Updated: Aug 5, 2021
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.” Well now, that’s a lie. The Lord is my shepherd and I want lots of things. In fact, I don’t know one person who doesn’t want something – and one of the things everyone wants is not to suffer. The question is: what does God want.
The debate in Christian circles over whether suffering is good for us is an old and energetic one. Almost since the inception of Christianity, there have been writers and groups that have believed that not only should Christians be able to tolerate suffering, but that we are blessed when we suffer. The origin for these ideas is likely the section of the letter from Peter that we read this morning. “It is a credit to you if…you endure when you do right and suffer for it. You have God’s approval.” This passage, as well as the verses before it which tell us to “accept the authority of every human institution…honor the emperor… [and if we are enslaved], to accept the authority of our masters,” have been used to excuse all kinds of injustice, including slavery. Not only is this an horrifying abuse of scripture to support human atrocities, but it misinterprets what Peter was trying to say.
He was speaking to an audience of believers, only some of whom were enslaved peoples – so his words cannot be read simply as a direction for oppressed people to accept their lot. It is rather a pronouncement that all believers are made free from human conditions when they voluntarily subjugate themselves to God. The writer does not say that we should allow ourselves to be abused or to let such wrongs continue. He does not say that we cannot, in fact, cry out against unjust suffering. He certainly does not say that if we live under evil and ignorant rule we should excuse or imitate our oppressors. What he says is that when we are in an unjust situation, when we are enslaved, and when we are suffering as a result of trying to follow the way of Jesus, we can rise above our situation, exposing the wrong around us by resisting the pressure to join in it. Doing what is right, especially when one is being wronged, is the holy path to change. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Or, as my wise mother puts it, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
What we need to be sure of us what is “right.” The human tendency toward self-interest makes it all too easy for us to convince ourselves that we are the ones who are right. We need something more than the justifications of our all-too-human hearts to determine if and when suffering can be a good thing – and the author of Peter’s letter provides it: “Christ…suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Jesus’s example is one of speaking truth to power with hope – and love. The path that Jesus walked was not one of vengeance, possessiveness, or self-aggrandizement. His actions were never focused on ensuring his own comfort or influence. Jesus lived his life for and with others, demonstrating what it means to truly believe that we have everything we need, even at the worst of times. Neither Jesus nor Peter suggests that following Jesus removes you from the suffering and sorrows that are part of being human. Jesus is not a vaccine; Jesus is a way of life. It is not necessarily an easy or simple way, but it is a transformative way – a saving way. What we sometimes forget is what are we saved from and what are we saved for.
If you google “What does it mean to be saved,” you will get almost two billion answers, and there is probably truth in many of them. For me, the answer is simple: we are saved from ourselves for God. However you view the biblical creation stories –whether you believe there was an actual apple or fig leaves– scripture is clear on a few things: First, God created humanity for Godself out of love. Secondly, human beings started rejecting God’s love almost right away; and third, God has been trying to help us find our way back ever since. Jesus is God’s most selfless and desperate effort to lead us home to where we belong- in the very heart of God.
Today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because our readings include both the 23rd psalm, in which we are reminded that the Lord is our shepherd, and John’s gospel, in which we are told that Jesus is the gate that protects the sheep. The portrayal of God as a shepherd is a common one, found in many pre-Christian theologies. People living in farming cultures understood what a good shepherd was – how he exhibits all of the practical behaviors of caregiving, including guarding, feeding, and guiding. This analogy may be less compelling to those of us who live in this technologically-based society, but the truth is that we are not so different from our fluffy, hoofed friends. Sheep, like human beings, are herd animals. They do not like to be alone, they thrive in family groups, and they are anxious when they can’t figure out the way they are supposed to go. Animals need leadership. One of the worst things you can do to my dog Riptide is to have our family stand together as a group and then walk away in separate directions. You can see his anxiety rise as he tries to determine who to follow. He is unhappy if he stays alone, but he is unhappier if he follows one person and has to leave another behind. Human beings are no different. We are filled with anxiety when we are separated from our flock. We lose our sense of direction and fear overtakes us. That is what is happening to millions of people all over the world right now as we attempt to combat an invisible but very real thief that separates us from one another and comes to steal our very lives. We want to know why this is happening. We want to know how to cope with it. We want to know when it will be over.
We want – and we suffer tremendously as a result. We want because we do not believe the psalmist’s words. We do not believe that we want for – lack – nothing. I think this is partly because of the way we think of Psalm 23, which is a frequently requested scripture for funerals and memorial services, probably because many of us believe that it describes what heaven is like. We picture our beloved departed ones lying in green pastures beside still waters, feasting fearlessly, content, and transformed forever by being in the presence of God. This comforts us and gives us something to look forward to. For many people, this is, in fact, what it means to be saved: to be assured our spot in the kingdom of God. But there is no indication in scripture that the vision of Psalm 23 is “for moments of death. It needs to be understood as a psalm for the living.” It needs to be our guide for how to live our lives now.
Some scholars have called Psalm 23 a “pilgrimage psalm,” the song of an individual who is on the way to join a community. It is perhaps a song of hope for what she might find in that community. It demonstrates the desire to find and follow a Good Shepherd – one who is easily recognized because he protects the sheep, would sacrifice her own life for them, and because a true Good Shepherd loves the sheep. In the Good Shepherd’s community all people hold things in common and share the gifts of God’s creation thoughtfully, generously, and with goodwill. The people follow the way of the Good Shepherd and in doing so are revived and transformed, becoming a people of contentment, sacrificial love, and solidarity.
 – a community of people who do not want. So may we become. Amen.
1 Peter 2:13, 17-18.
John E. White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 433.
Molly T. Marshall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 446.