I got to preach in my preaching class this week and this is the sermon I delivered. If it had a title, the title would be What’s Following You? Check it out.
Have you ever had a run in with someone that just completely changes the tone of your day? Like a normal day that is pretty ordinary and then you have a conversation with someone that really lifts your spirits, makes you feel more whole and complete. Or maybe the opposite experience? A day is going pretty good and then one sour experience with someone fouls it up and completely changes your perspective. Often times you can see these people passing from bad situation to bad situation leaving a trail of depressed people who are saddened and deadened by their passing. The opposite is also true. I’ve had the pleasure of watching someone and it’s obvious when they’ve interacted with someone because of the joy you can see they inspire in others.
Throughout a given day, we have countless interactions with individual people. Whether that is picking up a coffee on the way to work. Walking down the street past other people on their way somewhere else. Interacting with coworkers in the office. Intentional interactions with people throughout our day, whether as part of our work or maybe sharing a meal. My wife, Brittany, works in an antique shop in downtown Danville where we live and whenever she gets home from a long day of retail, as soon as she walks in the door, I can tell exactly who she has interacted with while at work. There are some people who come in to her store and boss her around and try and haggle the price down on antiques and just drain the life out of her through her interaction. Sadly, some of those days she comes home are Sundays and some of those people who make her so sad are people from our church browsing the store after leaving service that morning. There are also some days when she comes in rejuvenated and I can tell that she’s had a very refreshing day of easygoing customers who make her feel validated as an employee and as a human being (and I love them for it!). There are so many different places and opportunities where our paths cross with others and we walk away changed and having changed others in all these places.
There is a very prominent Psalm in the Old Testament that very dramatically connects with this idea and not many people are aware of the way that it fits. You see, the Psalms were written into a culture that was based in agriculture; speaking to a group of shepherds and farmers. People who worked the land and who lived a much more simple lifestyle than we do today. The universal truth, feeling and truth, the meaning behind their words does not change. It is still vital and important. But unfortunately we miss some of the assumptions behind the text because of the differences in our culture to the one of the original audience. One of the Psalms that I have connected with personally and found great personal encouragement in is Psalm 23. Many have committed this Psalm to memory, it’s only six verses long and has a delightful simplicity to it. While simple, there is a depth to the Psalm that is worth pausing over and considering. Many use this Psalm as a reminder to rest with Christ and as a comforting reminder of the security and rest that can be found in a relationship with God. In the simple life of a shepherd relating to his sheep we can reflect on how our Good Shepherd relates to us despite our sheepish tendencies. There is a lot to talk about in this passage, but I’d like to pause and rest in a portion of it that does not get mentioned all that often, something that is less of a comfort and more of a charge in how this relates to us today.
I’d like to take a second and ask you to close your eyes and listen carefully while I read this Psalm of David to you,
The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will 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 your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
There is SO MUCH great imagery in this passage! This Psalm has become a go to place in my life as a reminder of simplicity and rest that exists in trusting the Shepherd with my life. Many people have found it to be a comforting passage and it gets used in many circumstances. The problem with using this passage in our modern day is that the imagery from this passage is that I am not a shepherd. In fact, I would venture a guess that none of us are shepherds and the imagery here is less rich than if we had a background in shepherding. Each piece of this passage is fascinating when looking at the shepherd’s perspective. Phillip Keller, a pastor who was once a shepherd, wrote an amazing book called The Shepherd’s Guide to Psalm 23 and in his book he uncovers many interesting tidbits from this passage. One that is quite remarkable is at the very end of this passage and it relates to the passing of sheep.
The exact phrasing is “surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” Something you might not realize is that flocks of sheep, while quite peaceful-looking, can actually be very destructive to grazing land. The way that sheep graze is by nipping the grass down at the end of the shoot close to the ground and a large flock of sheep can completely decimate a grazing land. This is one reason why shepherds were not very well considered and when Joseph introduced his family to Pharaoh, he had them hide their shepherding tradition (because shepherds were considered detestable by the Egyptians). The way that a shepherd can counter this incredibly destructive behavior is by moving the flock to a new grazing ground before it can completely strip down one healthy field. So while we see in this passage a joyful and restful period, it is not about settling in and getting lazy, there is movement involved (something that would be a cultural assumption, but that the passage never mentions on its own). This pattern of moving the flocks around has an additional benefit. When compared to fields that are left alone away from the flocks, fields that are visited by sheep who move on a rotation experience an abundance of growth overall. This seems weird to me. Having the good life snipped up by hundreds of sheepy teeth would seem to be the opposite of causing growth.
What is interesting here is that the sheep are not just taking something away from their time passing through the fields while they graze. They are also leaving something behind. One of the undeniable facts of nature is that when sheep eat, they also poop. And while this seems a simple assumption, it has a very interesting application. While sheep are grazing the land and removing the greenery, they are also fertilizing the land so that when they move on the plants and graze land grows up better than it was before they arrived. So for all the days in the life of a sheep being led by the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, you can track the path of the flock by the fertilized grassland that follows behind them. Goodness and love, in a poop joke by a shepherd.
Since we are encouraged to see ourselves in the life of these sheep, the question presents itself. While we are being moved around by our Good Shepherd, are we being a blessing in the relationships and interactions when we encounter other people? As we move from place to place in our lives, what does the trail we leave behind look like? Just like the sheep who are fertilizing the land as they pass with blessings…I know…in the same way are we leaving conversations and interactions as a blessing to people or are they decimated and dried out as we leave? I’d like you to think back over the course of this day and consider the people you saw throughout the day. Think back over how you would characterize that interaction. Do the words, “goodness and love,” come to mind as you consider the people you spent time with, or would other words come to mind?”
This is not an easy idea to wrestle with nor is it a new question. The people of God have struggled with how we approach others and how we best honor God with our words and with our lives for as long as we’ve been people. And just because Jesus came didn’t change our struggle over this all that much. The early church had a lot of problems. Paul wrote many letters to his people critiquing, encouraging and advising them in their difficulties living out the life abundant. One of his letters consistently cuts me to the quick when I think about how I embrace or turn away others. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul establishes that there are some pretty serious problems with how they are interacting, people are fighting each other about who they follow precisely (Chapters 1 and 3), they are having disciplinary issues and actually celebrating sinful behavior in their congregation (Chapter 5), they are actually taking legal action against each other (Chapter 6), they are spending a lot of time debating whether they should get married or eat food sacrificed to idols (Chapter 7 and 8), and they are even divided over who is the most spiritual based on the use of the gifts that God has given them (Chapter 12). Throughout the letter you can feel Paul’s stress and his pain over the issues that have come up in the church, which he obviously greatly cares about.
All of this comes to a head in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Most famous for its description of love (and its appearances in weddings), Paul is very poetic and beautifully chastises the church for this very issue.
“1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Paul asserts the overall importance of love. His list of various actions that he contrasts to love is deep and filled with powerful images in and of itself. In the previous chapter, he addressed the application of spiritual gifts and made a big deal out of how all the gifts are necessary, but in this passage he really hones in on one thing. Love. Developing spiritual gifts and the “lofty” applications of spiritual knowledge are a big part of our seminary education. We spend a lot of time on spiritual theory and the many mysteries of the gospel. We are now learning how to speak and assert the Word of God, proclaiming truth and wisdom (hopefully) to the world. The application of our gifts in the service of the Kingdom of God is primary to our education and to our ministry. We are here to know more about God and to be equipped as ministers
Paul’s warning and the charge of David’s Psalm, is the priority of the presence of love in our lives of ministry. So while we develop the gifts God has given us and are using them to encourage and build up his church, the priority remains that while we are serving and caring for others , while we are following the lofty goals of ministry as we look back onto the fields that God has given us, the people and interactions that God has given us in our ministry and in our lives, is the love of Christ present? Paul’s concern was that if he were to speak with authority and incredible words that would affect many people, but he did so without the love of Christ being present he describes himself as a clanging gong or a cymbal. The words that he chooses are specific and clear. He describes a loud noise that rings out, like an announcement, but what is it announcing by itself? Without love it is purposeless. So the clanging of these gongs is not what we want.
This passage has shaken and challenged me for the last several months actually. Going over this it has become my measuring stick that I use to look into my own life of ministry and how I am caring for others and how I am leading them back to Christ. If I say things that are incredibly profound, I might get quoted on Twitter. If I share something I’ve unpacked in seminary, someone might read my blog. If I walk someone through the concepts and mysteries of doctrine and theology as I am learning them myself, but am not tempering it with the love from Christ I am just like a clanging gong. An annoying answering buzzer from a game show, announcing loudly, but what?
So as I look back at the time I spend with people, as I look back into the lessons I’ve planned and the messages I’ve spoken and the studies I’ve led, as I look back into the fields the Shepherd has led me through; I consider, where is the love? As I like a sheep has moved on and as God has directed me further, have I blessed the lands behind me? Or have I left them dried out with seemingly good things, but to what purpose? So as we consider our lives in ministry, I ask you to look back. Consider the fields passed. See whether they have been fertilized with the love that comes from Christ.
I then closed in prayer. 🙂 Thanks for reading.