On this day, the fourth Sunday of Easter, when we always celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, I must admit that I have very little experience with sheep. I’ve seen them. I’ve pet them at town fairs. I even once watched, deeply impressed, as a sheep shearer wrestled a sheep to the ground with one hand, while with her other hand, wielding a razor, deftly stripped the animal of its wool. But it is hard for me to connect with the imagery of Christ as a shepherd because it is hard for me to connect with sheep.
Goats on the other hand, goats I have experience with. The summer between college and seminary, I worked as the property manager of an environmental center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. At this center lived a married couple who ran an organic farm on some of the land. Among the animals they raised—chickens, turkeys, a cow or two—was a small herd of goats.
Now goats are smart animals. Goats have a playful and mischievous streak in them. Over the course of the summer, it was a regular occurrence that the goats would break out of their pasture and go on an adventure. It was a common conversation among the staff that someone needed to go get the goats and lead them back to their pasture.
Go get the goats, because they broke out and are now playing in the stream. Go get the goats, because they broke out and are now playing in the chicken yard and are upsetting the hens. Go get the goats, because they broke out and are now taking turns jumping off the front porch of the farmhouse. And one of us would head out and return them to their pasture. As we secured the gate yet again, the goats would watch us, as if to impress upon us that they were only humoring us by staying behind the fence. We all knew, goat and human alike, that they would let themselves out again as soon as they felt like it.
I like to imagine a herd of goats as I read Psalm 23. It brings the psalm alive for me in a way that sheep just don’t. I find that I need help bringing this particular psalm alive, too, because it is so deeply familiar. This is a beloved piece of scripture for so many people, one that we most often associate with funerals. Indeed, almost every funeral I have led or attended has included this psalm. We have come to associate it almost exclusively with comfort in times of grief and loss. With good reason! This psalm reminds us of God’s enduring and comforting presence, reminders that we need when facing the death of a loved one.
It has so much more to offer too, but we rarely hear it! Partly, this is because we seldom hear Psalm 23 apart from death. Partly it is because some translations choices made by the NRSV, especially in the last verse, opted for the familiar language and imagery of the King James Bible over the meaning of the original Hebrew. While the result is familiar and comforting, it does change the meaning of the text.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The first place we encounter these choices in in the word translated as ‘follow.’ Nowhere else in scripture is this word translated that way. It is too passive. It is far more accurate to read it as ‘pursue’ or ‘chase.’
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” The second translation problem is in the word ‘dwell.’ The English just doesn’t capture the full meaning of the Hebrew, it makes it sound like something permanent, where in fact, there is a strong sense of returning over and over again in the original language.
Taken as a whole, the last verse of Psalm 23 would more accurately read, “Only goodness and mercy will pursue after me all the days of my life, and I will return to the House of the Lord again and again my whole life long.”
Does that change it for you? It changes it for me! For me, this transforms it into a psalm about a journey, a psalm that speaks to us again and again throughout our lives. Like the goats, we have a tendency to seek the world, to strike out on our own in pursuit of adventure. The psalm reminds us that wherever we find ourselves, that God is with us, indeed God’s goodness and mercy actively chases after us, always ready to lead us back to the House of the Lord, always ready to bring us back into the presence of God.
That is something for which we need reminding. There are times when our lives feel verdant and lush, times when our lives are good, our hearts content. These can be times when we are mindful of God’s goodness. Indeed, these times are gifts from God, given that we might find rest and nourishment for our souls. But even in these idyllic times, God’s goodness and mercy pursues us, calling us back to the House of the Lord, back to God’s presence. What is more, we know that these times of goodness do not last.
There are times when we feel far from those comfortable and pleasant pastures, times when we find ourselves on strange paths leading to unknown destinations. It can be an experience that is exciting and exhilarating, and as anyone who has found themselves on such unexpected journeys know, it can also be terrifying. It is frightening to be unclear of where a particular path is leading us. The birth of an unexpected child may find us on the unexpected path of starting a new family. A corporate layoff may find us on the unexpected path of seeking a second career, a new vocation, at a point in our lives when we thought we would be contemplating retirement. The sudden death of a spouse may find us on the unexpected path of rediscovering our own faith. Or, to draw from my own life, scratching the persistent itch of God’s call may find us on the unexpected path of seminary and parish ministry.
Even on these unexpected paths, these exhilarating and terrifying journeys, God’s goodness and mercy chases us down, pushing us onward towards unknown destinations. Even here, God calls us back to return to the House of the Lord.
There are also times when we find ourselves walking through deep valleys, places where the sun does not shine, where we feel lost, alone, and forgotten. They are the valleys of despair, the valleys of addiction, the valleys of hate and alienation, the valleys of racism and bigotry, the valleys of sickness, and the valleys of death and grief. They are the places where we encounter, face to face, the brokenness of creation: the deep brokenness of our own selves and the deep brokenness of the world around us.
But my friends, you are never lost to God. There is no place you can go that will hide you from God’s sight. Even here in these deep places, so far from the light, goodness and mercy pursues you. Even here, God is with you and brings you comfort. Even here, God leads you back to return again to the House of the Lord.
There comes a time, too, when at last we find the vindication of God. There comes a time, at last, when we take our seat at the great banquet feast prepared for us by our God, and we are anointed with the oil of everlasting life. Even here goodness and mercy will chase us down. Even here, God’s goodness and mercy will find us, and we will return once again to the House of the Lord.
Throughout our life journey, God leads us back to the House of the Lord, like a gentle and patient shepherd. We know, and God knows, that we will go out again, seeking our own pursuits; seeking our own adventure. Wherever we end up, good or bad, peaceful or frightening, God will be there with us, beckoning us to return once again.
I think that is a part of who we are here at St. Stephen’s. I think it is a part of who we are called to be. I think that a part of our work in the world is to meet people on the many paths on which they find themselves. I think that we are called to waypoints, signposts, that point people back to the House of the Lord, orienting them back into a deep connection with the presence of God.
We live into that calling partly when we gather here to worship God every Sunday morning. But that is not the only place we live into this work. Every Wednesday, we hold Celtic Evening Prayer, a gathering designed to meet us in the places we feel most lost and help us regain our bearing so that we may at last find our way again to the House of the Lord.
Twice a month, we gather to practice Listening for God, where we learn to be mindful of the world around us. We learn to be mindful of God’s presence around us so that we at last might recognize the sound of the quickly racing footsteps of God’s goodness and mercy, as they pursue us in our lives.
Our work does not end there, though. God is still calling us to meet people in the world, to be companions with them on the journey, and to return with them again and again to the House of the Lord. So, I invite you in today and in this next week to spend time pondering where in your life you find yourself serving as a signpost for others? I wonder what ways you are meeting people out in the world? I wonder what ways you are helping them find their way back to return again to deep connection with God?
I wonder what new ways we might join in that work together?
The footsteps are falling fast, soon they will be here. Goodness and mercy are pursuing us, and it is time to return again to the House of the Lord.
Preached by Adam Yates