Modern Day Shepherds
Leaders in the 21st Century
Henry Ward Beecher, prominent Congregational clergyman, social reformer, 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.” Henry Ward Beecher, Life Thoughts[i]
Hear 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 has been 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. It ‘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. It’s based on the reality of our lives 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. In it we recognize God’s abundance in our lives and are filled with gratitude that we will be the Lord’s for ever.
It also addresses the strength of the shepherd and what a shepherd can do for a flock. Shepherds are leaders who care deeply about how their flock is taken care of and lead. 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 leaders provide. This is how we will approach this beloved Psalm this morning.
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 still shepherd there today. They are not like you probably envision with a sweeping robe, or 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, a leather jacket with a staff in one hand and cell phone in the other. None the less, their job is taken seriously because their livelihood is dependent upon their flock.
And if you think that shepherding is a cushy job, one that’s unhurried or unrestrained by the influences of modern society, then please think again. It is not. 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.
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 for 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. More difficult than you think.
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?
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 their animal nature if you are not among them? And for heavens sake, keep moving! If you don’t the flock will begin to happily graze or go off in different directions.
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.
Communication is key. 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!
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.
Prodding never works. It just doesn’t.
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 in the journey ahead.
This is what a shepherd does to tend to his sheep. 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.
Modern day shepherds. How are we as individuals and as a church called to be leaders, to be shepherds with our cell phones in hand? How are we to ‘tend Jesus’ sheep, to feed his sheep’ (John 21: 15-17) as he asked Simon Peter to do and ultimately what he asks us to do? This is what we are called to do. He, of course, is our ultimate shepherd but we are to also take leadership in tending the flock until he comes again.
How can we help others repose near quiet streams and to negotiate the troubled times of their lives? How can we help them to where they need to go?
Later this morning you will vote to call a search committee. These are leaders who have stepped up to the task of leading you, this congregation, towards your future. They will guide you in however long it will take to call a new minister. This is a task that will take their time, their energy, their love for this congregation and most importantly their love for God to discern who best will come to minister among you. They will have the stamina to do what it takes for as long as it takes because they will have our prayers to lift them up.
Finding the right pastor to lead you into the future, who will love you and nurture you, is crucial to the vitality of this congregation. It will be this person who will shepherd you until Christ comes again.
Christ is our shepherd, 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.