Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 7, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 23
Two verses in the 23rd Psalm especially caught my attention this past week, verse 1 and verse 5: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”, and “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, and fill my cup to overflowing.”
Both verses of this ancient song brought to mind some contemporary songs. I will not sing either one, but only recite the lyrics. Here’s the first song:
“You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
There are six more stanzas, but I’ll stop there. Anybody know whose song that is? Anyone?
It’s Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”. It’s from the first of his three Gospel albums that we talked about two Sundays ago.1
You’re gonna have to serve somebody…which came to mind for me, because it’s all just another way of saying, you’re gonna be somebody’s sheep, and somebody’s gonna be your shepherd. I don’t care who you are or who I may think I am, I am and you are, somebody’s sheep and they are our shepherd.
We don’t like that! I am nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!
“Sheeple” was a word in the news this past week. The folks at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary have just added the word, “sheeple”, to their newest edition:
“sheeple: informal–people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced.”2
Are you among the “sheeple”? Even if we have totally opposite political and economic or religious or anything-else views, we are all likely be somebody’s “sheeple”.
We don’t like that! We are nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!
Why do we react so vehemently to being called anybody’s sheep? Well, let’s look again at the good ‘ol Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. People who act like sheep are called, “sheepish”, which the dictionary defines as: 1)…meek, timid, stupid; 2) affected by or showing embarrassment caused by consciousness of a fault…”3
No one likes to be thought of as timid and stupid; nobody likes to have another person around making them feel embarrassed or ashamed. We will not be made to feel “sheepish” because we’re nobody’s sheep, thank you very much!
Cards on the table…pastors, preachers, and priests are among some of the worst offenders at trying to turn people into sheeple. We excel at shaming people into line, which is a gross abuse of our shepherding call. On behalf of my cohorts of the cloth, I apologize for our bad behavior of trying to make sheepish sheeple out of the Lord’s good people.
That said, though, the wisdom of Scripture reminds us the issue is not whether we are sheep; it’s which way we as sheep have chosen to go and whom we have chosen to follow. Whether by intent or by default, says the prophet, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” (Isa. 53:6) Which I could further paraphrase, “everyone has chosen some other shepherd to follow in a way other than God’s way.”
This morning, hear verse one of Psalm 23 with the emphasis on the word, “Lord”, rather than where I think we usually emphasize verse one, which is on the word, “shepherd”. “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Our psalmist already accepts this basic reality of the human psyche and of human practice, that we all are sheep, and, therefore, we all have looked for and found or we have been claimed by, a shepherd of some description. His focus in this verse one–indeed, his celebration in this verse one–is on Who has found him and Who has led him: “the Lord Yahweh, that’s who is my shepherd.”
Our writer’s not boasting; he’s simply astounded at this truth of his experience. He reflects on his life’s journey thus far, and what he sees there affirms for him, over and over, who it is that has ultimately guided and provided for him throughout his life: “The Lord Yahweh is my Shepherd, who has caused me to find good green fields and abundant, re-stor-ative places along the way in my life’s journey.”
What is your earliest recollection of God in your life? Have you taken the time, as this psalmist did, to look back and to seize on that moment when you first discovered that the Lord God is your shepherd?
May have been in church, but not necessarily. The very next psalm, Psalm 24, verse 1, reminds us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,”. Anywhere on this good earth can be where your divine moment of realization occurred.
My earliest conscience experience of God shepherding me came when I was somewhere around ten years old. It happened in some woods in the middle of the night as I was running for dear life. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
When I was a boy, we lived right on the western edge of Martinsville, Virginia. There was my street, South Askin Street, and down a wooded hillside below us, there was one other street, Burchland Drive; that’s where my friend, Ricky, lived. And, then, beyond Ricky’s house, there were woods…woods going all the way on over to extreme southwestern Virginia. I think maybe the suburbs of Galax are what you’d come to next.
There was a dirt road that went a mile or so beyond Ricky’s house out into those woods and ended up in a clearing. So, Ricky and another boy and I hatched a plan to go camp on a Friday night out in that clearing out in the woods. The plan was we’d sleep over in Ricky’s basement, and after his parents had gone to sleep, we’d sneak out to our camp. Then, we’d get up real early the next morning and sneak back in before his parents got up.
Right after school that Friday afternoon, we hauled our pup tent and our sleeping bags and all kinds of paraphernalia out through the woods to the clearing where we pitched camp.
Somewhere late into the night, long after dark, long after we’d stuffed our faces with roasted marshmallows and we’d settled down into our sleeping bags, the wind came up with a fury and this most gosh-awful lightning storm and rain storm hit those woods and lit it up like the middle of the day.
Ricky and the other boy shot out of the tent, running for all they were worth back down that dirt road through the woods to the safety of his house, leaving me to wonder if I should do the same. I watched them running away, through the strobe-light flashing of the lightning, and then I grabbed up my sleeping bag and took after them, running for dear life, dragging my sleeping bag behind me!
Lightning was striking all through the woods; the wind was whipping through the tree tops; the rain was pelting me; my friends were long-gone on down through the woods.
I ran and I ran and…suddenly…I quit running. It was as if someone else had suddenly come up beside me, and stopped me and turned me around, and said to me, “wow! just look at that would you?!” So, I did. Total peace, complete calm, incredible delight, filled me as I stood there and took it all in…the lightning, the thunder, the trees dancing to all of it. With me, a presence which allowed for no fear, only joy.
However long I stood there totally rapt with this display, I don’t know. But, there came a moment when I felt as though I were being dismissed to go on back to Ricky’s house. So, I walked, ever so slowly, with no fear and no hurry, not wanting to leave that place or that moment.
Now, there’s nothing special about me. I can get struck by lightning just as easily as the next guy. Nowadays, if I’m hiking in the woods and a lightning storm starts brewing, I get myself somewhere lower and closer to the ground, in a hurry.
But, that particular moment, now nearly fifty-two years ago, continues as my marker for when I became conscious of God. Do you have such a moment? Whatever the moment was for this writer, the psalmist recalls his own experience and knows, God is my Shepherd and to God I look and trust myself.
We are somebody’s sheep; we are following somebody? Is God our shepherd? More specific to us, is God now revealed in Jesus, your Shepherd? He’s not going to lead us in some path other than the one he himself walked on this earth; does your life’s path bear some resemblance to his?
Then, there’s verse 5: “You prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies.” Even as we follow the Lord, we must still find ourselves walking among enemies who threaten us. Those are the persons and the powers who would intimidate us or shame us, making us feel “sheepish”. We just feel sheepish around them. These are the folks in whatever guise who would make us into their “sheeple”.
But, that’s not God. God takes sheeple and transforms them into people, with dignity and honor. Jesus himself never strikes me as a sheeple-sort of man. I doubt Jesus ever blushed and said, O pshaw, go on now. God prepares a banquet and welcomes you as though the guest of honor, to take the place of honor with God. Do you dare live into that fullness of the honor God extends to you?
“You prepare a table for me, abundant and gracious, in the presence of people who don’t think I really should be there and who would stop me if they could. But, you, Lord, say no to them, and so, I too can say no to them; I can embrace the fulness of life you offer me.”
Lee Ann Womack performs a song. It’s called, “I Hope You Dance”.
These few lines I’ll quote:
“Don’t let some hell bent heart/leave you bitter.
When you come close to selling out/reconsider
Give the heavens above
more than just a passing glance.
And when you get a choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.
Time is a wheel in constant motion/always,
Rolling us along.
Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder,
Where have all those years gone?
[So], when you get a chance to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.”
Embrace the banquet and dance…follow our Lord, the Good Shepherd, to the good that God has prepared for you.
1 The three are: “Slow Train Coming” (1979), “Saved” (1980), and “Shot of Love” (1981)