Easter 4C, May 12 2019
All Saints, Bellvue
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Everytime we get to the shepherd stuff in scripture I start hearing sweet pastoral music, and a Disney cartoon with birds chirping and gentle clouds scudding through the sky over rolling green hills.
And then, because I have actually lived life and know it is not a Disney film a corgi or a border collie comes charging across those hills barking their fool heads off. And all the sheep or the goat (or the cows) grumble and move on. But first a couple of the grumpiest will try to headbut, kick, or ignore said dog. Eventually though? The dogs, and their shepherd win and the herds go where they are told.
We generally read this psalm at funerals, and most of us, when we hear it, probably think exactly that. Comforting but a little sad.
But this week the lovely lady who bred our corgi got goats and she posted a video of one of Basil’s relative’s doing a really good job of moving the goats from one piece of the property to the next to clear out some noxious weeds and “mow the lawn” so to speak.
And it got me thinking about what it means to look to God as our shepherd. It got me thinking about this psalm. Because it is beautiful, and certainly the relationship the psalmist has with God is one of care and trust.
In seminary my preaching professor wisely warned us against preaching sermons where our congregations were the “dumb sheep.” First off, because sheep aren’t actually dumb, and second because… well pretty sure you all can figure that one out.
But here’s the thing about shepherds and sheep that I have trouble with. When we made God the shepherd and ourselves the sheep we start down the road to some really problematic theology. We say some disturbing things about why a horrible person has billions of dollars and a 37 year old mother of two doing Kingdom work dies unexpectedly. We get dangerously close to God being the puppet master who stage manages our lives and gives some of us good stuff, and some bad.
God, as one of my rabbi friends likes to say, is not a vending machine.
So this week, watching a video of Basil’s aunt expertly putting a couple ornery goats in their place I started thinking about shepherds and God and us again in a different way.
What if we’re not the sheep. What if we’re the sheep dog?
The shepherd and the sheepdog work together, but not all sheep dogs are alike. There are dogs like Basil who will run barking at ANYTHING at least once. (Cows require some persuasion to move.) There are sheepdogs like Sasha who hang back making sure none of her charges get lost, and who gets really anxious if something isn’t going to plan. There are sheep dogs like Basil’s aunt Amara who will neatly pick out the goat who needs moving and move them just where the shepherd wants. And ones like one of his cousin who take one look at a four footed wooly critter and runs and hides.
But if I’m going to make that analogy then you need to ask: what are the sheep? They are not, my friends, other people that God has put us in charge of.
Instead, we’ve each got a herd of sheep. They are the balls we’re constantly juggling, the plates we’re trying to keep spinning. All of us have our own unique herd, some of them have a few goats mixed in, there might even be a wolf in sheep’s clothing in there somewhere. Some of us are herding cows, and sometimes it might feel like we’re herding cats.
And our job, (if we choose to accept it) is to get in there and work the herd that is our complicated lives. Not by ourselves, but listening to the shepherd and trying our best to move the herd where the shepherd is going. Even working with the shepherd to figure out which critters (that’s things in our life) maybe should be removed.
And there’s a lot we could learn about our life with God from herding dogs.
- If you go in too fast and hard you’ll just scatter everything, make a mess, and break things.
- If you never move then you won’t get anywhere and the flock will wander away, get lost, and scatter.
- The shepherd has a destination in mind, it might not always be where we want to go right now, but this is a long term journey, sometimes you have to go up the steep hill, or down through the dark ravine.
- Sometimes the thing you are trying to manage will turn around and bite you/kick you. That’s not a reason to give up.
- If you don’t succeed, try, try again. (seriously keep at it.)
I like the image of the herding dog in our shepherd tales. We aren’t passive participants in our lives, we’re not mindlessly being led from fattening grass to water to the shearing shed. Neither are we in charge.
When we’re herding dogs for Jesus we’ve got a job, to get our lives in line. To follow and listen and learn. To, with God, deal with the disasters that befall our lives (herd), to keep going through the rough spots, to relax and enjoy the wide green pastures.
In the end that’s the Christian journey. We walk up out of the waters of baptism onto a road that leads off into a future we cannot even begin to imagine. The destination isn’t our concern; the journey is. We cannot know what lies ahead for us.
The herd we’re taking care of changes, and yet God remains constant. Present in the darkness, present when the sheep are scattered and we feel overwhelmed and lost. Present when all is peaceful and calm. Present when we find ourselves fighting off wolves, or mourning losses we weren’t ready for.
And that I think, is always good news.