Well, my friends, welcome to this fourth Sunday of Eastertide, a Sunday that has been designated for some time now by the Church as Good Shepherd Sunday, and Vocations Sunday.
I’m not sure why Good Shepherd Sunday was chosen to be included in the Sunday’s of Eastertide.
Maybe it was because of the Churches belief that the Spirit of our living God, and risen Christ, remains with us as it did to the believers of old, giving us all we could want, comforting, and guiding us like a good shepherd we should put their trust in.
To support their image of God and Jesus Christ as our Good Shepherd, the Church has chosen among its scriptures of the day Psalm 23, and verses from the tenth chapter of Johns Gospel.
In the gospel lesson, John has Jesus declare himself The Good Shepherd, and in Psalm 23, it is God, or the Lord. While these two scriptures are wonderful gifts to us during this Coronavirus Pandemic, it is especially true of Psalm 23.
I can think of no other passage of scripture that we should want to hear, and need to hear, during these troubling times. So, I thought I’d take a few minutes to offer you my interpretation of the short 6 verses of Psalm 23, and point out how Jesus’ vocation as Good Shepherd can be our own.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”
We all want things in life. A good job and career, a family and the means to support them. And also things like love, happiness, and so much more.
During our present pandemic we want security, and good health. Other creatures have their wants too, like food, water, shelter, and someone to protect and care for them.
Sheep , especially those in Jesus day, were among them. Their wants were simple. Pasture to graze on that provided their food. Streams and wells from which to drink their water.
Pens that offered them shelter, and someone to protect them from predators that threatened to devour them; that someone for them being their good shepherd.
The spirit of our God and Christ is that someone for us. They are our Good Shepherd.
They provide us with everything we should ever really want, their presence that feeds ours hungers and thirsts and guides and protects us. When we accept this presence into our lives we satisfy our deepest wants.
During our present pandemic, as we live in isolation, enveloped in fear of getting sick from a virus that can kill us, we should be asking ourselves: “ What do I really want?”
And who can really satisfy my wants? The answer is, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
“He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul.”
The literal image here is of a shepherd guiding his sheep to grazing places, and watering holes where they can receive the food and drink that makes them strong enough to survive, and thrive.
I would never say that God sent the Coronavirus to make us do certain things, or to get us to realize certain things.
To suggest such a thing is simply bad theology, and against everything we should believe about our loving God.
However, our present day pandemic is forcing us to do things, and look at things, we might not have otherwise done, or examined.
For example, it is making us search for places of serenity and peace in the midst of chaos.
And, I believe that if we let them, the spirit of our God and Christ will guide and direct us in our search to find these places.
They are offering their spirit to feed our souls and quench our thirst with the food and drink that will restore us.
They are saying: “Find your peace in me to ease your anxieties.”
Find it not only in some serene outside, or inside place, but also deep within yourself, and allow our spirit to guide you there and restore you.
“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.”
Paths of righteousness are the right paths. Sheep were not able by themselves to discern what their right path was.
They needed help to be led to it, and to be able to stay on, it so they wouldn’t stray and put themselves in harm’s way.
Each one of us is trying to determine the path in life that is right for us to take and travel on.
During our present day pandemic, we have been given an opportune time for discernment.
Where do we want to go with our lives, and what do we want to do with them?
As I face leaving this church and Congregation I have pastored for close to 20-years and retiring from parish ministry, at least for a time, to a state I have never lived in before and where I know few people, I am faced with all these questions.
In his meditation on Psalm 23, another minister wrote: “Our direction is life is determined by our own choices. We are on a journey in life in which we are in the process of becoming our true selves. It is a perilous journey with many challenges, difficulties, and choices.”
To that I would add, the spirit of our God and Christ are trying to direct us to follow the path that is right for each of us, and then help us stay on it.
But as the entirety of Psalm 23, and the words of an old hymn remind us, “We have to trust in God to guide us.”
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic we all are trying to navigate through sends us literally into the valley where the shadow of sickness and death has fallen on so many, and threatens to fall on each of us.
It is shadow we not only see, but feel, like a shudder, the shadow of our most vulnerable self that fills us with doubt, and fear.
But the psalmist gives us some of the best encouragement we could ever receive when he says,
“The Lord is with us”, giving us his spirit to keep us company when we feel so alone, to keep us strong when we grow weak, to lift us up when we fall, and to comfort us enough to face our fears.
“Thou preparest a table in the presence of my enemies, thou annointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.”
Enemies were always lurking around sheep, predators like wolfs and coyotes ready to pounce and devour them.
In the same fashion enemies were lying in wait for the psalmist, as they lie in wait for us.
Enemies from without, and from within, that can devour us too; people who are cruel and demeaning, cold and calculating, intent on destroying our self-confidence and our self-esteem.
In the presence of our enemies our Good Shepherd provides us with the food of his presence we can feed on, in the form of Psalm 23, whose words we recite as part of the armor we wear to shield off our enemies.
They should be our mantra we always repeat and rely on in the presence of our enemies, and especially everyday of this pandemic.
In certain religious traditions priests and ministers anoint the sick with oil, gently putting drops of it on them, they consecrate with prayer on the head, invoking its healing power.
In biblical times as the head was anointed with oil as a way to cool, and soothe, it also became a healing balm.
When we become sick, or hot and bothered, the presence of our God and Christ always stands ready to pour over us, and soothe and heal our wounded souls, if we will only receive it.
“Surely goodness, and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Goodness and mercy following us the days of our life.
The goodness and mercy of God we put our trust in, to show us what is good, and to forgive us even when we are unworthy.
The goodness and mercy of God that is manifested in others, and an extended to us, that is so reassuring, affirming and hopeful, following us all the days of our life.
Friends, as our God and Christ are good shepherd to us, so too are we to be good shepherds to each other.
That is our calling as human beings and as Christians; to comfort one another, and to feed one another with kindness and compassion, with mercy and forgiveness.
This is why Good Shepherd Sunday is also Vocation Sunday, a day when we recognize and celebrate our vocation, or calling to shepherd one another.
Traditionally, this Sunday this has meant lifting up those who have answered a specialized calling into ordained ministry, especially as pastors, or shepherds of congregations.
So, today we recognize their special calling and celebrate their shepherding, and we always pray that others might hear and respond to the same call and vocation.
While few of us will have a vocation as parish ministers or pastoring to congregations, we all have the vocation of pastoring to each other; of being good shepherds to one another.
This can be one of the greatest gifts to each other as we live through our pandemic.
So, my friends, our scriptures on this fourth Sunday of Easter, especially Psalm 23 are God’s gift to us.
Let them be our gift to others. With God we have everything we could ever want.
Know that God is with you and is forever your Good Shepherd. May that challenge you to be that same good shepherd to others.