Today is Good Shepherd Sunday! And what is Good Shepherd Sunday? Well, from that fount of all contemporary knowledge (no, you weren’t mistaken, that was sarcastic), Wikipedia, here is a fairly accurate definition:
Good Shepherd Sunday occurs on the third or fourth Sunday in the Easter Season. The name derives from the gospel reading for the day, which is taken from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. In this reading Christ is described as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for his sheep.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_Sunday)
In the Episcopal, and many other “liturgical” churches, the Scripture lessons are predetermined by the lectionary, or the established schedule of Scripture readings over the course of three years. Apparently, it’s set up so that, if you follow it daily, you will read the Old and New Testaments (additional, alternative Scriptures not included, although on occasion they do sneak in some of the Apocrypha) over the course of three years. There’s an Old Testament reading, a Psalm or other poetry/wisdom passage, a selection from one of the Epistles, and, last but certainly not least, a reading from the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The one that gets the most attention, with lots of pomp and procession as THE BOOK is carried into the midst of the congregation who are all standing in reverence, of course, is the Gospel reading. The one that gets the least attention and is even sometimes skipped, is the Psalm. But it’s the Psalm that got my attention today, because it’s what’s been getting my attention all week. Fitting, I suppose.
On Good Shepherd Sunday, what do you think a suitable psalm would be? It’s kind of a no-brainer: “The Lord is my shepherd” immediately comes to mind, and you’re right. Today’s Psalm, dutifully read in responsive fashion, was Psalm 23.
I have warm, fond memories of Psalm 23, hearkening back to my nearly-faded-from-memory toddler years. Psalm 23 was very important to me, because, in Sunday School, if we could memorize and recite 50 scripture verses, we would win our VERY OWN New Testament. Not that my home didn’t have shelves upon shelves full of Bibles, but this New Testament spoke to me, called my name: “Han-nah, you want me!”. It had a little girl and boy with Jesus on the cover and by golly, I was gonna get it.
And I did. I memorized 50 scripture verses, straight from the hallowed pages of the AUTHORIZED King James Version. (On a completely unrelated side note, I didn’t deviate from that narrow path until I was 18, when I gave in and went New International. I have since returned to my King James home. I once had a sweet Baptist friend who called the NIV the “Nearly Inspired Version”…my apologies to those of you love it…really. Whatever floats your boat.) Those 50 verses included the standard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It included Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and have fallen short of the glory of God”, as well as the rest of that evangelical super-highway, “The Romans Road” (Billy Graham, eat your heart out). I don’t know what else it included, except for this: Psalm 23.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I could recite it, but I couldn’t quite understand it. To my little 3-year old brain (and this 3-year old knew exactly who Jesus was), it didn’t make any sense that I should not want the Shepherd. That’s what I heard every time I repeated it: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.” Of course I wanted the Shepherd! Who wouldn’t want the Shepherd, what with all the green pastures and still waters and tables placed and oil running over and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever! Who wouldn’t want that?
Nonetheless, 50 scripture verses later, I got that New Testament.
I loved it well. I made sure I would always remember why I got it,
practiced writing my name in it, and, as any 3-year old girl would, promptly fell in love with the handsome shepherd boy depicted there.
But it it took me a long time to really understand what Psalm 23 meant. I certainly missed what I now know really is the message of that Psalm…by the time I could really read the Living paraphrase of that psalm on the back cover, I’d moved on to my first King James Bible, an 8th-birthday present; it was white bonded leather with GOLD LETTERING ON THE COVER and a ZIPPER! I don’t have that white Bible any more; somehow part of the Noah and the Ark story went missing and I stopped using it, but I still have this very loved and worn Living New Testament; it’s been with me for just over 44 years now and sits in my living room with my collection of Bibles in multiple translations. When I look at it, I feel immense gratitude for being taught to love the Savior at such a young age.
And, those same 44 years later, I am reminded that, still, I sometimes don’t know what that Psalm really means. Life gets hard. As we follow Jesus Christ, we often forget that He warned us, basically, “If you follow me, you’ll get what I got. It ain’t a rose garden; in fact, it’s usually more thorns than roses on any given day.” We like to skip to exaltation and glory without putting in our slow-going, right choosing, intentionally-placed-there, seemingly unending wilderness time, much like my piano students want to skip to being awesome without putting in the requisite thousands of hours of slow, correct, intentional, and seemingly unending practice. And we whine, and pray for deliverance, and wonder just when the wilderness will end.
Some people desert the Shepherd in the middle of the wilderness: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want [anymore]”. It reminds me of the account given by John, in his gospel. John 6 has Jesus feeding the 5,000 off of a few tuna sandwiches – now we’re talking green pastures! The crowds followed Him willingly. But when tuna sandwiches turned into the idea of true loyalty to Jesus Christ (who was starting to suggest that He, Himself, was the Messiah), and the difficulty that following Him often entails, the change of heart and mind and walking away from what we think we know and understand…well then, we have 6:68: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” When the green pastures turn into rocky cliffs, many turn back. “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Numbers 11:5-6).
(Another side note: how many remember Keith Green? Can’t continue without leaving this; he really nails it.)
As I was considering my own personal wilderness (and we each have our own, tailor-made, in fact), which happened to coincide with a mindless browse through my Facebook news feed post, this popped up. I’m sure it was just a coincidence…(yes, more sarcasm). Take five minutes out of your life and watch it; it’s really good:
Belly deep alfalfa. I love how Mr. vander Laan depicts our understanding of “green pastures”, and how he shows, so clearly, what this psalm is talking about. The Living paraphrase nails it: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.” How would my life have been different if, at the age of three, I had absorbed that, instead of the images of belly deep alfalfa in my spiritual life? And for sheep in Israel, there is never belly deep alfalfa, only the sparsely scattered tufts of grass, just enough for them to keep going.
Mary Poppins is another fount of all wisdom…probably more reliable than Wikipedia! In that scene where she’s giving the kids some cough syrup (that magically tastes like their favorite treats, which are different from person to person…wonder if she went to Hogwarts?), Michael starts begging for more, to which she replies:
My dad used to, at holiday gatherings (usually at my mom’s folks’ house with her family), stand up and, in his booming New York accented voice, declare, “Thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes, there’s a double entendre there…but he generally meant that he was grateful for the immense amount of food he was about to pack into his belly (which was sizable). As disciples of Christ, we so often are deluded to think that God’s provision – materially or spiritually – means that we will never want for anything, that said table prepared for us in the presence of our enemies means that we are feasting as gluttons while they starve.
But that’s not what scripture says. It says that, as we follow the Shepherd, who leads us into those green pastures (which look an awful lot like rocky wildernesses!), we will have everything we need. If we don’t have it, we obviously don’t need it but, like children, we often think that we need many things we don’t. Nonetheless, our Shepherd, our Savior, knows exactly what we need, and He delivers all our needs right when we need them the most, just enough to get us over that next rise, where our next need will be fulfilled. And He does this, truly, to the amazement and often conversion of onlookers, and He does this to bring glory to His, and our, Heavenly Father, as He brings many, many children of God to glory.
It really reframed how I look at what has been a very long journey, or what I think has been a long journey, through the wilderness. But, in the distance, I can smell the water, I can see a slightly more abundant patch of grass. We’ll get there. He won’t leave me, and I truly do, and will, have all that I need, in this life, and in the next.
Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need…Your goodness and failing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with You forever in Your home. (Psalm 23:1,6 – The Living Bible)
Happy Good Shepherd Sunday!