Well, it’s been quite stretch here for us lately. Unexpected events, uncertain outcomes, things like safety—our personal safety, the safety of our meeting—on our minds and hearts. This experience has made real for me what a blessing and a luxury it is to feel safe: some people live with insecurity and fear every single day. I hope we will remember them and pray for their comfort and the healing of their lives as we pray for our own. These aren’t things we often think about in the gentle world of our Quaker meeting, but an event has made them real. It’s uncomfortable, and for a time we were inadvertently drawn into a totally new landscape—one I’m sure we won’t want to return to anytime soon.
Anytime we find ourselves at a new place in our lives–wanted or not—we feel better if we can turn to someone who has traveled that way before. Get advice about how to avoid the tricky spots and find the scenic route. Learn what to watch for and what to let go. Have that under-it-all sense that someone is watching out for us. Even though we’re in a new place, there’s someone there who has experience, who has the understanding, skills, and vision to lead the way. In other words, we need a shepherd.
I originally had the idea for this message a couple of weeks ago, before the excitement began. I had been thinking of the time—and I mentioned this once in a message long ago—when it suddenly dawned on me that that first line of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” applied, in real time, to me, Katherine, the mother of then-young children, living in Columbus, Indiana.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” I thought with a kind of wonder and awe, looking out the second-story window at the orange sun setting on acres of growing corn. “My shepherd,” not just David’s shepherd, or my children’s shepherd, or the shepherd of the people of the Old Testament, but my shepherd, here, today. I wondered, can I let myself feel that watched over? Can I trust that there is One—even, as George Fox would say, Christ Jesus—who has come to teach me, lead me, protect me himself?
Not long ago on social media, people were sharing a sweet picture of a sheep on a remote hillside, looking straight into the camera, and the words off to the side said, “I’m the one he came looking for.” The idea of a shepherd’s purposeful and tender care, that he will leave the 99 who are safe and tucked in for the night, and go scouring the wild countryside, looking for the one who wandered away, tempted by ripe berries or caught in brambles along the creek. Each life has great value for this shepherd. Each is loved, cared for, found, and carried back to safety, no matter how far they have strayed from the herd, no matter what they’ve gotten into. Dark valley or not, lost or not, we are never outside the reach of God’s love. That’s good and comforting news.
Sometimes we’re the ones safe and secure and tucked in for the night. But sometimes we’re the one at risk–out alone, in unfamiliar territory, feeling small, vulnerable, and afraid. In both cases, we need a shepherd.
The story we heard from the book of John happens at a time when Jesus’ ministry is growing and his fame is spreading. He’s beginning to attract the attention of Pharisees and scribes. Crowds now flock to hear him; he has performed miraculous healings, and people from all over bring their sick and struggling, hoping to catch a glimpse or a hem of this great prophet who has mysteriously come from a town not so far away from their own.
So many people with so many questions and needs, drawn in hope, wondering, looking for someone who can help them. And present in the crowd is the other side too—cynical, power-hungry Pharisees and scribes and probably also resistant, educated, and devout men—all threatened by Jesus’ growing influence, wanting to catch him up in some kind of blasphemous teaching so they can challenge and maybe charge him and get him out of the public eye. And also, move him out of reach of their own hearts and souls, which could, if they let his ideas in, be changed.
Knowing this, Jesus makes a striking and beautiful promise to the people who have come in hope. “I am the good shepherd,” he says. “I know my own and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” He tells them there’s no limit to his dedication to them—he, the good shepherd, will lay down his life for his sheep.
This is no idle promise. Back in that time, shepherds were responsible for everything that happened to their sheep during their lifetimes. They would go to great lengths—even risking their personal safety—if a lamb’s life was in peril. Shepherds were there at birth, helping in the process; they carried newborn lambs close to their hearts to warm them in the frigid early spring. They sought out green pastures and found the best, calmest water sources. They led their flocks through cycles of feeding, roaming, and rest. And they were the sole protectors of flock gathered in for the night, finding safe spaces in the hollows of hillsides, resting lightly themselves so they could be on guard for wild animals that came to prey on the those in their care.
The promise Jesus made there wasn’t simply something he said to a certain crowd on a certain hillside on a certain day long ago. It is a promise that stretches across time and space, whispered to every heart beloved of God in every point around this globe.
As we sit here in our pews this morning, beginning to heal from our recent challenges:
The Lord is—has been and always will be–our shepherd. We shall not want. Want what? Name it—peace, provision, protection, love, kindness, gentleness, mercy. What could we want that God could not provide? The Lord is the shepherd of Brenda and John and Lynn and Darla. We could go up and down every row, calling each name, claiming this promise for each heart. Try reading Psalm 23 to yourself with your own name in the lines. It’s a beautiful way of reminding our anxious minds that nothing happens to any one of us that is outside of the love and care of God. The Light of Christ is with us, leading, guiding, and illumining, and God knows our every need and has all that concerns us in his care.
He makes us lie down in green pastures. God knows we need rest and beauty, peace and nature, and he provides it for us, continually, the nourishment we need, the joy we seek, a lush and beautiful world, blossoming continually with fresh skies, new seasons, surprise snows, and a certain thaw–reasons for ongoing hope and lifted spirits.
He lead us beside still waters. In our times of silent worship, we quiet our souls, minds, and hearts, we move toward stillness like the smooth surface of a pond. Water is vital not only for our physical bodies but it is also a symbol for our spiritual lives, important for the cleansing, refreshing, and restoring of our souls.
He leads us along right paths. The good shepherd knows we need direction, that in a world of shadows we see through a mirror darkly. Left on our own, we’re likely to get confused or lost or afraid, swept into things that would lead us the wrong way. Instead of letting fear get ahold of our hearts and suspicion and distrust divide and imprison us, the shepherd helps us know which way to follow to keep our hearts and minds open and focused on the goodness of God.
Even through the darkest valley, we fear no evil. When things get rough—when storms come, when the way is dark, when ferocious animals are lurking about—we can know in our hearts that we have nothing to fear because the shepherd is with us, and he’s got his rod and his staff—they are standard shepherding tools out in the field. But they also represent something more—the experience and protective nature of the one who leads. That’s a comfort because we can rest, knowing we are defended and protected from whatever comes.
A bounty of goodness is spread for us in the presence of our enemies. “Enemies” aren’t something we Quakers typically talk about because it is an important part of our faith to look for “that of God” in one another. But when others come against us—for whatever reason—we can trust that the shepherd is still leading–leading us all–toward blessing. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. There is goodness, and light, and blessing for all. We don’t have to fight and defend and argue. We can simply maintain our trust in this one who leads us with such grace, who has brought us so far in our lives, every single day up to now. If we can keep looking toward him, even and especially in conflict and confusion, our hearts will find a sense of his peace. We feel drawn toward a wellspring of good, arising from the inside and pouring outward.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives. How could they not? We dwell and rest and are restored in the house of the Lord, as his children, his flock, his beloved. The only thing we need to do is stay there, letting our hearts and minds ponder that, feeling it, absorbing it, confirming it. Gradually that knowing changes our lives in subtle and profound ways.
Years ago I read the book Adventures in Prayer by Catherine Marshall. Some of you may remember her as the wife of Peter Marshall, a gifted Presbyterian minister and the Chaplain of the United States Senate in the late 1940s. In the midst of a growing and thriving ministry, Peter Marshall died suddenly of a heart attack at age of 46. Catherine wrote in her book that as she stood in shock in the emergency room, knowing her husband was gone and she had to somehow figure out how to go on alone with their small son, she heard clearly in her heart, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” She said it came to her with clarity in that moment of tragedy that she knew it was a message straight from God to her heart. She claimed it, and held on to it, and then went on to live by it, day by day. Even though she went through a difficult valley of grief, she continued to expect the goodness of God to be with her and over time, her expectation proved true.
Life would be simpler and sweeter, clearer and less complicated, if we could live with an abiding sense, an unshakable experience of the protection and presence of God. Our sense of trust and welcome would just pour out of us, as individuals and as a meeting. We could live—and shine—undefended, with great love—truly seeing that of God in everyone—if we know deeply, without a doubt, that we are safe and cared for, no matter what life brings us next.
Perhaps this week would be a good time to revisit and reflect on the 23rd Psalm, and insert ourselves, our names, our stories, and our needs into the verses and really allowing ourselves to feel the care and direction of the one who leads our lives. No matter what we yearn for–beauty, peace, restoration, provision, safety, connection, healing, mercy, or something else–God knows and understands, cares and provides. We have the shepherd’s word on that.
- OT: Psalm 23
- NT: John 10: 14-18
- Kelly, Thomas. “Holy Obedience,” William Penn Lecture, 1939. http://quaker.org/legacy/pamphlets/wpl1939a.html
- Marshall, Catherine. Adventures in Prayer. https://books.google.com/books?id=5oBXDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Walker, Howard A. My Creed and Other Poems: https://books.google.com/books?id=T2EpAAAAYAAJ&