settlers and sheep

homily for April 22, 2018

I’ve made an annual trip to Ohio just about every year of my life, and have usually driven through the mountains of West Virginia to get there.  As I read the 23rd psalm just a week after returning from this annual pilgrimage I realized that those mountain passes (and calling it “a mountain pass” makes it sound far more exotic than Interstate 77) are, minus the highways and the cars, the picture that comes to mind when I think of the valley that God guides us through.

I don’t mean that West Virginia is an especially dangerous or deadly place. Rather, it helps me to see the valley in the psalm not as a place permanence or finality, but as something that we pass through.  And that means that we’re moving: we are a people on the move! Our lives are lived in motion.  The frightening places are there, to be sure, but they are a part of a path rather than a static reality, and that path leads us to our home in God.

The 23rd psalm tells a story of a people in motion. The first people who followed Yahweh would have gotten this, because they were often nomadic. Perhaps, though, this psalm simply honors the deep truth that life really is a journey, and that without a guide we will fatigue, get disoriented, go hungry, or perhaps worst of all, give up on the journey itself and just settle down at the first sign of safety.

The psalm is a poem that speaks of a flock on the move: He leads me beside still waters…he guides me along right pathways…though I walk through the valley, you are with me…surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Whether or not we are aware of the presence of the shepherd, we are undeniably moving.

We easily forget, of course, that we’re moving, and that tends to be when we get into trouble. If we have our world arranged perfectly around us, then what need do we have for a shepherd? What need to we have for a guide? But when we remember that we are on this lifelong path – and so often it takes a spell in the valley of shadows to make us realize it – then suddenly we realize that we are deeply in need of God. We fashion ourselves settlers, but we are really sheep, and we need a shepherd to guard and guide us.


Of course, God is the shepherd, and once we let go of our need to map out and direct the journey itself a different pattern of life emerges. We begin to discern a kind of godly rhythm that’s found in in every stanza: in the green pastures and in the dark valleys and in the lavish meals in the presence of God. We see here a cycle of life, of revival, of risk, and of return.

The path begins as one of revival. We start out on this great adventure and we naturally grow weary, so God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God revives our souls and refreshes our spirits.  We hunger for this; we need it. This is where we are fed, inspired, renewed, filled with a spirit to live boldly and love courageously, and renewed when the heaviness of the world begins to press our feet into the mud.

When we are on this journey with God, we will find springs of living water that give us the strength to begin again. If we pitch tents in familiar places there and then decide to just hunker down, we may be comfortable for a while, but we won’t reach those places of revival. Simply put, the springs are there for us, but they won’t come to us. We’ve got to move on out to get there, and we follow the Good Shepherd to find those springs.


Revival’s great of course, but no journey is without risk.  When we head out, we have no assurance that the road will be perfectly safe. We have no assurance that we’ll return to the place we leave, or even that that that place will be the same when we come back. We are going to pass through some valleys. They will be dangerous places. We will feel lonely and lost. We might just lose our very lives. The journey of life is filled with risk.

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that he is the good shepherd. His friends would have known well the 23rd psalm, but here Jesus is saying not only that he is a loving guide; he is revealing himself as the Lord of love, the very one who moves with them through the valley, the very one who sets a sumptuous table in the presence of their most lethal enemies. And what’s more: Jesus doesn’t just guide. He lays down his life for the sheep.

Yes, he’s talking about the resurrection. But I see, in the gospel of John, a sense that this laying-down-of-one’s-life is simply a part of living our lives in God, of being on a journey of love and transformation. Transformation sounds great, but it doesn’t happen unless some calcified version of ourselves burns off, unless some part of our life that we think we can’t live without, dies. Yes, it’s painful; death always is.  But death and rebirth are essential for growing closer to God.

This speaks of a continual process of death and rebirth. When we are willing to risk a little bit, to embark on a journey with an uncertain end, yes, we will encounter danger, yes, pieces of us will die off, but with each trial something new is born. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths, our baptism being the most profound of all but one that sets a pattern for our whole lives in God.

Each time we start to lose the perspective of a people on the move, we are wise to remember not only the living waters of baptism, but also baptism’s call to a lifelong journey. When we start to see ourselves as settlers rather than sheep, the spirit tugs at us to keep moving. Each time we get to a new place, a new normal, we start to get comfortable. We want to put down those roots again, like Peter hoping to put up dwelling places on Mount Tabor.  But when we feel our spirits settling, that is often a sign that another stage of death and rebirth is coming.


Yet the greatest gift of this journey is found in the destination. We are renewed at the living springs, but the path leads beyond them. We go through dark valleys, but the path leads beyond that, too. The path takes us to our home in God.

It is a path of revival, risk and return. Now, I want to caution us against thinking only of a clear, linear path. That we will start out with a draft of cold water, grit out teeth through the dangerous paths and eventually cross the finish line, hopefully in one piece.

Following the good shepherd means something different. It means that this is not a path so much as a rhythm of faithful living that allows us not just to live, but to grow in God. When we are open to the spirit, at any moment we might experience revival.  When we trust God, at any moment we could follow God into places of great risk and transformation. When we abide in God, any moment can be a moment of return. Some moments we might feel lost and feel none of those, but in some moments, we can feel all three together.

Surely your goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  In our day it takes a real leap of the imagination to see ourselves as sheep rather that settlers, but poetry of the 23rd psalm envisions exactly that. We know from it that God is the shepherd of souls, that we are each guided and loved intimately, in times of loneliness and in times of abundance. But we see too that life in God is dynamic, that it’s a great adventure, that it’s a life on the move shaped around a rhythm of revival, risk and return.

The shepherd leads us to living water, and we are refreshed. Following the shepherd means risking our very lives, of dying and rebirth, and perhaps even laying down our lives for others. The Good Shepherd leads us, finally, to return, to return to the embrace of our creator, to a lavish table and a holy rest in the loving heart of God.


Homily for April 23, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

1 John 3:16-24, Psalm 23 and John 10: 11-18



About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Cleveland, Ohio.
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