Sermon for Sunday, April 25, 2021 – “Shepherding God”

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Good Shepherd Sunday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Every Fourth Sunday of Easter, the whole church focuses on how Jesus is our Good Shepherd. We pray with the words of Psalm 23 which help us to trust in God our shepherd. This is a day for the whole church, but it feels especially significant for this congregation as we gather on land that used to be a sheep farm. Psalm 23 is meaningful all the time, but it feels especially important as we enter this time of transition as a congregation. As we begin gathering again, as we move out of isolation and back into community, our shepherd is leading us on this journey. So today I want to invite us to dive deep into Psalm 23. I’ll walk us through the Psalm as it is printed in your bulletin; you’re invited to follow along there. (The Psalm translation is from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. License # SB118886)

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not  be in want.

Shepherds provide sheep with enough to eat so that they aren’t left wanting, needing more. Yet shepherds also must ensure that sheep don’t get too much. Sheep are almost always wanting, al- most always hungry. If they’re turned loose in a lush pasture or allowed to free feed on hay, they will usually overeat. Shepherds these days even vaccinate their sheep against enterotoxaemia or “overeating disease”. It’s the shepherd’s responsibility to keep sheep from over consuming. This is important for the health of individual sheep and for the sake of the herd for the long haul. Shepherds must ensure pasture isn’t over grazed so that there is enough for the whole herd for the long term.

God is our shepherd and God does the same for us. God does feed and nurture us. God gives us daily bread. Yet God helps us to not constantly want and seek more, for our own sake and for the sake of creation. If only there was a vaccination to keep humans from over consuming! Yet, God has given us gifts that can inoculate us against the lure of consumerism, that can protect us from a frenzied life of wanting more and more. God’s gifts of scripture, worship, and Christian community help us to not constantly be in want.

2The LORD makes me lie down | in green pastures and leads me be- | side still waters.

Americans struggle to stop, to just lay down in green pastures and rest. We are driven to consume, achieve, accomplish, multitask and serve – all of which can be good things. Too much of this can make us sick and our world out of whack. We need rest and stillness. Sometimes, we need our shepherd to make us lie down.

For many of you, the pandemic has provided too much quiet and stillness. Now that you are vaccinated, you are trying to find new rhythms. For others, you have been incredibly busy as work and family life have become even more challenging during this time. We need God to lead us all into new patterns that facilitate rest and renewal for us and for others.

Today, our shepherd comes to us, to you, and says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Stop and rest in the still waters of your baptism. Let the water remind you that you are mine, and I love you. I love you not because of what you accomplish but because you are my beloved child. Be still and know this. Let this promise sink deep in you so that you can embody God’s gift of rest, a gift every- one needs.

3You restore my | soul, O LORD, and guide me along right pathways | for your name’s sake.

Sheep are creatures of habit. Left to themselves they will follow the same trails until they become ruts, graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes, and pollute the same ground until it is ruined by disease and parasites. We do the same. We know we need to develop new habits and follow different paths regarding our care for one another and the earth, yet we are creatures of habit and we end up following the same old destructive paths.

Sheep also have a strong instinct to follow the sheep in front of them. When one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock usually follows. On our own it can be hard to follow the paths of life. This is especially true if the whole herd is rushing somewhere. We are so easily swept along towards war, violence, pollution, and injustice. For this reason, God trains us to recognize and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, the One who leads us on the paths of life. God gives us the commandments saying, “Do these things so that it may go well with you.”

4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

When sheep are afraid, they simply won’t move. They just come to a stand still and lock their legs.  But if a shepherd goes before them, they will follow and go places they would be afraid to go alone.

It is scary to face death, grief, and sorrow; and we have so much of it to face in the wake of this devastating year. Our culture tells us it is much better to avoid unpleasantness, to numb ourselves to it, or escape it some way. But the only way out of grief is through it. The only way to get out of the valley is to go through it. We need to face the pain of this year. Yet God will not leave us alone; our Good Shepherd goes before and with us. Jesus walked before us through the valley of death and showed that life is more powerful than death. Now Jesus walks with us through the valleys, through the grief and into new life.

 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

A shepherd’s presence is so comforting to sheep that, even when they are surrounded by wolves, they can eat and be content as long as the shepherd stays with them. We too can have peace and contentment even when we’re surrounded by enemies, troubles, and worries because our shepherd is with us. 

To assure us of that, Jesus spreads a table of love before us. Jesus comes to us in his body and blood and is present with us. Jesus gives us the cup that runs over with love for us and anoints us with  the oil of God’s love in baptism. So, we can eat and feast and celebrate even when troubles press in all around. We are not paralyzed by the challenges. We are strengthened and nourished to go out and face troubles with confidence. We are empowered to work so that all may know God’s goodness and all may feast at the banquet of love.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The Hebrew word for “follow” is actually the word “pursue.” When it feels like enemies and troubles are in hot pursuit, this Psalm assures us that God’s goodness and mercy are even more relentless. They are always close behind us, always pushing us into the abundance God longs for us all to know.

Jesus Christ, our shepherd, has brought us here today. Jesus has brought you and each one of us here to rest and be nourished in this green pasture beside still waters. Here Jesus feeds and nourishes us so that we will not be in want. Here Jesus trains us to know and to recognize his voice so that we can follow that voice on the paths of life. Here Jesus sets a table of his presence before us and reminds us that we are anointed in the baptismal oil of God’s love.

When the service is over, Jesus will lead us out. Jesus will go ahead of you into the world, through the valley, pursued by goodness and mercy.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.