A sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B).
**Please note: Kanye West had 7.62 million followers when this sermon was written. He now has 27.9 million. Also, this sermon was prepared prior to the roller coaster ride of Kanye’s twitter over the past week**
Last week, Kanye West tweeted something that I want to use as the jumping off point for my sermon this morning.
I never thought I would say those words from a pulpit (and I bet you never thought you would hear them). But it’s true: I, along with 7.62 million other people, follow Kanye West on Twitter.
Kanye tweeted the following: “Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.”
Which naturally brings me to Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 is, perhaps, the most famous of the Psalms – the opening lines of which are known by a wide swath of people from all walks of life, faith, and no faith.
In the movie Titanic, there is an emotional scene toward the end. While the ship is actively sinking – spoiler alert – the Anglican clergyman on board recites the words of this Psalm while the terrified passengers gather around him.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
It is a prayer of comfort uttered by those in mortal danger and those in old age on their dying beds.
This Psalm contains a summation of the comfort of faith, a description of a life handed over to God and spent in trustful surrender to the Good Shepherd.
We are all familiar with this language and idea. We’ve all seen the kitschy paintings of Jesus holding a lamb surrounded by sheep. We know the Good Shepherd.
The question for this and every sermon, of course, is: so what? What does this have to do with my actual life? What does it mean to follow the Good Shepherd? And why did I start this sermon with a Kanye West tweet?
I think Kanye is onto something. He is pointing to the Truth found in Psalm 23 and all our readings this morning.
He is pointing to the fact that we are not in charge. We are not in control. We try so hard to “set plays” or to “play chess with life”, but it never works. The only viable option is to live from a place of love and not fear.
I want so badly to be able to plan out my life but I have learned over and over again that the world doesn’t work that way.
A year ago I scheduled a week-long retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. I booked my room at the monastery and bought my train ticket. I picked out the deep religious books I would bring and began to prepare myself for a week of deep transformation, which would begin with a quiet train-ride to New York.
I boarded the train in Lynchburg at 6:00 am and settled in for the day’s long trip. About 45 minutes into the ride I decided to go to the dining car to have breakfast. I patted my pocket to confirm that I had my wallet but – felt nothing.
No reason to panic, my wallet was surely in my backpack.
I checked the pockets of my pack – and nothing. No worries, it was in my suitcase. I pulled down my duffle and rifled through my clothing – and it wasn’t there.
What followed was a seven-hour train ride in which I was simmering with anxiety – what happens when the train conductor realizes I don’t have a wallet or id? How am I going to get something to eat – I skipped breakfast thinking I could eat on the train? How I am going to pay the cab driver to get from the train station to the monastery?
These questions rushed through my head as the blood rushed to my now hot and red face.
Long story short I made it to the train station near the monastery. When I called the monastery to explain, the monk who answered the phone told me to get a cab and they would pay for it.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”
When I walked in the door of the monastery, the monk who I’d talked to on the phone smiled and said, “Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Would you like to set up a time for spiritual direction while you are here?”
I huffed and said, “No thank you. I’ve got my retreat planned.”
And I did. I was still holding onto control. I was a priest after all – I don’t need a guide. I had the book I was going to read and my objectives for the retreat. That night when I started reading my heady theological text I hit a brick wall. I could not connect with it. I couldn’t read more than one or two pages at a time.
So I walked to the monastery library and began browsing the books.
Suddenly, a voice appeared behind me in the door, it was the same monk from before.
“Can I help you find something?”
My defenses were still up, I was still holding tight to my plans, but a crack began to form and the light began to shine through.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”
I was transparent and I said, “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
And that was the truth.
For the next hours, I poured out my heart to this monk I had just met. I surrendered to the fact that my plans didn’t work – that I was helpless – and I found God waiting for me there.
I stopped setting plays or playing chess. I realized, at the end of my rope, that the only viable option is to live from a place of love and not fear.
That is what a life spent following the Good Shepherd looks like: trustful surrender.
Psalm 23 presents the life of faith as nothing less than a life of full surrender to God.
The Lord is my shepherd, the Psalmist writes.
Our relationship with God is that of a sheep to the shepherd. Without stepping too far into an area in which I have zero expertise – though I did grow up in a house surrounded by farmland — someone else’s farmland, mind you.
I can say this about sheep – they did not choose the shepherd, they do not wake up each morning and weigh their options. They simply follow because when they follow they are fed and led to fresh water and kept safe, for the Shepherd cares for the sheep.
So it is with Christ.
“I am the good shepherd.”, he says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my own and my own know me.”
We are the sheep, Christ is the shepherd, and we are called to follow where he leads which is nothing short of the cross and the death of our very selves and all our ego attachments and our desire to set plays for our lives.
Now, this may be hard to hear. It may sound like I am saying that we have to give up our autonomy or control, which is tough for us self-determined Westerners.
I have bad news – that is exactly what Kanye and I are saying.
The call to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd, is nothing short of a call to give up our control, our plans, and even our very lives to go where he leads.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in Germany in the years before World War II, said, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ.
As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
“The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.”
The life of a disciple, as one following the Good Shepherd, is a life lived in the shadow of death with the illusion of control done away with. It is not a life of ease or comfort. It is like a table “spread before me in the presence of those who trouble me”. The troubles and those who bring them are not gone, but we feast in their presence!
This is a life based on love not fear. This is a life of transparency.
Self-help books and improvement programs all claim the path to “green pastures” and “still waters” but they only present another ladder to climb, another thing to do that never satisfies. They are all rooted in the fear and scarcity.
And all the while, the still, small voice of God “calls us each by name” and fills our cups to overflowing.
The trustful surrender to the Good Shepherd is this instinctual handing over of control every day and in every moment.
For those of us who love to take control of our lives with a white-knuckle grip and be our own shepherd, I ask you Dr. Phil’s famous question, “How is that working out for you?”
The First Letter to John tells us that we should “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts…”
Our hearts condemn us when we think we are in control. The narrative that you aren’t good enough and you can’t do it and you will fail slips into our minds when we take hold of the reigns. Our hearts condemn us when we start hiding and scheming and planning, like I did in during and after my disastrous retreat.
In theological terms, our hearts condemn us when we are bound up in the Law.
Only when we surrender to the grace of God can hearts be reassured. Only when we follow the Good Shepherd can we be lead to the still waters and green pastures of God’s Presence.
There is freedom in admitting powerlessness. There is life in dying to yourself.
“Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.”
The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.”