by Pastor Leah Rosso
Have you been thoroughly enjoying this beautiful weather? When Friday came and the girls and I were out in the yard pulling out the old plants and rolling a ball back and forth we quickly shed our jackets and pretty soon Olive shed her shoes too. And it was glorious to see green signs of life and know that summer is right around the corner. It was a moment when my heart was full.
And then we come this morning and we read the 23rd psalm and hear this passage of Jesus telling us that he is the good shepherd, and once again I am back in that sun— imagining great fields of luscious grass and beautiful bubbling brooks. The majority of paintings and pictures that have been created from this Scripture are of sheep relaxing in a field surrounded by flowers and enjoying the sun.
It is a beautiful image. It is a restful image. And the psalmist reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want; the Lord leads us beside still waters and restores our soul. And I often think that spring is exactly that— a restoration of our souls. A reminder that growth is always happening; the earth is always doing exactly what it needs— resting when its time to rest and growing when its time to grow and pretty soon even blooming when its time to bloom.
So if that’s where you are this morning, than this Scripture is for you. Find rest in it. Find joy in it. Know that God loves you and will be with you in those beautiful moments of life when all seems right.
But if that’s not where you are this morning; if spring tends to make you feel worse instead of better; or life’s transitions have you down, than these Scriptures are for you too.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus is actually talking to the religious leaders of the day when he begins this part about being the good shepherd. He has just healed a man who was born blind and the authorities are troubled by this. They question the man, they question the man’s parents, and then they question the man again. They are skeptical of Jesus’ motives; they are critical of whether healing really occurred; they feel threatened by the whole thing.
And so Jesus begins this monologue about the difference between a shepherd and a hired hand. And as I thought about the man who was healed and how caught he is in the middle of this political fiasco, and Jesus talking about himself as a shepherd leading the people through the difficulties of the day, I remembered the only actual shepherds I have ever seen.
When Todd and I were in Israel a few years ago, we had the chance to see modern day shepherds. There is a tribe of people in modern day Israel who have been shepherds for as long back as they can remember. They do not have land ownership titles because their grazing of the land goes back too far. So the land that they have been moving their sheep across for generations has become somewhat of a political mess. The Israelis began building a wall years ago to divide the people. There are checkpoints on major roads that Israelis can pass through without too much difficulty, but Palestinians can only pass through if they have the right paperwork, the right reason for passing through the checkpoint, and go through at the right time of day. You can imagine, for these shepherds, that it’s not a system conducive to leading a flock of sheep through the checkpoint. It has become difficult for the shepherds to lead their sheep to greener pastures, to rest in the same places their ancestors have been resting in for generations, to keep their sheep safe not only from predators, but from cars and the complaints of people living in settlements that are on top of the fields where the sheep used to graze. For a people who have been nomadic for hundreds of years, the concrete wall which stretches over 300 miles and the authority behind it, has become a stumbling block.
And I wonder if that’s also an image of God as a shepherd. It’s not the romantic shepherd with the lamb thrown over his shoulders boldly leading the sheep to the bubbling brook on a beautiful sunny day. But it is an image of a leader who leads people through the political nonsense of the day. An image of someone who has had to do more than cross dangerous crevasses— those shepherds have to cross places that are very much like a war zone. And yet they keep on. They lead those sheep to places they know they will be safe. They continue to help them find the places where they will be able to find rest. They have to be as adaptable as they can since the landscape is constantly changing. And they do so at their own peril.
God is willing to go to all kinds of trouble to walk with us, to lead us beside still waters— even when they’re hard to find, to restore our souls. God is willing to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death, guiding us through the difficult and perilous times that we face and bringing us out on the other side.
There is a famous legend that was told by John Muir to his grandchildren when he was alive and is still told to this day. It is about a dog named Stikeen. Stikeen traveled with John Muir on many of his adventures, but he was odd for a dog, in that he never showed much affection. When the men were ready to get in their canoe and go, Stikeen would never come when called, but he would appear out of nowhere as they pushed off the shore and would run into the water and jump into the canoe just in time. He never sat with the men around the fire at the end of the day, but rather chose to eat his food quickly and then go off exploring by himself. One afternoon John Muir decided to go out exploring. It had started to snow, but there was a place he hadn’t gotten to yet and he wanted to go so he set off. Just as he was leaving camp, Stikeen showed up and began to follow him. He tried everything to make Stikeen go back to camp because he felt it was too dangerous of a hike for the little dog, but Stikeen refused to go back. Eventually Muir gave up and continued on his way. He hiked up to the top of the mountains, walking along the ridge of snow trying to make sure he was always walking on land and not just on the snowbanks that were drifting off of the cliffs. Several times he had to jump from one cliff to the next, over deep crevasses that he knew were deadly if he were to fall. Stikeen followed him the whole way. At one crevasse he barely made it and as he scrambled up the side, he realized he would not be going back to camp the way he had come. But as it began to get dark, he realized that the way forward was not going to be easy either. The only way to get to the other side of the crevasse in front of him, was a very small ridge that extended to the other side. First, Muir had to figure out how to get down to the ridge. It was about 10 feet below where he was currently, and he very carefully slid down the embankment. He made the mistake of looking down once, but only once. From there he focused entirely on where his next foot would go, walking slowly and as steadily as he could to get to the other side. When he looked back, having carefully climbed up the ten foot ledge on the other side, he saw that Stikeen had not followed him. This dog who had never shown fear before, was perched on the other side, whimpering into the wind. “You must come, Stikeen.” Muir said gently. Several minutes passed and still Stikeen just sat there whimpering. “Stikeen, you must follow in my footsteps. There is no way back.”
Stikeen realized at that point that there was no other choice. Keeping his eyes on Muir, he began to walk in Muir’s footsteps all along the ridge. It was the slowest Muir ever saw him go. He gingerly placed each paw, seeming to know that looking down was not a good option. When he got to the end he scrambled up the last ten feet to jump into Muir’s arms. Both were elated that he had made it. Stikeen jumped around and howled at the moon over and over again, celebrating repeatedly what he had just been able to do. He was so hyped up that Muir finally had to hold him still and tell him that they had to go back to camp— that he had to calm down so they could finish the journey before they froze to death in the dark. And from that moment on, Stikeen never left Muir’s side. Something changed in their relationship that day as the dog learned that he could trust Muir with his very life.
It is a wonderful feeling to praise God for the beauty of the earth and for the gifts of life and for all of the goodness that we are so sure of when things are going wonderfully in our lives. But so often it is the times that are the most difficult, the scariest times, the times when we feel we are truly walking through the shadow of the valley of death, that our relationship with God grows exponentially because all we can do is trust that God is with us, that God will never leave us no matter what happens. God is like a good shepherd— not quick to leave when the going gets tough like a hired hand— God steadily walks with us as we travel through the difficulties of life; as we face difficult cliffs, as we hesitate because we don’t know what is ahead. God cares for us like a shepherd does for her sheep— sleeping alongside of us, leading us to places of nourishment, and offering to take away our fear of what is up ahead. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” May we trust in God’s grace and love as we travel on dangerous narrow ridges, as we wander through difficult times, and as we rejoice in the ways life continues to find a way to bless us.