Follow Me, my sheep.
Our Lay Minister Alison reminded us that Psalm 23 is not just about lolling about in green fields...
We all love it , don’t we? The 23rd Psalm. It gives us comfort, it tells us of a God who cares for us and provides for us. Even non-believers, or those who left the church behind a long time ago, know the beginning of the Psalm, if nothing else. It is used at funerals, and the hymns and songs associated with it are also well known and well loved.
It tells of a God who gives us rest and repose; a God who protects us, a God who provides, a God who brings us to a plethora of good things where our enemies are defeated and we have come through victorious. Yes, there’s that sticky bit in the middle that speaks of darkness and death, but it still mentions comfort and protection; anyway, we can hurry over that part, and remember the green pastures, the still waters, the revival, the goodness and mercy. Yes, this is a God who requires nothing more of us than to loll about in the sunshine and enjoy the green grass. We like this; there is no real mention of effort, or difficulty (well, except for that valley of darkness, but we can skip over that bit) so we can just lie back and be loved by God.
Our readings today aren’t just focussed on the Psalm. There is a lot more to them than green pastures and still waters, pleasant though those are.
The reading from John, that jumps back from the celebrations of Easter and the Resurrection that we heard about last week, to a time shortly before Jesus’ death, starts to hint at what having God as our shepherd might entail. Listen again: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. …there are words of comfort there: I know them, I give them eternal life, no-one will snatch them from my hand.
But there is also challenge. My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.
Remember, when was Jesus saying this? Oh yes, just before his death. Just before he was called on to make a huge sacrifice. Just before he completed his work of redemption. And he is saying “Yes, my sheep will follow me”.
And did you note that, in that Psalm that speaks of lying around on the riverbank, there are also the words He guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake. Uh-oh…It’s looking as though we might be being asked to do something more than basking in our Father’s love. There are words like guiding, and following… It’s sounding like we’re being challenged here.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Our Christian life is not an easy one – or perhaps I should say It shouldn’t be an easy one, because we are asked to follow Jesus, to be ready to make sacrifices to help provide others with what they need. We have the strength of purpose given to us by God (The Psalm tells us “I shall not be in want” – I will have everything I need) but we must be ready to be guided by him.
In fact, we have already sung a hymn about this: our last hymn, inspired by Psalm 23, is actually praying that we won’t be content to loiter in the green fields, but rather that with God given strength and commitment, we will be ready to face the challenges of life with joy and with faith in God’s provision.
Our reading from Acts gives us an example of someone who faced the challenges of life, while always thinking of others. And the effect that this had on those she helped.
Tabitha, or Dorcas, as her name translates into Greek, was a believer and she did all that she could to provide for others. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She is described as a "disciple" that is, a believer who lovingly follows Christ and intentionally helps others to follow Him. She had made a tremendous impact on her community by her practical generosity and service. Her faith made her do something for others worse off than herself.
The raising of Dorcas from the dead is, of course, a wonderful miracle, and maybe one that we don’t see so often now (although, as a side point, maybe we do see such miracles today, but in a slightly different way. Imagine if Dorcas had fallen suddenly ill today: we would call the paramedics, they might use a defibrillator, she would be brought back to life, and we would be relieved and happy. But maybe in this day and age, we would forget to name it “a miracle” in the same way)
Anyway, the raising of Dorcas from the dead is, of course, a wonderful miracle, but it is not the main point of this story. What is the point is that as a result of her revival, many people around the city of Joppa became believers in the Lord. One changed life , when Dorcas became a follower, had impacted others, both through her service and in a crisis. There is more than one avenue to reach the human heart. The raising of Dorcas is a deed of compassion which subverts the existing order of the world, heralding a new age in which ‘reality is not based upon rigid logic or cause-effect circumstances but upon God's promise.'
We are being called to be like Dorcas – not necessarily by dying and being raised back to life – but by being committed to helping and serving others wherever we see a need. It is very likely that Dorcas used her skills as a cloth maker to provide for others, possibly to clothe those who could not afford to buy garments, or using the profits from her business to support the poor. Whatever it was, she no doubt, made some sacrifices to help them, just as her Lord had made sacrifices. And as she became known for her goodness, so others were brought to Christ.
But, I imagine too, that some of the people Dorcas helped were her fellow Christians. Maybe there were those in her fellowship who were in need, and she did not turn a blind eye to those people. Are we guilty of that? Of being focussed on looking at those outside the church that we don’t see the need of those in our Fellowship?
Remember, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”
Sometimes we are in need, and we rely on others to see this – maybe even before we see our need ourselves! After my brush with cancer, and the treatments I went through, Andrew and I were both drained; for different reasons, of course, me because of the physical difficulties, him because of the worry, and the burden of taking on caring for me, while still working. We needed to rest by still waters and lie in green pastures, but we didn’t realise this fact, and we couldn’t really afford it, even if we had recognised the fact! But a dear friend, my sister in Christ, recognised this, and after a bigger-than-expected inheritance, she offered to pay for us to have a holiday. We spent a week resting by the waters of Lake Orta in Italy, and exploring the green pastures of the surrounding countryside. We were indeed revived, as God promises, and we were ready to start the challenges of life once more.
Don’t always assume that our commitment to helping others is always those outside the church. Our community is where we live, but it is also here, where we meet with God and worship our Lord. We are a community with needs and challenges right here. Let us not forget to hold each other in our hearts. God has promised that his people should not be in want; as we accept and believe that he promises this, as he promises that each individual here will not be in need, let us also accept that we are part of the solution, meeting those needs and helping in those challenges.
So, yes, we delight in the Psalm that reminds us of how God provides what we need, the comfort, the love, the protection, but we should also remember that the Psalm reminds us too that God calls us onward, into difficult situations, into the challenges of providing for others. Yes, we shall not be in want; but we also need to provide for the needs and wants of others. Jesus brought wholeness to others, even though this eventually led to his death, and we are now called to follow his example, to be ready and willing to face the challenges of being guided in the ways of righteousness, in the ways of bringing the Kingdom of God to our communities.