This Sunday of words and songs about sheep and shepherds has always challenged me. For most of my preaching life I’ve been in or near a city. Now I live in New York City, where as far as I know even the Sheep Meadow in Central Park has no sheep.
Yet here is an enduring image from Jesus, an image captured perhaps millions of times in our art, our songs, our stories.
I’ve always been challenged by the lectionary readings for this Sunday. Although both Psalm 23 and John refer to Jesus the Shepherd and us as sheep, I live in New York City, and as far as I can tell, even the Sheep Meadow in Central Park has no sheep. Yet we sing Psalm 23 each year on this Sunday and at countless other times in convalescent homes and at gravesides.
Although only the most daring (read stupid) among us preachers will take on the task, one has the opportunity to preach the scandal-of-the-particular-versus-universalist controversy this Sunday. I say daring (stupid) because it will invariably get you in hot water, but you could, the texts are there, the opportunity is available, but the nuance is tough.
“What will survive of us is love,” writes Philip Larkin in his remarkably unsentimental poem “An Arundel Tomb.” He is reflecting on the recumbent stone effigy over the grave of a couple buried long ago in an ancient church.
Maybe we should take a step further, however, and say that love is that which not only “survives” but also rises, or is raised, from any and every grave. This is especially important to bear in mind in the face of all the threats to love, those powers and forces that try to bury it.
It’s the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s choral work, Chichester Psalms. A boy soprano (or a countertenor), in the “role” of the shepherd boy, David, sings in Hebrew the opening verses of Psalm 23. He is accompanied–sparingly, fittingly–by the harp. The first several measures are tender but not tentative; filled with sentiment, but without sentimentality (this per Bernstein’s instructions). When the women’s voices take over the text at גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת . . . (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .) there’s an ethereal echo-canon effect. This part of the movement, when executed well, is something sublime.