May 12, 2019

Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday

Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

The Rev. Genevieve Razim

Julia had been declining for quite some time. She was a faithful, stylish, elderly woman who I enjoyed getting to know during my pastoral visits. At one memorable hospital visit, we prayed and as I ended my prayer for her with “Amen”, the sound of church bells filled the room. 

Julia’s eyes opened wide and she asked, “Do you hear that?” I replied, smiling: “Yes, I do. It’s my cell phone. That’s the ringtone for the church.”

It was only a few months later that the emergency pastoral care cell phone rang. It was New Year’s Day and as the most junior clergy person on staff, it had been in my possession all week. Julia had died and her son was on the phone.

I was in my work-out clothes and was unsure of how urgent the situation was for him, so I asked. “So, here’s the deal: I’m in my workout clothes and I can be there right away as is, or if you can wait 45 minutes, I can get cleaned up and be over there all dressed up and in a collar.” 

“Come over now. As you are!” was the response.

Julia was always so put together. Now I was at her bedside in a pink SMU sweatshirt and no make-up, but wearing a stole, with a Book of Common Prayer in hand, and a lot of love in my heart.

Her son was amused by the pink SMU sweatshirt. He told me that his mother would have “absolutely adored” seeing me this way, and then said… “Now we must say the Shepherd’s Prayer.”

I was stumped. The Shepherd’s Prayer?

Oh no – I don’t remember a “shepherd’s prayer” from theology school at SMU … is this from another tradition, maybe the Baptists? I silently wondered.

“The Shepherd’s Prayer?” I asked. “Um, I can’t say that I know that one. Can you help me out?”

He looked at me in disbelief and I thought to myself: Darn, I should’ve worn that collar!

“You know, the Shepherd’s Prayer! The Shepherd’s Prayer!” He said emphatically.

Oh, this is not going well…“Can you share a few lines of it?” 

“Yes, yes, I can: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want…”

“Oh, my apologies. Yes, indeed, I do know that one.”

The 23rd Psalm. Associated with funerals and a source of comfort for millennia, Julia’s son is right: the 23rd Psalm is a prayer.

Psalms are songs: poetry meant to be set to music. And always meant to be prayed. This genre of Holy Scripture expresses the wide range of human emotions and experiences; all of it out in the open and in conversation with God. Real, and at times raw, psalms are come-as-you-are prayer.

And so today that wonderful “Shepherd’s Prayer” is the appointed psalm for this 4th Sunday of Easter, known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

We know Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “I AM the Good Shepherd” and he tells us what that looks like (10:1-16). The Good Shepherd does not abandon the flock when the wolf appears. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And from today’s gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me … No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Which brings us back to the 23rd Psalm. Because “the LORD” who is my shepherd in the 23rd Psalm is YHWH. The Creator. God of the ancient Israelites. The first person of the Trinity. 

As Christians, we hear the 23rd Psalm and think of Jesus. While that is not wrong for us, what we end up missing out on is the depth of the character and love of God. 

Does your understanding of God change when you hear:  YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. YHWH makes me lie down in green pastures; YHWH leads me beside still waters…

I’ve heard educated people remark that the Old Testament is about an angry and vengeful God and the New Testament is about a loving God. But that is a false dichotomy because the most named attribute of God in the Old Testament is hesed: Hebrew for steadfast love

The whole bible — the entirety of salvation history — is about God shepherding creation to abundant life, driven by that steadfast love. The kind of love that looks like a shepherd, carrying a rescued sheep on her shoulders, and wearing the wounds it took to save that one.

As Christians we say we know God best through Jesus. When Jesus says the Father and I are one, he is telling us something important about the nature and character of God: The Good Shepherd identity goes deep into the heart of God and our experience of God.

For this image of God emerged for the ancient Israelites in Exodus, as they wandered in the desert; David articulates it in the psalms; Jesus reveals it in his life and teaching; early Christians painted it on the ceilings of their catacombs. God is the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We shall not be in want.

So, let’s return to prayer and come-as-you-are encounters with God — the Good Shepherd. For within today’s appointed readings are some passages that can assist us in noticing and connecting to God’s steadfast love in our everyday lives.

The first, of course, is what Julia’s son had at the ready that day: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. Now say it with me: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

During times of uncertainty, transition, and scarcity, using this as a mantra grounds us in the knowledge of God’s providential care and protection. 

Second: You hold me in the palm of your hand. Again, say it with me: You hold me in the palm of your hand.

This image is from today’s gospel in which Jesus says: No one will snatch them out of my hand. When the world seems upside and sideways; when we feel vulnerable, physically or emotionally or both … this mantra keeps us grounded in the knowledge that we belong to God and nothing can separate us from God’s love. As one wise person noted, when we pray this, the “effort to grasp is converted into the experience of being grasped.”[1] You hold me in the palm of your hand.

Finally: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Together: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Our home is with God. No matter where we find ourselves, should we need to relocate due to floods or family or economic reasons…wherever we may be in this life and the next, our home is with God. I know it was a comfort to Julia’s son to know that his mother was now with God. It is a comfort to him and to us that on this side of life, we are at home with God, too. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

May these “Shepherd Prayers” guide you to the green pastures and still waters of God’s steadfast love. The Good Shepherd who knows you and loves you deeply, calls each of us by name and calls us to follow. Come now, as you are!