The Lord is my Shepherd
The Lord is my trainer
I shall not fear the fight.
He is constantly with me, working my corner
He refreshes me between rounds with cool water
And with even cooler advice
Yeah, though I walk to centre-ring
To stare out an opponent twice my size
Even then He will be with me
His hands on my shoulders
And his words to guide
With His towel and His sponge He will care for me
All the long rounds of my life
And when the final bell rings
I shall retire from the ring
Knowing that I fought the good fight.
This is my translation of the 23rd Psalm. It's a rather loose translation, in terms of its relationship to the original Hebrew, but it captures (for me at least) what I understand to be the central theme of the 23rd Psalm - namely, God's guidance and protection of us throughout our lives.
Yes, it's Good Shepherd Sunday again, where we are encouraged to make our annual ecclesiastical visit to the 23rd Psalm, in case we haven't been by that way lately. It's a psalm we all know. Indeed, I do not remember a time when I did not know this psalm. We know the words and no doubt we know at least one tune to it! Psalm 23 is a passage that tends to stay with us for the whole of life. We learn it as children in Sunday School, and, at the other end of life, it is by far the most popular piece of Scripture that people ask for on their death beds.
I do not remember ever taking a funeral where I did not use the 23rd Psalm. I've taken lost of funerals - hundreds- but never without this trusted old friend - the 23rd Psalm.Mind you, it's not only at funerals where the Psalm is read. I was told of one couple who asked for the 23rd Psalm to be the key reading at their wedding.
It's a true story. The priest on that occasion was initially a little resistant to having the 23rd Psalm as the text for his wedding eulogy (preferring to work with 1 Corinthians 13 as usual) but apparently the couple insisted, saying "look, we're quite fearful about the whole reality of marriage. Both our parental families are divorced. Many of our friends who only recently got married are already divorced. We look at the statistics for the rest of society and it doesn't fill us with confidence. We need some reassurance!" So, sure enough, at the centre of their wedding, instead of having "love is faithful, love is kind, etc." they had "yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ..."
The 23rd Psalm is certainly the most popular of the psalms. It is indeed one of the most popular and best-known parts of the whole Bible, which is why I assume we revisit it every year.
As far as I can work out, this is one of only two passages that come up every year. If you know the 'lectionary' system upon which we work here, you'll know that we basically work our way through the different passages in the Bible in a three-year cycle. This means that every three years we read our way through the whole Bible. It also means that the passages we read one week aren't then read again for another three years. There are only two exceptions to this pattern that I've picked up. One is the Gospel reading we had a couple of weeks ago about doubting Thomas. We seem to have that every year after Easter. The other one is the 23rd Psalm. It too is rostered in every year, on the fourth Sunday after Easter, along with passages about Jesus the good shepherd. I assume, in each case, that the reason they are rostered in every year is because each passage is so staggeringly popular.
This is particularly remarkable - the popularity of Psalm 23 - when we consider that the Ancient Near Eastern shepherd is so remote to us as 21st century urban Australians. I don't know a lot about shepherds, or about sheep for that matter. We don't have sheep down at Binacrombi. We've got roos, but you can't really shepherd roos into a flock like you can sheep. Not so far as I can work out anyway.
My research into Ancient Near Eastern shepherds suggests to me that if we understood more of Ancient Near Eastern shepherding, we would probably appreciate the Psalm all the more.
A guy named Philip Keller wrote a little book entitled 'A Shepherd Looks at Psalm Twenty-Three', relating his experience as a shepherd in east Africa. The land adjacent to his was apparently rented out to a tenant shepherd who didn't take very good care of his sheep: his land was overgrazed, eaten down to the ground; the sheep were thin, diseased by parasites, and attacked by wild animals. Keller remembered how the neighbour's sheep would line up at the fence and blankly stare in the direction of his green grass and his healthy sheep, as if they yearned to be delivered from the abusive shepherd. They longed to come to the other side of the fence and belong to him.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her work on shepherds and shepherding, offers us the insight that sheep might not be as dumb as we've been led to believe. She even suggests that the bad reputation sheep have may have arisen out of rumours spread by members of the cattle industry!
"Cows" she says "are herded from the rear by hooting men on horseback cracking whips, but this doesn't work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led. You push cows, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first - namely their shepherd - who goes ahead of them to show them that everything is all right."
"Sheep tend to grow fond of their shepherds," she says. "A shepherd can apparently walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single sheep, while a stranger could not step a foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep develop a relationship with their shepherd that is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to. A good shepherd can distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learns that a click of the tongue means food, or a two-note song means that it's time to go home."
Of course if you visit Palestine today you can still see Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures where they graze them. One such visitor observed that often a number of different flocks would be brought to the same watering hole each evening, so that sheep from various flocks were mixed up together. This wouldn't worry the shepherds though. When it was time for them to go each would have their own distinctive call or whistle or tune that they'd play on their reed pipe, and their sheep would then withdraw from the crowd and follow their master home. They know their master's voice.
This sort of imagery is, I think, at the heart of our love for the 23rd Psalm. We know his voice. We follow him. He protects us. His rod and his staff comfort us. He guides us. He leads us beside still waters that refresh us. Yea, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death - whatever form that shadowy valley takes for us - yet we know that he is with us, guiding us, protecting us, pushing on just ahead of us. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, with such a good shepherd to lead and to guide.
I love the 23rd Psalm - the psalm of the good shepherd - but I must confess that I dread preaching on Good Shepherd Sunday each year. This is partly because it forces me to come up with a new sermon every year on exactly the same text and theme. This is always tough to do. You can get away with using the sermon you used last time on the text when you're working with something you did three years ago, but when you only did it one year ago it's not so easy.
I've realised though this year that there is another reason that I dread preaching on the 23rd psalm. It's because it doesn't give me any of the standard raw material that fiery and pulpit-pounding sermons are normally crafted out of.
I read through Psalm 23 over and over again, and there is nothing there to use as a basis for berating anybody about their sins!
I looked for some angle in the text via which I can make some astute social comment, but it isn't there.
I struggled to find a way in which the 23rd Psalm could be used to urge us all on to greater acts of faith and to a more radical life of discipleship. I couldn't really find it.
My problem is that the 23rd Psalm, while it is a reflection on our lives as Disciples of Christ, nonetheless doesn't tell us to do anything, except perhaps to relax!
You lead me beside still waters.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
you are with me.
Your rod and your staff comfort me.
The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is my trainer. The Lord is my mother, my father, my loving partner, my friend. Find an image that works for you by all means, but be assured of the fundamental message - that He is with us, to guide and to protect us, for as long as our days on earth do last.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May 11th, 2003