Some years ago, I was reading the twenty-third psalm and found myself meditating on the phrase, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The reason this phrase leaped from the gilt-edged page is that I was, at that time, undergoing a personal transformation in my spiritual life. I had come to realize that my spiritual life was haphazard and undisciplined. Perhaps you would describe your spiritual life as haphazard and undisciplined, too. Maybe prayer isn’t something you actually set aside time for; it happens occasionally when it occurs to you. Or when there’s a crisis. And maybe when you realize it’s been a while since you’d last had a conversation with God, you feel rather guilty about it.
That’s where I had been, and so I had begun a spiritual “training” regimen. I felt as though God was disciplining me in his love for me, wanting to train me to be more responsible for the quality of our relationship. In the New Testament, we read in the book of Hebrews, “For the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Heb. 12:6). My response to this was to begin a daily regimen that included waking up extra early each morning for prayer and meditation on scripture. This discipline led to an intimacy with the Holy Spirit that began to heighten my awareness of God’s leading and to inform my preaching in powerful ways. It prepared me to lead processes of discernment with my congregation and others and enabled me to be a more intentional disciple of Jesus Christ.
The prophet Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on his servant the sins of us all” (Isa. 53:6). In chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew, several miracles are grouped together, and at the end of this section on miracles of healing, Jesus stands before a group of people who still were sick, who still were poor, maimed, blind and lame. “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew states, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).
If we look at the world around us, we will find similar flocks of maimed, blind, starving sheep roaming the countryside, continuing to do so without a shepherd. Life is fragile, and we often feel vulnerable in an uncertain world. Jesus said in this morning’s reading from John that the hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolves coming and runs away. The hired hand does this because he doesn’t care for the sheep.
The book of Acts describes the early Church—the Church before the word “Christian” had even been invented yet, by saying, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, because there was not a needy person among them. For as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:33-35). These early Christians were determined not to be the hired hand who ran away and left the poor and vulnerable to the wolves, but rather to follow in their Shepherd’s footsteps and, as Jesus had exhorted Peter, to “feed [his] sheep” (John 21).
In this sense, we are disciplined, convicted, as Peter was, by Jesus’ words, every time we dare to lift our eyes and see the plight of the poor and oppressed in the world. Imagine, if you will, the Good Shepherd reaching out with his rod of discipline to smack us—lovingly—on the back of the head. “You’re not feeding my sheep,” he says. “You’re like a hired hand who is only in this for the payoff. You don’t care about my sheep—you’re only a Christian for what’s in it for you!”
Christianity has precious little to do with coming to church on Sunday morning and being fed spiritually—however invaluable that may be to achieving our ends. If that’s what being a Christian means to us—that we’re giving God what we owe Him by showing up to listen to someone like me blather on each week—then we are just hired hands. And that’s a hard thing for me to say because I rather like blathering!
Just prior to the verse about the Lord’s rod and staff that was the object of my meditation, we find these words: “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Many of us grew up learning the old King James (or at least the Revised Standard Version) which reads “the valley of the shadow of death.” We read Psalm 23 at funerals all the time, because the deceased is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and it reminds us that we will, too, someday. But the more modern translation “even though I walk through the darkest valley,” is, to my ears, even more beautiful, because it acknowledges that death is not the only thing we fear. Life is filled with travails that might be called dark valleys. We lose our jobs; we lose our health. We lose our friends; we lose our spouses. And through it all, we need fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd is always with us.
Which leads to a rather curious notion: If sheep follow the sound of their shepherd’s voice, that means that when we find ourselves in dark valleys, it may be because the Good Shepherd led us there! Would a good shepherd do such a thing? I believe he would, if, on the other side of that dark valley, there were green pastures and still waters where he could restore our souls! After my undisciplined spiritual life led to spiritual burn-out and a premature end to my first pastorate, Diane and I spent four years living with my parents, enduring heartache and discouragement. And I have come to believe that this was because God was disciplining me—not punishing me, but training me—to become the pastor He had preordained me to be. I wasn’t who or where God wanted me to be, and the only way to prepare me for the difficult pastoral work that would come next—the only way to discipline me for the work ahead—was to lead me through a dark valley, which, when I look back on it now, I often call my “wilderness period.”
One of the most important aspects of my next call as a pastor was group discernment—something for which I was woefully unprepared before my wilderness period and the spiritual discipline that I learned through it. At the same time that I was helping three church Sessions to discern God’s call to merge their congregations, the Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery found itself in need of discernment. (These days, our entire denomination is undergoing a years-long discernment process with an eye toward serious reformation of the way it functions faithfully.)
In comparing the presbytery’s discerning body to my parish’s Sessions, I came away with a sense of pride. See, the presbytery’s task force addressed the issue early on by saying at a presbytery meeting, “The presbytery is financially insolvent, so we need to change the way we do things so that we can have a balanced budget.” They weren’t wrong, of course, but that was no way to discern God’s will!
My congregation’s Parish Council, on the other hand, engaged in wonderful, faithful, theological wrestling! They struggled with questions of who Jesus is, what the Church is meant to be, and how our understanding of God’s grace affects the way we participate in mission and community outreach. And the reason we approached our discernment process this way was that we knew that our future lay not in “saving our bacon” financially speaking, but in being faithful to who and what God created us to be.
One of the central tensions experienced by churches, by presbyteries, and currently by our denomination, is the tension between what we call the “Great Ends of the Church,” and the notion that “stewardship” is to be equated with “good business practices.” The Great Ends of the Church state that we exist to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” And yet many churches, presbyteries, and denominations instead employ the so-called “best practices” of the very world that they are called to correct!
The Book of Order further notes that the Church is to undertake its mission “even at the risk of losing its life.” The Church will be following the voice of the Good Shepherd when it stops thinking of itself as an institution (because institutions exist to protect and perpetuate themselves) and revives its ancient self-understanding—that of a community—existing not for its own sake, but for the sake of others, to the glory of God. Jesus didn’t protect himself; he exhibited the kingdom of heaven to the world, even at the risk of losing his life—he laid down his life for his sheep. The first epistle of John reminds us that “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him” (1 John 3:16-17)?
Imagine if our attitude was such that when someone asked us, “What time does your church’s service start?” our answer was not “10:30,” but rather, “At 11:45, when worship is over and the congregation leaves. That’s when the service begins.” If what takes place on Sunday morning is a “service,” then either singing a couple of hymns and listening to a sermon counts as service to God, and one’s obligation to God for a whole week is fulfilled after just one hour, or worship leaders are rendering some sort of “service” to those in attendance. What the church does together on Sunday mornings is not a service. I don’t “render services.” The service starts when we leave the church, putting into practice the discipline to which God is calling us.
It is time for us to hear the sound of our Shepherd’s voice and follow him, even into the dark valleys—perhaps especially there. It’s time for us to stop being hired hands who don’t care about our Lord’s sheep because we don’t think they’re a part of “our flock,” as we’re reminded that we are not a Christian nonprofit organization, but a Christian community.
The lost sheep of the world—sheep that, for all their waywardness, the Lord still calls his own—can’t sing the 23rd Psalm, and that should make our souls ache. They don’t follow the sound of the Shepherd’s voice, and that should make our hearts break. It should make us want to follow the Good Shepherd into the dark valleys to help lead these sheep into the fold. If we don’t care, if our souls don’t ache, if our hearts don’t break, if we don’t reach out as apprentice shepherds to welcome these lost sheep into the fold—even at the risk of losing our own life—then we’re just hired hands, and not disciples at all.