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July 23, 2006 (Sunday 16 • Time after Pentecost)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Psalm 23; Mark 6:30–34, 53–56
In our gospel text for today, Jesus looks at a great crowd waiting for him on the shore of a place he has gone to in order to get a break from the crowds, and as he looks on them our text tells us, “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “Shepherd” this week.
These are all ways to think about being a shepherd in our current context, but being a shepherd the way that the Gospel of Mark is talking about and the shepherd that Psalm 23 describes is more than being a leader or a tour guide, and maybe because my sister is here, in pondering what it truly means to be a shepherd, I went even further back into my experience to my first years growing up in a big, creeky, old brick house in Wisconsin.
You see before I could read the Bible, or ride a bike, or shoot a free throw, back when I believed that girls had cooties—even though I wasn’t sure what a cooty was—before I understood what church was or why my family went to church, before any of this.... I was afraid of the dark, and that fear defined my reality.
Do you remember this fear? Now that we’re in a safe place, I’d like to invite you to think back to your childhood, and specifically to the most terrifying event of childhood: the moment the light was turned out in your room and you were left alone in the dark, to suffer the terrifying inventions of your tormented little mind. I doubt there are many adults here that at some point in their youth didn’t have to deal with this fear. And if any of you are still afraid of the dark, that’s ok. I sometimes like to have night light on myself!
But if this is an experience that you need to exhume from the back of your mind, please take a moment to do that. Try to go back to that time and explore the power that event had over your young psyche.
If you are like me, you didn’t ever turn the light out yourself when you were little: A parent always hit the light, and then left you alone. And if you’re like me, you tried to be brave, but there was a lot going against you:
While during the day life was all about me (especially as the youngest sibling in our family), in the dark I was reminded that I was vulnerable and couldn’t protect myself against the unknown. The darkness was a chaos where anything could happen. My imagination took over, and the most unlikely scenarios became clear and present dangers. My mind wandered, and aided by fear, every sound became a burglar or ghost, dirty clothes on a chair became a monster from the closet.... There was always something terrible lurking in the darkness, something that was almost more than a kid should have to deal with.... Like most children, I was a nervous wreck when it came to turning the lights out. I wasn’t scared of the dark... I was terrified of it, and I knew I needed help if I was going to survive it.
My parents, like most parents, recognized the fear and tried to do things to reassure me; essentially this meant trying to trick me into going to bed before they hit the light. My mom or dad would often sit with me and my siblings and read a chapter of one of our favorite books, whether it was tales of Narnia, Middle Earth, or something from the imagination of George MacDonald. The prospect of hearing a story would help get me into bed, and the stories fascinated me and pushed my imagination to envision new worlds and creatures! But think about what these stories were about: witches, goblins, dragons, and, orcs! Not surprisingly these stories did not always alleviate my fears once my parents left the room and I was left alone in the darkness.
My parents and I also prayed together. Often it was “Now I Lay Me,” But the words “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” only added God to the list of things for me to fear.... But every once in awhile my parents would say some other prayer with us, and eventually one made quite an impression on me, and I began to request it every night because the words really helped me in the darkness in a way nothing else did. I didn’t know that this prayer we said together at night was from the Bible, or that it was called a Psalm, or that is was the 23rd Psalm. I only knew it was about “the Shepherd.” And I don’t know why I understood the Shepherd as Jesus, but I think I always did. And I quickly realized that I wanted that Shepherd to be with me when the lights were out. I think it was in saying the 23rd Psalm at night before bed as a child that I first developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my savior.
Many people today have no frame of reference for what a shepherd is. As a child I often visited a nearby sheep farm, and my family even adopted a lamb as a house pet. But having such real world understanding of sheep, flocks, or shepherds is pretty rare these days. Many people in the church are now arguing that the term “shepherd” is an outdated expression of the role of God, Jesus, or pastoral ministry.
But I think I understood what a shepherd was, what a sheep was, and what the psalm was describing, not just because I grew up around sheep, but because the words of the psalm 23 painted a vivid picture that is accessible to anyone—child or adult, city dweller, country folk, or desert nomad. The shepherd is the person that you trust more than any other, and when you need help, they are the ones that are able to lead you to safety, to keep you safe, to guide you and protect you from danger. The shepherd is the one who could always keep you safe, even in the dark.
In my moments of darkness, I realized that Jesus was a real and present savior, for me. There were some things my parents could do for me, but protecting me when the lights went out was not one of them. Only Jesus could shepherd me through my fears of the dark—and from what the dark represented. And it was the 23rd Psalm that taught me that. So that even though I walk through the “darkest valley, I shall fear no evil for you are with me.”
If you read commentaries about the 23rd Psalm, chances are you’ll hear that the scholars call it a “Psalm of Trust” or a “Psalm of Confidence”. But I would prefer to call Psalm 23 a “Psalm of Presence”—because it describes so powerfully and poetically God’s Presence in our lives that are still so full of fears, as new terrors have replaced the ones we met as a child. Now we fear not having enough money to make payments on our loans, we fear taxes, sickness, lay-offs, war, and stock market crashes, and of course the big one that we walk through the valley of the shadow of...
God does not promise to fix all our problems and give us a perfect life. God never turned on the light in my room for me, even when I thought that was what I wanted. But we have a God that is with us in our troubles, not one that is separate from us. And that is where our Trust and Confidence come from.
In our gospel text we are reminded that this is how people reacted to Jesus as well. They put their trust and confidence in him. They followed him wherever he and his disciples went, even, as in the case of today’s lesson, to the point where they got to his destination before he did. The people of Palestine wanted to be in Christ’s presence. They put their trust in him, leaving behind their lives in their homes to follow him to see how he could help them in their fears and needs and to see where he would lead them.
In Psalm 23 God is doing the work as shepherd in a similar way. It is the presence of God with us that is at the center of this description of a shepherd. We are told we have a God with us in the strife (with a rod and staff to keep us safe), with us to lead us in right paths, to comfort, nourish, and protect us, and with us to renew us and raise us from the danger and the strife of this world, through worship and through a real raising to a new place.
When the Devil turns our reality into a place of despair we can’t get out of, when turning out the lights—or any fear of this world—seems to overcome us, God counters this trick by offering a real vision of a very different place and future reality. God’s place seems to be described at the end of the 23rd Psalm.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
When all reality becomes a sanctuary, with God as a present host, who can threaten you, and what fear has any power over you? It is a place where even the Shepherd can rest and sit at the table with us.
But for now we are in need of an active Shepherd. In this world foes may encircle us, and the path of righteousness may seem hidden, but we have God as guide and strong companion—Jesus as Shepherd! When we hear that Jesus has pity on the crowd in our gospel lesson, it may offend us because we may see ourselves as part of a similar crowd, and we don’t want to be pitied. In our present confidence (especially if we’ve recently had the opportunity to demolish something with big tools), it’s easy for us to think that we don’t need a shepherd—that our power, our wits, our tools can save us—but for all of us there are times when we are as desperate as a child in the dark for love and forgiveness that only Jesus can provide.
There are times when we all ask for help, for healing, for guidance and we know that a shepherd will be there for us. We know our shepherd is Jesus Christ. Even if we stray from the flock, even if we are a rogue sheep that somehow got their hands on some Nietzche and have decided we’d much rather be an über-sheep, we know the shepherd is always there for us. We know his voice, and he knows ours, and we are never too far away from his love. Reading scripture, like the texts we heard today is one of the best ways for us to hear that voice and build that relationship with our shepherd.
Psalm 23 was important to my faith as a child, but it is just as important now. This scripture points us to a truth that is also true for all of you today and true for you tonight when we turn the lights out: Jesus, the good shepherd, is with you and for you, all the days—and nights—of your life.
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org