Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
May 6, 2018
Texts: Psalm 23; Genesis 46:28--47:6
If you ever saw the movie Babe, about the pig herder of sheep, you will get an idea of what it means to take care of sheep. In that delightful film, the pig Babe gets her life saved because she has learned the skill of herding sheep. Although the border collies chase them about nipping at their heels, Babe talks to the sheep and they agree to do what Babe needs to have done. What’s particularly interesting is that the sheep act as a group with one sheep speaking for their consensus.
In that way, sheep are not so different from us human beings. For the most part we act as groups and have someone speak for the group. Although Babe is not called a shepherd, that’s what she is – a shepherd, someone who cares about the sheep and keeps them together, not by nipping at their heels as did the border collies, but by listening to them and then herding them respecting their desires.
And isn’t that the kind of shepherd we want? The comforting words of the 23rd Psalm does not present God as a creature nipping at our heels but more like Babe, listening and then shepherding us into where we should be. That kind of shepherding takes more time for listening to and caring for others always takes more time than merely chiding and pushing to get what one needs but in the end, the rewards are greater.
Sheep herding in the ancient world was not always that easy. Sheep are among the oldest of domesticated animals, possibly as early as 11,000 BCE. The only animal that was probably domesticated earlier was the dog. And that we only know because of an unearthed grave in northern Spain dating from about 14,500 BCE where the dog and master were buried together.
Sheep herding in the ancient world was a pastoral or nomadic occupation, that is, sheep and shepherds originally moved about to secure enough grassland for feeding the flock. The Genesis passage at first sounds somewhat strange because we know the Egyptians kept sheep but for the most part in the Delta, known as the land of Goshen in Scripture, where there was sufficient pastureland; however, Egyptian shepherds were not nomadic as were the ancient Hebrews.
Although dogs were domesticated much earlier than sheep, their biblical references are not the most flattering. They were considered scavengers and contemptible. Consider what is meant when someone is called a dog. There is only one biblical reference to dogs and sheep being together; that is in the book of Job. Even though used to guard sheep, they were still considered contemptible.
The major predator in the ancient Near East was actually the lion. There are bas-reliefs showing lions attacking sheep, which are pretty helpless. Moreover, the Judean hills were not the easiest place to live; the landscape was often arid and when the shepherd realized his flock needed more water, he moved around.
Listen to the language of the Psalm. Beyond bringing the sheep to green pastures near still waters rather than a treacherous roaring river, the shepherd uses a rod and staff to keep the flock together. We could think of the rod and staff as a metaphor for the law and commandments by which the Hebrews lived since mostly the rod and staff were used to hold the herd together. The rod and staff were also a way to ward off any possible predator, though I can’t imagine how they would have been used against a lion.
Speaking to the Lord, this Davidic Psalm is one of gratitude for the care of the Lord for the Psalmist and for the people of Israel and, by extension, us. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, the valley of death, we should not fear for God is with us. The valleys of doubt, despair, and death are difficult for us, to be sure, but the shepherding grace of God can help us through them.
In his book The Wounded Healer my old teacher Henri Nouwen speaks of the gifts we give each other even as we ourselves are wounded by life. He wrote that Christian service must come from a heart wounded by our own suffering that enables us to make our own wounds as a source of healing for others.
Nouwen taught for almost two decades at Harvard and Yale, which is where I knew him, and helped those of us wounded by life how to use our own wounds to help others. He was truly extraordinary, and was a wonderful example of serving as a shepherd to the flock of students he advised.
Shepherding is more than preaching on a Sunday or serving in a church office, such as trustee or deacon. Shepherding is communicating the presence of God and, hopefully, being able to help others realize that presence. Certainly we not only feel the rod and staff of God as a framework for our lives but also try to share that framework with others.
That doesn’t mean that when we share the framework others agree with us or see life the same way we do. That’s why I use the word framework. It’s a word that is expansive. A framework is never really narrow but widely encompassing.
Although much of Nouwen’s writing was primarily for people in pastoral ministry, it applies to all of us in a Christian community. As we acknowledge our own dark nights of the soul, our doubts and despairing, we open ourselves to shepherding from others in our community. And this kind of shepherding applies to other aspects of our lives as well.
If we think about it, the lessons of how to shepherd people and groups apply to other activities in our lives. A good teacher doesn’t use a rod and staff to beat children but as a framework on how to guide children into fulfilling the tasks that are laid out for them. Our rod and staff serve in the same way in getting a project completed, such as good political or social justice organizing.
Good shepherding enables us even though we are in the presence of others we might consider “enemies,” or opposed to what we think needs to be done, we can still have our heads anointed with the oil of consideration and thoughtfulness so we are able to disarm others by discussion as well as action to get the needed task accomplished. But it means recognizing our limitations which is not easy for some of us. Believe me, I know. I have a hard time recognizing my own.
The last verse, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” is a statement of hope. That’s of course what we want, goodness and mercy. And we want to feel as if such goodness and mercy will always be with us, no matter what. That’s the difficult part, of course: not so much that God’s goodness and mercy may be with us now but in the future.
This is why this last statement is one of hope although hopefulness may be a better word. The Psalmist directly addresses God in this last part of the Psalm, completing the thought of God as our shepherd, the One who cares for us. Here it is not a plea for God to be with us as we have heard in some of the other Psalms, but an acknowledgement that God is with us no matter what happens.
The Twenty-third Psalm has been set to music by composers as varied as Bach and Bernstein; classical settings include those of Franz Schubert, John Rutter, and Ralph Vaughn Williams. More modern settings were done by Duke Ellington and Judy Collins, but we should not ignore those of the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Bobby McFerrin. Numerous hymns have been written using the words of this Psalm, which I think I memorized when I was probably eight- or nine-years old.
At St. Mark's, where the Washington D.C. area church for the deaf met, this Psalm was often used at funerals just as it is often used for communities of the hearing. There is a particular directness to the signed Psalm. The visual effect of the Psalm is clear. [signed Psalm]
In the end, it is not just us who dwell with the Lord but the Lord dwells with us all the days of our lives.
Let us pray: Eternal One, who holds us together with your rod and staff, guide us into a deepening faith in you and faithfulness to your creation. In the name of him who showed us how to care for each other, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.