From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B, April 26, 2015
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” There are few other words in scripture that are more comforting. I have said them at the bedside of sick and dying persons. I have said them at funerals. They bring that reassurance that ultimately, God is the only One who turns our scarcity into plenty. The Divine and Holy One is the only one who can reassure us in the shadow of death, feed us in the presence of our enemies, and bless us with abundant and steadfast love. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
Shepherds have been around for nearly as long as humans have walked the earth. The relationship between shepherd and flock was sacred in ancient times. The shepherd cared for the animals which in turn provided labor and sustenance for the people. Survival depended on having good shepherds. To be a good shepherd took skills, sharp senses, and wisdom. Ancient peoples began using the term, shepherd, to describe their rulers. A good ruler like a good shepherd would care for the people. They would lead, protect, and provide.
We know, though, that not all shepherds are good. Not all monarchs are good. Jesus, in today’s Gospel describes himself as the Good Shepherd in contrast to the hired hand who runs away in the face of danger. What Jesus is saying, and what Psalm 23 is also saying, I think, is that there is really only one true and loving shepherd for humanity.
Sometimes, we have trouble believing that God is our shepherd. We can feel like God has left us defenseless. We worry that we won’t have enough. We fear that life is falling apart. Remember that the psalm which comes right before Psalm 23 is Psalm 22. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!” In Psalm 22, packs of wild animals surround the speaker. Enemies are on every side. The speaker cries out, wondering where God is: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.” When have we felt in trouble? When have we felt like no one had our back? For many of us, myself included, it is tempting in such times to turn away from God. We look for guidance and sustenance in the arms of inadequate shepherds, hired hands. The hired hand might do the job for a while, but runs away at the first sign of trouble. What “hired hand” do you turn to when you turn away from God? For some of us, we turn to money and the temporary security it offers. Some of us turn to unhealthy relationships or destructive behaviors. Some of us turn to overindulgence. Some of us turn to experts who tell us exactly what to do to find happiness. We fool ourselves by thinking that more knowledge will save us. None of these things give us the pastoral care that God provides. They help us deceive ourselves into thinking we can handle the situation on our own.
Truly, we can probably handle a lot of things on our own. There comes a point, though, where we say to ourselves, “I am ready to give up some control and stop trying so hard.” I’m ready to take my place among the sheep and stop pretending to be the shepherd. Some of us surrender to God easily. Some of us won’t give up until we hit rock bottom. Some of us surrender one day and put our defenses back up the next. I do not understand why we have trouble surrendering to God, why we have trouble believing “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” What I do believe is that when we can give up, even temporarily, God cares for us much better than we can ever care for ourselves. Following God, we are much more free than we are following our own guidance.
So how do we surrender? How do we convince our hearts to believe that “The Lord is my shepherd?” We could spend several sermons on these questions. Certainly part of surrender is found in obeying the command to love one another that we heard in the letter of John today. Another part of surrender is definitely listening in quiet prayer for the voice of the shepherd that Jesus mentioned. I want to focus on something a little more uncomfortable, perhaps. It involves the collection plate. In the Episcopal Church, we tend to start with the material and move to the spiritual. We start with the wet water of baptism. The edible bread and wine of holy communion. We touch, taste, hear, smell, and see things in the act of worship. At first we may not have much understanding of what is going on before us, but with time and practice, we develop a sense of the Spirit at work. Every Sunday we put out an empty plate or pass it around. We don’t say much about it, but many of us put money in that plate or send a check to the church. Yes, that money does sustain the ministry of the church and helps others in need, but that is only a part of the purpose of the empty plate. Yes, we offer our gifts in thanksgiving to the one who gives us everything. But thanksgiving, too, is not the whole picture. We offer each other this empty plate as an invitation to surrender. Sacrifice some money as a material gesture of our desire to trust in God. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Money is not my shepherd. The things money can buy are not my shepherd. My true needs are not supplied by money. So I put some money in the plate. At first we may not be sure what this material gesture means. Over time, with practice, for many of us giving away money to God has become a sign that we want to be free. We want to stop following the hired hands who would feed us to the wolves. We want to be free to give, free to love, free to trust that God really is our shepherd.
I know there are lots of invitations to give money in the church. Since I got here in January, we have invited you to give to the operating budget, to Shrine Mont’s Shout to the Mountain campaign, to outreach, flowers, and trust funds for Easter, to United Thank Offering, and the Community Give effort for The Table. It may sound like a lot. Let me emphasize that this is not a test. You will notice that the plate does not sound an alarm if you give nothing. Nor does a choir of angels sing if you put in a million dollars. Your gift does not necessarily indicate great faith. The open plate simply extends an invitation to surrender who we are and what we have to God so that we can stop following false shepherds. Money is just one thing that goes in the plate. We can surrender our time to God. We can give energy and effort to God. We can offer whatever it is that we value instead of God. Money is often helpful, because it’s very tangible and we give it a lot of power in our minds.
Yes, money does help us keep the lights on and the bills paid. It helps us feed the hungry and be available to care for others. But the church too surrenders to God. We give away a lot for free and proclaim that God’s grace is without charge and plentiful. Over and over God shows us that we can do more than we ever thought possible. So again, this is not a test. The plate is not a fundraising tool. It is not a veiled attempt to get you to give more. The plate openly proclaims that when we surrender to God and Christ the Good Shepherd, God shows us our true life and revives our souls. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. You, O God, spread a table before us, you have anointed us to follow you and announce your abundant love to the world. You will pursue us to the ends of the earth with goodness and loving kindness all the days of our life. May we surrender to you, O great, holy, and mysterious One and dwell in your house, our true home.