"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…" This is such a familiar text. Many know the words by heart. It appears often on plaques and posters, on cards and bookmarks. There are many hymns and songs based on it. We have six hymns based on Psalm 23 in our hymnal, and the choir sings several anthems based on it. My favorite anthem is by John Rutter, who re-interprets the first part a bit, saying:
"The Lord is my shepherd, therefore I can lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort. He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for His Name’s sake, for His Name’s sake…"
The use of this psalm is not confined to churches and hymnals. Psalm 23 was recited as the ship sank in the 1997 version of the movie "The Titanic." The British comedy TV show, "The Vicar of Dibley," about a slightly irreverent woman priest, used a version sung by The Choirboys as its theme song. It was recited by Denzel Washington’s character in "The Book of Eli," and said in part in the 2010 version of "True Grit." This psalm is well-known, perhaps for its beauty, its simplicity, its comforting images.
People of biblical times would understand the image of a shepherd better than we would. We do not see many shepherds in fields these days. But we do have images in our heads from the nativity scenes and movies about Jesus’ birth, with the gentle shepherds in the field receiving the news from the angels, and sometimes holding a lamb as they kneel before the manger.
The psalm is a metaphor. James L. Mays says: "In a metaphor something is said to be something else that it obviously and literally is not….A metaphor used for theological purposes is serious business…A metaphor becomes the image as which and through which something or someone is known or understood. " (Mays, p. 115)
"The Lord is my shepherd" is a powerful image for us. It is an image through which we come to know God. It may be part of the reason we struggle with other images of God that seem more harsh or judgmental. We naturally want to cling to the comforting image of God as shepherd.
When the people of biblical times, Old and New Testament periods, heard shepherd, they saw images not only of shepherds in the fields but also of kings and rulers. For kings and rulers were referred to as shepherds, and were expected to guard over the people as if they were their flock. Some kings and rulers succeeded, to a degree, in bearing out such an image. Many did not. Perhaps the image of "lord as shepherd" was not always a good one. But it is for us. We love it so much that we sometimes adapt it to the images of caring folks around us – "The Lord is my co-pilot." "The Lord is my business manager." "The Lord is my doctor." Even for we who do not know many shepherds, though, such images do not carry the same power or comfort as that of the Lord as shepherd.
As Jesus was prone to do, he took this image and carried it further. "I am the good shepherd," Jesus said. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Anyone with a little knowledge of sheep herding would know that this would make no sense literally. If the shepherd died to save one or even more sheep, then the rest of the sheep would be defenseless, and would be lost to predators or thieves. Yet we know what Jesus meant, as we remember, in this post-Easter time, that Jesus did indeed lay down his life for us, his flock, that he might be raised again, and conquer the evils of the world, sin and death. This is why we follow Jesus, our Shepherd. Our lives are better when we follow Jesus.
When we, as modern Christians, hear shepherd, we may think of images of Jesus from childhood. We think of loving, caring, gentle guidance. Maybe different images come to our minds.
My image of shepherding may look like an episode of "House" I saw last week. Dr. House is a doctor with deep issues, but he can figure out strange illnesses that others cannot seem to diagnose. This episode showed a woman who was dying, the wife of one of the doctors. The staff told him to quit working and go to her. He climbed into the hospital bed with her. She looked at him and said that she was tired and thought it was time to go to sleep. He said not yet. She said, "You will always say not yet." Then he asked her why she wasn’t angry (like he was). She said, "I don’t want anger to be my last emotion." Then they snuggled together as her life slipped away. Perhaps a bit like Jesus, the one who died was the shepherd, showing the kinder, more loving way.
Or I may see images like the story I heard on the "Today" show this week about a woman who was married for 6 weeks to the love of her life. They were in love and talking about getting married when he was diagnosed with cancer. She wanted a 2 year engagement, just for the fun of planning the wedding. But his diagnosis changed, and he was told his cancer was stage 4. He took her on a walk and proposed to her. They were married 3 days later, and he died 6 weeks after that. The interviewer asked her how she planned a wedding in 3 days, when she had wanted 2 years, and how she was doing. Her reply to both was that she did not, and could not, do it alone. Community shepherded her, and the love of this couple witnessed to those outside the flock.
Those kind of images fit my view of shepherding. Also I see pastors visiting sick members in the hospital and grieving members in their homes. I see congregational members taking holy casseroles to these same people. I see Stephen Ministers sitting with these folks after the immediate crisis has passed and most everyone else has faded away. Stephen Ministers visit week after week just to listen and be a caring, Christian ear. Today we will commission six new Stephen Ministers who are ready to be shepherds, after 50 hours of training. Those who are suffering often need a listening ear, a gentle companion along the rough way (through the valley). Helen Keller said, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it." In her book, Caring Cultures: How Congregations Respond to the Sick, Susan Dunlap (a professor at Duke Divinity School who led our women’s retreat this fall), said she found that "those who offer care to others in crisis reach beyond the bounds of self." (Dunlap, p. 126) We have trained and encouraged our Stephen Ministers to "reach beyond the bounds of self" as they extend a caring hand to those in crisis. Stephen Ministers and the church seek to offer spiritual care.
Yet we find too many people are ashamed, or are too proud, to ask for help when they need it most. Asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness in our society that encourages us to take care of ourselves. Richard Eyer, a hospital chaplain, wrote a book for ministers called Pastoral Care and the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering. He says:
"It needs to be recognized that individualism in our culture is killing us. It is pulling us away from each other, and even naïve, faithful Christians often seek personal spiritual thrills more than the spiritual care of one another." He also says that "the theology of the cross reminds us that it is through weakness and suffering that God comes to us most clearly, first on the cross, and then in our experience of suffering." (Eyer, pp. 9 & 16)
"I am the good shepherd," said Jesus, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus, the good shepherd, has laid down his life for us, and risen again to show us the power of God’s love for us. We need but reach out and accept that love, or give that love to someone else who needs it. The Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is your shepherd, and our Lord and Savior calls us to shepherd and care for one another. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… Even though I walk through the deepest valley, I fear no evil, for You (God) are with me…" You are with US!
Glory be to God! Alleluia! Amen.
Dunlap, Susan J., Caring Cultures: How Congregations Respond to the Sick (Baylor University Press, TX, 2009)
Eyer, Richard C., Pastoral Care and the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering (Concordia Publishing House, MO, 1994)
Gench, Frances Taylor, Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 2007)
Mays, James L., Psalms (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1994)
Sloan, Gerard, John (Westminster/John Knox Press, GA, 1988)