Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Good Shepherd: The Fourth Sunday in Lent (30 March 2014)

RCL Lent 4A
30 March 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Psalm 23
            I was twenty-five when I met my first shepherd.  Although my hometown, Colorado Springs, was surrounded by ranches and small farms, I was a town boy and rarely had any occasion to agricultural life.  On top of this, I had inherited a bias that I didn’t know I had.  Colorado was predominantly cattle country and sheep were considered vermin by many.  Many a cowboy and shepherd had faced each other in violent clashes that claimed the lives of some.

            Gus Cholas was the name of the first shepherd I ever met.  His family was of Greek origin and they had come to Colorado to work with the flocks that were being established in the northern part of the state.  There had always been flocks in the south-western part of the state among the early Hispanic settlers, but the northern part of the state had always been cattle country.

            Gus was my father’s age and had taken early retirement from teaching veterinary medicine at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in order to study for ordination at the same seminary I attended.  As a boy he had worked with his father in caring for the flocks and it was in that experience that he found his first vocation to veterinary medicine.  Although he never spoke about it, I’m sure that he experienced some of the prejudice against shepherds and ‘foreigners’ that still lingered in some of the smaller communities, especially those where cattle-ranching was ‘king’.

            What I remember about Gus was his gentleness, his humility and his kindness to the younger seminarians, most of whom were smart-alecks like me.  Seminary was easy for me, but it was a struggle for Gus and he worked harder than most of us to complete his studies.  I have no doubt that there were times that I and my younger colleagues said or did things that caused Gus pain, but he was always patient with our faults as well as being a lot of fun to be with at community dinners and parties.  So when I realized that Psalm 23 would be part of today’s liturgy, Gus leapt into my thoughts after an absence of thirty years.

            One of my former colleagues at Vancouver School of Theology, Dr Harry Maier, a New Testament and early church scholar, once said that it was his task to make the familiar strange.  This is clearly true of Psalm 23.  Over the years we have become so accustomed to hearing it said or sung at funerals and other times of grief that we may have lost sight of the original intention of the psalmist.

            Most commentators agree that the psalm has its origin in a stressful experience that the psalmist has undergone, but what kind of stressful experience was it?

  •  Since the psalm speaks about sheep entering new pastures, was the psalmist writing about the experience of undergoing one of life’s transitions such as leaving youth behind and becoming an adult or becoming an elder?
  • Is the psalm about a traveller who, after a long and difficult journey, finally catches a glimpse of home?
  • Perhaps the psalm describes the experience of a worshipper who has entered the temple and participated in a ritual meal of thanksgiving or reconciliation.
  • Another possibility is that the psalm is simply an act of imagination using images familiar to the people of the psalmist’s time.
  • A more grim possibility is that the psalm describes the experience of a fugitive guilty of manslaughter who has taken refuge in the temple.  (Craddock 1992, 170-171)

Regardless of the circumstances behind the psalm, one thing is quite clear:  “(a person) who has known trouble or experienced life-threatening situations has also experienced the protection of the Divine”.  (Craddock 1992, 171)

            What is also clear is that Psalm 23 is not to be confined to our experiences of death and dying.  It is a psalm that speaks of our dependence upon the Holy One in all the dimensions of our lives.  (McCann 1996, 770)

“‘. . . to lie down in green pastures’ means to have food; to be led ‘beside still waters’ means to have something to drink; to be led ‘in right paths’ means that danger is avoided and proper shelter is attained . . . . In short, God’ restores my soul,’ or, better translated, God ‘keeps me alive’.”  (McCann 1996, 767-768)

And why does God do this?  Because of God’s name’s sake, because of the essential character of God which is to care for the creation through many and various means.  (McCann 1996, 767-768)

            Living as we do in a society where individualism and independence are held in high esteem, Psalm 23 offers an alternative view of the world.  All of us are mutually interdependent upon one another and upon the forces of nature over which we have little or no control.  One may view those forces as hostile, but Jews and Christians dare to confess that those forces are the creation of a loving and compassionate God.  Much, if not most, of the evil and tragedy we see in the world is caused not by malevolent or indifferent natural events but by human failure to live within the covenants God established throughout the course of history.  ‘Choose life,’ God says and we choose death.  ‘Choose compassion,’ God pleads and we choose indifference and self-interest.  ‘Choose generosity,’ God invites and we choose closed hands, closed hearts and closed minds.

            Despite the negative connotation of being called ‘sheep’, there is truth to be found in the fact that human communities are always in need of leadership and vision.  The question that we face is what kind of leadership we seek and what vision do we wish to share.  Do we seek the follow the compassionate and generous leadership of the One through whom all creation has its existence and the leadership of those who share the same vision as the Creator or will we align ourselves with one of the alternatives which speak to our darker passions and fears?

            Imagine how this psalm might work in our lives if the English translation picked up more of the nuances of the original Hebrew?  Instead of saying, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, how might our hearts be touched by saying, ‘The one who brought all things into being, the one who sustains the universe, the one who is shaping the future is my shepherd’?  How might our awareness of God’s abiding love and presence be deepened if we said, ‘Surely your goodness and mercy shall pursue me, chase after me, never lose sight of me, all the days of my life’ instead of simply saying that they shall ‘follow’ me? 

            I came to this awareness later in life, first through my relationship with Gus, then by realizing how every so-called ‘achievement’ in my life was, in more ways than one, a gift rather than my possession.  Every day and every moment of our lives God is preparing places for us to thrive and to grow into full maturity, but the choice to enter those places is our own.  Perhaps we might choose to do so more frequently if we said Psalm 23 more often.  Perhaps we might become more aware of our need for one another and for the compassion and generosity of God if we confessed that we are sheep that need leadership and vision.  Perhaps, if we gave voice more often to Psalm 23, we might have a clearer picture of the kind of leadership we need rather than some of the counterfeits and competitors that vie for loyalty.

            Last year, at the age of 89, my first shepherd died.  Gus had served many years as an associate rector of the parish in Fort Collins.  Perhaps, at his funeral, the community said or sang Psalm 23.  They would have been right to do so, for Gus was an icon of the Good Shepherd, an icon of our God who chases after us with compassion and mercy even when we choose dangerous paths and who soothes the aching heart and who cheers the body and soul with the promise of life.  Amen.
Sources cited:

            Fred B. Craddock et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year:  Year A (Philadelphia, PA:  Trinity Press International, 1992).

            J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms:  Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1996), 641-1280.

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