Psalm 23, John 10:1-11

I am the Good Shepherd, I am the gate for the sheep: the Gospel; The Lord is my shepherd – in and with him I have everything I need; the psalm. 

This is stuff for pastoralists not urban city dwellers let alone public servants in well paid government jobs.  But not necessarily.  The psalm alludes to a picture of shepherding as something caring and compassionate as all good shepherds do for their flock.  In fact, throughout Scripture the role of shepherd appears again and again and the image shapes as a powerful and vivid picture of God.  In the New Testament the rural theme is picked up with Jesus being heralded as the Good Shepherd and we all sheep – the priests and pastors all called to minister to the flock in the line of the apostolic tradition of that which was encharged to Peter: Peter tend my sheep.

But really – shepherds.  Shepherds were – at least in Jesus’ day – the lowest of the low.  Smelly, rough, uncouth and probably untrustworthy.  Not the sort of people you’d want to invite for Sunday Mother’s day lunch, but again and again these pastoral images dominate not least of which in the birth story in Luke, it was to them that the angels went to instead of anyone higher in the social scale to announce Jesus’ birth.  The fact that Jesus here is saying I am the Good Shepherd gives us social and cultural clues as to what was going on: I am one of them – but not totally – I am the Good Shepherd!  – I am not a palace sort of son of God but I identify with them and that tells you something of the nature of me and my ministry and my mission especially in John and the Gospel of Luke.

But what of the Psalm – and how can make sense of it today this being Mother’s Day?  In ancient Israel it was not unusual for women to be the shepherds and to work outside the home, especially the younger women.  The younger boys and girls would be involved in leading the family herd out to pasture and at the end of the day bring them home where it may have been that the animals were housed in compounds or corralled in thorny fence-like enclosures typical of nomadic settings.  As a young shepherdess Rachel met Jacob when she came to water her sheep.  Moses’s wife Zipporah was one of seven daughters who tended the family herd and some scholars speculate that Rebekah and Leah were also shepherdesses.  In the Solomon’s ancient love poem, there is reference to the Shulamite as being dark of skin from a life outdoors, a woman who tended the vineyard and cared for her flock of goats.  Maybe their life was something like this:  VIDEO

So maybe we could look at Psalm 23 with a new rural lens understanding that probably many of the shepherds were women. 

Psalm 23 has been said to be by one scholar like an ocean-liner’s barnacle-covered hull below the water line – because it’s so popular and so laden with interpretive baggage.  One who shall remain nameless too said, ‘I love Psalm 23: its like something you can cuddle up to on a winter’s day’.  And it is true that this Psalm has touched the hearts of countless people down through the centuries and one too that children have learned off by heart or the dying have mouthed as a peaceful benediction – probably because more than any other Psalm it speaks to the depths and gives meaning and consolation in the journey of life.

In literary terms it carries strong rural allegorical images – lying down prostrate in green fields and being led to beautiful spring water holes.  But it is also very nuanced with lots of subtleties.  What I would like to lead you in today is something of a reflective journey of the text so that it can speak to you more directly and so that we can identify some of those nuances and then anchor the threads for this cultural and commercial day for mothers.

So, this morning I would like to invite you to join with me is going through the text in a kind of reflective way … slowly, phrase or stanza at a time … it may jar for some of you, because it will be a little different, but I trust and pray, that this way of preaching this morning, be comforting and illuminating for you.  And I would like to note that I draw in part from the work from Brother Blane Frederik Episcopal Priest and Monastic.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want

To pick up what has already been said … remember the context that many of the people hearing this text were rural people pastoralists … shepherds.  It is non-gender because shepherdery was undertaken by men and women, and probably young girls and boys.  And it seeks to identify with them.  I am – Yahweh -someone you know … but what is said after that is code to make connections with the Exodus story – this grand narrative in the Hebrew story – I shall not want – you will never lack or be without want – it reminds the listeners of God’s provision of them in a time of searching for  anew homeland … God is one whom you know and as Shepherd God will do what has been told about before – God will sustain you and support you.

He makes me lie down in green pastures/ he leads me besides still waters, he restores my soul

The richness of the idea of green pastures perhaps is best read not as green fields but something akin to plentiful provisions and a place of relief and rest.  In Ezekial there is reference echoing this: ‘I will feed them with good pasture … there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture.  Still waters is another place of containment and contentment not merely a nice creek or brook.  The book of Revelation speaks of this place where the Lamb of God will guide them to springs of the water of life where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  This is true and lasting rest.  This is the place where the soul – our emotional centre of being – can know true calm, where we can know the vitality of truly being at peace in the core of who we are. 

He leads me in right paths, for his name’s sake, such that even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil, because you are with me.

Did you note the transition towards relational language.  The Hebrews become personified as the ‘I’ who is walking and it continues in ‘for you are with me’.   It is again reminiscent of the Exodus story where God lead them to the new land and to safety … as what shepherds do – and so it confirms this again for all to remember and acknowledge in the faith that God is with us … Do not fear writes Isaiah for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, your are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, ad through the rivers, the obstacles of life … for I am your God.

Your rod and your staff – they comfort me

The defending weapon is the rod and the rescuing assistance is the staff – again like the shepherd – like David – God will be both protector and rescuer, but there is here no glib assertion that we will be freed from threats or even that we will not be put in danger or that we will never experience the paralysis that comes from tragedy in life.  The Shepherd will not prevent the danger but still there will be the rod of deliverance that will bring vindication and judgment when it occurs and there will be consolation and support – that two-edged nurture paradigm brings comfort.

And because of that or even more than that …

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows

Here we have a switch of metaphor and picture … here we move from the guarding protecting nurturing Shepherd to host who lays out the banquet feast.  The picture of host is strong in the idea of God in the Hebrew Scriptures … And here in this verse God is not defender and protector but one who provides hospitality to all … to foreignors, strangers, travelers.  This is the heartland of true Shalom peace in the terrain of harsh and hostile deserts where travelers had little rights outside their own territory.  By giving food water and shelter God as host was taking responsibility of embracing the traveler and even the enemy or at least in this text in full view of the enemy.  The table is prepared but this is not a private meal, but one for all, and one for all to see and witness even those who are the most critical and vengeful.  Here is a model of mission.  And the anointing makes it known that we are held in high regard – we are valued heralded anointed people of God’s care to mirror that which has been for us in terms of shalom hospitality – and because of that we will quenched from thirst … and all physical emotional and deep needs.  The cup from which we drink … the cup of life will be full and overflowing – Here with God with the Shepherd with the Host of Life we can experience divine hospitality and we will sit and eat and drink in an embrace of wholesome bounty of food and wine, we will sit at the table and enjoy companionship friendship peace, none shall make us afraid … and this will be our fill till the end of our days such will be the nature of this embrace.

And with this …

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

This is a confession of faith in the Shepherd for here and now … a picture of utter completion and contentment in the embrace of God … there is no eternity here no eschatological future hope of an afterlife … it is simply that with this Shepherd and Host we shall find the ways which are good and kind – a translation of mercy – and in that care and comfort, in that picture we can know that with this heavenly host we have all the ingredients for the fullness of life. 

So, what does this Psalm say to us and what can it say to all mothers and the context of our relationships with them, relationships which may well have been rich and loving, difficult and harsh or something in between.  It says this:

God is our Shepherd and Host – someone we know … someone who leads us, guides us, protects us, supports us and provides for us … someone who is with us even in the dark times of deep anguish when we may be struggling emotionally or financially or even physically … someone who will support us such that we can overcome and find a way … someone who restores us and welcomes us and who sets us the model of deep respect for all who come our way … someone who gives hope of deep fulfillment and fullness of life … and a promise that we will never be alone for all the days of our life.

And what the psalmist paints let the Biblical mothers call again to us   – Sarah: to always keep the faith; Ruth: to value the importance of belonging and strong family ties, and Mary, that through God’s spirit to know that something of the essence of the God child is in us all, to live out and nurture the holiness and the peace of God in our selves and in each other.   We are not alone and never will be in the faith for all the days of our life.