I Guess We are Like Sheep
In a way, it’s strange. Psalm 23 is so familiar to us, but the shepherding world it references is certainly not familiar. A little knowledge about sheep and shepherding can help us understand in new ways what Psalm 23 describes. “A shepherds look at Psalm 23” was written by Phillip Keller, who spent many years as a shepherd in East Africa – a place where the terrain, climate and practice of shepherding is very similar to shepherding as the writer of Psalms would have understood it.
Maybe the biggest leap we all have to make in viewing Jesus as our shepherd is that that means we are the sheep, and no one likes to think of him/herself as a sheep. But as Keller points out, there are remarkable similarities: “Our mob instincts, our fears and timidity, our perverse habits, our stubbornness and stupidity, are all parallels of profound importance.” All one has to do is be reminded of the bank robber just a few years ago who held up a bank with a note written on the back of one of his own deposit slips. Wasn’t hard to track him down.
For all of the incredible gifts God has given us, we can be incredibly stupid among other things. Humans are desperately in need of guidance. In fact, because of our propensity for self-destruction and the destruction of other forms of life as well, some scientists theorize that nature – our global ecosystem – is coming to regard humankind as a dangerous virus that needs to be eliminated from the ecosystem! If so, climate change is far less of a threat for the planet itself than it is for we humans. Like sheep who don’t know what it means to overgraze and destroy the countryside, well, I think you see the parallels.
Like sheep, we too need someone who can lead us to places that will feed us, protect us, restore us to life when our life is a mess. The Bible says there is only one shepherd who can lead us. I want to look briefly at three images in Psalm 23 and how God teaches us through these images: lying down in green pastures, restoring our souls, and paths of righteousness. I hope you find something here that resonates.
First, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” As Keller points out, sheep need to lie down and rest, but must often be helped to lie down, because there are reasons they will not lie down: fear, conflict, hunger, overeating and too much coffee. Oh, wait. The last one’s me.
Sheep must be free from fear, for if they feel that they are not safe, they will be too nervous to lie down.
How often it is that fear destroys our capacity to really live. The Bible reminds us that the presence of the Good Shepherd is the embodiment of “perfect love that drives out fear.” So, have no fear, little flock. This is a message we all need to hear in a challenging and changing world. Our Good Shepherd disarms our fears so we can live.
To lie down, sheep must also be free from conflict with other sheep. Sheep are often testing one another, establishing rivalries, and a pecking order. When the shepherd is not present, sometimes there is friction among sheep and they will not lie down. But when the shepherd shows up and the sheep look at him, the posturing, butting and picking on weaker sheep suddenly stops. The shepherd brings peace and reduces friction. The sheep then feel free to lie down.
One of the faith practices that Christians learn is reconciliation: letting the presence of the good shepherd bring peace in relationships. How can we practice this when there are conflicts at Mt Carmel?
And while sheep must have enough food in their bellies in order to relax and lie down, another problem quickly develops with them when there is too much food in their bellies and they don’t know when to stop eating. Sometimes they must be made to lie down so that they won’t eat themselves to death!
There have been studies done on how many acres of land it requires to sustain our American lifestyle, from what we eat, drink, extract from the earth, burn, etc. It requires 22 acres of earth to sustain the average American person, the highest in the world. The world average is 4.5. This is why many Christians develop the practice of simplicity – learning to listen when our Shepherd says, “Lie down! Give it a rest! Save some for someone else.”
When sheep are unable to lie down and curb their appetites, they become too heavy, and sometimes they fall over on their backs and can’t get up again. Shepherds call this being “cast.” If they don’t get help in time, they will die.
Another way they become top heavy is when the wool of the sheep collects all sorts of things like dirt, grass, sticks, even stones. Eventually they can become top heavy and tip.
Psalm 23 says, “He restores your soul.” Keller writes how meaningful it was for him to restore a cast sheep. Often they would be isolated and frightened. And because their blood flow would not be very good, they would be confused. When the shepherd would spot a cast sheep and restore it, he would watch the blood flow begin to come back to its legs, so the animal could walk again. He would watch as the confusion and fear would pass, confidence would return, and the sheep would join the rest of the flock – saved, restored to life. Keller writes about what that meant to him as a shepherd, that is, to restore his sheep, one by one.
Ever feel like you let stuff gather in your wool that weighs you down? If we’re not careful, the stuff that gathers in our minds and spirits can indeed cast us into a state of jeopardy. When speaking about the difference between sexual desire and lust, Martin Luther once said, “You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can stop it from making a nest in your hair.” In other words, with any of our desires, feelings and passions, if we let them set up camp in our minds and souls and become habitual, they can cause trouble and cast us like sheep!
The church itself can also become cast, accumulating practices and habits no longer useful that make it top heavy and unable to function well. This is a crisis for most churches today, either being cast or in danger of being cast. We need the Good Shepherd to restore us and help us shed the weight that made us top heavy. It’s a bit like Luke 10 when Jesus sends out his disciples with no purse, no bag, no sandals. Restore sometimes means to simplify, lighten and trust as we are sent on our journey.
And speaking of journey, the Good Shepherd “leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Keller points out that sheep do not know which path to take, so they must watch for the Shepherds’ leading. They are creatures of habit, and will gravitate to the same path over and over again, and when a path is repeatedly used, it becomes a washed out gulley. Or, sheep will not take any path, but stubbornly remain exactly where they are, overgrazing until the grass is consumed right down to the root. A shepherd knows when they must leave a fertile pasture so it can quickly recover. But when it is overgrazed, it takes a long time to grow back. Meanwhile, the shepherd must lead them to another place of nourishment and safety, on paths which must be always altered and shifted to avoid overuse.
So, too, for us. The life of faith means not staying in one spot too long, but following on the paths where the Good Shepherd leads. In our lives, it is a temptation to linger in the same spot because it’s familiar and feels safe, but it can quickly become an impoverished place. And with the life of faith for the church, if we cling to the same place and refuse to move, we end up living in a barren place. What are some ways we are overgrazing in an impoverished place? Where are the paths of righteousness Jesus to which Jesus calls us at Mt Carmel? These are questions we are all wrestling with now.
In a few minutes, Paul will tell us about the new staffing plan. It is designed specifically for the purpose of learning how to trust the Good Shepherd and follow his leading. We are invited to have no fear, for he makes us lie down and restores our soul. It also means we must be ready to move from places where we have lingered too long and embark on paths of righteousness. Amen.