Sheep Jobs (a.k.a. “The Lord is My Shepherd")

Okay, folks, here it is.  The Sermon.  I am taking a huge risk putting it out here before I give it at our university chapel on Sunday, but Prof. Boice also says that writers need to practice asking for feedback.  Please be gentle, I'm really scared about this.  NB I don't intend to read the footnote.  That is for your benefit.  And the opening sentence will be slightly different.  I should probably say a prayer--suggestions welcome.

This is the psalm assigned by the lectionary for the Sunday that I have been asked to preach. 

I've always had difficulties with this psalm.†  Perhaps because it is the one psalm that everyone seems to quote whenever they want to make a point about how loving and undemanding God is: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.”  It all seems so saccharine and, well, fake.

After all, who wants to be a sheep?  I don't.  Sheep are bumbling and stupid.  To judge from the stories that shepherds tell, sheep easily get lost.  Sheep couldn't find their way to green pastures, never mind still waters without a shepherd.  Sheep need to be led or, more accurately, driven.  All sheep care about is being comfortable.  And fed.

I'd much rather be a wolf.  Or, at the very least, a dog.  If I were a dog, at least I'd be able to share in the shepherd's power.  Tell the sheep what to do.  Protect them.  Make sure that they didn't hurt themselves.  I would have important, meaningful work to do.  But a sheep?  I already feel like a sheep much of the time, incapable of seeing much beyond my immediate need for protection.  And food.

Because, let's face it, I'm a sheep.  I am afraid of something almost every day.  The valley of the shadow of death?  That's where I live.  I have been in terror worrying for weeks now about finding something to say about the Scriptures for today.  I worry constantly about whether I am keeping to schedule in my work, about whether I am doing the right work, about whether what I do actually means anything in the grand scheme of things.  Or even in the not so grand.

If only I had a shepherd to guide me along the right pathway.  But wait, I don’t want to be a sheep.  Being a sheep is stupid.  Being a sheep is going along with the flock.  Being a sheep is not following your bliss; it’s not living your own life; it’s not listening to your own inner voice.  Being a sheep is not following your heart and intuition.  Being a sheep is precisely what Steve Jobs told all of us that we shouldn’t do.  It isn’t thinking for ourselves; it’s being too afraid to take risks.  It’s being comfortable at the cost of not being ourselves.

Being a dog now, that’s heroic.  Being a dog means being able to go into a situation confident that you know what your role is.  It means having important, meaningful work to do.  I’m sure you know the kind.  It means being able to say, “You need to get out of the way, and let me do my job.”  It means protecting the sheep from the wolf, saving lives, ensuring justice is done.

I want a job like that.  I want a job that I can execute with highly-skilled, even military precision.  That has clear duties and responsibilities.  That is more important than anything else in my life, including my family.  After all, isn't that the ideal?  Isn't that what we look for in our heroes--single-minded dedication to their jobs, regardless of how destructive those jobs are to them personally?  After all, isn’t that what the dogs say: “There’s no need to thank me for risking my life for you, that’s my job”?

But wait, how would this be better than being a sheep?  It is certainly riskier, potentially more exciting (at least to judge from the television shows), socially more celebrated.  But in the end, isn’t it simply being a hired hand, the one who gets paid to take the risks, to be sure, but still the one who gets paid?  And what happens if a wolf attacks somebody else’s flock, not your shepherd’s?  Is it still your job to protect, drive, take care of them?  Who steps in and takes responsibility when it isn’t “my job”?

Clearly, it is more straight-forward to be a wolf.  Wolves work for themselves.  Wolves don’t worry about what anybody else thinks.  Wolves don’t need the approval of other wolves to do what they want (actually, real wolves do, but we’re talking bestiary wolves here).  Wolves know better than to believe anything that anybody else has tried to teach them (particularly about such things as those religious traditions that sheep believe in).  Wolves are cunning and ruthless and will do anything to get ahead.  Wolves are greedy—and we all know that greed is good.

I am not sure that I have an argument about why I wouldn’t want to be a wolf.  Except for the fact that wolves are the bad guys (at least in all the stories that the sheep and dogs tell).  But I am sure that that is because the sheep and dogs just don’t understand the perspective of the wolves.  Maybe the sheep and the dogs are just jealous, wishing that they could be wolves, too.  Following their dreams, not listening to what the sheep and dogs say about being prudent and careful.  The sheep just say these things to hold the wolves back, scare them into not taking risks.  And the dogs just say these things because they are too unimaginative to imagine doing anything other than their jobs.

But how do the wolves know that what they are doing is right, either?  Certainly, it is satisfying to spend one’s life looking out for oneself, maximizing profits, getting ahead, playing the market for everything that one can wrench from it.  It would be sheeplike—or doglike—not to.  After all, one has to provide for one’s family, even if one is a wolf.  There is nothing greedy about wealth if one invests it in building a home, making one’s family comfortable, having nice stuff.  Right?  That’s all the wolves want—exactly what the sheep do.

Which would seem to make us all animals—sheep, dogs, and wolves alike.  All caught up in the dream of making ourselves physically comfortable and safe.  So why exactly does it seem so saccharine to have a shepherd who answers our every need?

Perhaps because we know that if the Lord is our shepherd, he won’t.  Not, at least, in the way that we would like him to.  Sure he makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters, but he also—if we are his sheep—sends us out into the world among the wolves, even into the valley of death, putting us in front of our enemies and telling us to say difficult things like, “This Jesus whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, is ‘the stone that has been rejected by you, the builders, it has become the cornerstone.’  There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  On the one hand, he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  But on the other, he is the one with the rod and the staff, driving us through the valley of the shadow of death with his commandments to believe in his name as the Son of God and to love one another as he loved us. 

I’m not sure that I am up to having a shepherd like this.  Sure, I want the banquets and anointing and the overflowing cups, and I wouldn’t mind goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life or dwelling in the house of the Lord, but at what cost?  Wouldn’t that mean I would have to give up being comfortable now?  Perhaps even give up my life--at the very least, my life as I know it, so as to go out into the world and say the uncomfortable things that the world is exceedingly reluctant to hear?  After all, isn’t that what the Lord asks of us as his sheep?  Not just to be taken care of, but to take care of others—our brothers and sisters—by seeing them as fellow sheep, perhaps even, like the dogs, giving up our worldly goods and risking our lives so as to care for them.  Perhaps even, like good sheepdogs, help bring them into our Lord’s flock.

No, I can’t see myself doing that.  I’d much rather stay here in the green pastures by the still waters, simply contemplating God.  Wouldn’t you?

† I understand from one of my students who is also a preacher that this is the kind of thing that beginning preachers always take.  But, hey, I've never preached before (from an actual pulpit, that is).  I'd say that makes me a beginner.

Comments

  1. I don't know if this is of any help, but this is what I wrote about Psalm 23 in my book on the Old Testament. It struck me that the psalm is more about God than it is about us.

    Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd
    Read Psalm 23

    “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil”

    Psalm 23 is easily the most familiar of all the psalms. The images of God as the shepherd, green pastures, quietly flowing waters, a banquet with an overflowing cup, all seem to picture a quiet, peaceful day. This coupled with Christian images of Jesus tenderly holding a small lamb in his arms gives the impression that all is right in the world with no effort at all.
    The life of the shepherd was not an easy one. When Jacob was settling his accounts with Laban he described the work he had done for 20 years. He protected the sheep, had gone hungry rather than eating the rams. When sheep or lambs were eaten by wild animals, Jacob took the losses himself. “It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes” (Genesis 31:40).
    David also remembered how hard it was to be a shepherd.

    “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. (1 Samuel 17: 33-35)

    A shepherd had to be brave, steadfast, and caring. Not like the hireling that Jesus criticizes running away from danger. In Psalm 23 we pray:

    Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
    for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me. (Psalm 23: 4)

    The dark valley does not go away in this life. We are constantly surrounded by pitfalls, disappointments and failure. The wolves are always at the door ready to devour anyone who walks blind into unstable situations. We would like to think that we are not as dumb as sheep. But a quick review of the daily paper or at the evening news shows that people are certainly capable of making bad decisions and finding themselves in situations where the rod and staff of God would be of great help.
    The image of the Psalm is telling all of us that God is there for us, through the heat of the day, the cold of night, ever watchful when we sleep.

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  2. I really like it. It's humorous and self-deprecating in a way that captures the audience's attention and goodwill, all the while laying the groundwork for the double gutpunch (which I interpret to be your point) that a) being a wolf or a dog is not much different from being a sheep--they are just seeking comfort and food,too and that b) being a sheep is not dumb or easy but maybe the hardest thing there is, so hard that you can only wish that Psalm 23 really was as saccharine as we often think it is.

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  3. @Anonymous: Bless you, yes! That is exactly the gutpunch (good word) I wanted to deliver! I am so happy that it comes across.

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  4. I love it! And I am quite picky about sermons. I need a sermon that pays close attention to the text, really digs into it, and helps me see it and think about it in new ways. I like a bit of humor, but hate cliches. I'm a preacher's kid, so I have a pretty solid knowledge of the Bible going back to my childhood, plus I'm a scholar of medieval and early religion, so I have a whole bunch of history and theology going on in my head all the time. So what I'm saying is, I'm pretty tough to please, and anyone who can make a text as familiar as Psalm 23 open up and mean something more, something new, is doing a pretty fantastic job!

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  5. lots to think about in your words. some perspectives i had not viewed before in this scripture.

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  6. Realize I am late to "church" of you would, but loved it. Thoughts on the sheep, we sheep, under the care of the good Shepard "Jesus", ideally should show no fear, and Go, as Christ bud is to do, without fear, knowing the care and the authority, and ultimately, the power He posses. But I loved your thoughts.

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