Psalm 23, March 30th 2014
By Pastor Tim Woodard
I looked up this term ‘shepherd’ on the internet and I quote: “A shepherd is a person who tends feeds or guards flocks of sheep. Shepherding is one of the oldest occupations, beginning some 6,000 years ago in Asia Minor. Sheep were kept for their milk, meat and especially their wool. Shepherds would normally work in groups either looking after one large flock, or each bringing their own and merging their responsibilities.” Metaphorically, the term is used for God, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as in Psalm 23), and in Christianity especially for Jesus, who called himself The Good Shepherd.
In the gospel according to John, chapter 10, we hear these words from Jesus on the subject. And Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
When we look to the 23 Psalm we see that even the Psalmist of old referred to the Lord as our shepherd. So we know this concept of the shepherd being metaphorically referred to as ‘our God’ dates way back to the ancient tribe of Israel. I tell you this so that you will understand why pastors like me for centuries have frequently picked up this analogy as we discuss the role of Jesus or God if you will, in our modern day lives.
To embrace this whole shepherd concept one must be willing to accept the notion that we, as the sheep, need a shepherd. The problem of course is not everyone wants to be “metaphorically or not”, referred to as sheep and thus do not want or will not accept the efforts of the good shepherd; whether that be Jesus or simply a good shepherding pastor. The figurative and symbolic symbol of the shepherd clearly is not accepted universally. So what we need to do, minimally, is acknowledge that historically, the image of the shepherd has been attributed to our God and the Son of God, as an allegorical methodology to help us understand the role of the Divine Presence of God in our daily lives.
In the 23 Psalm people, “throughout the ages”, have found the words contained within it to be soothing and reassuring of God’s love and protective and supportive role in our lives. I and pastor’s all around use this Psalm frequently with this thought in mind. Its symbolic power has ‘not lost’ its influence over people regardless of its age and regardless of the fact that most of us know little about shepherding. You see, deep down, a great many of us, need and desire a good shepherd in our lives. We want someone to comfort us and someone to care for us and someone who will love us and bring us home when we stray off – without any judgment whatsoever. This is exactly what a shepherd does.
The metaphor of a shepherd in your life – at all times – may not work for you and it is reasonable to suggest it need not and even that it should or ought not be what is needed all the time. Yet, it is safe to say that virtually everyone can find comfort in this image at times. It is simply human nature to desire, need and to gain by a bit of nurturing from time to time. So I would say to anyone who is not comfortable with the analogy that we are sheep in the eyes of Jesus, the self-proclaimed Good Shepherd, that you might want to consider, at least privately, accepting his direction and guidance from time to time; you may want to try accepting the loving comfort, and the supportive guidance of a God who loves you unconditionally, at all times and in all situations of your life.
How often in your life have you been offered unconditional love, unconditionally? The love of a forgiving mother; the support of a loving father; the tireless helping hand of a caring friend; the non-judging, never ceasing love of your favorite pet – mine is a little 11 pound, 15 year old dog named Lucy, she accepts me just the way I am. Who do you have in your life?
As we continue to reflect on the Good Shepherd who loves and cares for us and is there for us in the good times, as-well-as the in-between times, and the bad times, let us wrap our hearts around this simple yet poetic and beautiful poem:
When your heart is tired
And your soul is weak
Look to God
For God, will help you see
That life has reason
And life has rhyme
Though we don’t see it
All of the time
Trust in God
Hold on to faith
For your God
Will take your hand
And guide the way
To calmer waters
And brighter days
Your heart will heal
The pain will fade
Look to God
Trust in God too
God is always there
To look after you
In my research on the subject of the 23 Psalm I came across this interesting piece: At a social function, an aged minister asked an actor who was in attendance to recite something from memory. The actor, thinking to please the minister, decided to recite the Twenty-third Psalm. With perfect diction, elocution and in delicate shades of tone, he repeated the Psalm in a manner that caused the audience to reveal their enthusiastic praise and applause. Afterward, the actor, in order to honor the minister, asked if he would recite something for them. The minister could not think of anything and decided, if it was okay with everyone present, to repeat the Twenty-third Psalm. Quietly, prayerfully, he slowly began to speak out the Psalm as it came to mind. At its end, those in attendance sat hushed and in holy awe. Taking the preacher’s hand in his, the actor spoke out what was in the heart of all who were present, “You and I both know the Psalm, but it is clear to us all, that you are the one who knows the Shepherd.
I found another rendition of this same thought, I think it reinforces the first. It speaks of a Shakespearean actor who would read Psalm 23 at the end of his performance; and predictably at the conclusion the crowd would rise in thunderous applause in appreciation of the actor’s incredible ability to bring the verse to life. But one night, a young man from the audience spoke up. “Sir, do you mind if tonight I recite Psalm 23?” When the young man was finished, there was no applause. There was no standing ovation as on other nights. All that could be heard was the sound of weeping. The audience had been so moved by the young man’s delivery that every eye was full of tears. The actor said to the youth, “I don’t understand. I have been performing Psalm 23 for years. I have a lifetime of experience and training – but I have never been able to move an audience as you have tonight. Tell me, what is your secret?” The young man quietly replied, “Well sir, you know the Psalm… I know… the Shepherd.” I pray that many of us are like the old pastor or the young man and we have come to know the Shepherd well.
I wish to reassure you that it is not necessary to be a pastor or someone in the twilight of one’s life or even still in the innocence of youth to come to know the ‘Good Shepherd.’ It is a question of one’s heart. If you open it you will come to know of God’s love; love that is easily displayed in the imagery of a shepherd as he tends his flock.
When I look back into my own family I see an example my paternal grandfather set for us as well. He may not have done so intentionally, yet he followed in the footsteps of a good shepherd in his actions. Gramps was a farmer and we lived right next door in a home my father and his brothers built during the great depression. It was back then that grandfather Woodard split up the farm for my father and his brothers to build their own homes for their respective families. In this scenario gramps was the shepherd as he cared for and tended to the needs of his personal flock, his family. We know the depression destroyed lives and families alike. But, because my grandpa loved his children his selfless love changed their lives and ultimately expanded his flock that later cared for him in his twilight years.
We have been, in the not so distant past, we have been in a deep recession; a time period nowhere near as dire as that of the great depression. Yet, it is as close as we have come since that time in our history. Those that shall emerge on the other side of this – stronger and better prepared for the future – shall be the families, the groups, and the communities that pull together – reaching out and helping one another. Will we be the ones that will reach out to tend to the needs of family, friends and community? Better yet, will we reach out to the strangers in our midst with a willingness to lend a hand; give some guidance or simply offer our love and support?
Jesus set an example for others to follow. The Psalmist told us that God, in the image of a shepherd, would be there for us, in good times and in bad. The gospel stories reaffirm the words of the Psalmist. When we read the 23rd Psalm let it allow us to be reassured of God’s presence in our life journeys. When we hear of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, the guiding presence of God, in a world that is in desperate need of a helping hand, let us take heart; help is only a prayer away! We are a church that has endorsed, if not formally – informally, the concept of being a ‘Loving & Caring’ Church. As we continue to work at living up to this, it would not hurt if we modeled ourselves after a shepherd – a Good Shepherd.
The Lord is my Shepherd. Amen.
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 (the paths of righteousness) right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the (valley of the shadow of death) darkest valley, I (will) 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.