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The Good Shepherd 

A homily based on Psalm 23 by Rev. Tom Hall

We meet again, old friend! Didn't you feel a little like that when our lectionary reader recited the 23rd Psalm this morning? That's our psalm! And it is an old friend, a true blue, lifelong friend. We've memorized it, contemporized it and set it to music and prayed it. It's followed us into the foxholes and rice paddies, into college classrooms, hospitals, and met us right here in this place of worship. I have seen this psalm in action at the bedside of some of our members; when no words could come they've nodded with a smile when I've read this psalm. During darkest times we've turned to this friend. And when we've have been beside our self with busyness and stress, it's been right there steady and reassuring. We've invited family members to say this psalm aloud when they've gathered around their loved one who has passed away. And we've turned it into a defiant manifesto, daring to call God our Shepherd in the face of death. At seminary we threw this friend on the examination table and dissected it: "Let's see, this is really the genre of a lament; a conflation of two psalms--one early and the other post-exilic period." Yet the psalm survived the operation and we've enjoyed each other's company many times since. The 23rd psalm is our psalm; our old friend who will be right beside us when our time comes to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

But why is this psalm--above all others--so valuable to our faith? What is it about these few words that endears it so to our hearts? Could it be that this little psalm really tells our story for us? When we've heard it read well, we say, "I know what the psalmist is talking about. That's how I feel sometimes." We know what it is to discover God's provision--when we've reached the end of our rope, when we just can't go on. We know what it is to be in the presence of death, to see death near us. And yet we've also experienced the Shepherd of this psalm right there with us leading us through the valley of the shadow of death. And we've experienced renewal of mind and body and joy and mirth in the presence of those who wish us failure and demise. And haven't we looked over our shoulder only to notice that we're being followed by the twin characters in this psalm--"goodness and mercy?" No matter what meets us at the turns and twists in the road we can look back and recognize God's goodness and mercy. at almost every turn in our life? no matter where we turn. And we then we remember in the psalm that the Shepherd promises us that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.

The Lord is my Shepherd.

Do you have a story about the Shepherd? Dixie and I began our life together in an old 10 X 42 trailer; in nearby Williamsburg, Kentucky I pastored a store-front church in the middle of town. Soon one child arrived and then, a year later our second one arrived. Tough days. We were preacher, janitor, lay leader, and treasurer. Offerings were meager in the depressed Appalachian regions of Kentucky. I remember one Sunday when only $14.00 came in the offering. And we wondered how we could make it to the next week. But it was during times of need that we first encountered the Shepherd and what it means to say "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Our congregation was poor, but yet rich. So we would strum our guitars and sing our choruses and help each other out with jobs and potluck dinners. The Shepherd was always there amidst our poverty to offer us encouragement, supply, and refreshment. I made that discovery early that the Shepherd can be trusted to provide for our needs. Have you also discovered that part of God? A God, who as a Great Shepherd desires to walk with us through our life, to provide for our needs?

The Shepherd makes us to lie down in green pastures.

Odd thing; Palestine is not known for its succulent, lush grasslands; in its place are thousands of square miles of parched ground, desiccated vegetation and desolate desert floor. How could the writer--probably a Bedouin shepherd himself--describe wasteland as "green"? I have discovered that some shepherds took the time to create "green” pastures; got rid of the rocks and irrigated it and planted legumes and alfalfa type vegetations that had deep tap roots; the green pastures would be scattered throughout the vast territory of the desert and the shepherds would guide their flocks throughout the long arid months from one oasis to the next. The psalmist had discovered a similar phenomenon in his relationship with God. That God provided a lush, green pasture in the midst of a vast waste land. We know about that kind of wasteland today. Deadlines. Grocery shopping. Front page news--economic crisis between the US and Japan; rise in paramilitary troops, our social security and medicare systems are almost down to the last drop; tax increase here, bills there. And life becomes more and more complex with each year. A wasteland. A system that squeezes life from us--a not a few dollars either. Yet, no matter where or what the wasteland, the Shepherd can be trusted to provide an oasis right in the middle of desert. Can we entrust our life to a God like that? I know how the psalmist would answer!

He leads me beside the still waters.

Did you know that 70% of sheep's composition is water; when that % begins to drop, desiccation sets in and thirst triggers that response to seek out water. If they don't find water in time they become weak and impoverished. They can become so desperate that they'll slack their thirst anywhere--drink from polluted pot holes. There, they ingest deadly liver flukes, parasites, and nematodes.

Remember a hot summer day when you've been overwhelmingly thirsty? You taste that salty perspiration draining from your body? Your eyes burn from the sweat that breaks past your brow and runs down into your eyes? You're thirsty. Even Snapple can't quench your thirst--only leaves a film in your mouth, but you're still thirsty. Until you drink some fresh, chilled ice tea--with the condensation on the outside.

It's the irony of life isn't it? The tragic truth for even Christians is our attempts to satisfy our thirst for true relationship with God by pursuing every possible substitute. Augustine once prayed, "O God! You have made us for yourself. And we search and search until our souls finally discover rest in Thee." Almost a millennium later a mathematician made the same discovery about God when he said that inside every human being is a God-shaped vacuum. I believe that most people are very, very thirsty. The more they live, the more they become aware of that thirst. "Life will satisfy once I graduate from college. Then I will be satisfied." But graduation comes and goes and we still thirst. "Well, when I find a friend, a lover, a job, a pay raise, then I will be satisfied." But when the relationship comes--or goes,--when we've launched vocational career, when we've gotten our pay raise, we still thirst. "Well, wait until our kids are older and we can really enjoy them. Then we'll be satisfied." So the years pass and the children we once cradled become young adults and though we'll still have their laundry for several more years, by now our kids have their own keys to apartments and cars and colleges and jobs, yet we discover that a deeper inner thirst lingers in our breast. And so we search. "Well, just wait till I've reached 65. Me and the Mrs. are gotta here. We'll travel. We'll paint. We'll redecorate. Buy a new house. Go to the shore. Have fun and be really, really satisfied." So we pick up our last paycheck and bennies, paint for awhile, travel a bit, do more gardening, try out a new car. Then we wake up one morning and discover that for all our activities--good and noble as they are--we're still thirsty. But how to slack our thirst? We wonder if our thirst will only be satiated in the end. God knows we've tried to quench it during our life.

Maybe Augustine was on to something when he suggested that our thirsting and searching is really a deep seated, spiritual thirst for God. Like the psalmist, Augustine discovered that until he met the Shepherd, all his seeking was merely drinking at potholes--trying every happy hour and every hip scene he could find, looking in all the wrong places. I know what he means, I've drank at a lot of potholes myself. I believe we all have searched for a reality that is beyond what we see, feel, and experience. The Psalmist describes that ultimate reality as the Shepherd; the Good News puts a name on Reality--Jesus Christ. At every turn and corner of our life this Good Shepherd says, "If any man, any woman thirst, let them come to me and drink. For whoever believes on me from within their innermost being rivers of living water." Reminds me of a song that emerged amidst the revolution and riots of the '60's, a song that talks about the one who quenches our thirst. Goes like this:

And Jesus says, come to the water and stand by my side. I know you are thirsty, you won't be denied. I've seen every tear drop that in darkness you cried, and I strove to remind you that for those tears I died."

Scripture affirms those words when it says, “The Spirit and the bride say, come. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift, come."

A Final Word about the 23rd Psalm

Let me conclude with a little story. A dramatist of a century earlier traveled America from coast to coast. He had studied theatre was a skilled speaker. He always concluded each performance by quoting a passage from the Bible. And so on this one evening he chose the 23rd Psalm to recite. The audience had never heard the psalm read so eloquently. Each phrase was couched with perfect intonation and nuance. And when he finished, "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," the audience jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. They had never heard the psalm read so skillfully.

While the audience applauded an old man at the back, unnoticed, shuffled to the front and walked up on stage with the dramatist. "Mind if I say the 23rd." Taken aback, the dramatist said, "No, go ahead." The old man's voice cracked as he began. "The Lord is my shepherd," his words were choppy and uneven. "I shall not want." He went on through to the end and then turned to go shuffle off the stage. But when he had finished there were no sounds of applause. No ovations. Instead deafening silence throughout the vast auditorium. Then some sniffling and bowed heads. The dramatist looked out to see some persons with bowed heads; others with moist eyes. What did you do? You didn't recite the psalm as well as I did, yet I have never seen an audience so moved by your words. How did you do that?" "Son, you know the psalm. But I know the Shepherd."

And that's the real issue with our old friend, Psalm 23, isn't it? To get to know the Shepherd that the psalmist speaks of. Have you discovered the Great Shepherd's desire to provide for you? To lead you to green pastures in the midst of wasteland? To quench the deepest thirst we know? Then you know the Shepherd of the Psalm. Amen.