SCRIPTURE – Psalm 23 –
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 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.
Sept. 25, 2016
Don’t worry, you didn’t accidentally walk into a funeral service this morning. This scripture might make you feel that way, since the only time we hear it read these days is at a memorial or graveside service. And that makes sense, because the themes of comfort and protection in this psalm are soothing during times of grief and loss. But I want to ask the same question about this psalm that I ask about your savings account. Why wait until you die and let someone else enjoy what this passage has to offer? There’s a message for us here today about what it means to follow God.
Our church was honored this weekend to host the Regional Assembly for all of the Disciples churches in Kentucky. It was wonderful to gathering with our brothers and sisters across the state to worship, work, and fellowship. The theme of this year’s assembly was “Grounded, Growing, Overflowing!” and I thought that pretty well captures where we are at Crestwood. We’re grounded in the love of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ; we’re growing in space and in spirit; and we are overflowing with the blessings God has given us. I was walking through the South Wing this week, and I’m concerned it’s already too small for all the babies and kids who are here. Anyone want to pay to add a second floor? That’s about the best problem I could imagine having. God’s blessings truly overflow for us.
That’s certainly true for us as individuals, as well. But if you’re like me, it’s easy to take that for granted. Most of us live pretty comfortable lives, so we’re not challenged to rely on God for our basic necessities. We’re not driven to our knees in prayer by the weight of our trials or forced to depend on God’s grace for our next meal. And that influences how we see God. Our experiences shape our theology. So if we feel like we need saving from something, including ourselves, God is our savior. If we feel like we are under attack, God is our fortress. And if we feel like we are blessed, then God is the one we should thank for our blessings…if we remember.
Psalm 23 proposes another metaphor for God, that God is our shepherd. The psalm was written by David, who spent his younger years as a shepherd before being crowned king of Israel. It’s the same metaphor Jesus uses in the John passage Trish read. The problem with this image is that not many of us can relate to it today. While my family and I were in Ireland this summer we visited a working sheep farm, and it felt like a throwback to another century. There aren’t a lot of want ads for shepherds on CareerBuilder.com, so we may not be able to connect to the power of this image.
W. Phillip Keller, a shepherd and pastor, wrote this great book called, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” It was written the same year I was born, which means the book is about 29 years old, but Keller’s wisdom and experience is helpful in understanding how this psalm about taking care of sheep applies to us non-shepherds today.
To understand the role of the Good Shepherd, you first have to understand sheep. If God is the shepherd, that means we are the sheep. I learned in our brief encounter with sheep in Ireland that they are stubborn, smelly, slobbering animals. How do you like being compared to THAT? Please check your neighbor for drool to confirm whether or not this is true. Taking care of these animals was a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment. The shepherds literally gave their lives to caring for their sheep.
Their dedication was so strong and they spent so much time with the sheep that the shepherd would come to know each sheep by name. “There’s Fluffy, our best wool producer; there goes Tubby, who never stops eating; and see the one over there, the one with three legs and half an ear missing? That’s Lucky.” The shepherd knew each sheep by name, just as God knows each of us by name. And because of our shepherd’s dedication, we don’t want for anything.
I learned an important difference between cows and sheep. For a farmer to move a cow, they have to be herded from behind. But sheep will follow their shepherd. It’s a lot easier to lead a church from the front than pushing from the back, and the view’s a lot better, too. That’s why the shepherd can lead the sheep to green pastures and still waters. Sheep don’t go anywhere that the shepherd hasn’t gone first. And if left to their own devices, sheep would stay in one place all day and never move. Unlike all of us, sheep don’t like change. Unless someone shows them something better, they’ll settle for what they have.
When I was growing up, we had a wonderful Chesapeake Bay retriever named Beau. He was an awesome dog, but he had a nasty habit of drinking out of the toilets. Even if his water dish was completely full, if he walked by the bathroom he be like, “Hey, open bar!” I would call his name and lead him to his water bowl, and he’d look at me like, “Wow! Who put this here? This is great!”
Sheep do the same thing. They’ll drink the same polluted water or eat the same burnt grass or make the same bad choices or think the same destructive thoughts because they think that’s all there is. But the shepherd shows us…er, them…a better way, greener pastures, more peaceful waters. Did I mention sheep are stubborn animals? Thank God for guidance of the shepherd.
But guidance isn’t the only thing the shepherd provides. He also gives us protection. When the shepherds like King David would take their sheep out, they would lead the flocks up onto mountains to find the greenest grass that grew after the snows melted. But sheep can’t go straight up mountains; there are simply no hiking boots in their size. So the shepherd would have to take the gentlest grade possible, which often meant going through valleys. These valleys were prime locations for predators, who would perch up high and swoop down on the sheep as they passed through. It was like a woolly dessert cart rolling through the valley. So the shepherd’s job was the lead the sheep through the valleys without them getting eaten.
What the shepherds knew was that the only way to the top of the mountain was to go through the valley. We’ve been there, haven’t we? One day life is grand and the next day we’re in the shadow of the hospital room or funeral home. And what this psalm reminds us is that God is standing there with us. Notice it doesn’t say that the shepherd walks the sheep into the valley or around the valley; it says they go through the valley together. We may not be able to see the other side of the valley, but if our shepherd has walked into it with us, then the shepherd will walk out of it with us, too.
On that journey, the shepherd uses tools to help keep the sheep on the right path. The rod and the staff were used to ward of predators and keep the sheep from wandering off a cliff. If a sheep started to stray from the safe path, the shepherd would gently tap it with the end of the staff as a way of course correction. Have you ever felt that divine nudge, helping you put your feet back on solid ground after you’ve begun slipping? The Good Shepherd is always watching out for us.
Another role of the shepherd was to make sure the sheep didn’t eat anything harmful, because sheep aren’t too concerned about being gluten-free or not eating poisonous plants. The shepherd would often go ahead of the sheep to a grazing area and meticulously pull out all the noxious weeds and toxic flowers. The shepherd was preparing the table from which the sheep would feast. And the shepherd would often rub a homemade concoction of oil on the sheep’s head, which acted as an insect repellent and kept the sheep safe from infection.
So you can see the shepherd had a big and important job, and that was to keep the sheep safe and fed and happy. How’s God doing as your shepherd? Do you have a home to live in? Do you have food to eat? Are you comfortable and happy and blessed? Then I’d say, along with Psalm 23, that our cups overflow. Therefore, and there’s always a therefore when naming God’s blessings in our lives, we are called to share that overflow with others. The whole concept of “overflow” is that it means you have more than you need. God is an abundant giver, pouring out on us love and grace and blessings far more than we’ll ever need. God doesn’t do this to be wasteful; God does this to teach us generosity. As we have been given, so we give.
As we start our Stewardship Campaign today, we have the opportunity to be blessings to others. As you consider what amount to put on your pledge cards in a few weeks, I hope you’ll remember all the kids who are learning about the love of Jesus here. I hope you’ll think about all the parents of those kids, who are finding support here as they ride the roller-coaster of parenthood. I hope you’ll remember the adults who are deepening their faith, getting to know and experience and connect with God in new ways. I hope you’ll smile as you think about our older folks, who are receiving care and cards and visits from their church family. And I trust you will think about all the people who aren’t a part of this church whose lives are changed though our outreach ministries and the open doors of our Mission Center. As you think about what to give, I hope you’ll remember how you have received in such abundant ways, how you have been guided and protected by the Good Shepherd.
There was an elderly lady in my home church, Louise, who as the epitome of a ray of sunshine. Anytime you asked Louise how she was doing, she’d say, “I’m drinking from the saucer.” At first, I didn’t know what that meant. Did she not have cups at her house? Was she a cat? At least she didn’t say, “I’m drinking from the toilet!” Then I found this poem by John Paul Moore, and suddenly what Louise was saying – and living out – all made sense:
I’ve never made a fortune, And I’ll never make one now
But it really doesn’t matter ‘Cause I’m happy anyhow
As I go along my journey I’m reaping better than I’ve sowed
I’m drinking from the saucer ‘Cause my cup has overflowed
I don’t have a lot of riches, And sometimes the going’s tough
But with kin and friends to love me I think I’m rich enough
I thank God for the blessings That His mercy has bestowed
I’m drinking from the saucer ‘Cause my cup has overflowed
He gives me strength and courage When the way grows steep and rough
I’ll not ask for other blessings for I’m already blessed enough
May we never be too busy To help bear another’s load
Then we’ll all be drinking from the saucer When our cups have overflowed