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May 3, 2009

The Shepherd

It has been said that even though we have this big book of hymns, there is really only one hymn. In this congregation I would say it is # 280 (Amazing Grace). And even though there are 150 Psalms in the Old Testament, there is really only one, and that would be #23.

Why do the words of this psalm resonate so with our deepest fears and desires? Why does it continue to sing of God's presence to us? Particularly when the image is really so unfamiliar to most of us. When was the last time you saw a flock of sheep? When have you seen a shepherd? We know more about doctors and lawyers and teachers than we do shepherds. We know more about police directing traffic than we do about shepherds directing sheep. For majority of us, most of what we do know about sheep and shepherds, we learned in church, not from personal experience.

Besides that, Psalm 23 isn't even very American. We live in a country that values independence, individuality, striking out on our own, taking the path less traveled. And yet this Psalm talks about being led around by a shepherd, being part of a flock. Sheep actually like to be led. They want someone to follow, someone to tell them where to go.

So why does the popularity of Psalm 23 persist?. Why is that, I wonder?

The Psalms were originally hymns for the Hebrews. They were a people who were called Israel, which means, "those who have struggled with God." They struggled for a home that they were always trying to get into, hold onto or get back to. They struggled for peace, for food and for a future. Most important, they struggled for their faith in God. God would lead them, like a shepherd, but then they would begin to fear that God would not continue to lead. So they would take off on their own. God would find them again and lead them out of trouble until they would get scared and run off again. The psalms are written to describe the experience of being lost and found, judged and forgiven, sent away and brought back.

Most of us don't look lost. But the Psalmist would say, "Oh, but it is you who have lost your way in a relationship that's offered more hurt than love, in a job that leaves you depleted and spent, or in the guilt of not being good enough, pretty enough or smart enough for someone hose judgment cuts deep." Some of us are lost in our battles against declining health. Others are lost in grief. And how many of us are just simply lost in our shame for things done and left undone?

Trying so hard to find ourselves, we've even lost sight of who we are, who we were created to be. We love this Psalm because everybody needs a shepherd. We want someone who can restore our often troubled souls. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through that darkest valley.

The Hebrew word for "valley" here is better read as "gully" or "crevice." More than a few of us know this dark gully only too well. Some of us are deep in such a crevice this morning even though it may be hidden beneath our apparent ease and smiles.

Life is not easy. It's not all still waters and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd.

This Shepherd walks with us, his shepherd's crook now in the shape of a cross leading us on, prodding us, protecting us, and taking us home in the end.

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me." The Hebrew word for "follow" is actually the word "pursue." Suddenly goodness and mercy are not like two little puppies following close behind, tails wagging.

Goodness and mercy are the hounds of heaven pursuing lost souls and lost congregations.

This Psalm sings a daring song of hope: "Surely good and mercy shall pursue us. . .and, finally, catch us."

Thanks be to God




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