Fourth Sunday of Easter - Good Shepherd Sunday


The Lord is my Shepherd – these words begin one of the most beloved passages in the Bible. It is certainly one of the best known and most often memorized, read at so many hospital bedsides and funerals that it carries deep memories for many of us. It is so well known, so rich in personal meaning, that I hesitate to preach on it. Yet I don’t think we always hear the words of comfort and care it offers us in the midst of our busy, often stressful lives. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” I shall not be in want – what a powerful statement that is. The Good News Bible says, The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. Say that to yourself a few times.  “I have all I need.”  How does that feel? Comforting?  Scary?  Sincere, or insincere? For one thing, it’s a radically counter-cultural thing in this society to say “I shall not be in want – I have all I need.” Our consumer society demands that we never say these words. One hour of television tries hard to convince us: “I need a new car, new shoes, to lose weight, go online, I need a new lover, new detergent, I need a cheeseburger right now.” In this culture of ads and sound bytes and wealth, it is difficult to sort out our wants from our needs. It is a statement of faith, then, to say, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need.” It is difficult – the stresses and worries of our lives clamor to be heard. Yet Jesus reminds us in Matthew, chapter 6, that we cannot serve both God and money, and invites us to trust in God. “Do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” And Psalm 23 invites us to trust as we learn to say, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”  As we practice praying these words, they may help us to sort out our priorities, to escape needless fretting and striving for unimportant things.  When we say in faith, “I have everything I need,” we come to know that God is a God of abundant blessings and grace. The vision of this world is too often a vision of scarcity.  There isn’t enough to go around, the world says, so make sure you’ve got yours! The psalm, the Word of God, invites us into a different vision – a vision of abundance. “My cup is running over!”  the psalm writer says. You spread a table before me; surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life! Jesus said he had come so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. And Jesus modeled abundance throughout his life and ministry. In his miracles – changing water into wine, feeding thousands from a few loaves of bread, filling the fishermen’s nets with fish. In his stories of God’s love and grace – the prodigal son, forgiven by his father; the sower, who scatters seeds indiscriminately upon the ground; the vineyard owner who pays even the latest comers a full days wage. And most especially, in giving his life to free us from the power of sin and death. I remember vividly an experience which taught me to see differently my own understanding of want and need, of abundance and scarcity. When I was in seminary I had the opportunity to travel and study in Africa. My group went out “into the bush,” as they say in Zimbabwe, to visit LWF development sites.  I remember the extreme poverty the people lived in. One room homes made of mud, almost no material possessions. Lack of clean water was the most pressing issue, and the LWF was providing materials and expertise to build cisterns, wells, and irrigation systems. The people provided the labor. These people had less and worked harder than anyone else I have ever known. Yet in every village they greeted us with joyful singing. They were very proud of the work they were doing, creating a life for themselves and for the future in that place. And they were generous. As we gathered in a home in one village and were served goat meat, ground nuts and soda by the women of that village, we were very aware that the food they were sharing with us was extremely valuable, a feast given from the very little they had to honor us. Although they lived in extreme poverty, their sense of their situation was of rich blessing, joy in community and hope for the future. The Lord is my Shepherd –  I have all I need. I hear those words differently after seeing how brothers and sisters in other parts of the world live. They are words of hope and promise, and they can also challenge us to take a new look at our own lives and priorities. The Lord is our Shepherd, who guards and guides the sheep on all paths. Some paths, as the psalm says, are through green meadows, beside still and peaceful waters. Other times, the path winds through a dark valley – a fearful place which the psalm calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” We face a lot of death. Many members of our congregation have lost loved ones in recent months, and all of us have known that grief at some time.  We also face the death of dreams – of relationships – sometimes even of hope itself. In such valleys, the Shepherd offers comfort and strength, so that the psalm writer can say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you, Lord, are with me to comfort and protect me.” Because God is our shepherd, we have a hope and courage which cannot be taken from us, no matter what dark valley we find ourselves in. The book of Revelation offers a similar message of hope and promise: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more: the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  This is the promise of our God, our shepherd: not that we will not know loss and grief, but that God will wipe the tears from our eyes, and will continue to give new life, new dreams, and new hope. Every year in the season of Easter we recognize Good Shepherd Sunday. It is a day to remind us that our risen Lord Jesus is still our Shepherd – protector, guide, and intimate friend. Pastor Susan R. Andrews gives witness to the way Jesus shepherds us through death and darkness with this story, printed in the Christian Century: “It was coffee hour, and a parishioner was fussing with the food table, hunched over and preoccupied despite the hubbub of voices swirling around her. It had been six months since her husband had died, and we had yet to touch base in an unhurried way. As soon as I approached, her eyes welled up with tears. She tried to smile and be brave, but the ragged edges of grief had ravaged her face After a few moments, she looked around to see if anyone was nearby and then she began to whisper. “’I had a terrifying experience last week. You’ll probably think I’m nuts, but I have to tell someone. You know,’ she went on, ‘the nights are the worst. I hear noises in the house and I can’t get used to sleeping in bed alone. It must have been three o’clock in the morning and I was staring at the ceiling, willing myself back to sleep, when all of a sudden it happened. Bob came back. He came back and crawled into bed with me. He didn’t say a word. He just appeared – and then faded away. I felt immediate peace and warmth and hope, and now I don’t feel so alone.’ Then, glancing up in pink but eager embarrassment, she asked, ‘You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?’” No. I don’t think she was or is crazy. Instead, she is blessed with a savior who walks with us in dark places – in dreams, in visions, in people, in words, in church. The truth of Easter is that we are blessed with a God who shepherds us from death to life. A God who defies logic and grief and prejudice and fear, who blesses us and then sends us, fresh and filled with hope, back into a hopeless world. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. A statement of faith – a recognition of God’s abundant blessings in our lives – an assurance that even in our darkest valleys, we can say with Saint Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” In other words, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe                                                    April 29, 2007

Photo taken on the island of Kaui, Hawaii, October 2004

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