Much of that good news is right on the surface.
Psalm 23 is surely the most beloved Psalm there is. People have always read it for comfort and hope. It is part of virtually every funeral. I routinely read it to people in hospitals. We recite it as part of every Church without walls service. It can help in any hard time.
The image of Christ as our good shepherd is equally beloved. In artwork, the early Church emphasized Christ the good shepherd even more than Christ on the cross. This passage is another reading we often use at funerals to offer comfort and strength. It, too, is a great encouragement when we need a little boost.
Together these readings are a beautiful summary of the Christian gospel. The Lord is our shepherd. And because the Lord our shepherd is with us, we need fear no evil even in the valley of the shadow of death.
In Jesus Christ, the Lord our shepherd takes flesh and dwells among us, and gives his life for us, and unites us together with saints from every generation and from all across the world into one great flock under God. Let the people say, “Alleluia!”
In addition to that great good news about God and Jesus Christ, these readings also give us some good news about ourselves. But it takes a minute to get there.
Now, the people who heard Jesus say that he is the good shepherd knew something about shepherds and about sheep. That is not true for me. I have never spent much time with a sheep.
The obvious remedy for my ignorance is to spend time on a sheep farm. But that option is not very attractive to me. So instead I read a commentary on Psalm 23 by a shepherd named Phillip Keller.
Keller loved his sheep. But he was clear, sheep are stupid. I mean, really stupid. Stupid and helpless.
Keller gave lots of examples of just how stupid and helpless sheep are. In my personal favorite, he says that sheep are a little like turtles. Apparently if sheep roll onto their backs, they can’t roll back over. They just lie there, waving their legs in the air, bleating in distress, and hoping a shepherd will come along to help them (70f). I have a hard time believing that sheep are quite that helpless. But what do I know? So I picture a sheep lying there helpless, and it is pitiful and a little sad. And it is also kind of funny.
Unfortunately—this is not the good news part—our readings for this morning suggest, that’s us. If the Lord is our shepherd, if Jesus is the good shepherd, that makes us sheep. We are the ones who lie there helpless. We are the ones who desperately need a good shepherd.
It gets worse before it gets better. Sheep are not only stupid and helpless. They can also be remarkably destructive. Untended sheep will graze a pasture down to its roots (83f). John Muir, who coincidentally we commemorate today, once compared sheep to locusts who devour everything in their path. Keller said sheep can transform lush grasslands into wastelands in no time. Then the sheep starve, victims of their own profligacy.
That, too, is us. Our natural tendency, if left unchecked, is to consume and consume and consume. We always want more—more and newer and bigger and faster and better. The average American today consumes more energy than the overwhelming majority of people at any previous time or place. We consume more because we can.
But, as we remember on this Earth Day, there is an environmental price to be paid. We ignore that price at our own peril.
Thankfully, we have a good shepherd who offers us an alternative to our cultural obsession with consumption. Our good shepherd shows us the right way, the deeper truth, the fuller life. Indeed our good shepherd is himself the way, the truth, and the life.
And this is where the good news about us comes in. It turns out that sheep, when properly managed, can be a real blessing. Sheep are stupid, and they are helpless. But under the care of a good shepherd, sheep can also be “the most beneficial of all livestock.” If well-tended, sheep can be a boon for the pastures where they graze (157f).
And that, too, is true of us.
Indeed, that is our calling. At creation, God gave Adam the task of tilling and tending the garden. Unfortunately, we haven’t been very good at tilling and tending, especially when we have ignored the guidance of our shepherd and acted on our own foolish and destructive impulses.
So Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and the ground itself was cursed. Creation itself became less fertile, and Adam had to toil and sweat to get his food. We made the garden a relative wasteland (Genesis 3:17f).We continue to make the garden a relative wasteland.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God offers life for our souls even in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus lays down his life to protect us.
And if we stop trying to go our own way, if we stick close to our good shepherd, if we follow our shepherd’s lead and accept our shepherd’s guidance, we will experience God’s blessings, and we will ourselves become a blessing for the world around us.
That is our calling and our challenge. Will we follow our good shepherd in the way of life? Or will we continue in our own way, heedless of the destruction we are causing and destined ultimately to be victims of it?
Our Epistle raises the same question. It begins, “We know love by this, that [our good shepherd] laid down his life for us.”
It’s like we were lying helplessly on our backs in the midst of a degraded pasture. And Christ came to help us turn over and to lead us to green pastures and still waters.
And now that we know God’s love, now that we have experienced the grace of our good shepherd, we should embrace his way. We should follow his example. As the elder says in our reading, “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
Then the elder asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
It is the same question. Do we ignore the imperative of love, refuse help to our brother and sister, and take without giving back? Or does God’s love abide in us? Do we receive God’s blessing and in turn become a blessing for our world?
Our readings invite us to follow the lead of our good shepherd. If we do, we can be the kind of sheep who make grasslands healthier. We, who have such a capacity for destruction, can be part of the renewal of God’s creation and even of the coming of God’s kingdom.
That is a glorious vision of what we can do, of who we can be, with God’s help.
So I leave you with the question of our readings. Are you, are we, a blessing to the people around us? Are we blessings to creation?
My prayer is that we will be the blessing we are called to be. In the name of our Good Shepherd. Amen.
 W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 2007. Although I benefitted from the book, I differ from Keller in some points of theology.