We all have our daily routines, don’t we? The week-day getting up and getting ready for work or school, heading out the door and traveling to those places – whether by car or bus or train, on foot or by bike – are particularly firm and settled; we can just about do them with our eyes closed. And people who have retired tell me that at first they find the change in their morning routine very disorienting; they have a hard time knowing what day it is, or where they should be when – at least for a little while. The well-worn tracks of life give us direction, focus, help us from having to make a new decision at every turn; and they also help to shape us in various ways.
For example, when I was growing up once we came downstairs for breakfast in the morning we were expected to greet the rest of the family ‘good morning’, give our parents a kiss, and at least be polite and civil to one another, even if we were feeling grumpy or hadn’t slept well; our bad feelings weren’t to be taken out on others, and if we at least started the day on a positive note, we had a better chance of the rest of the day following suite.
In our Christian life we also have routines and practices and well-worn tracks that shape us and form us as Jesus’ followers. These are sometimes referred to as “holy habits” – daily prayer and Bible reading; weekly worship with others; examining our conscience and behavior for the ways we have hurt others or fallen short of God’s best for us and asking forgiveness; always being on the look-out for ways we can be of service to others; remembering to say “thank you” to God for what we have been given. Straight-forward, basic patterns of behavior and habits of the heart that are clear, even if they are not always easy – they provide a guide and a framework within which to live our love and loyalty to Christ.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday – always the Fourth Sunday of Easter – when we contemplate the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd; and so we have this morning’s Gospel with Jesus referring to himself as the Good Shepherd, and we also have the 23rd Psalm. This is a psalm that is so familiar; if you have any psalm memorized it’s probably this one. And so many people are drawn to its images of comfort and safety.
But there is much more to this psalm that was written by King David three thousand years ago, he who had worked as a boy tending his family’s flocks of sheep. The psalm says that God himself is the shepherd – of his people, and of us personally.
The landscape of ancient Israel was hot and dry in the summer, cold and rainy in the winter, rocky, often with sharp hills; to be a shepherd in these conditions meant being on the move constantly, looking for good grazing ground for the sheep, fending off predators, making sure they did not fall off a rock ledge or wander away from the flock. There were certain pastures where a shepherd knew the grazing would be good, even if you had to travel a distance to get there, and places where the water was fresh and abundant – so vital during the hot, dry summer. The shepherd and the sheep knew these places, they knew the routine, and they moved back and forth from one place to another – season by season; this is what kept the sheep healthy and alive.
This is what David had in mind when he wrote this psalm of praise to God: the Lord was his shepherd, and the Lord had pathways of rightness and goodness that he wanted David to follow – pathways and habits that would shape and form him in being a faithful follower. While God’s presence would always sustain him, he would always be on the move; there would be rest, but only for a time; there would be shelter and safety, but only as respite; and throughout his life he would always return to the house of the Lord – the place of worship, sacrifice, and thanksgiving. No matter where David’s travels took him – as king, as warrior, as shepherd-boy – he returned to give thanks and praise to God, in formal worship and in his own heart and mind.
For us as Christians, we read, pray, sing, and say this psalm with all of David’s intent. We also know Jesus, and call him Shepherd, as he taught us to do; all of the imagery that David ascribed to Yahweh, God, the Lord, we ascribe to Jesus. We know that the spiritual life is a journey, that we will never reach a place of stasis, but that with Christ we will have what we need to sustain our souls, there will be rest enough, if we stay close to Christ we will not get lost nor psychically injured. The holy habits we learn and exercise will become our pathways, shaping us in goodness, loving-kindness, and God’s righteousness.
As I said before, those holy habits are (at their most basic) daily prayer and Bible reading, gathering weekly with others for worship, the practice of being aware of our sins and short-comings and asking for forgiveness and a new start, practicing gratitude, serving those around us with generosity and gladness. The more we do these things, however well or badly, the more they become second-nature to us, a structure that supports us in our endeavor of following Jesus.
Today we baptize two children – Alyce and Andrew Saitta. They are already a gift and a blessing from God – every child is; what we will do today will not add to or increase that blessing. What baptism does do is start their Christian life, to join them to Christ fully and intentionally, to set them on the road where they will need all those holy habits and well-worn spiritual tracks as they grow up to know and love and serve the Lord.
And we all have a role to play, just as we do in any baptism, and for any member of the Body of Christ. We are to pray for one another; to share our questions, our struggles, our insights and joys in this journey of being a Christian. We are to model for Andrew and Alyce, and for one another, what it means to be mature Christians, to grow up into the full stature of Christ – and we don’t have to be very old chronologically to do this.
Earlier in the week during the Communion class, one of our second-graders was pondering the fact that when we receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist we are receiving a little bit of God into ourselves. He thought about that for a moment, and then he said, “So if a person keeps receiving Communion and receiving Communion for many years, by the time he is 80 years old, he’ll be full up with God.” I have to tell you, that was one of the best descriptions of Christian maturity I’ve heard in a long time – full up with God.
So that is life we embark upon at baptism – aiming to be filled with God, and God’s life and goodness, with Jesus as our Shepherd all the days of our lives.
Let us pray.
The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine for ever.
And so through all the length of days
thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house for ever. Amen. ~ Hymn 645
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 26, 2015