A Shepherd for the Shepherds
The following sermon was preached by P.J. Malin, LSTC M.Div. senior, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, March 6, 2008.
Long winters like the one we are experiencing really make me miss home. Many of you know I grew up in Hawaii. In Hawaii, we didn't have to check the weather channel before going outside. The only reason we checked the weather channel was to see where the best surfing spots were for that day. I did this a lot with Uncle Danny.
Uncle Danny was my youth pastor. He was like an uncle to many of the youth in our church, so we called him Uncle Danny. Uncle Danny was the one who taught me how to surf. I vividly remember the first time he took me out surfing. We went to the beach really early in the morning to avoid the crowds. When we arrived the sun was just peaking up over the horizon, filling the sky with a beautiful array of orange and pink and purple colors. The water was warm as we jumped in and began to paddle out. Everything was so beautiful and perfect that it felt like I was in the middle of a post card. The picture-perfect paradise, however, was about to become a living nightmare.
If you aren't familiar with surfing, the hardest part is not riding the waves – it is getting out past the waves. You have to paddle out through the waves to get to the surfing spot. Easier said than done. The waves that morning were so big and strong. The first wave that came our way knocked me off my board and sent me tumbling through the water like I was in a washing machine. I came up gasping for air only to be smothered by another wave. I paddled as hard and as fast as I could, but each wave pushed me farther and farther back. Worse, I couldn't see Uncle Danny anywhere. I felt scared, alone, exhausted, and ready to give up. But then I heard Uncle Danny's voice calling out to me. He paddled up next to me and said, "Come on. Follow me." His presence gave me the strength I needed to keep going, and he safely led me through the rough waters. Uncle Danny stayed close by my side and we had an awesome time surfing together.
When we face difficult and scary situations in life, it makes all the difference in the world to know that we have someone who is watching out for us, someone who cares about us, someone who is there with us to guide us through. For many of us at LSTC, this is a very difficult and scary time in the year. In the midst of all the coursework and ministry work that are part of a seminary education, some students and their families are dealing with the life-altering changes that come with Clinical Pastoral Education, Ministry-In-Context, Internship, and First Call. On the one hand we are incredibly excited about being a part of God's mission of life and love in the world. On the other hand, all the waiting, uncertainty, lack of control, paperwork, interviews, and new beginnings can be overwhelming and frightening. Other students are facing exciting, yet difficult and scary decisions about where they feel God is calling them to serve in the Church and world. Our faculty and staff face their own ministry transitions as new colleagues join the team, beloved colleagues say farewell, cherished colleagues struggle with illness, responsibilities shift, work loads increase, and policies change. And then there are all the other difficult and scary things we face in life – family members who are ill, children who are struggling, relatives who are away at war, parents who need special care, I'm sure you can fill in the blank. Now, more than ever, we need to hear the Good News proclaimed in Psalm 23. David proclaims the Good News that we have a God who is watching out for us, who cares about us, and who is there with us to guide us through. God is our Shepherd!
"It takes one to know one." That was a popular line in my elementary school. Kids would use it as a comeback if someone called them a name. "You're a dork." "It takes one to know one." Even as kids we realize that you shouldn't label someone unless you understand what that label means. David knew what it meant to call God our Shepherd, because he himself was a shepherd. David was a young shepherd boy when God called him to be a shepherd for God's people. A shepherd provided everything their sheep needed – nourishment, comfort, rest, protection, and guidance. Even at night the shepherd was aware of their sheep's needs. A shepherd was always ready at the least sign of trouble to leap up and protect their own. David told stories about how he had to fight off lions and tigers and bears, oh my. He says in the next chapter of First Samuel, "I have been taking care of my father's sheep. Whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it," (1 Samuel 17:34-35). A good shepherd was willing to risk their life for their sheep.
Knowing full well what it meant to be a good shepherd, I can't imagine how exciting it was for David to discover that he too had a shepherd watching over him. When David was chosen to be the leader of God's people, God told the prophet Samuel to anoint David's head with oil. Although this was a common practice used for installing new kings, the significance of this event was no doubt much deeper for the young shepherd. A shepherd often poured oil on the heads of their sheep. Oil served many purposes in caring for the sheep. Philip Keller lists several in his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.
One purpose for the oil was to protect the sheep from nasal flies. During the summertime, hordes of insects emerged with the warm weather. Nasal flies are called by that name because they buzz about the sheep's head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp, mucous membranes of the sheep's nose. Gross! For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush. In extreme cases the sheep can severely injure or even kill themselves. At the first sign of flies among the flock, a shepherd would pour oil over the sheep's head and nose as a protection against the flies. Another interesting purpose for the oil was to protect the sheep from each other.
As summer rolled into autumn, the flies went away. But autumn is the season for mating. And great battles took place between rams for possession of the ewes. The crash of heads and the thud of colliding bodies could be heard all hours of the day. Shepherds knew all about this, and they knew that sheep can severely injure or kill one another in the process. A shepherd poured oil on the heads of the sheep so that when they collided, they glanced right off each other. So when Samuel poured oil on David's head, David knew that he too had a Shepherd who would be with him to watch over him and take care of him. God was his Shepherd!
Throughout David's life, he experienced God's shepherding presence every step of the way providing needed nourishment, comfort, rest, protection, and guidance. God was present through the good times and the bad, the successes and failures, and particularly during the difficult and scary times. There is a beautiful shift that happens in Psalm 23. At the beginning of the psalm, David speaks about God in the third person. "She lets me rest in green meadows; she leads me beside peaceful streams." But when David gets to the valley of the shadow of death, all of a sudden David speaks about God in the second person. "Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid, for YOU are close beside me. YOUR rod and YOUR staff protect and comfort me." It was during the difficult and scary moments of life that David realized just how close God is to us.
Although God is present all along, it is often during the difficult and scary moments that we realize just how close God is to us. My grandma has been sick for a long time and recently passed away. After her death, I called my aunt who has been living with my grandma all her life. For so many years the two of them had lived together. We talked about what it will be like for her to live alone. She said that she will miss grandma, but that she will not be living alone. She said it has become so clear to her in the past few years how present God is in her life. From the ways God allowed her to be with grandma when grandma needed her, to the love she has experienced from family when she needed them, God has been with her every step of the way providing needed nourishment, comfort, rest, protection, and guidance. God is her Shepherd!
God sent Jesus so we would know God is our Shepherd as well. Jesus said, "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," (John 10:14-15). In Jesus we see how committed God is to being with us and caring for us. During his ministry, Jesus literally put his life on the line to extend love and life to the very people who were struggling to find it. His ministry to the outcasts, the oppressed, the sick, and the broken eventually cost him his life. Then Jesus walked through the valley of the shadow of death toward the cross as a testimony to the fact that not even death can separate us from our Good Shepherd. God is with us, particularly in the most difficult and scary situations, bringing new possibilities for love and life.
Whatever difficult or scary situation we face in life or in our call to be shepherds for God's people, we can be assured that God is there with us to guide us through. God is our Shepherd – a Shepherd for the shepherds. God gathers us here in the house of the Lord around the peaceful waters of baptism and the great feast of the Lord's Supper. Through scripture, prayer, sacrament, and fellowship God provides needed nourishment, comfort, rest, protection, and guidance, and forms us into a community where all can experience the loving presence of our Good Shepherd. Amen.