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For You Are With Me
The Reverend John Leedy
May 7, 2017
A Reading from Psalms…
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I don’t have much experience with shepherding, but what I do know is that it is a lot harder than it looks. A few years ago, Krystal and I took a trip to Scotland, to the small coastal island of Iona. The island itself is about the size of a postage stamp but radiates the idyllic Scottish beauty of emerald slopes dotted with standing Celtic crosses, rocky outcroppings overlooking crystalline blue waters, and the sacred stone walls of the ancient Abbey Church.
Krystal and I stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast in a house on the far end of the island. In front of the small, white washed house was a well-manicured grassy lawn and garden for guests to enjoy. Behind the house was wilder looking, with tough island grass and rocks jutting out of the earth, and to our delight, a flock of white wooly sheep. As our host led us through the series of gates to get to the house, she told us her one rule: anytime you come or go, be sure to close the second gate behind you so the sheep don’t get into the front lawn. I don’t have much experience with shepherding, but what I do know is that it is a lot harder than it looks. Of course, the next morning Krystal and I head out before breakfast to walk the coastline. When we returned back to the house, what did we discover? Sheep everywhere – all over that beautiful grass, munching away to their heart’s delight.
Krystal and I sprang into action, waving our arms like lunatics, trying to anticipate and react to the movements of the spooked animals. Y’all, it was like the Clampetts go to Scotland. And I tell you what, sheep look a lot bigger and a lot less cuddly when they are running full tilt at your face. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of what I will generously call “amateur shepherding,” Krystal and I finally got the last of the sheep through the gate and went inside, exhausted and praying that the host hadn’t filmed the whole thing and was currently posting the video to YouTube. Hashtag #Americans. I discovered a newfound respect for shepherds that day, because shepherding is a lot harder than it looks.
While I don’t have much experience with the ins and outs of shepherding, I can relate to what it means to belong to a flock. Being part of a flock means being in a place of safety, familiarity, and trust. It’s the warmth you feel around you on a cold night. It’s the hands you’re used to shaking, it’s the songs you’re used to singing. It means being around others who are moving in a similar direction on purpose.
Being part of a flock makes life less about me and more about us – being together, moving together, sharing life together. We might see our family as a flock of sorts, or a team, or group or club, a huddle of friends maybe.
But for me, the church has always been the flock to which I’ve belonged. For thousands of years, the people of God have described God as the Good Shepherd, an image that would have been instantly recognizable to people living off the land in the ancient near east. There are countless stories, parables, and uses of sheep and shepherd imagery throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments. And although the biblical imagery of the Good Shepherd predates the time of Christ, the church incorporated this symbol deeply into our understanding of being in relationship with Jesus. So common was this image of the good shepherd that one of the earliest visual depictions of Jesus we have is found painted on the ceiling of a Roman catacomb, a fresco of a young man in white garb with a sheep resting across his shoulders. Of all the passages in scripture that use this image of the good shepherd, the one we hold most dearly in our hearts is the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It’s one of those passages that just sounds better in the old King James. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” These words comfort us, they encourage us, they remind us of who is in charge. They remind us that our job as the flock is first and foremost to enjoy the goodness of our shepherd.
I think it’s fitting that this passage is so often read at funerals and at the bedsides of the sick. It is a Psalm that speaks of the journey of life, of the way. It is a Psalm of departure, of blessing, and hope for the road ahead.
Departure, blessing, and hope – three things that weigh on us this morning as we celebrate our graduating seniors, saying farewell to some of the children of this church, now grown, ready to take the next step in their lives. Saying farewell to some of our graduating UKirk campus students, who have journeyed with us for a time and shared with us in our common life and ministry. Saying farewell to graduating Seminary students as they live into their calling to serve the church of Jesus Christ in the world beyond this place. It is a bittersweet moment for us, this moment of blessing mixed with memory and bolstered by joy.
Graduates: as we prepare to send you out from this place, our hearts wonder what lies out there for each of you. Our hope is that as you take this next step into the rest of your lives, that you discover your passion, that you grow into adulthood, that you find meaningful work and bask in the bright futures that lay in store. But those are the kinds of hopes that you will hear from your commencement speakers.
Those are the kinds of hopes that are dashed when the realities of the world come crashing in. Those are the kinds of hopes that ring hollow in the face of racist policies, rampant sexism in the classroom and in the workplace, overwhelming student debt, the threat of campus carry, the ease of addiction, the prevalence of rape culture on campuses, the stress of finding a job or finishing a paper, the lack of mental health care, and the everyday realities of “adulating.” Those are the kinds of hopes that become meaningless platitudes in the wake of a murder on campus, senseless violence marring the safety and sacredness of an educational community. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Even here, in our own backyard, the shadows of death loom large. Psalm 23 reminds us that walking through these darkest of valleys is a part of life, that the shadows are a given. None of us are immune. Graduates, as much as it pains us, we know that life will not always be bright, that trials and tribulations will get you down and eat your lunch, we know that there will be moments when you struggle to find your passion, struggle to trust your calling, struggle to make ends meet. We know because we’ve been there too. We know because those shadows and valleys are real to us too.
And therein lies our real hope for each of you: that you are never alone. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me.”
You are with me.
The Good Shepherd. You are with me. The Shepherd whose voice has called out to you since you were a child.
You are with me.
The Shepherd who leads you to moments of soul-restoring Sabbath rest when the burdens of life become too heavy.
You are with me.
The Shepherd that redefines our vision of “the good life” by inviting us to tables set in places of adversity, by anointing our lives with the oil of vocation, by filling our hearts until they overflow with the joy of the Lord.
For you are with me.
This is our great hope in Jesus Christ, that no matter how dark those shadows are, no matter how deep that valley gets, that you are never alone.
So on this Graduate Recognition Sunday, we honor you, our graduates, we bless you on your journey, and we speak hope into your lives. And in the midst of all the celebrations and parties and ceremonies, I’m sure that you’ll hear lots of advice from friends and family and teachers, so let me conclude by chipping in two pieces of advice from your home church.
The first is, find a flock. Find a church home, a UKirk chapter, a campus Bible study, a service organization, a cohort group, a Christian community of some kind that is seeking to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd together. Find a flock and stick to them. Commit. Serve. Get involved. Grow and learn together. Play and rest together. Find your flock. That’s the first piece of advice. The second is this: if you ever find yourself on the Scottish Island of Iona and you’re staying at the Torrasa Bed and Breakfast, double check that you’ve closed the second gate behind you. Trust me.