Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
My primary ministry occupation is as a chaplain for the Brockton Visiting Nurses Association. I work as part of the hospice team, and along with the nurses, home health aides, and social workers, we provided services and care to people who are nearing the end of their journey here on earth. The medical folks bring relief from pain; the social workers help ensure that the paperwork is in order and help calm the mind of the patients and families. I work in spiritual care, and it is my job to ready the soul for the next phase of that journey.
When I tell people what I do, the most common response I hear is, “that must be so difficult.” I would think working 25 floors above the city of Boston on the steel beams of a new building is difficult. I would think working in fields harvesting the food we eat regardless of the weather would be difficult. Most jobs have their moments of difficulty, but I try to focus on the blessings that come along with my job. In hospice, we have a simple philosophy, ensure that our patients and their families have a peaceful death.
Today we heard the verses of one of the most famous Psalms of the 150 contained in the Bible. Most, if not all of us sitting here this morning have prayed, read, listen to, or sung the words of this Psalm on several occasions. It is, for lack of a better term, the funeral Psalm. But it is also the Psalm that I use when I am sitting with a patient as this phase of their life draws to a close.
As beautiful and as comforting as the words of this Psalm are, the imagery that is used is often lost and misunderstood.
I am not sure how many Shepherds we have with us this morning, but my guess is not many. I am also not sure how many of you have been around sheep apart from a petting zoo. But, again, I would guess not many. The image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is an image that we are all familiar with but, if Jesus is the “Good Shepherd,” that makes us the sheep.
Now we have all heard, and rightly so, that sheep are not the most intelligent animals that God created. They are herd animals. They are defenseless. They are vulnerable. They are, as I already mentioned, unintelligent. These are not very positive attributes, and it might leave us wondering why the Psalmist and the writers of the Gospels used this image when describing those following God.
Is this the image that we should be focusing on? No, it is not.
These are the attributes or characteristics that the Psalmist or the writers of the Gospel want us to focus on. The writer of the 23rd Psalm writes about the utter dependence of the sheep on the shepherd. Sheep cannot survive making their own way. Sheep have an absolute dependency on the shepherd. Sheep can trust the shepherd. Knowing this dependence brings into focus the central testimony of the Psalm: the shepherd is faithful.
The world tells us that we have to make our own way; we have to strike out independently. We are told that if we want something, we need to go for it and take it, regardless of the cost or what it might do to others. People, especially those in our way, are disposable, and if they do not serve our needs, they are just a distraction or a stumbling block. In our quest to be individuals, we have become selfish.
But Jesus comes along and stands that on its head. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and not care about others. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and not have concern for others. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and only look out for ourselves. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we must put others and their needs before ours. If we claim to follow Jesus, then we must love everyone without exception and without condition.
But the Psalmist is seeking to help us understand we cannot do this alone that there are going to be moments in our lives when we cannot see a clear way or when we cannot find the path, and it is in these times that we become utterly dependent on the Shepherd.
One of my favorite spiritual poems is the one called “Footprints in the Sand.” I know some find it schmaltzy and perhaps a little too sugary for their taste, but the image is powerful. You know the poem, so I will not recite it, but it is about walking beside God, two sets of footprints in the sand. There is only one set of footprints at several points along the way, and the narrator of the poem asks God why God left him? The response is that God did not leave the narrator behind but was carrying him. Therefore, there was only one set of footprints, and those footprints belonged to God.
Friends, when things are going well, we lose sight of the need for the shepherd. When life is chugging along, all the traffic lights are green; we find that parking spot right in front of the store, or all the other gifts of life, we forget that other set of footprints. We think that we can do it alone, we do not need any help or protection, and maybe that is true. But walking beside us, as our constant companion is the shepherd.
Yesterday I was trying to organize my shop where I work on various projects. My wife and I buy and sell antiques, so there is always something that needs fixing. I share my shop space in my garage with all the other necessities of life, so we are in a constant state of reorganizing. As I was cleaning off the workbench, I came across several rusty and bent screws. As I picked them up to toss them in the bin, I distinctly heard my father’s voice say, “don’t throw those away, you might need them.”
My father was a saver, and when he died, I inherited his collection of odd nails, screws, and other such things. The voice I heard was not the shepherd’s voice the Psalmist is talking about, but that voice did guide me. I know it sounds funny and maybe a little trivial, but I was guided by the voice of someone who had cared for me and protected me all my life.
Are you walking with the shepherd? Right now, are there two sets of footprints or only one? Are the footprints side by side or one behind the other? God never promised that life would be easy. The promise from God is that we will not have to go through it alone. God is steadfast, and God is faithful.
By the way, I saved the screws.