Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, March 19th, 2023.
Readings – 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. (Ps 23:1)
You may recall the lost sheep who was found in Australia in February ’21. He had once been owned, but had strayed and somehow had survived in the wild for years. When he was found, he had so much wool that he could barely see or eat, and when he was sheared, his fleece weighed over seventy pounds. The people at the sheep rescue farm named him “Baarack” (as in Baarack from the Brink).
Which just goes to show, really, that sheep do best when someone looks after them. They need all the things listed in Psalm 23 – food (“green pastures”), drink (“still waters”), and a guardian whose “rod” and “staff” will protect them from “enemies”. These are all the good things that, presumably, Baarack received at the rescue farm.
So even though Psalm 23 teaches us a lot about looking after sheep, it’s not about animal husbandry. Psalm 23 is about trust in God, which is why it’s such a beloved psalm and why it’s often chosen in hospital rooms and at funerals. However, if the psalm is really about trust, then we have to hear it and read it in a way that identifies us with sheep, right?
So just for a moment, humour me and pretend you’re a sheep. I know that’s a challenge for most of us, because the thing we value the most as a society is our agency and autonomy. We want to control our own affairs. That starts pretty early in life, from the moment a child of two or three starts saying that they want to do things themselves. And I think that even applies to religion.
A lot of how we think about religion is about the choices we make and the decisions we make. We shop for churches and evaluate them in terms of how they meet our needs. Some people say they will let their children grow up and decide if they need religion, which personally, I think is a good way to raise agnostics. We choose the bits of the creeds we want to believe in, and evangelicals say that we have to decide to accept Jesus as our personal saviour.
So our views on religion today are influenced by consumerism (what we want) and rationalism (what we think and what we’re prepared to accept). But, if you’re a sheep, you don’ t want agency or rationalism so much as you want a shepherd to care for you and protect you. And if you want to see what that looks like from the sheep’s point of view, just look at the formerly blind man in today’s gospel.
The blind man only appears in the gospel because Jesus notices him: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth” (Jn 9:2). Jesus sees him and decides to help him because of who he is, “the light of the world” (9.5). Unlike the other gospels, the man doesn’t even ask to be healed; Jesus just gives him his sight, sends him to wash, and then Jesus disappears from the middle part of the story.
So for much of our gospel reading, the focus is on the man himself as he gradually understands what has happened to him and as he gradually realizes who Jesus is. Faced with the hostility of the Pharisees, the man fearlessly says that Jesus has helped him, that he must be a sinless man, and the he must be a prophet. And the man pays a price for saying these things, for he is expelled from his synagogue community.
In gospel terms, the man is a lost sheep twice over, first because he is blind, and second because he is left without a community. And he is saved twice, first by Jesus who cures him, and second when Jesus returns to the story, learns about his expulsion, and finds him (9.35). It’s only in the last part of the story, when he and Jesus talk, that he realizes who Jesus is. Like last week’s story of the Women at the Well, the whole conversation builds to Jesus saying who he is (the Son of Man is “the one speaking with you”) and the man accepting him (“Lord, I believe”) (Jn 9.36).
So here’s a thought. What’s the relation between Psalm 23 and today’s gospel? I would say that Psalm 23 is the song and the prayer of the man who was blind. He was figuratively, in “the darkest valley”, he was found by Jesus the shepherd, and Jesus protects him from the Pharisees (“you prepare a table before me in the presence of the enemies”). He recognizes who Jesus is (“The Lord is my shepherd”). I think we can hear Psalm 23 as the man’s expression of gratitude to Jesus.
Here’s a second thought. What’s your own personal relationship to Psalm 23? Do you see it as poetry? Do you see it as a prayer for help in bad times? Or could you pray Psalm 23 as your own prayer of gratitude for what Jesus has already done for you you? Was there a time in your life where you felt lost?
I said earlier that we tend to make religion and faith a matter of our own choices and our own conscious decisions. Psalm 23 and today’s gospel are kind of an antidote to that way of thinking. All the man knew was that he was blind, then he knew that someone called Jesus had healed him, and then he realized that Jesus was God. Like the hymn says, I once was lost, and now am found, was blind, but now I see. Today’s gospel is entirely about the pure grace and love shown in Jesus that is determined to find and save us. It’s entirely God’s initiative, and Psalm 23 is our grateful response. And maybe, at the end of the day, religion is entirely about our gratitude.
For the rest of Lent, I commend Psalm 23 to you as a way of focusing your thoughts and prayers on what Jesus has already done for you. And, as we approach Maundy Thursday, or as you approach the altar today for communion, I encourage you to think of Jesus, looking after his sheep to the end, calmly and graciously, preparing that table in the upper room for the last supper as his enemies close in around him. That table is prepared for you by the Good Shepherd, the one who loves us, finds us, and dies for us.