In his years as a pastor my husband read the 23rd Psalm at the bedsides of quite a few people who were dying. It was the most frequently requested passage among those who were facing their own going and still able to choose. When I began to volunteer for hospice, I found, as he had, that even for people who had wandered far from church, even for the skeptical and the uncertain, even for those who were unused to prayer and didn't want to be prayed over, the 23rd Psalm provided a place of return that was beautiful, familiar, inviting, and reassuring.
And won’t you slow your pace, and let us look at least upon your shadow as you move? Your darkened form walks all too swiftly through these thickets, and some rams among our flock command me stay behind. They say my words disrupt their meditations, and my feet usurp the path that theirs would take. You need me, so they say, to be unseen, unheard, and let my sheepish silence be the sign of my devotion. Bleating arguments, we wait for you to turn; but until then we trot as troubled stragglers in your line,
not knowing how to reconcile our aims, or even if our shepherd is the same.
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The author of 1 John invites us to put our love into action—to love with our lives. Love is a commandment: “love one another, just as [Jesus] has commanded us.” If we follow this commandment to love, then we are in communion with God: “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.”
Several years ago, a neighbor of mine gave me a birdhouse. It was the perfect size and structure for bluebirds to build their nests inside. I put it on a wood post in the yard, which turned out to be a bad idea. Neighborhood cats dug their claws into the wood and climbed up to kill the newborn chicks. The nest became a grave.
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.