There is no more famous refrain as the beginning of our scripture this morning, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The first sentence of this beautiful, timeless, ancient poem provides us a metaphor that is essential in understanding God.
The Lord as shepherd. God as shepherd. God as pastor, which is another translation for it. What does this mean?
Have you ever contemplated the work of a shepherd? In North Orange where I live it is easier to do, I suppose. I have some sheep and shepherds as neighbors.
One actually gets a great picture of a shepherd in the parable I shared with the children. A good shepherd cares for his sheep as if their parent. The shepherd is a guardian, a protector, a watchmen, a caregiver, not to mention a midwife.
The shepherd also develops a bond with his sheep. He gets to know them personally, gets to know their personalities, their tendencies, their quirks, and their routines. He even names them. And as the parable shows, when one goes astray, which like humans they tend to do, a good shepherd will go and find it no matter what. Each sheep is precious in the shepherds sight.
This description of the shepherd applies to God. The Lord is a shepherd, yes. Moreover, the Lord is my shepherd. God is not some shepherd in theory far-off somewhere. God is not aloof to me, hidden away in heaven. God is my shepherd, here with me, guiding me, watching over me. God is as important to me as the shepherd is to a lamb being brought into the world and watched after ever since.
Another item that is interesting to consider is the nature of the shepherd’s leadership and guidance of his or her sheep.
There is a Buddhist teaching that elucidates three different types of what are called Bodhisattvas, which are angel like figures that help lead people to spiritual salvation, called enlightenment in Buddhism. The first Bodhisattva leadership style is the King, who realizes enlightenment first, takes his throne, and then from above in his throne leads others toward salvation. This is leadership from above, if you will. The second type is the Ship Captain who realizes enlightenment together with the others on the boat. This is leadership standing with, next to, in the midst of those he or she is leading. And finally there is the Shepherd who from behind his flock moves that flock toward salvation. The shepherd is the source behind the sheep entering where it belongs, home. And the shepherd only enters its paddock, its home, after all the sheep have arrived home. This is leadership from behind, getting the wide view of where each of the sheep are and where they are going and guiding them to where they need to go, to the homeplace of enlightenment where the shepherd will follow after each of the sheep have entered.
That God is equated with the shepherd-style of One waiting for all to first enter the green pasture, all to enter the stillwaters, all to experience the restoring presence and righteousness of salvation. How telling and beautiful, especially to a Christian Universalist like myself.
God moves us as a shepherd moves his sheep.
And that is a third thing that I find very intriguing to ponder. God moves us as a shepherd moves his sheep. Are we talking physically here? Does God physically herd us cats of a people? Does God use his rod and staff to physically move us forward? I’d say no. The work of God happens in the space of our souls, our hearts, our minds, our spirits. God moves us, guides us, shepherds us from the inside-out.
You know that phrase, let your conscience be your guide. Well, the image here is the Lord as shepherd is your internal guide. God from the pasture of our hearts, if you will, looks ahead, sees the terrain, and the green hills and still waters and right paths ahead and leads us accordingly.
To mix metaphors a bit, from the king’s throne in the kingdom of God within us, God leads us.
Actually this mix of metaphors, the mix of shepherd and king is a biblical theme.
Who is the author of the Psalm about the shepherding God? The shepherd-king, David.
In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep what is the Kingdom of God equated with? The Kingdom is equated with the shepherd risking the 99 to look for that 100th sheep. The king is a shepherding God here too.
And who talked about the kingdom of God within? The good shepherd, the new David, the new king of kings, Jesus.
God, and God in Christ, defines what it means for a shepherd to be king. God steps down from the pomp and circumstance of king up there in heaven and enters the landscape and life of a shepherd, God become pastor. Where? Not in some land of make believe. Not in the landscape of Jerusalem or Washington D.C.
No, God is our ultimate pastor in the pasture of our hearts. Within us. God the shepherd king takes residence in our hearts. And from God’s humble, shepherd-friendly throne in our hearts, made available through the coronation of our faith, God shepherds us, pastors us, to the home-place of green pastures, to still waters, and to the restoring presence and right ways of God.
See, what makes it possible for us to reach green pastures, stillwaters, and to be restored when we go astray is this: a Shepherd-King God’s insight and internal urging within our hearts.
From the vantage point of the sheep, it is the sheep who are walking the right path. They are directed by the shepherd but it is they who are walking the path, the shepherd unseen from behind. This is to say it is we who do the walking. God in our hearts simply assures to us the paths are indeed right. God who we do not see but trust assures that it is we that go and that is God’s path we go by.
Not only that, the sheep walk that path for the name’s sake of the shepherd. God patiently trails behind to make sure all enter the green pasture, stillwaters, and restoring presence and righteousness of salvation. So we enter transformation in the name of God and for God’s namesake. It is we who must make God’s work evident. We carry God’s banner. God walks behind us, but it is we who must first and foremost enter.
Let us jump ahead for the sake of time to what has always been for me the most difficult phrase in our scripture. Verse 7 says, “He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Now, reading this a lot as a hospice chaplain, I earlier on pondered it and even questioned reading it, mainly because it is the one sentence in the scripture that does not seem to fit the ethos of comfort and care the Psalm presents. It always seemed a bit out of place. But I came to this understanding of that phrase:
First of all, the word enemies does not necessarily have to be personal, referring to a person that is your enemy. An enemy can be cancer or addiction or a chronic pain. An enemy can be injustice or inequity or poverty. In fact, it is a biblical principle to look primarily at the wrong and not the wrongdoer. Do you know that saying, “hate the sin; love the sinner.” It’s the same theme. Hate the wrong, seek to right the wrong, but love the wrongdoer.
In any case, God prepares a table of food for me, feeds me, nourishes me, despite the presence of the enemy of cancer or heart disease or chronic back pain, despite the reality of injustice, inequity and poverty. God doesn’t Herself remove the enemy, but helps us to be nourished and strong as we can continue in the struggle of getting well or turning wrong into right or the enemy into a beloved.
However, it doesn’t stop there for me. Recall Jesus’ spiritually revolutionary declaration that we love our enemies? Now, I take that as a real benchmark we are to seek to follow. But how do we read verse 7 of Psalm 23 in the context of Jesus’ command that we love our enemies?
First, we must understand the enemies here are not external to the flock. The good shepherd would not allow external predators to get as close as being present in front of the sheep’s dinner table. The good shepherd would not allow wolves as a dinner guest. The good shepherd protects us.
No, the enemies are internal. The enemies could be the sheep next door or sitting next to you. And as shepherds can attest, sheep do like to fight internally.
Anyway, God prepares a table before me in the presence of the enemy right next to me. God does this not so I can laud the meal over my enemies in front of me. This is especially not a good idea considering that war, like the internal conflicts between sheep, is usually a struggle over limited resources, either it be territory or money or food. And these conflicts and wars inevitably destroy the already limited resources in the process. It becomes a vicious cycle.
In other words, my enemy is usually just as hungry as I am and that is why we are enemies.
But God prepares the table before me in the presence of my enemies in order that I can share that meal with my perceived enemy. The dinner table is actually a table for mediation, a breaking of bread that produces a truce, making it easier to love my enemy.
In Psalm 23, we are talking about table in the name of peace, knowing that war is often over a conflict over resources. The table mentioned in Psalm 23 is in this way the precursor to the Communion table where a spot is made available to all so that enemies become beloveds, strangers, friends.
Lastly, there is the phrase that maybe you’ve wondered about as well. “You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over.” Well, it is somewhat tied to the “prepare a table in the presence of enemies: phrase. It is also tied to the mention of the shepherd’s other tools of a rod and a staff, the sight of which comforts the sheep. The other tool here is oil. As an old-school shepherd could tell you, sheep tend to literally butt heads. You know how goats will clash horns, well, sheep, rams, do similar things. A shepherd would use oil on the head and horns so that an attempted blow would end in glance, one ram’s head slipping off the greased head and horns of the combatting rams. This throw off the battlers. Out of their bewilderment, and lack of the satisfaction in a good hit and good heat, the battle often dissipates.
Again, we have God as shepherd, not choosing sides between two sheep, but using the anointing of oil to bring peace to the locked-horn battle.
It is interesting that the next phrase goes back to the meal at the table metaphor. My cup at the dinner table overflows. God prepares a mediation table to ease the existence of enemies; God uses oil to ease the combatting ways of enemies; and as a result the cup at the mediation table overflows, never runs out, is abundant with thirst-quenching water.
Again, we have another example of God as shepherd out of lovingkindness and care providing for the sheep before him.
It is no wonder the Psalm ends with a flourish of gratitude and faith. The sheep knows her shepherd is ever-present, watching with clear vision and intuitive sense, looking ahead with the wisdom of foresight and love, guiding his flock together safely into the home-place of salvation.
The Lord, ever-present guides me, leads me, restores me from the inside-out. Though I walk through the dark valleys all around, in the shepherd’s presence and in my trust in that presence there is a light shining through me and into the world. So, yes, surely, Goodness and mercy shall follow me all days of my life and I shall make my home-place residing with God.