Sermon starts at 23:20.
This sermon takes 11 minutes to listen to, and preaching is a spoken art form. If you have the desire and the ability, consider taking a listen as that is where SO MUCH of the meaning comes through.
The Lord is My Shepherd - (but) I Shall not want (a shepherd, thank you very much)
Nearly 20 years ago on Good Shepherd Sunday, when my daughter Harper was 4 years old, the pastor was giving the children’s sermon; he had gathered all the little kids around and was going to have them sing that song, “I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa” which they had all practiced earlier - and so, guitar slung over his alb, the young pastor asks the children the leading question: “Ok kids, what do you want to be? And all the kids say “a sheep!” except my daughter Harper, who says “a mermaid!”.
As you may know, once a year, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, the assigned readings are all about Jesus as the Good Shepherd and on this day, the Psalm for the day is always the 23rd Psalm.
Psalm 23 is a real banger - one of the most recognizable pieces of scripture we have going for us. It is emblazoned in the minds of even people who aren’t all that churchy. The 23rd Psalm is seared into our cultural psyche somewhere between the pledge of allegiance and now I lay me down to sleep. It can be hard for a preacher to know how to breathe life into something from it’s resting place on Christian coffee mugs and decorative pillows. But here goes…
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want – he maketh me lie down in green pastures.
Honestly I can find these bucolic, pastoral, images in the Bible to be almost impossible to relate to. I mean, I’ve just never spent much time around shepherds.
Not to mention, the only sheep I’ve ever seen have been the sad, filthy caged ones in petting zoos. Sheep seem a bit stupid and docile and easily manipulated. And so, if I am honest, I kinda resent being called a sheep –
I mean, I’m with Harper, given the choice, I’d for sure be a mermaid, but never a sheep.
I mean, my mom tells the story that when I was learning to talk, the first time I ever said more than one word at a time it was this: do it self. I do not want my hand held or to be shepherded. I want to make my own choices and go my own way. If you are anything like me you too are a bit of an anti-shephertarian. We want to Do. It. Self. Even, it should be noted, if those choices and that way is killing us.
At least we would be exercising our free will, making our own choices and led by our own desires. I want to do what I want to do.
I was at the Mockingbird theological conference in NYC last weekend and sat in on a talk someone was giving on Rene Girard and what is called Mimetic theory- this is the theory that states - our wants and desires are not actually individual at all – that human desire is more imitative than we like to believe. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere from inside of us. We learn what to want by seeing what others are wanting. If you doubt this theory, just put 20 toys in a room with three toddlers and see how long it takes for them to fight over one single truck. I resisted this idea when I first heard it…since it sounds suspiciously sheep – like. I mean, surely not me. Surely I am smarter than that. But friends, honest to God, I am not. My desires are more often than not driven by a dissatisfaction with myself and my life that is completely manufactured by advertising and envy.
I confess to you that I have submitted to the algorhythmic overlords and bought skin care products marketed to me through images of women my age who also have grey hair but fewer wrinkles. My desire for that skin cream did not exist until I was shown an image which I wanted to imitate.
I confess that I drive a Subaru like everyone else in Colorado.
I confess that I have a French Bulldog.
I confess that for two weeks of my life I tried that KETO diet.
The desires of my heart are so easily dictated by what I see in the rest of the flock.
So I may fancy myself a independently minded mermaid, but I am afraid that I am a sheep.
We all are.
And, like sheep, when someone or something comes along and finally makes us feel safe and loved and worthy and feeling like maybe we are finally going in the right direction, we follow them.
And man, do we choose some lousy shepherds.
I have allowed myself to be shepherded by my addictions, and broken institutions, and the so called “wellness” industry, and the angriest voices on twitter - all while thinking I am for sure just following my own individual thoughts and desires.
But this week I realized that not one single shepherd-shaped wolf that I have followed, has ever actually fulfilled my wants and desires, they have only ever increased them. They have only ever lead me waters with a high salt content, only ever led me to waters that create thirst and never ever quench it. They leave me feeling insecure and insufficient. Imposter shepherds demand loyalty. They pit sheep against each other. They set impossible standards and make us think we want to meet them. And the voice of a wolf in shepherd’s clothing (even the ones that come from inside our own heads) always has an accusing tone to them.
Wolves and lesser shepherds will always suggest that we should look, feel, and act a certain way that is always just out of reach no matter how much we strive. And any past success serves only as an accusation against our current efforts. They set before us an unwinnable game. And in it there is no rest.
So, here is way to spot the difference between the wolves and the good shepherd–The shepherd never holds auditions. The Shepherd never mentions the quality of sheep they demand. The shepherd never bases their protection and love and concern for their sheep on how the sheep look or feel or behave or achieve…that’s never mentioned as a basis for belonging to the flock of the Good Shepherd. Those are just things wolves create as a basis for belonging because grace is just too offensive. Grace is just too hard to take since on some level, we think that if it’s free it must be worthless.
So, yeah…There are no auditions. Nothing to earn. No extra credit in God’s flock. Which also means that there is no basis for comparison. Nothing to envy in others. Nothing to prove. Even to ourselves.
In the good shepherd’s keeping, striving is replaced by relaxing.
There is, in God’s keeping, nap time and snack time.
He makes me lie down, he restores me, he makes sure I eat even when people are mad at me. The Lord does not hand me a to-go box, but sets a table before me in the midst of my anxieties.
When the wolves make me feel like everything good has already passed me by, that were I to slow down I would lose my edge, that I cannot afford to rest, If I tilt my head ever so slightly and listen for even just a moment, I can hear the Spirit’s still, small voice saying “you actually have all the time in the world.”
And even when her voice seems drown out by the anxious clamor of self-critique. I wish I were taller, I wish I were shorter, I wish my wool were as white and hers or as curly as his. The voice of the Shepherd is still there saying, “you already have everything you need”
And when the news cycle makes me alternately rage-y and anxious, and when my family is walking through our own valley of the shadows, and when even the planet itself isn’t doing well, The voice of the one to whom I truly belong is always there saying “be not afraid”.
So while I wish Jesus had said I Am the Good Friend or the Good Therapist or the Good coach there is nothing wrong with the fact that I am a sheep of God’s keeping and that you are sheep of God’s keeping.
This true and good shepherd is calling your name. And has been since you drew your first breath. You know the voice. If you tilt your head and place your hand on your tender, broken, beautiful heart, you know the voice. It has always been there, under the clamor of insecurity and the cry of wolves and the murmurs of your own internal High Commission on Worthiness.
The voice of the one who lays down his life for us who lays down his love for us exhausted, terrified, rather be a mermaid, do-it-self sheep is always right there saying:
“you belong to me”
The Lord is your shepherd; you shall not be in want.
He makes you to lie down in green pastures: he leads you beside the still waters.
He restores your soul
Yea, though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you need not fear evil: for they are with you; their rod and their staff they comfort you.
They prepare a table before you in the presence of your enemies.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of you life: and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
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READ my NYT bestselling memoirs:
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Accidental Saints; Finding God In All The Wrong People(2015)
SHAMELESS; A Sexual Reformation (2019).
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I sat through a contemplative time at 4:30am this morning grumbling about the same verses.
All day I worked at reconciling my thoughts and feelings.
Thanks for taking me the last few yards to the end.
It is beautiful