May 7, 2017
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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.”
* * * * *
I love this part of John’s Gospel. When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” - it’s beautiful, it’s tender, almost intimate. To be truly known and fully loved is one of the deepest longings we have as human beings.
But I confess, there’s a part of me that’s kind of incredulous, a little disbelieving, at this line from John. I have to scratch my head and laugh at his imagery. Can a shepherd really know one of his sheep from another? I mean, have you ever seen sheep? They all look the same. Maybe if you’re a shepherd you see the differences, but it’s hard for me to imagine.
I was talking with Trip earlier this week, about this being “Christ the Good Shepherd Sunday,” and I was telling him about the time I on Sabbatical in Iona, Scotland. There were sheep everywhere on that island! Wandering down the road, out in the pastures, hanging out in front of the Abbey. It was almost as bad as the deer are here in Granville. And I swear, they all looked the same.
Then Trip told me about being at Heifer ranch in Arkansas on a mission trip, and they were warned not to try to pet the sheepdogs, because they were working and could be aggressive. Trip said they didn’t even see any dogs, until a staff member pointed them out – they were white and fluffy and exactly the same size and shape as the sheep. Not only could they not tell the sheep apart, they couldn’t tell the sheep from the dogs.
“I know my own and my own know me…” It’s a lovely line. And if it’s true, it actually means the world… at least to me.
Most of you know that I am a twin. Notice I didn’t say, “I have a twin sister”; I said, “I am a twin.” It’s a matter of identity; it’s who I am. We really were identical. When we were infants, Mom painted one of Chris’ toes red so she could tell at a glance who was who.
When I was growing up, Chris and I shared almost everything. We had one wardrobe, and even though she had some favorites and I had some, too, it was all ‘ours.’ We had one set of toys we shared, one set of books, one set of record albums…. When we finally lived separately – at the age of 20 - it was agony dividing our things up – almost like a divorce. Who would get what of “our” things?
But it was more than our ‘stuff.’ We shared the same set of friends, as well. And when our friends called the house, they didn’t care which one of us they spoke to. We were practically interchangeable. It was long before the days of cell phones, so people would call the house and ask, “Is Chris-or-Karen there?” It was one word - “ChrisorKaren” – one name. Always in that order. Maybe it was just faster to say that way.
But here’s the really creepy part to me: I couldn’t always tell us apart. When we still had a landline at home – again, before cell-phones - I would sometimes call and leave a message for the kids to let them know when I would be home. When I got home and listened to messages, I would hear the one from me, and at first I would think it was Chris. Do you have any idea what a bizarre feeling that is?
Even worse: I look at pictures of the two of us when we were young – and the pictures are always of us together – I don’t know which one I am. I’ll bring a picture to coffee hour in case you want to see it.
But can you imagine how that feels? It’s the weirdest thing. I don’t know who I am.
“I know my own and my own know me…” Do you see now why this means so much to me?
Jesus’ love is deeply, deeply personal. He knows you. He loves you. He treasures you. Even when no one else knows you, Jesus does. Even when you don’t know yourself.
And the honest truth is, most of us don’t really know ourselves. And I’m not talking about photos, or what our voices sound like. I’m talking about what’s in our hearts. Jesus knows us far, far better than we know ourselves. He can see the truth about us – our joy, our pain, our strengths, our longing – far more than we can see ourselves. He sees exactly where we are, and then leads us into his peace.
Some years ago I received a wonderful gift from a friend. It’s a devotional called, Jesus Calling. I know some of you here use it as well. Each day’s reading is in the voice of Jesus, as if Jesus is speaking directly to you. Using scripture as its basis, each message encourages trust in God’s goodness, Jesus’ mercy, the Spirit’s power. Sometimes it just nails who I am.
One of the recent readings says this:
Do not search for security in the world you inhabit. You tend to make mental check-lists of things you need to do in order to gain control of your life. If only you could check everything off your list, you could relax and be at peace. But the more you work to accomplish that goal, the more things crop up on your list. The harder you try, the more frustrated you become. [i]
And I thought, yeah, that pretty much nails it. God knows the futility of the way I often live my life. As much as I want to pretend this doesn’t happen, that’s exactly how it feels.
But the devotion went on to say this:
There is a better way to find security in this life. Instead of scrutinizing your checklist, focus your attention on My Presence with you. This continual contact with Me will keep you in My Peace.[ii]
And I thought of the Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Jesus knows us far better than we know ourselves. He sees the agitation in our souls. He knows when we are frustrated, scared, angry, hurt; when we want to be mean, when we’re holier-than-thou. He sees it all, even when we try to pretend we’re better than we really are.
He takes us exactly where we are. And then he leads us into life. Abundant life. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus said, “and have it abundantly.”
It’s no wonder that the 23rd Psalm is the most beloved Psalm of all; maybe the most beloved part in all of scripture. It describes the abundant life we long for. It’s fitting that Psalm 23 is one of the first verses children memorize, and one of the last we recite to those who are dying. Throughout our lives we learn to trust, and believe: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
As one writer reflects on the power of this Psalm,
We cling to life through it when the angel of death stalks our path. We recite it to face down danger and fear when they lunge out in the dark. We sing it as we long to live the mercy that we need, to dwell in the house of the Lord every day of our life…[iii]
It gives us trust, and security, and hope. Not in a global way, but for our own lives, for you, and for me, personally. Jesus knows exactly who we are, loves us as we are, and then leads us into a place of wholeness, peace, and rest; to a table prepared just for us, a table overflowing with abundance.
In this Psalm, someone wrote, we discover
a lush landscape of secure peace, safety and strength. Here our steps are sure, our hearts steady, and our minds serene amid struggles, because we follow the shepherd who guards his charges as they graze…[iv]
Friends, we are about to share a holy meal. This is God’s table, set for us. When you come to this table, you don’t have to pretend you are better than you are. When you come, you can trust that Jesus, the host of this table, knows you more intimately than you know yourself, and wants you here, as his guest. This is the table of abundant life – prepared for you – the one Jesus loves.
[i] Sarah Young, reading for May 6, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence (Thomas Nelson, 2004).
[ii] Young, May 6.
[iii] Ellen T. Charry, Psalms 1-50: Sighs and Songs of Israel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015), 116.
[iv] Charry, 116.