Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Shepherd at the Wheel”
Rev. Art Ritter
May 3, 2020
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
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.
I recall a road trip I took in early November of 1980. I was living in Bridgeport Township, a community near Saginaw at the time. I had just purchased a brand new Ford Escort and was planning to make a drive to Seward, Nebraska to visit a friend who was going to college there. My friend Bob told me that he would be happy to make the trip with me and offer some company and conversation along the road. I took him up on his offer. Because it was my car and because it was a new car I preferred to do the driving. I drove us out of Michigan, through Indiana and around the freeway confusion of Chicago. I drove my car, as we took I-80 through Illinois and across the mighty Mississippi, into Iowa. At that time though I was getting a little road-weary and Bob was getting more than a little anxious to drive my new car. I decided that it was time to take a rest and to let Bob have some time behind the wheel. I pulled into a rest stop and we exchanged places.
I sat in the passenger’s seat for around ten minutes before my eyes got heavy and I could feel myself relaxing and falling asleep. But that didn’t last long. Before I could enter the full peace of restful slumber, I was startled by the sound of the car’s tires hitting the rumble strips on the side of the right lane of the freeway. Bob had quickly fallen asleep behind the wheel. I shouted something to him, probably not very pleasant, grabbed the wheel and pulled the car safely back to the middle of the lane. I told him to pull over at the very next exit. We were moving back to our original places. I could not trust Bob to drive my car. I would rather drive exhausted than sit in the passenger seat worrying about whether Bob would stay awake.
There is an old Peanuts cartoon strip from 1972 that featured Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty having a conversation about Charlie Brown’s anxiousness. Charlie Brown described the experience of riding in the back seat of the car while your parents were in the front seat. It is night and you were headed back home and all was well. You could sleep-worry free because you knew that they were taking care of everything, including the driving, the navigation, and the worrying. You can associate that feeling that Charlie Brown was talking about, can’t you? Everything is just fine and you are so comfortable that you can safely rest. There is a feeling of utter trust and security provided by a reliable, loving, and all-powerful figure at the wheel. Peppermint Patty confidently agreed. But then Charlie Brown continued. He told Peppermint Patty that the feeling doesn’t last. You eventually grow up and leave the backseat and that feeling of security and trust can never be the same again. You never get to sleep in the backseat again. When Peppermint Patty came to the same understanding she reached toward Charlie Brown and yelled, “Hold my hand, Chuck!”
In a conversation this past week, someone mentioned to me that one of the problems of living through this pandemic and the resulting economic crisis is that we just can’t relax and rest in peace. It seems as if we don’t have a day or in some cases even an hour when something new doesn’t become a matter of worry and concern. Perhaps we can take a deep breath and make a resolve to rest just before our heads hit our pillows. But others have told me that they are having trouble sleeping these days, or that their sleep is filled with strange and unsettling dreams.
Like Charlie Brown, we long for those days and those moments when we were able to sleep in the back seat of the car, trusting that the power at the wheel of the car is taking care of everything. We wish we didn’t have to worry about COVID-19, about wearing a mask, about the future availability of a remedy or a vaccine, about a second wave of infections, about layoffs and job furloughs, about a simple trip to the grocery store, about the health of our family and friends, and about paying our necessary bills. It is tough if not impossible to fall asleep in peace in the backseat of the car these days.
On this fourth Sunday of the season of Easter, the Scripture lesson tells us about the value of shepherds. The reading from the gospel of John offers the words of Jesus as he compares himself to a good shepherd, one who cares intimately for his flock, one who protects them from danger, one whose voice the flock recognizes, and one who leads them to good pastures, cool water, and safe rest each and every day.
The other reading for this Sunday is the 23rd Psalm, perhaps the most well known chapter in the entire Bible. This text is very familiar and loved. While it is often associated with funeral services, the psalm speaks of God’s tender care throughout all of our life. In these words, the Psalmist describes not only a source of comfort during a time of loss, but an approach to trustful living in the midst of uncertainty and worry.
The 23rd Psalm describes God as a powerful yet gracious shepherd. God is one who does what needs to be done to make certain that trusting sheep may live. In its words we are brought to consider the darkness and the dangers and the temptations of our existence. We are reminded of the dark shadows that haunt us and make us feel uneasy. We are made aware that we live in the presence of evil and that fear is a place to which we are often held captive. The 23rd Psalm names reality and takes seriously the dangers that are very much a part of life.
Yet the Psalm is an intense and longing prayer that hopes for a deep God-given peace that overflows even when we are in the midst of such darkness. In the words of the Psalmist, we are assured that God and Christ our Shepherd is one who leads us through and past life’s troubles. God’s tender love leads us in situations of fear to places of joy. God’s grace allows us, actually makes us take a rest from our weariness in places of refreshment and nourishment. God puts us at a bountiful table where even in the presence of our enemies, we are able to recall our past experiences of joy and know that such joy will come yet again. God offers peace in the midst of conflict, life in the midst of death, light in the path of darkness.
In his commentary on the 23rd Psalm, Calvin Seminary’s Stan Mast writes, “Into the confusion of the 21st century comes the 23rd Psalm with this good news. Life is not a self-guided tour; there is someone who will give me the guidance I need…. You might think that the King of the Universe would have something bigger and better to do, but God has committed God self to be my personal Shepherd. God guides me by giving me a written record of God’s will, but putting God’s own Spirit in my heart, and by governing the developments of my life with God’s invisible hand.”
Walter Brueggemann writes that although most Psalms are songs of lament or praise or thanksgiving, the 23rd Psalm is a psalm of trust. Its function is “to articulate and maintain a ‘sacred canopy’ under which the community of faith can live out its life with freedom from anxiety…there is a givenness to be relied on, guaranteed by none other than God.” Trust is evoked by a promise. We either believe in the promise or we don’t. We live as if the promise is real and trustworthy or we live as if the promise isn’t real and cannot be trusted.
Perhaps Charlie Brown was right. We can’t ride naively and innocently in the backseat any longer. Our current situation has taught us that much of life is out of our control. Our current circumstance reminds us that there are dark and uncertain places in our daily life. But the Psalmist and this Psalm hopes for return of our trust in God, in the presence of God that can bring us peace and assurance even when we sit in the uncertain, fear-provoking front seat. Despite what is real, in spite of all that surrounds us, our lessons of faith teach us that we can frame our experiences within the larger picture of God’s loving intention of each of us.