possibility in your heart that you are not alone, that an unseen shepherd is attending you. Amen.
Harold S. Kushner, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 102 and 103.