Preached June 30, 2013
Text: Psalm 23:3, Luke 15:1-7
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (NIV)
True to your word…you send me in the right direction. (The Message)
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (KJV)
Left to its own devices, a sheep is not known for following the path. Just the opposite, really. Sheep really only follow their stomach.
United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase* grew up in West Texas, where many people grazed sheep and goats on the tumble grass of the dusty land. He describes seeing, one day, a lone sheep standing on a ledge about half-way up a rocky cliff face. The sheep was straining its neck to reach a tiny piece of green a few feet away from the ledge, with its feet precariously near the edge of its perch. There was no place for it to go, and no more food left within reach.
Schnase said he knew exactly how that sheep got onto that ledge: it had “nibbled itself lost.” In typical sheep behavior, this particular sheep had put its head down and nibbled the grass in front of it. Then it moved to the next clump of grass, and the next. Maybe a few scraggly plants here, another clump over there. And pretty soon, the sheep has nibbled its way far from the pen and onto a rock cliff – all by going from one clump of grass to the next.
The sheep doesn’t openly rebel against its shepherd – it just puts its head down and distractedly ends up someplace it never imagined. It nibbled itself lost.
That, Bishop Schnase says, is a poignant description of the human condition: we nibble ourselves lost. We go about the day-to-day routine, from one pastime to the next, until we look up one day and find ourselves isolated and alone. We realize with a start how distant we feel from our spouse, or how disconnected we’ve become from our children’s lives.
Sometimes, we nibble ourselves into disaster. Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov 14:12, 16:25). No one sets out to become an alcoholic – or to have an affair – or to become so engrossed in their work that they miss their children’s growing up years. Our path leads to the death of a career, relationship, or a marriage. It isn’t intentional, but it happens.
We can nibble our way lost in our faith journey, too. We’re out late on Saturday night and decide not to get up the next morning. There’s a ballgame to watch one week, and a family in town the next. There are plenty of good reasons to miss church here and there. But habits matter – one week turns into two, and three, and four. Researchers tell us that when active church members miss 10 weeks of worship, 75% of them will never return. They’ve nibbled themselves lost.
Or – we go through the motions of Sunday morning church, but our daily habits of prayer and study fade. We get bogged down in the middle of Leviticus, and we let the Bible reading slip for a couple days. Prayer fades into the busyness of our lives. Days turn into weeks and before we realize it, God is little more than an abstract concept to us. We’ve nibbled ourselves lost.
The prophet Isaiah said: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way” (Is 53:6). All of us at some point in our lives look up and find ourselves isolated from others, longing for something to fill the gnawing emptiness inside of us – just like that sheep on the rocky ledge. It is far easier than we realize to nibble ourselves lost.
That’s why we need the shepherd! A good shepherd knows the paths that lead to life. The sheep looks only at the moment – where the next mouthful of food will come from. But the shepherd looks ahead, around the bend, to the end of the path. The shepherd knows where the path leads.
Philip Keller – the author I quoted last week, who wrote A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 – Keller describes the way that a good shepherd guides his sheep. A good shepherd, Keller says, is always looking ahead – paying attention to how much grass is left in a particular pasture, and where the flock will go next.
Left on their own, Keller says, sheep will gnaw right down to the dirt and then paw the ground to get at the tender roots of the grass. Without the watchful eye of a shepherd, sheep will turn a lush green pasture into a barren dusty lot. And they won’t realize it until it is too late – because they just keep eating the next mouthful, unaware how close they are to eating it all.
In the arid parts of eastern Africa, where Keller grew up, a shepherd’s reputation depends on his or her ability to maintain green pastures. Keeping the fields green and fertile means paying careful attention to how much the sheep have eaten, to which field is ready for grazing next, and to how long a pasture needs to lay dormant before the flock returns. It means leading the sheep down the right path to avoid overtaxing the land.
That is the picture the Psalmist uses in Psalm 23:3 – a shepherd leading the flock down right paths, meeting their needs but also reigning in their natural tendencies toward overindulgence. A shepherd who helps the sheep live healthy lives by respecting all of creation and preparing for the future.
Notice, here, that it is the shepherd’s reputation that is at stake – “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The sheep may not deserve the shepherd’s care – indeed, Keller describes one sheep who had a habit of always nibbling her way away from the flock, needing rescued again and again. The shepherd seeks out that lost sheep – as in Luke 15 – not because the sheep deserves it, but because the shepherd’s reputation depends on it. The shepherd seeks the lost sheep and leads it on the right path for his name’s sake.
So it is with God. God’s name – in the Bible – is love. 1 John 4:16 tells us, “God is love.” God cannot stop loving us, even when we nibble ourselves lost, for God’s very nature is to love unconditionally. God searches for us, seeks us, pursues us – because God’s reputation as a God of love and grace depends on it!
We know that, most of us. We give it lip service at least. But there is probably someone here this morning that needs to hear it again, loud and clear, today. There is no one who has ever nibbled so far that they are beyond the reach of God’s love. Not me. Not you. None of us are so far afield that God cannot lead us back to paths of righteousness. You can count on it – because God’s name depends on it.
Of course, that does not free us from all responsibility. We cannot rightly claim that God is our shepherd if we will not follow God’s leading. And following means that we must allow the Spirit to reign in our natural appetites, that we must accept the limits God places on our lives. Sometimes the grass will indeed look greener on the other side; that does not mean it is the way that leads to life. As sheep, we must trust that our Shepherd knows the right paths, and be willing to follow.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Thanks be to God!
*I heard Bishop Robert Schnase preach about “nibbling oneself lost” in January 2012. I borrowed his imagery from my own notes written during his preaching, but you can listen to a similar sermon in its entirety here: http://www.fumctopeka.org/clientimages/22795/emmertsermons/emmertsermons2011/fivepractices/nibbling%20our%20way%20lost.mp3