“The Good Shepherd” (Psalm 23)
Family and friends of Phyllis May (Horstman) Sahlstrom, we gather, grieving the loss of one we love and will miss. This is sad and sometimes people suggest that we not think about sad things but in recalling memories of times together at Sherry’s a little later we work through the grief, and as we do so, God is with us to bring us comfort.
We are thankful for the comfort of God’s abiding presence, for this has been six months filled with much grief.
Eloise’ mother Margaret Meyerer died on Friday Dec. 12th and received Christian burial on Monday Jan. 12th.
Karen’s father Coral Cotterell died Saturday March 21st and received Christian burial on Friday March 27th.
Our father Elmer Sahlstrom died on Sunday May 3rd and received Christian burial on Wednesday May 20th.
Early in the morning on Tuesday June 16th, our mother Phyllis died and went to be with her shepherd Jesus.
The obituary for Phyllis (printed in the worship bulletin) mentions that she lived for ninety-one years, earned three college degrees and had been working on a fourth degree. Two days after her death would have marked the beginning of her seventieth year of marriage to Elmer, who passed away last month. She was the proud mother of three, grandmother of six (though she asked to be called “Phyllis” rather than “grandmother” because she was determined not to be seen as that “old.”) She was the great-grandmother of four.
In eulogies we speak well of the departed. In Christian funerals we gather to worship Jesus our Good Shepherd. On many occasions I sat by Phyllis’ bedside and read the most familiar and beloved of the psalms: Psalm 23. When I visited in April, she asked me to read the 23rd Psalm again and again. This psalm was written 3,000 years ago by Israel’s favorite king, David, who as a young man had been a shepherd. It was usual practice for families with flocks to have the youngest son serve as a shepherd. As the youngest son of Jesse, David seemed an unlikely king but even as king, he never forgot that he was also a sheep and that the LORD was his shepherd. And so we read, once again, from the 23rd Psalm – the “Shepherd’s” Psalm:
I. The Guidance and Protection Provided By The Shepherd
PSALM 23:1-2 1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
The picture of the Lord God as a shepherd is found not only here, but scattered throughout the psalms (such as Psalm 74, 77, 78, 79 and 80) and the prophets of ancient Israel such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Micah wrote: 2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, …out of you will come for me one who will … 4 …shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…. 5 And he will be their peace. (Micah 5:2, 4-5)
The prophet Micah identifies this shepherd as the eternal One who would come four hundred years later “in the strength of the Lord.” Micah is very specific. Christ’s birth would not take place in the Bethlehem of Zebulon, eight miles from Nazareth but in Bethlehem Ephrathah, six miles south of Jerusalem; home of the shepherd king, David. Near this Bethlehem, is located the tomb of Rachel – the beloved wife of Jacob – and here the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) prophesied – six hundred years earlier – that Rachel would “weep for her children” – a reference to King Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem after Christ had been born. (Matthew 2:16)
Such specifics remind us that God is aware and involved in the details of our lives, also now as we grieve the loss of Phyllis. The good shepherd takes care to provide for his flock. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In Israel, with limited good pastureland a shepherd needs to keep his flock moving from one place to another to find sufficient food. By mid-day the sheep are getting tired, so the shepherd provides opportunity for the sheep to “2 …lie down in green pastures” not for food, but for rest after the morning’s difficult travel, “…beside the still waters” where there is abundant refreshment after a dusty journey.
…to be at rest [sheep must have] freedom from fear…. …Sheep are so timid and easily panicked that even a stray jackrabbit …. can stampede a whole flock…. As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger… the sheep stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no means of self-defense. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures whose only recourse is to run. (Keller)
As God grants our lives longevity our struggles increase. As in Psalm 90, though “like new grass of the morning…by evening…dry and withered. … We finish our years with a moan.” (Ps. 90:5-6) It’s thought that Psalm 23 may have been written when David was older, possibly during the struggles of the rebellion of his son Absalom. So also with Phyllis, the vigorous activity of her youth was followed in her middle years by regular walks to classes and her office at the university but in old age she saw affliction and pain, leaving her immobilized and bedridden. We find hope in the scriptural promise that after this life’s adversity and sorrow God mercifully grants his sheep eternal rest in the green pastures and still waters of Christ’s presence in heaven.
Yet we are not by nature members of God’s flock but rather lost and straying sheep. When Jesus beheld the crowds coming to hear his teaching “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36b) As the prophet Isaiah reminds us “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6a) But in Psalm 23 we read…
II. Our Need For Rescue From The Shepherd
PSALM 23:3, 4b 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4b … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
To identify sheep as his own, a shepherd cut’s his own distinctive notch in the sheep’s ear. How do we become God’s sheep? David writes: “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” Happening upon the phrase: “the righteousness of God” while preparing a lecture on the Psalms in 1513, Martin Luther panicked, understanding that in order to earn heaven we would need to be righteous as God is righteous. But in his letter to Christians in Rome St. Paul wrote:
10 … “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
Where then is consolation to be found at the end of our long dusty journey when life in this world has ended? Luther found words of hope in a verse about the gospel, two chapters earlier in Romans:
“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
The green pastures and cool still waters of heaven are not found in our righteous but in God’s mercy “from first to last.” Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross has atoned for our sins. As Isaiah wrote: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
In a book written by Phillip Keller, an African sheep rancher, we learn that sheep “require…endless attention and meticulous care. (Keller) He describes a particularly helpless condition called a “cast down” sheep. He explains that such a sheep flops over on its back because of impending birth or laden with heavy wool. It can’t right itself and stand on its own feet. It lies helplessly with its feet in the air and becomes bloated with stomach gasses. In the heat of summer a cast down sheep can die within hours. The good shepherd will come to its aid, gently rolling the sheep over onto its side, rubbing its legs to restore circulation, and helping it onto its feet. Then he sheers it of its heavy fleece, often clogged with manure, mud, sticks and ticks. (Keller)
This picture of a cast down sheep aptly describes us; not merely burdened but completely helpless to rescue ourselves. Dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1,5), we have become completely alienated from God, our shepherd. But God is merciful and sent Christ to be our Good Shepherd. Of him Isaiah wrote “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6b) Our Good Shepherd Jesus “restoreth [our] soul,” taking away our debt of sin. As in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, our Good Shepherd seeks out his lost sheep “And when he finds it…[he] joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home, [and]…calls his friends and neighbors together and says `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'” (Luke 15:4-6)
As God’s redeemed sheep, God gives us new life in God that endures beyond the door of death. Jesus our good shepherd ” leadeth…in…paths of righteousness.” As God’s rescued sheep, God’s “rod and…staff…comfort” us. A shepherd’s rod is like a club that he can use to fend off dangerous predators. A shepherd’s staff is a long stick, sometimes with a crook at the top that he uses to reach out and draw a lamb near or with the other thin end, to lay along the side of a sheep to direct it in the way it should go. As Jesus once said: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life….” (John 10:27-28a)
III. The Rescue Provided By Our Good Shepherd Jesus
PSALM 23:5 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
After feeding in the green pastures of spring the shepherd “preparest a table” for his sheep by leading the flock up the steep high mountain ridges to eat the abundant vegetation revealed following the summer snow melt until the early winter snows reappear and once again the shepherd leads his flock to ever lower elevations and ultimately to winter in the sheep pen. Through our spring and winter, the shepherd leads us sheep through the successive phases of life, providing and protecting in times of danger. When his sheep suffer scrapes and scratches while foraging near thorn bushes, the good shepherd “anointest [their heads] with oil.”
In the waters of holy baptism, our “cup runneth over.” In baptism the mercy won for all becomes our own. Scripture never describes baptism as our work or as a symbol. In baptism God is at work, promising:
Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:21 – ESV)
St. Paul wrote:
4 …when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us…through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on [Phyllis] generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, (Titus 3:4-6)
12 having been buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through…faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13…God made [Phyllis] alive with Christ. He forgave [her] all her sins. (Col. 2:12)
When about eight years ago I visited the church of Phyllis’ childhood on a Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, she responded “Well, that’s alright, but don’t believe them!” I asked Phyllis why as a young adult she had left that church. She said, “Because there was no hope there.” In requesting Christian baptism Phyllis expressed a sure and certain hope in her good Shepherd Jesus, not based on what she had tried to do but on what Jesus had already done for her and for all of us on the cross. As Jesus said:
7 …“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. … 9 …whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 …I have come that they may have life… 11 “I am the good shepherd. [who] … lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:7, 9-11)
Last October I had been sitting with Phyllis while she slept. She woke up and asked me to read to her. I asked her if she’d like me to read a Psalm or from the Gospels. This time she said “not a psalm.” So I read eight chapters from the gospel of John starting with these words:
JOHN 14:1-6 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Phyllis asked me what I’d been reading, and when I told her I asked if she liked those chapters and she said “yes, I like them.” After reading several chapters I was getting tired and took a break. She looked up and said why did you stop? So I continued. When I was out visiting in April Phyllis again asked that I read from the gospels and she listened as I read almost all of the gospel of Matthew. On Thursday April 16th Phyllis received comfort in the forgiveness offered in absolution (John 20:23) and in the Lord’s supper. (Matt. 26:28)
IV. Our Good Shepherd Comforts Us With His Abiding Presence & Causes Us To Dwell With Him In Heaven Forever
Strengthened in our faith, even when we are faced with death, we confidently affirm:
PSALM 23:4a 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Jesus our shepherd is also with us in the valleys and dark places and “valley of the shadow of death.” The travels of sheep included passing through the low shadowy areas that provoke fear. These are the haunts of coyotes, bears, wolves and cougars. The dark valleys experience sudden storms and flash floods. On the steep mountain passes there are sometimes rock slides and menacing avalanches and sudden unexpected death.
It is true that Phyllis didn’t long for death. When it was suggested last April that she might go to heaven soon, Phyllis responded: “Me? Why?” But when her thoughts turned to death, sometimes she became afraid, as we all do. Death is the great shadowy undiscovered country. Even Christ, after being raised from the dead, did not provided details of this experience. So to give Phyllis reassurance I read the 23rd Psalm and Psalm 46 that assures us “The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” and Psalm 121 “1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” and Psalm 139:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
For God’s sheep, death is nothing to fear. Death is but a door way into the waiting arms of our good shepherd Jesus, to live in the joy of his presence forever. As we are assured in Psalm 23:
PSALM 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
David’s words: “and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever,” literally speak of dwelling “length of days,” and may be translated: “I shall dwell in the Temple courts for the rest of my life.” David, the shepherd king, loved dwelling near the Tabernacle. He danced when the arc of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem. Here he speaks of his joy in dwelling in God’s presence, as he also did in Psalm 27:
1 O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you,… in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.
King David also anticipated being in God’s presence later in heaven, for when his first son of Bathsheba died, David said (2 Samuel 12:23): “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” He knew he would see his son again when he himself went to be with God. Jesus our Shepherd has also prepared a place for us in heaven, which as St. Paul wrote is “better by far.” (Philipp. 1:23)
For her Master’s Thesis, Phyllis chose to write about a poem by Angelus Silesius. Phyllis noted that in this poem, death is not to be feared:
What about death? …when he dies his physical death, he is released to God for life eternal. Death is thus a liberation not to be feared. (“Angelus Silesius: Poet and Evangelist,” Phyllis Sahlstrom)
I’d like to close with some words from Phyllis, for…
Gary: When Gary was six, he reduced his intake of food to an amount his father and I considered to be under medical and legal limits. … A school nurse rang to ask if Gary ate breakfast. … Then Gary entered the University of Oregon School of Medicine where he met Karen Cotterell, and Karen took him home to her parents. … we noticed that he was beginning to grow outward…. So we doff our hats to Coral and Jean Cotterell for accomplishing what we could not, and we thank them for the kindness and generosity that went with it. (Happy Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary)
Sherry: In the beginning, we said: I hope it’s a girl! And I thought: It will be a girl. She will be mine. … She will be my friend and companion and I hers. As the years went by, I said: I realize that she is mine just for a little time and someday she will leave me. … We have made wonderful memories together and that will sustain us….
Greg: You were born at three forty-one in the cool of the morning before the August heat set in. I named you Gregory after a favorite friend of my father’s. … At six, you marched bravely off to school…. One day you drew my portrait on a piece of new, lined, brown school paper. I matted it on white in a red frame to match my red crayon smile, a happy contrast to the pale green eyes. I laugh now to see it hanging on the wall of my small den. It is my Rembrandt. The years pass too quickly. Memory of them is sweet comfort.
Angels guard me where I rest,
Two by two they stand abreast,
Two more guard me where I sleep
Kneeling, praying at my feet.
Guard me always as you do.
Comfort me awhile in you.
Keep your angels near by me.
Let me now abide in thee.
(Venice, Oct. 1997)
Phyllis, by the grace of God, is with her shepherd Jesus and the angels of heaven. May each one of find comfort in the days ahead through faith in that same Shepherd until we await our time to be in his loving care forever. Amen.