Easter 4 • 17 Apr 2016

Acts 9:36-43
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Rev. Chris Udy

Psalm 23 - or the Shepherd Psalm -
is probably the best known,
most deeply loved,
most emotionally remembered song
in the history of humankind.
Tradition tells us that David wrote it
because he was first a shepherd and then a king -
but most of the scholars tell us
that it's probably older even than David -
and it might be a song from the time
when Abraham's family were nomad shepherds -
so people may have been singing it
with many different tunes,
for nearly 4000 years.
It's certainly the song
that's guaranteed to raise a tear
for someone in the congregation
nearly every time it's sung -
and that's because we sing it
when we need to know
that among all the things that cause us grief,
the world still has room
for trust and hope and peace.

You might remember a few years ago
a sheep named Shrek hit the news
after he was found in the mountains
of New Zealand's South Island
after 7 years of lonely isolation,
and carrying a fleece of 27 kilograms.
Shrek became a star,
was reported all round the world,
met the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark,
and finally went under the clippers for charity,
after which some funny people suggested
he should change his name to 'Shawn' –
and when he died in 2011
his story was published again.
Last year, near Canberra,
another overgrown sheep was found,
this time – for some obscure reason - named ‘Chris’.
Chris was carrying nearly 40 kilograms of wool,
a world record for a fleece,
but not a happy experience for Chris,
whose legs were permanently damaged
as a result of his burden of wool.
And the reason he and Shrek made the news
is because it's rare and dangerous
for a sheep to survive so long
without someone around to protect it.

Sheep need a shepherd.
As a species
sheep aren’t known for their survival skills.
They go where they shouldn't,
they get caught in things,
things get caught in them,
and they're an easy meal
for things that enjoy pink meat -
so a sheep that lives alone for 7 years
is a brave and fortunate sheep -
and that's why Shrek and Chris
became media stars.

We may not be all that pleased
to be compared to sheep,
but sadly the news suggests
that most of us have sheep-like tendencies.
Physically, spiritually or ethically
we tend to go where we shouldn't,
we tend to get caught in things -
from shonky business deals to radar traps,
and old wounds, sad memories and bad habits
tend to get caught in us.
We're easy prey to predators
because we tend to be trusting,
and sometimes we follow where others lead
just because they seem to be
a little bit ahead.

So the shepherd psalm is for all of us -
and it's worth some time in reflection
because, for nearly 4000 years
it's been a source of wisdom -
and whenever we feel we're lost,
if we remind ourselves
of the call in the psalm to a life of trust
and its promises of hope,
they will help us find our way
through the darkest shadows
and home to the house of God.

So let’s take a look at the Psalm.

"The Lord is my shepherd" - it begins -
"and so I want for nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul."

At one time wool was primarily protection for a sheep -
warmth against the cold,
lanolin against the rain,
but that must have been when wool was shorter,
and was probably shed in the summer.
Now, for sheep like Shrek and Chris,
wool keeps on accumulating,
and, much like our possessions,
for sheep it can be as much a curse as a blessing.
Protection and security can’t be found
in accumulated possessions,
nor can we build around ourselves
a barrier that keeps all the good things in
and all the bad things out.
Security comes only in relationship -
and when we live in hopeful trust - in faith -
we build the kind of relationships
where peace and security grow.

The first image in the 23rd psalm
is of God as our shepherd,
the one with whom, most of all,
we can live in hopeful trust.
The shepherd in the psalm
is of the nomad Palestinian kind -
who don't use dogs or sticks
to drive their flock from the back,
but train their sheep to come when they're called
and follow where he leads them - from the front.
That's the kind of shepherd
Jesus offers to be
in our reading from John's Gospel for today -
and Chris Lockley, who until recently
worked for the Synod training people
for resource ministry -
tells a story
that illustrates both the passage from John's gospel
and the psalm:

A tour group in Israel
had heard stories from their guide,
emphasising that the shepherds of ancient Israel
led their sheep,
who willingly followed them
because of the trust built up
between animal and human.
But just after their tour guide had told them this,
their bus was stopped
by a flock of sheep crossing the road,
which was being driven from behind!
Feeling his credibility collapsing,
the tour guide got out of the bus
to talk to the shepherd. "It's alright",
he said upon his return to the bus,
"He's not their shepherd, he's their butcher!"

We're driven by all sorts of things
that cause us fear and anxiety;
we're pushed and pressured by people
who want something from us -
but they can't lead us to life.
We're called and led and sustained into life
in relationships where we find peace and meaning -
green pastures and deep waters,
places and people
that refresh our souls.

The second image in the 23rd Psalm
is roughly parallel to the first.
That's the way many Hebrew songs and poems work -
with a second line or a second image
mirroring the first,
and adding something to it.
This time the one who walks with us
is not a shepherd, but an expert guide,
someone we can trust
to find the way through confusion and danger
and bring us safely home.
“He leads me in right paths” - the Psalm goes on -
but not because it’s this guide’s job,
not because we give him money for reward -
he does it “for his name's sake” –
because that’s his calling and reputation.
God’s guidance and protection
isn’t part of a deal we make with God.
Despite the frightened prayers
we’ve probably all come up with
in moments of distress -
“Lord, if you fix this I’ll be good” -
or something like it -
God’s company and security
isn’t something we can or need to earn.
God cares for us for his name’s sake -
because it’s who he is:
it’s his character,
the core of his being.
The place God most wants to be
is with us and beside us -
so even when we find ourselves
in a place no hired guide would ever go -
‘even though I walk through the darkest valley’ -
or as the Authorised Version
profoundly and beautifully mis-translates it -
‘even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death’ -
“I will fear no evil”
because our guide will never run away.
This is a guide whose love and grace
are stronger than any evil -
“your rod and your staff - they comfort me”.
The rod and the staff are a guide’s equipment -
the staff helps to walk -
it keeps us stable when the ground is treacherous -
and the rod is a weapon -
a stick to keep us safe
when animals or people are treacherous -
so we walk by trust -
we’re comforted -
even when the journey is difficult and dangerous
because our guide both knows the way
and loves us more than life.

The shepherd, the guide ... and the welcoming host.

Sometimes the psalms have images
that we don’t find helpful or comfortable.
Most of the psalms are songs
that were written and became popular
when Israel was at war
and life was hard.
The singers of the Psalms had enemies -
often bitter and brutal enemies -
and they wanted to know that God was with them
even when their struggle was most desperate.
What we know now
is that often both sides of a struggle
can be singing songs to God -
maybe even singing much the same songs
at much the same time -
and now we know
that God’s concern is much more for peace
than for one side or the other just to win.
The last image in the 23rd Psalm
was probably once an appeal
for God to prove the singer was right
by throwing a victory dinner -
“You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies” it says -
but buried in the psalm
there’s the hint of something better.
When Jesus gathered people around his table
everyone was included:
some of them were his enemies,
some of them despised him - or each other;
some of them opposed what he was doing
in one way or another -
but if the Gospel record tells us anything clearly,
it says that he sat and ate
with all sorts and kinds of people -
and through those meals those enemies – miraculously -
became family and friends.
When we live in trusting relationships
and walk with God in hope,
we find those bitter divisions and tensions
slowly heal;
we get tired of visions of revenge,
and we grieve for family and friends
we’ve lost for all sorts of reasons -
and we dream of wholeness and of peace.
We dream of a welcome table
where everyone can come
and find the place where we all come home
to celebrate with joy.
“You anoint my head with oil;”
the singer says -
and anointing was what nomad people did
for members of the family
at the end of a day in the sun and wind
to heal and refresh each other,
and to welcome each other back home.
“You anoint my head with oil,
and my cup overflows.”

I once filed away a story
about the famous actor Charles Laughton
at a celebration dinner just after WWII.
After the dinner they gathered in the living room.
The host knew that Laughton was famous
for the way he read and recited
passages from the Bible
so he asked him to recite the 23rd Psalm,
and Charles Laughton said he would.
He recited the 23rd Psalm beautifully, -
so beautifully that the rest of the guests were inspired,
and they began to recite their favourite passages too.
They went around the room
until they came to old woman
sitting in the corner.
She happened to be the aunt of the host
and was staying with him,
so out of politeness she was also asked
if she would recite something.

She was nearly deaf
so she hadn't heard all that had gone before -
and when she stood up
she started to recite the 23rd Psalm.
People at first were embarrassed.
It was an awkward situation
to have her recite the same psalm
as the great actor Charles Laughton.
But before she finished,
people were caught up
in the joy and power of her recitation.
The room grew utterly silent -
tears came to peoples’ eyes,
and everyone there was mesmerised
at the depth and peace of her reading.
Later somebody asked Charles Laughton
why her reading was so moving
when she didn't have any of the skills
he had as an actor.
He said, "I know the psalm.
She knows the shepherd."
(Story from Fred Kane)

Sometimes the psalms have images
that we don’t find helpful or comfortable.
Sometimes the language
seems stilted or inaccessible,
but the 23rd Psalm describes God
as the companion we need and long for –
and where other Psalms are addressed to God,
telling God what to do
or complaining to God
about all that’s wrong with the world,
the Shepherd Psalm is addressed to us;
it’s an invitation into this relationship
of loving trust and hope –
and maybe that’s why it’s survived so long
and become so widely known –
because, in the end, the life of faith
is not about getting God to do what we want,
but knowing that we are deeply loved
and we are never alone.

“I am the good shepherd” Jesus said,
“I know my own and my own know me.”
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for ever and forever.”