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As a young child my brother and I used to spend summers on my great aunt and uncle’s farm in eastern Montana. Those were good times and I have always had a desire to farm so when I was stationed in Leavenworth, KS I was given that opportunity. Jane, the girls and I had horses. Our neighbor let us pasture them with his horses, and then he moved to Kansas City and sold his acreage to us. Mortgages were mostly yearly after the crops came in and that’s how he and I set ours up. To make that large payment, I started raising cattle, pigs and chickens.
The pigs were especially happy. They had a large pond, walnut trees a, an automatic grain feeder and the dining facilities at Fort Leavenworth saved all the food that they didn’t serve for my pigs. I was teaching at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College at the time. I was teaching Operation Jayhawk which was our major exercise. This was in the mid 1970’s and we were in the cold war with the Soviet Union. Operation Jayhawk was fought on the plains of Kansas which were similar to the plains of eastern Germany where we thought we might have to fight the Soviets. I authored the intelligence, electronic warfare and did the terrain analysis for the exercise.
Several years later I came back to Fort Leavenworth for a conference. US Air had lost my luggage, so I was I was not in uniform. During the welcoming remarks, this was pointed out and one of the participants in the conference came up to me and asked if I was the colonel Bates that had taught here. I said that I was. He said, you know you are still talked about here. I swelled up like a toad. He went on; you raised the best pigs in the area. That might have been true. Even the butcher bought his pigs from me.
Today, I would like to talk to you about the 23rd Psalm from a shepherd’s viewpoint. I was never a shepherd, but with a lot of help from Phillip Keller who was a shepherd, and also a scientist and a minister and who wrote A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, I think I can give you that perspective. As I talk about sheep and shepherding, I would like for you think about how God is the Good Shepherd in your life.
As many of you know, the 23rd Psalm was written by David, who was a shepherd, but David did not write from the shepherd’s perspective, but from the perspective of a sheep with the Lord as his shepherd. In David’s case, the Lord was God, the father. Now we think of the good shepherd as Jesus. I think we find comfort in the Psalm. That’s probably why it’s a favorite of so many people. I memorized and prayed it as a child. For many now, much of meaning of the Psalm is lost because of the shepherding setting and because of our urban upbringing
Not so the first part. The Lord is my shepherd. For David and for us, this relationship with the almighty and amazing God as our shepherd is pretty special. David seems to be very proud and somewhat humbled by the relationship as I think many of us are as well. There’s a passage in all three synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples, who people say that I am. Some say John the Baptist and others a prophet. But who do you say that I am? Peter got it right. You are the messiah, the son of the living God. In seminary, we were asked the same question, the answers were varied. Some said the Lord, my savior, my God, my Shepherd, etc. But I think we all expressed a relationship with God in which God was in charge and it which we wanted to be in his presence and do his will. We wanted to trust God to take care of us.
The meaning of l shall not want or I shall not be in want is not so obvious. The main concept is that the sheep shall not be lacking or not be deficient in proper care.
The second meaning is being utterly content and as a result not desiring anything more, anything else. Does this mean that as child of God or a sheep of the Lord, we will never experience lack or need? Did Elijah or John the Baptist or Jesus ever experience personal privation or adversity? How about CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, Father Paul? How about you? Based on the teachings of the Bible, Phillip Keller concludes that David was not referring to material but to spiritual things when he made that statement. Talk to parishioners who are under God’s care and who know it. You’ll find that they have found contentment. In the words of Jesus, the good shepherd “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly.” They lack nothing for their spiritual well being.
The Good Shepherd makes me lie down in green pastures. There is a little more to that than meets the eye. I didn’t know this, but sheep will not lie down unless four conditions are met:
1. They will not lie down unless they are free of fear.
2. They will not lie down unless they are free of friction from other sheep in the herd.
3. They will not lie down if they are tormented by flies or parasites
4. They will not lie down if they are hungry.
Like sheep, we need a sense of freedom from fear, conflict or tension, aggravation, and hunger. In our case, it is the Holy Spirit that brings us quietness, serenity, strength and calmness in the face of frustration and futility.
He restores my soul. Who among us has not gone through a dark period of the soul or fallen to temptation and has needed restoration?
Yea, though I walk through the valley… In the 23rd Psalm, David follows the life of the sheep by seasons. At this point in the poem, it’s spring and the shepherd is leading the sheep through the valleys to high ground and summer pastures. Summers are a time of close relationships between sheep and shepherd, but there are dangers in getting there.
For us the valleys are the dark times of the soul, when we are refreshed by God. It’s from our valley or wilderness experiences that we learn to comfort, console and encourage. For example, the one best able to comfort another in bereavement is the person who lost a loved one. The one who can best minister to a broken heart is the one who has known a broken heart. The best alcoholic counselors are former alcoholics. To me it was helpful to know that we all have to go through tough times, but in so doing we are going to grow, we are going to learn and we are going to be better people if we walk with God with a good attitude.
Your rod and staff comfort me. The bishop carries a staff and is symbolic of care and compassion.. Shepherds use the staff to rescue sheep from brambles and wild rose patches. He also uses it to move lambs about with leaving the scent of his hands on the lambs. The rod is a club. It’s used for defense and at times discipline. Shepherds always carry a rod. It’s like an extension of their hand and they become very effective with it. The rod is symbolic of authority, of power of discipline and of defense against danger. In biblical terms, the rod (and of course the sword) is symbolic of the Word of God and the staff is symbolic of the Spirit of God.
You prepare a table before me. The table to the sheep is that high mesa of good pasture to which only the good shepherds are willing to take their sheep.
You anoint my head with oil. Sheep are anointed with oil. To sheep, summer time is fly time and hordes of insects emerge with the advent of warm weather. Keller, in his book, reminds us just how serious were the problems for animals caused by insects.
Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly. These little flies buzz about the sheep’s head, attempting to deposit their eggs in the damp mucous membranes of the sheep’s nose. If they are successful the eggs will hatch in a few days to form small worm-like larvae. They then work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep’s head; they burrow into the flesh. This causes intense irritation and inflammation.
For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rock, posts and brush. They may even kill themselves.
Only the strictest attention to the behavior of the sheep by the shepherd can forestall the difficulties of fly time. At the very first sign of flies among the flock he will apply an antidote to their heads. Keller used a homemade remedy of linseed oil, sulfur and tar which was smeared over the sheep’s head and nose.
Once the oil was applied there was an immediate change in behavior. Gone was the aggravation; gone the frenzy; gone the irritability and restlessness. Instead the sheep would feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment. What the shepherd does for the sheep in anointing, God does for us
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. This is really the message for today. Just as sheep when properly managed and cared for can turn wasteland into green pasture. Their manure is most fertile and they will eat and eliminated noxious weeds. So too we can leave a legend for good.
There is a little tablet going around where we have been provided the opportunity to express our thanks or best wishes or whatever to Mick and Carol. I’m sure part of the message will be that they will be missed and they have been a great blessing. What a nice legacy! Today we are also honoring four outstanding young students. They are being awarded scholarships because they are good students, but also because they are leaving behind them a trail of goodness, gladness, helpfulness and kindness. Maybe we should all be asking ourselves: Am I leaving behind peace in others’ lives or turmoil? Am I leaving behind forgiveness or bitterness? Am I leaving behind contentment or conflict? Am I leaving behind flowers of joy or frustration? Am I leaving behind love or rancor? I can think of no higher compliment than to be a blessing as Mick and Carol have been.
My prayer is that you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. AMEN