Henry Ward Beecher, prominent Congregational clergyman, social reformer, and abolitionist once said this about the 23rd Psalm,
“The twenty third Psalm is the nightingale of the Psalms. It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but oh! it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive.”[i]
Please read with me now the 23rd Psalm, King James Version…..
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Amen!
Beecher was right about the 23rd Psalm, ‘it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive’. Who among us has not heard this Psalm and felt a sense of comfort, or joy, or perhaps even a homecoming of sorts. It is read at funerals, in nursing homes to dementia patients who, when hearing it, are able to repeat it word for word. It has even been prayed in foxholes during World War II as one Vet told me, in the night of his terror when shells rained down around him. I’ve told you that before. And you know that it is my go-to Psalm and one of my goals for all of you is to know this beloved Psalm by heart, which is why we now pray it at meetings. It truly ‘sings shyly out of obscurity’ and we are the recipients of its beautiful song.
But it is not a Psalm of yesteryear. It is not some ancient nostalgic poem that has just happened to survive the ages like Homer’s the Odyssey, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s based on the reality of life, which makes its message timeless. It addresses our need for peace and restoration, our need for guidance and God’s presence during those times of gloom and solitary confinement, those times when we are seeing particularly dimly. In it we recognize God’s abundance in our lives and are assured that we will be the Lord’s forever.
It also addresses the strength of the shepherd and what a shepherd will do for a flock. Shepherds are leaders who care deeply about how their flock is taken care of and who lead out of that caring and love. The 23rd Psalm is a model for leadership if we look at the tasks that the shepherd is asked to perform because what the shepherd provides is what compassionate leaders provide. And there are leaders among us today, some who haven’t lead in a while but whom we look to as the sage leaders of the past. They have shepherded us to this point, this wooly and wild bunch that we are.
Modern Day Shepherds. They are all over the world still, in Nepal and Peru and when you visit the Holy Land you will see that there are shepherds there today. They are not like you probably envision adorned in a sweeping robe, with a keffiyah on his head, or in a tunic belted with rope. They are likely to be on the side of the Judean hillside and be a member of a Bedouin clan, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket with a staff in one hand and cell phone in the other. Nonetheless, their job is taken seriously because their livelihood is dependent upon their flock. And their flock is dependent upon their skills as a shepherd.
If you think that shepherding is a cushy job, one that’s unhurried or unrestrained by the influences of modern society, please think again. It is not. It’s not easy being a shepherd. I had many experiences the year that I lived in Israel and shepherding was one of them. I learned that it takes insight, patience, and a willingness to know your flock – not just one sheep or goat, but all of them because so easily harm can come to them. And shepherding works best when an intimate relationship is built between the shepherd and the sheep.
Neot Kedumim (translated from Hebrew, ancient pastures) is a Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel near the town Modi’in. It is situated on 635 acres of hills and valley with hundreds of Biblical and Talmudic plants, wild and domesticated animals, ancient wine presses, threshing floors and cisterns. You can meander through the fields and hills admiring the natural plants and trees, or you can take part in programs which is what I did.
When I saw a poster that advertised a leadership seminar that included herding sheep, I thought, I’m down with that, I’m in! And so a few weeks later twenty of us travelled to Neot Kedumim for the experience.
The task of our shepherding experience was to get the herd of sheep from point A to point B over some rocky terrain and to keep the sheep, for ten seconds, from entering a large circle that was mapped out with rocks on the ground. Then from there we had to shepherd them from point B to point C and herd them into another large circle and keep them in there for ten seconds. Now this is much more difficult than you can ever imagine.
Here is what I learned about leading a flock. Your best position, most of the time is within the flock. When you stand at the head of the flock you block their vision and you might even lose a few along the way because you can’t watch over them. Who knows what kind of peril a sheep might fall into when you are not watching? So God stands among us and is not afraid to be a part of the flock.
Sometimes though, you have to stand behind the herd to get them moving, but then you should gently move towards the center of the flock. Smelly? Sure it’s smelly but then again how else will you know one of your own if you are not among them? And for heavens sake, keep moving! If you don’t the flock will begin to happily graze or scatter in different directions. So keep moving forward! God keeps us moving forward never letting us stray off or stagnate in the field.
You have to figure out who the lead sheep is; there is one in every flock, the one that the other sheep look up to. Befriend that sheep, it will do you well. Conversely, gently guide the stubborn one; there is always one of those in the flock too. And prodding never works. It just doesn’t.
But communication does. You could hear us saying “yallah, yallah” which in Arabic means, let’s go, come on, let’s try to figure this out together. Yallah! You can’t be a behind the doors leader, you have to be communicating all along the way. So too God communicates with us through the still silence or a fiends compassionate words or the wrestling of the leaves on a tree.
And you know singing helps! No joking! There was a reason why King David, when he was just a shepherd boy, took his harp into the hills with him on those long days and nights with the flock. It was not just for his own entertainment. The flock gets to know the sound of their shepherd, whether it is singing or a simple clicking of the tongue. We’re talking intimate relationships.
Above all a shepherd needs to keep the vision or the goal for the flock in mind. Sometimes the sheep just forget where they are headed and they need someone who cares for them to gently remind them of the journey ahead. God’s mercy, justice and peace are our vision and Christ as our shepherd reminds us of that.
So modern day shepherds. Who are they? Well they are among us today. They are the men and women whose lives and contributions to OCC that we are honoring today. It is because of their commitment, time, foresight and attention to the greater good and gospel of Jesus Christ that we have a metaphorical leg to stand on. I’m sure they remember the countless hours that they spent in deacons meetings or trustee’s meetings or choir rehearsals probably wondering if it was all worth it.
Well I can tell you that yes; your contribution of time, your love and your generosity was all worth it. We are here today because of your dedication to the Gospel. So thank you on behalf of this church. You lead us through still waters, through the valleys and the hills and into green pastures much like our Lord, the good shepherd does. You kept us on track when maybe we just wanted to graze or wander off.
And ultimately this is what the good shepherd does to tend to the flock. God is the tender yet compassionate shepherd who leads us and we are the sheep of God’s pasture. This is what we claim when we say the Lord is my shepherd. We ask God to keep us in line, on the right path, to keep us from harm and to feed us and to get us from point A to point B and beyond. We ask God to gently guide our living, to “Be Thou My Vision”[ii] as the old beautiful hymn begins. With God as our shepherd, how can we ever be in peril? God’s got our back, each and every one of us and cares deeply for us enough to provide for us a Savior.
With Jesus Christ we need nothing else. In him our needs are met, our direction is clear and straight. We have great abundance in him and our lives are blessed each day and every day because his love is endless. So always remember, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”. Repeat often as necessary for Christ is above, within and alongside of us each day of our lives.
[i] Henry Ward Beecher, ‘Life Thoughts’, cited in ‘The Treasury of David’, 1:357.
[ii] Slane 10.10.9.10, Ancient Irish, Tr. By Mary E. Byrne.
O God, Open before us the gates of righteousness so that we might enter and become your beloved children. You welcomed us into your family through the waters of baptism, and we seek once again to know the risen Christ in our midst and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that we might be open and obedient to your truth and genuine in our love for one another.
We thank you for the honored guests with us today and for the mark of Christian fellowship that they have left upon this place. Be with them even though they may not be able to be with us knowing that you guard and guide us even when we are absent one from the other.
God of all people, we pray for the well being of your children, the differently-abled, those who live with mental illness, addiction and recovery, HIV/AIDS, and cancer, surround them all with restorative arms and grant them your peace.
God of grace and mercy we ask for your saving power to be upon us. We pray for those who so bravely offered themselves in service to this country. We pray for Kristin, Michael, Eugene, Nicholas, Gabe, Jason, William, Joshua, Zachery, Justin and Ryan and all men and women in service. Blanket them with your safekeeping and grant peace to this sorry world.
Be with those who mourn, those who travel, those of disbelief and most of all be with us as we just endeavor to live our lives and be your people. Amen