More Than the Shadow of Death

A Sermon for Easter 4: Acts 9: 36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

 

My Great Aunt Hallie was an interesting lady. She never married. She had some sort of position at the University of Virginia, I expect in the Extension Service. One clue to that is that she was instrumental in starting the 4 H Clubs in Virginia. Another is she always had some tale or another about crops, trees, or animals to share. Though I only saw her infrequently, I learned a lot from her. I learned how to pack a trunk. They would arrive, the trunk would open, and it was completely loaded, not a single space left, and all was perfectly in place. Hallie would use her cane and point to which box to move to get to the cases she wanted; and when that was retrieved, everything went back into its appointed place, no exceptions, ever. She also knew very practical things. At some point, she and her lifelong friend build a six-unit apartment building. She was there when every load of wood was delivered; as each piece was unloaded, she would pick up one end, sight down its long edge to see if it was straight; if it was, on the stack to use it went, if not, she tossed it aside to be returned. Some years later, when they re-carpeted the halls, all the entry doors drug, so, at 80 or thereabouts, she got her skill saw and trimmed a ½ inch off the bottom edge of all the entry doors.

She died sometime after I was priested, and she left me a shepherd’s crook. It hangs off a bookcase in my office and I see it daily. I am often reminded of the story she would tell us; sheep are not particularly smart, they need shepherding – looking after, hence the crook had two ends; one hooked to drag them out of places they shouldn’t be, and a rounded end to prodded them down the road. I am not exactly sure dragging and prodding are great examples of ministry; but I am more and more sure those functions tell us, there is more to the 23rd Psalm than we tend to hear.

I’m not sure I have ever presided at a funeral the 23rd Psalm was not said, one place or another. Largely because of verse 4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, (or, the valley of the shadow of death. as in the King James)) I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me (Psalms 23:4 NSRV).

 It is a powerful comfort, as those who mourn seek to find assurance their loved one is in God’s hands; and also seek assurance that their lives, though forever different, will somehow be oaky. However, beyond this, there are numerous other themes to explore.

First is that that God is certainly a good shepherd, but in a time when fear, in its many guises, motivates, defines our behaviors, in so many unknown ways, is there anything such thing as a good sheep (Bostock)? If there are so few good sheep, then perhaps many, most of us, ~ (all of us?) seek a shepherd; someone, bigger, stronger, wiser, to take care of us, and to fight our battles, and win our wars for us (1 Samuel 8:20) (Hoezee).

The Psalm is full of motion, the verbs; makes, leads, walk, spread, anoint, follow, and dwell are connected with every day ordinary bits of life. This motion is a prompt pointing us see that we do not need to wait to be restored, God/Jesus/Spirit offers, has promised, to restore our daily lives; and that goodness and mercy peruse us, seeking to assure us the daily perils and evils do not pose a lasting threat (Morris).

Our returning to the house of the Lord is not a onetime event. Rather it refers to the constant going to and fro of life in and beyond: shadowed moments, behind closed doors, in gardens, by the well, abandoned, in loneliness, needing to escape, all places where God/Jesus/Spirit meets us, refreshes us, and reminds us we are never alone (Morris; Lewis; Hoezee).

The shepherd, who lays us down, restores us, comforts us, sets table for us, anoints us, is a shepherd on a mission:

  • A loving, giving mission (John 3:16),
  • a bring other sheep mission (John 10:16),
  • a blind man mission (John 9),
  • an “I am” mission,
  • a “come and see” and “I send you” mission,
  • a find the abandoned mission, and
  • a calling us to mission, mission (Lewis).

Finally, there is a royal association theme. In the Old Testament, the shepherd always refers to the Kings of Israel and Judah. The plasm expresses confidence in God to provide food, water, shelter, guidance, safety from violence, and a place of honor (Gaventa and Petersen). The implication is a job description for Israel’s kings, that very few live up to, and now is a job description for any and all governing structures, including republics and democracies.

The more I thought of it, all these themes are a description of good sheep.

Good sheep

  • are fearless, because they trust in God/Jesus/Spirit presence;
  • they take care to care for themselves, so allow goodness and mercy to catch up, and refresh them,
  • they are a source of goodness and mercy that refresh others,
  • good sheep return to the House of the Lord,
  • and lead other sheep who are caught up in shadowed moments, behind closed doors, in gardens, by the well, abandoned, lonely, or needing to escape, into God/Jesus/Spirit presence,
  • Good sheep know the Shepherd’s calling, so they know their mission, and
  • trust in divine abundance and from there provide food and water, safety, shade, guidance, protection from violence, respect and honor to the great uncountable multitude of God’s children, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Rev 7:9), journeying with all of them through their particular ordeals (Rev 7:14), guiding all to belief in the Lord, (Acts 9:42) that leads to eternal life, where they will never perish (John 10:28).

Being good sheep is not an enviable nor easy Way. It is a good thing we have a shepherd who loves us, a shepherd who knows us, each of us by name, a shepherd who devotedly pulls and prods us along The Way, who is ~ well ~ is not just a good, but The Shepherd, the Risen Shepherd.


References

Bostock, Jazzy. “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” 12 5 2019. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 5 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Psalms —. 12 5 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. A Good Shepherd Perspective. 12 5 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.

Morris, Bobby. Commentary on Psalm 23. 12 5 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

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