More Than One Way to Shear a Sheep

Rev. Scott L. Barton
May 11, 2014
Psalm 23; John 10:1-18

So, it’s lambing season again.  Isn’t it?  Anybody know for sure?  It seems like it should be.  It seemed like a good opening line for this sermon, anyway; but I didn’t look up “lambing season.”  I do look up just about everything else.  But I decided not to this time, or I might not have ever finished this sermon. Much like Rick Ward said here two weeks ago, Hi, my name is Scott, and I’m a googler.

So I don’t know anything about lambing, except that the cutest lamb on earth was born a month ago tomorrow in Houston, which as you may know is where Gayle and I went after Easter in order to be the beaming grandparents of Jesse Abraham, which is a pretty cool name for a couple of reasons, one of which is that the Biblical Jesse is the father of David, and David is the name of our son-in-law; all of which illustrates the concept that the child is father to the man. And second, our daughter, Leah Rachel, was named for the two granddaughters-in-law of Abraham, who got this whole Judaeo-Christianity thing started in the first place.

Abraham had sheep, of course.  And David was off watching over the family’s sheep when Samuel came to anoint the next king and got Jesse to send for him after none of the other sons seemed to be the right one.  Tradition of course has it that David wrote the Psalms, and whether or not he actually did, there’s a lot of shepherd imagery in the Psalms, including probably the best known one.  And the Gospel of John has a lot to say about Jesus as shepherd, and to bring it back around again, the first congregation our daughter Leah knew was where I was first a pastor out of divinity school, and they have a Tiffany window there, which fortunately they haven’t had to sell, that was an image of Jesus as the shepherd, with the folds of his cloak you could actually feel in the glass. If Jesse Abraham ever thinks the shoes he has to fill are too big, I hope he will know even more that it’s not the shoes you fill, but the One who walks with you, that makes all the difference in your life.

Psalm 23, of course, is the one we all know, or if you don’t know it, you’re familiar with it.  I led a memorial service at Amherst College a month ago, and although both the woman who died and her wife were what I would call recovering from their own church experiences, the one scripture we used that didn’t need any prompting on my part to suggest was Psalm 23.  Just for fun, let’s see if we can say it.  Or if you can’t say it, mumble along in the places that sound familiar.  We’ll use the King James Version of it, but if you know another version, go ahead and say it….

Think about what we just said. My favorite scripture interpreter, Walter Brueggemann [in Texts for Preaching: Year A, p. 285], says that, at the outset, “the speaker characterizes a life of well-being under the serene protection of the Good Shepherd” by articulating a “life of trust and confidence.”  Yahweh (the Lord) is my shepherd.  It implies intimacy, trust, harmony, and well-being.  And when you have those things, you really lack nothing. That’s verse 1.

And then the Psalmist goes on.  It so happens that sheep need three things for well-being – good pasture land; adequate water not only to drink but water that won’t sweep you away when sudden rains come; and safe paths.  But they can’t get these things themselves in a land of inadequate, unpredictable rain and untamed beasts.  The sheep depends utterly on the shepherd.  What’s going on in verses 2-3 is the poet imagining the sheep - amazed and grateful for the attentiveness of the shepherd.  There’s always enough grass, and clear water, and safe paths (that’s what “right paths” or “paths of righteousness” actually means here).  It all depends on the shepherd, who finds for us what we can’t find for ourselves.  “How cool is that?!” the Psalmist imagines the sheep saying.

But all of a sudden, in verse 4, the texture changes.  It turns out that the flock isn’t always a safe place.  Sometimes you do have to go through dangerous territories.  The “darkest valley” is terrain that has lots of hiding places for animals of prey.  You can’t avoid them in life, just as the sheep can’t avoid them in Palestine.  But the sheep moves into such places not because it’s stupid, but because of utter trust in the shepherd.  The sheep isn’t alone or required to fend for itself.  “You are with me,” the sheep, for the first time addressing the shepherd, says.  Even though the sheep knows the danger, the sheep is even more confident that the shepherd won’t let those enemies who lurk in the shadows and seek death get the best of him or her.

Then the scene changes again in verse 5.  The shepherd becomes a host serving a meal.  But it’s not all that different from the previous scene.  The sheep eats serenely, while the enemies, the thieves and wild animals, watch.  It’s as if the sheep eats defiantly.  Or put another way, it’s as if the people of God, because of their confidence in the shepherd, thumb their noses, maybe not so much, I think, at those who would do them harm, but at the anxiety that they could be harmed.  The Psalm is about countering anxiety. Then their being honored – or anointed – by God is far more important than what their enemies think or might plan.  I’m not saying this is easy!  But how different this is from when we let our anxiety about all that can go wrong in life make us do the things we later regret – say and do stupid things, misspend our resources, avoid doing what we could to make a difference in someone’s life, maybe even stampede and risk harming innocent people!

And so, in the last verse, the speaker returns to the well-being of the beginning.  The mention of Yahweh, the Lord, which is spoken only at the beginning and end of the psalm, ties it all together.  Life is bracketed by our utterly faithful God. 

It is a great, succinct, yet powerful psalm, isn’t it?  And maybe that’s why the church found this metaphor of the Good Shepherd so important in its witness to Jesus, and why Jesus used it to describe himself.  “I am the good shepherd,” he said.  It’s the kind of thing which doesn’t have to be explained any more in a sermon.  Maybe more important is to sing it.

It has been put in maybe countless ways to music. We started out this morning with one version, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” which is how Henry Baker put Psalm 23. Henry Baker was a minister in the Church of England, and the chair of the committee that put together the big 1861 English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the source of many hymns in use even today. He spent 20 years working on it!  I like the title of one of his books, Daily Prayers for the Use of Those Who Work Hard.  As he lay dying, Henry Baker’s last words were those of verse 3 of his hymn.  John Dykes, who lived just about the exact same time as Henry Baker, wrote the tune that we sang.  He also wrote the Palm Sundayhymn, Ride On!  Ride On in Majesty! and over 300 other hymn tunes in mid-19th century England. 
Then the choir sang a version.  The words they sang came from the Scottish Psalter of 1650.  What this means is, the psalms were written in Hebrew, so not only did they need to be translated, but if you want to sing one, you have to put it in a regular rhythmic, poetic form in English.  It turns out there are lots of ways to do that. The Scottish Psalter of over 350 years ago was the second such collection of the Psalms in Scotland, and it’s still the authorized text there.  I like the full title:  “The Psalms of David in Meeter: Newly translated and diligently compared with the original Text, and former Translations: More plaine, smooth and agreeable to the Text, than any heretofore.” The choir sang that text to a tune by James Leith Macbeth Bain, born in Scotland around 1840 and known as Brother James, who wrote several tunes during his ministry in the slums of Liverpool, England.  It’s become popular with the name, Brother James’ Aire. I really liked it!
So we sang and heard two different versions of the text, Psalm 23.  Now we will sing the same version that we started out with, the one by Henry Baker, but put to a different tune called ST. COLUMBA. It was first published in 1866 as an Irish tune. It’s named for St. Columba, who was a 6th century Irish abbot and missionary credited with introducingChristianity into present-day Scotland when he founded the abbey on Iona. And, incidentally, he was the first person to report seeing the Loch Ness monster. Let’s sing hymn #80, on the page facing our first hymn. Same words, different tune.
Now, the title of this sermon is “More Than One Way to Shear a Sheep.” I don’t know anything about sheep shearing, either! But, I thought you might know what I mean, and it sounded better than skinning a cat.  Our next hymn uses the same words that the choir sang from the 1650 Scottish Psalter, but to a different tune which was composed in 19thcentury Scotland and was named for the village, Crimond, in the northeast, where Jessie Seymour Irving, the composer’s father, was pastor.  Guess how it got to be popular? They sang it in 1947 at the royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of Greece, later Duke of Edinburgh. So let’s sing #84.
Now we have an even different setting of words and music. My Shepherd Will Supply My Need was Isaac Watts’ version of Psalm 23, first published in the colonies by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1729.  Isaac Watts is called the “father of English hymnody.”  He was educated at a nonconformist, that is, not state-church supported, academy, and became pastor of an Independent chapel in London in 1701.  Shortly after he started, he got sick, went to recuperate for a week at the country home of a parishioner, and stayed 36 years.  He wrote 52 books, but his over 600 hymns started the revolution in Reformed worship.  He believed that hymns should praise God and therefore should be in what would be our own words.  That is, they should be modernized.  Up until then, the texts of hymns were mostly just the Psalms in meter. Isaac Watts changed all that.  The tune is an American south Appalachian folk hymn tune first published in 1828.

But before we sing it, let me tell you about our two more versions that will follow later in the service.  For the offertory, the choir will sing, Lord, My Good Shepherd, words by Russell Sonafrank and music by Stephen Morris, and despite all my googling, I’m afraid all I can tell you is that both words and music were copyrighted in 1989.  I’m looking forward to hearing their version!

And finally, when we close worship with yet another version of Psalm 23, you might think, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, because the tune will be the same one we started with – as it was in the beginning -; but the much newer words by Jane Parker Huber are from 1988.  Huber was born in 1926 of Presbyterian missionary parents in China and was a prolific writer of new words to familiar hymn tunes before she died in 2008.

I like her last verse very much:

“My cup is full, and more than full,
Such lavish love outpouring
That I will live each night and day
My Shepherd Lord adoring.”

Do you think that captures the Psalmist’s amazement at what God provides?  As do all the many ways we might tell of the God who goes with us, in our singing and praying, yes, but also in our working hard, and our watching out for and forgiving each other, and our knowing forgiveness for ourselves, our caring about the lives of those who are the most hurting, and trying to walk in their shoes, and our showing the world the love we have from the Good Shepherd.

There’s more than one way to tell the good news. Now, let’s sing, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.