Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fourth Sunday of Eastertide
April 25, 2021
from Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan C. Merrill
O my Beloved, You are my shepherd, I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit;
You restore my soul.
You lead me in the path of goodness
to follow Love’s way.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow and of death,
I am not afraid;
For You are ever with me;
your rod and your staff they guide me,
they give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears;
You bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
Sometimes these Bible passages about sheep sound a bit insulting. Generally, we don’t feel we have much in common with those poor beasts, so smelly and flock-bound and skittish, and ready to be bossed and bullied by a dog. So easily lost and frightened. Not able to do much more than bleat.
But this is a dangerous, fearful time. Perhaps we feel more like sheep than usual. More vulnerable and more pushed around by circumstances beyond our control. As the covid numbers in India grow exponentially, and our own government falters in its response, we are more than usually aware that there isn’t much we can do but wait this out. We read articles about people languishing, and people with brain fog, and know that they are talking about us. We cling to little signs of hope, and there are some, but trying to find our own way through the tricky paths of frustration and grief and fear is not very easy. After a year of pandemic, we could probably all use some time in green pastures, or beside still water, getting our soul restored. So perhaps having a shepherd – a good shepherd – is exactly the right metaphor for today. The promises of the Psalm and of the Gospel passage offer reassurance.
Nancy and I went to a Parish Nursing retreat on Monday (on ZOOM of course), where, by coincidence, the theme was the 23rd Psalm. The facilitator asked us to focus on verse 5: You have prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies, or as in the translation that Joan read puts it, you have prepared a table before me in the presence of all my fears. The picture of a well laid table – both beautiful and loaded with good nourishing food – is always an appealing thought. Very often the tables we set reflect the care we have for one another, and our appreciation of the goodness of life. Perhaps there will be special plates, and pretty napkins, and abundant much-loved foods, and a glass or two of something particularly nice. Ideally, some of our favourite people. In covid, though, not so much. We long for it.
But the Psalmist is implying that such a table could be set even when things are not at their best. That even in the presence of all our fears, and without denying them or minimizing them, this table is prepared for us.
So, it is interesting to imagine what would be on the table set in the presence of all your fears. What is it that you might need to help you feel more secure in this worrying world of pandemic, and economic uncertainty, and environmental anxiety? Perhaps the announcements this week about new commitments on climate change belong on the table. Or a budget with real provision for child care. Or the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. Perhaps these are signs that we are living through not only a cataclysm but also a turning point.
The table set for you may include the people in your life, not just those living, but those no longer here. And perhaps also an hour or two with a very good book, or a long walk, or a reliable hobby that make you feel supported and safe. What is it that nourishes? Our facilitator asked us to think of places and experiences in which we have felt welcome and protected. Try to remember past moments of being grounded, and picture them placed on that imaginary table of blessing and care.
When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he does not simply say, all is well. He recognizes the possibility that sheep could be threatened by a wolf, or abandoned by a hired hand, and that some sheep may find themselves outside the sheepfold. But his intention is to invite everyone in, even if it costs him his life. One flock. The shepherd says, your fears are real and valid, but they are met.
As our lives unfold, faith invites us to into a frame of mind that accepts both fearfulness and hopefulness. As church we are called to extend that invitation within the community and beyond it. In the presence of all our fears there is a table laid, where we can be welcomed and nourished. And for this we give God thanks.