Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | July 17, 2022
During my time in Scotland, I got to know about sheep. They were a common sight. There are more sheep in Scotland than there are people. We often encountered them on our travels. Sometimes in the road.
One thing I learned about sheep is that they are creatures of habit. They are predictable. One time were staying in a remote costal village in the north of Scotland. The house we were in looked out onto a meadow that led to the water’s edge. Every day the flock of sheep would go as far out on the land as they could go.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence relates to sheep. It doesn’t matter how much grass they have on their side of the fence, even that one little tuft on the other side looks so much better. So they will try to get at it.
So every day this flock would be out on a spit of land, when the tide would begin to come in. Instead of going back to the main meadow, the sheep would crowd onto the shrinking bit of land as the water continued to rise. Soon there was no more room and they were surrounded by water. The sheep would look toward the main meadow. Eventually, one of them would make a move and splash through the water to the land. As soon as one made the move, the other’s followed. Every day the same scene.
Another thing I learned about sheep is that they are obstinate. They don’t appreciate being told what to do. Sheep dogs, or border collies, will run circles around a flock and move them along. Sheep don’t like dogs and they try to avoid them.
If they do something, it’s as if it has to be their idea. If the shepherd wants to move them out of the barn, he or she doesn’t open the door and chase them out. The shepherd opens the door and walks out. The sheep see the open door and think they are escaping.
Another thing I learned about sheep is that they have friends. Other sheep that they prefer to hang around with. They also have enemies. They will butt heads with sheep they don’t like.
And they can be self-serving. If the flock is threatened by a predator, the sheep will all crowd together. It may appear that they are trying to protect each other. In reality, each one is trying to work its way into the middle of the flock, so as to be a less likely target.
It’s no wonder that the various people who wrote the bible used sheep as a comparison to the way people can behave. Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us to our own way.”
The Psalmist wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd.” God doesn’t prod or push or whip the sheep to move them along. God opens the door and allows us to follow. The Lord is my Shepherd. I belong to God. A shepherd leads the flock. I am part of a gathering, a community, a group, a church, a family. We belong to God.
What does it mean to say, “I shall not want?” Think of what makes you happy. What would it be in your life that would allow you, to empower you to say, “I shall not want?” The answer you arrive at speaks to the meaning of life as you define it.
Having the task of conducting hundreds of funerals over the years has given me the opportunity to consider the meaning of life. When someone dies, I meet with their loved ones to plan the funeral. We have a conversation to create a tribute. These conversations have revealed a picture of life as people live it in the real world.
We might be talking about a person who lived 100 years or someone who died before their first breath. Saints and sinners and everyone in between. Each person is unique.
The common thread of these conversations is talking about what someone loved and most importantly who they loved and who loved them. That conversation is where we touch upon what is truly important. What we end up celebrating about someone’s life are the things that cannot be counted or easily measured. Namely, love and relationships.
I try to remind people, the living who go back to their lives, that the degree to which we give and receive love is the degree to which we touch upon God’s purpose for our life. That purpose is what gives life a deeper sense of meaning.
The deeper meaning involves what we would call “intrinsic” value. I think of intrinsic as that which is within.
Here’s an example of intrinsic value –
When they were young my boys collected baseball cards. The boys had ring binders with plastic sheets fitted for baseball cards. They put together their favorite teams.
One time, Nick came into possession of a baseball card collector’s pricing guide. He discovered that his baseball card collection was now worth big money.
I remember a conversation that went like this:
“Hey dad, I’ve got a card that’s worth twenty dollars!”
“Wow, that’s a lot of money. Let me ask you something. Who do you think would pay twenty dollars for that card?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you pay twenty dollars for it?”
“If somebody said, ‘I’ll give you twenty dollars for that card,’ would you sell it to them?”
“Gee, I don’t know probably not. It’s part of a set.”
“So now you see why you are collecting baseball cards. It doesn’t matter what someone else says they’re worth. What matters most is what they mean to you. You like to sort them, organize them, put the teams together, read the stats, and follow a player or a team. Doesn’t that give you a greater sense of satisfaction than thinking about what they might be worth in money?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
The 23rd Psalm speaks to our deepest desires for peace, security, connection and serenity. Think of all the people who have sung this as a hymn or prayed it as a prayer in the thousands of years it has been in use. The world in all that time has always been a place of contrasts – where people can rise to occasions of goodness and love and where people can suffer from violence, danger and fear.
Sometimes we go through experience that for lack of a better term can be described “the valley of the shadow of death.” It doesn’t matter how good of a person you are or how devoted to your religion you may be. Life happens.
The valley of the shadow death is a crowded place. It is crowded because so very many people journey there. It’s a desolate place too, because when you are there, you feel so alone in your experience. The valley of the shadow of death is anything which denies life; it’s when death seems to over-shadow life.
The shadow falls in many ways. It can be the death of someone you love; it is facing your own mortality; it is the anger of divorce; bitterness between friends; feelings of helplessness after losing your job. The valley of the shadow of death is going to bed hungry or sleeping on the street. It’s lying awake at night worrying about the prodigal child; it’s facing another day in the nursing home. The shadow of death is all the agonies, frustrations and humiliations we have ever faced.
The Psalmist is not saying, “I will not be afraid.” Some fear is good when it serves to keep us safe. The hymn writer saying, “I will not fear evil.” Right now in our world we put a lot of thought and energy into trying to figure out how to deal with our fears. If because we are afraid, we were to stop doing everything that gives meaning to life, then fear wins. Acting out of a concern for safety is different from acting out of fear.
Jesus often made use of the images found in the Psalms. He once described our relationship with God as a banquet. The psalm describes belonging to God as a feast. A feast was a rare occasion for people who worked close to the land and often knew the pain of hunger. “In the presence of my enemies,” may imply for us that we are able to participate in everything God has to offer, in spite of our fears.
When we look at our lives, we will see a diverse mix of experience. The negatives and the positives live side by side. Strength and weakness journey hand in hand. The good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows are all part of the same life. When we make life’s journey by faith, we can never exhaust God’s resources. Though it is not always apparent, when we belong to God, we are surrounded on all sides by goodness and mercy, all the days of our life.
Psalm 23 speaks to our belonging to God in all the places where we might find ourselves –
Green pastures; still waters; paths of righteousness or the valley of the shadow of death; in the presence of our enemies or in the house of the Lord.
It is then that we see the true meaning of life, and our own self-worth, is contained in things that we can never measure or calculate. Amen.