John 10:22-30

Psalm 23

I know relatively little about sheep, but I do know that there are more flattering animals to which Jesus could have compared us. I know, for example, that sheep clog up tiny country roads in Scotland, and you can spend hours just waiting for them to move. I’ve mostly heard (from everyone I’ve met who has cared for them) that sheep are remarkably stupid. They can get stuck in a fence just by walking into it, and the only way to get them out is to push them farther in so they’ll push back. Sheep must only survive well as livestock because they’re skittish and they’ll run from predators as well as from sheepdogs, but that means that herding them is work.

But as Jesus notes, sheep will respond to their shepherd. They may not take instruction well, but they do trust that voice and touch. Sheep aren’t bright enough for very much, but they know whose presence calms them. The sheep know their shepherd. I don’t think that most of Jesus’ followers really want to be sheep. For that matter, I don’t think Jesus wants us to either. Jesus tells us elsewhere to be wise – shrewd and knowledgeable, not exactly sheep-like – to grow into our full God-given capacity. Instead, I think Jesus is talking primarily about himself. We hear Jesus like sheep hear their shepherd because of who Jesus is, guiding and watching us.

Psalm 23 is the same deal. The Lord is my shepherd is about the depth of God’s trustworthiness, not about our sheep-likeness. The Lord is my shepherd. I’m watched over, protected, and safe, because I know someone cares for my well-being. And not just anyone. ‘Lord’ in these ancient texts stands in for a proper name, which means this is some kind of personal level of trust. But I doubt that ‘Lord’ (or the name to which it refers) is God’s full name any more than the sheep know their shepherd’s given name. Sheep know the difference between one shepherd and another, but the depth of the shepherd’s being is still beyond the sheep’s comprehension. In the same way, God’s world is mysterious beyond us. Much as we know, life and the future still unfold in darkness around us, and yet we know the source of our trust.

I have everything I need. No more earthshaking words have ever been spoken. This is the radical claim that enough exists for us. It’s been radical from the beginning; the Serpent’s first temptation was the idea that God withheld something from Adam Eve. Everything I need is also a supernatural claim. We can look around and see that there simply isn’t enough, and yet we trust that plenty lies hidden until its time. We can look around the same way that the sheep could look, do the math, and think, “Oh no! We’ll eat all this grass in a day.” The shepherd, on the other hand, knows about another field just over the hill. This claim of “enough” resists the powers of the world – kings and advertisers alike – that would control us through our sense of lack. To claim that I have everything I need puts our trust in a power beyond all others, in the source of everything that is, that promises to lead us into an abundance we can share with all people.

The Lord lets me rest in fields of green grass. Life as a sheep isn’t so bad. You have probably known places, times, and communities this lush. You’ve felt your soul sprawl out and sigh deeply, smelling the sweet clover and listening to the gentle breeze. To pools of fresh water. Someone or Something within you draws you toward practices and activities to quench your deep thirst. God gives me new strength. You’ve felt the power of love and joy that continue to appear in us all, even at our weariest.

God guides me in the right paths, as has been promised. This is where life starts to feel tricky. Just as sheep walk under their own power, we make our own choices. Sometimes we have to slow down and listen for the familiar voice of our Shepherd, to reflect and take guidance from the deep Wisdom within and around us. But don’t despair when you wander off (and sheep always do, sometimes). God can follow us wherever we’ve gone, without losing the path where we belong. Even if we go through the deepest darkness, the same Shepherd comes with us and draws us on her own time back to the fold. Whether we got lost on the way to pastures of our own, or if the ground just got rocky beneath us, God is there. The Shepherd’s hook and crook are not to punish our failures but to correct our wanderings and return us to the level path.

Then the image changes. We started this journey as sheep, unaware of anything but the comfort of our Shepherd. Now we see more. You prepare a banquet before me. Well, shepherds are not known for their cooking (although I do like their pie), so God is now the Host. After following a God we knew one way, suddenly we find ourselves at a different kind of party, but the same God is there. Just as Jesus’ followers chose to follow him as a shepherd but came to be called his friends instead. The work of God throughout our life is to transform us into honored guests, and then into full members of God’s household.

It takes deep faith to truly know that God’s goodness and love will be with me all my life. This faith is more true than the most nuanced theology or the most “correct” set of beliefs. Most of you know people from whom goodness and love flow through their pores. Some of you are those people. That kind of faith doesn’t come out right or wrong. It may or may not look like what I or you think of God. Faith is when we come to know beyond knowing – beyond speaking – that we find selves in God’s house, wherever we are.

That’s the God we call on with this beloved Psalm, however you may have memorized it – in the Good News Translation, through a hymn setting, or in the King James Version like David intended. It’s not just a Psalm, it’s an incantation. As we recite these words, we call this God into being in our lives. We turn our lives into God’s reality. The Lord is my shepherd. “Come, Lord. Come into our joy and peace. Come into death’s dark shadow. Come into the presence of our enemies, the people and passions that hate us. Come, fill my cup to overflowing.” May your Shepherd always provide what you need and seek you in every path.