Pursued by Goodness and Mercy in a World of Lack
The following sermon was preached by Esther Menn, Marilyn and Ralph Klein Chair of Old Testament Studies, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, April 14, 2008.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want…
These are comforting and familiar words, but what does this statement of confidence mean in light of today's food shortages: I lack nothing because the LORD is my shepherd?
The lack of lack in Psalm 23 stands in marked contrast to what is happening in our world. The headlines in yesterday's Sunday Chicago Tribune read, "Global crisis grows as food prices soar."
The peaceful imagery of resting in green pastures and walking by still waters seems to have nothing to do with newspaper pictures of people swarming and trying to cut into food lines in Bangladesh and Pakistan. People in these countries and in India are pressed to buy even the simple staples of rice, lentils, and wheat. Worldwide, food prices are up 45% since last year, in large part due to the rising cost of fuel oil, for farming and transportation.
In our neighbor country Mexico, the soaring price of corn, up 25% since last fall, has already led to street protests. The high price of corn that is hurting Mexicans is the same record high price of corn that is delighting Midwestern farmers here, thanks to the demand for ethanol, the biofuel promoted by the US government.
"The days of cheap food have ended," "we are in uncharted waters" say government and agency officials about the current food situation. Our global world is inter-dependent, and the cost of oil is affecting not only our travel patterns, but also the amount of available and affordable food.
Closer to home in Hyde Park, we are also seeing some bad signs that more and more people are hungry, as the gap between rich and poor continues to rise and the economy falters.
At the local Community Food Pantry at Hyde Park Union Church, 56th and Woodlawn, the number of visits by community members needing food have soared this year, as they did at the Open Kitchen at the Kenwood United Church of Christ, 46th and Greenwood. Things have stabilized somewhat with the coming of spring, but with the economy the way it is going, these local programs are sure to feel increased demand.
In the face of this lack of even the most basic necessity of life, enough food to eat, we have Psalm 23's imagery of eating well, under the protection of a skilled shepherd in the first part of the psalm and under the care of a generous host in the second section. All needs are met in the Psalm, whereas needs are growing in our world.
The contrast could not be sharper!
Let us now make what might seem like an unlikely foray, from today's food crisis to the world of early Christian art. I am hoping that in doing so, we can find wisdom and inspiration from the early church to address the world in which we live today.
Before the time of Constantine in the 4th century, the image of a youth carrying a sheep (usually a large ram to be specific) was quite common in Christian sarcophagus carvings and frescoes. At least in the earliest portrayals, this image is not simply a depiction of Jesus as the good shepherd, illustrating passages such as John 10, where Jesus claims, "I am the good shepherd," or such as the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep in Luke 15:4-5, although these passages certainly contribute to the depth of meaning of the shepherd imagery in Christian art.
This iconography has a longer, more complex pre-history, and rather than focusing more narrowly on the identity of Jesus as the shepherd (which we see emerging in art from the 6th century on), early Christian shepherd imagery expresses something profound about the identity and self-understanding of the early church itself.
To start this discussion let us consider a sarcophagus from Sta. Maria Antiqua, in Rome, one of the earliest known examples of Christian plastic art, most likely dating from the second or third centuries CE. The depiction of a youthful shepherd carrying a large sheep is prominently placed, but it has little apparent connection with the portrayal of Christ as a small boy being baptized by John the Baptist, with a dove swooping from heaven towards his head. Nor does it closely relate to the scenes in the left corner, which depict Jonah reclining naked under a vine after being spit out of the mouth of the fish, as a symbol of resurrection (which would be most appropriate for a sarcophagus in its expression of hope for life beyond death).
Rather, the image of the youth carrying the sheep appears to be most closely related to two other central figures, the female Orante with raised hands representing prayer and the seated teacher of the law representing the study of scripture. Just as prayer and study of the scriptures are essential aspects of the church's identity and practice, so the activity of the shepherd appears to represent something essential about the Christian community itself. My understanding is that the good shepherd represents the Christian community as a caring community, as a group of people embodying Christ's outreach to all in need.
Before we go any further in exploring this meaning of shepherd iconography in the early church, it is important to note that the shepherd image was taken from the larger Greco-Roman culture. Greek votive figures, known as Kriophoroi, portrayed youth wearing typical shepherd clothing, including a short belted tunic and pouch. These figures, bearing animals for sacrifice, symbolized religious piety. They were also popular in funerary monuments to symbolize the peace of the afterlife.
Given this conventional usage, it is little wonder that the shepherd made his way into Christian funerary art. But it is also no wonder, given the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament as the good shepherd and the descriptions of the healings and feedings that marked his ministry that the shepherd began to bear a distinctive Christian meaning, that this figure comes to represent the care for the well-being of those within the church and for all in need, whether that be for a cure for illness, for hope in facing death, or for bread to stop hunger.
The shepherd expresses an essential truth about the church's identity as a caring community. At Dura Europos, a Roman military fort on the Euphrates that was destroyed in 254CE, Yale excavators discovered one of the oldest known Christian churches in the world. Above the baptistery in this church, there appears the silhouette of a shepherd bearing a sheep with other sheep surrounding his feet. This image offers a promise of well-being and abundant life under the protection of the good shepherd through the entry into the Christian community. It also suggests that all who enter that life become part of the shepherd community, with a mission to care for the needs of all people.
To further support this interpretation of the shepherd as a symbol for the caring community of the church, we can look as a few representative depictions of Jesus in the earliest Christian portrayals in art. Jesus appears active as a healer, as in a fresco portraying his healing of the woman with a hemorrhage; as one who raises the dead, as in the sarcophagus carving of his raising Lazarus from the dead; and as one concerned with addressing hunger, in a portrayal of the feeding of the multitudes, where he offers bread to the hungry.
To add yet another layer of meaning, we might consider that in the ancient near east the shepherd was perhaps the most common image for kingship. Hammurabi of Babylonia in the 18th century BCE introduces himself as the "shepherd of the black-haired people" in the preface to his famous Law Code. (You may see a copy of this monumental, black cuneiform inscription at the Oriental Institute down the block on 58th and University—admission is free.) Moses and David were shepherds before they were kings in the Bible for a good reason, because the dominant metaphor for good leadership was care of the flock.
In Psalm 23 we see a model of leadership. It is not one of domination or privilege, but of provision by a shepherd of all that is needed for the flourishing of the sheep. This image of the shepherd is supplemented by the image taken from good human relations, of a host providing guests a banquet, supplying all their needs, even of a good grooming product: "You slick my hair with oil" (Ps. 23:5).
These models of leadership, the shepherd and the host, are a resource for the church to make a difference in today's world. They challenge us to take a leadership role in addressing world hunger and other deep human needs. We are already doing much in our personal witness, in our congregations, and in our agencies, such as ELCA World Hunger, Immigration and Naturalization Services, and Lutheran Social Services.
I see a challenge more specific to LSTC, of how to make stronger connections between the seminary and these ELCA organizations that already offer outreach. More locally, our challenge is how to become more intentional and vigorous in addressing the pressing needs of our own community and the larger South Side of Chicago.
We all have needs, including the ordinary lacks of time, sleep, attention, good will, and courage. Psalm 23 helps place all of these ordinary deficits in perspective and encourages us to press on with hope and trust, confident of God's care.
We also have wrenching losses, including deaths of loved ones, of parents, children, and friends, of depression and loss of purpose, health, and ability. These are devastating lacks that loom like black holes in our hearts and cannot be denied or repressed. But Psalm 23 reminds us that even our deepest grief is not the end of the story.
In the midst of whatever lack we personally know, Psalm 23 claims that "Goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of me life." We don't even need to go out looking for these gifts of God, because they are right behind us, on our heels, and not just ambling along behind us. God's goodness and mercy are actively chasing us down in order to catch us and keep us, if we would only notice.
Psalm 23 is a very personal psalm, seemingly all about "me" and my personal relationship with God: "The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing." But this psalm also provides us a vision of a world beyond our own personal needs and wants, so that by living in the world of the sacred scriptures we are released from obsessing on our own desires and relieved from the crushing weight of our private disappointments, grievances, and grief.
The psalm opens us to God's larger reality of blessing, of mercy and goodness already provided for us, already embracing us, never to let us go.
Our good shepherd, our host, enlivens our spirits and moves us beyond our limited vision of what it might mean to be without lack, which in our own imaginings is often a consumerist ideal of completion by acquiring more and more stuff. But this illusion can give no peace and no revival of purpose and well-being.
Even though Psalm 23 is voiced in the first person, as the statement of confidence of an individual, we have to remember that there is no flock composed of just one sheep. Wherever we find our good shepherd, there is always a larger community, God's flock of all people, for whom God intends good and mercy all the days of their lives.
We praise you for the sustaining and inspiring word of the holy scriptures, for the enlivening vision of Psalm 23, of a world beyond our lack, beyond our needs, beyond our fears, of a world of abundance, renewal, joy, and friendship with you, the whole human race, and all of creation.
We raise our thankful hearts and voices that you are our good shepherd and our generous host, so that even when our hearts are broken, our spirits are weary, and our personal needs many, we can depend on your promises and your provisions for our well-being.
Amaze us with your goodness and your mercy that pursue us daily, until we cannot resist opening our hearts and our lives to others in our neighborhoods and in the larger world. As you lead us in service and in joy, as our shepherd king and royal host, let us find those places where we in turn may pursue your goodness and mercy. Commission us as shepherds and hosts alongside of you, for the glory of your holy name and for the delight of our life together.
In the name of your risen and living son, Jesus Christ,